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Differences Between the Tenor and Bass Trombones

Eastman Trombone Choir

The Trombone

The trombone is a unique and fun instrument to play. But what are the differences between the tenor trombone and the bass trombone? Lets start by identifying what makes the trombone, in general, unique. 
  • First, instead of having valves like the rest of the brass instruments, the trombone uses a metal slide to make change in the sound it creates.
  • The standard, straight, trombone is made of a long, slender metal tubing which is made in the shape of a “U.” In fact, the are two “U” shaped slides that are called the “inner slide” and “outer slide.” These slides connect to the other half of the trombone that, when connected, is in the form of an “S.” The trombone uses these slides to extend and shorten the length of the instrument. As a result the standard trombone is around the length of 9 feet when it is all stretched out.
  • To play the instrument, the trombone is played by holding it horizontally and buzzing into a mouthpiece. The right hand is used to push and pull the sliding “outer slide” to change the length of the instrument which changes the pitches it can play.
  • There are seven standard playing positions (with variations of each position) on the slide. The lowest note can be produced when the slide is fully extended.
  • The trombone is several centuries old and has been improved on over time. For many years it was associated with church music and branched out into more secular music that entertains the masses of many genres.
  • An ancestor of the modern trombone is called the sackbut. This name came from the French word saquer (to pull) and bouter (to push.) And in Italian the word trombone actually means “Big trumpet.”
Trombone section

The Coming of the Bass Trombone

The trombone has evolved over time and has developed variations of itself that are used in bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, Latin groups, and so much more. When people say trombone they generally are referring to what we know as the modern day tenor trombone. A popular variation of the this trombone is called the bass trombone. 
The bass trombone is larger, often thicker, uses a deeper cup within the mouthpieces and often use two rotary or Thayer valves to reach an additional series of notes that the tenor F attachment trombones cannot. 
The bass trombone has grown in popularity so much so that if a group that calls for 2 or more trombones often a bass trombonist will be requested to be part of the section. 

Differences Between the Tenor and Bass Trombone

Often band and orchestra directors seem to be confused about what the true differences between the tenor and bass trombones are. As a result, this confusion is passed on to students and other musicians. In general, the tenor and bass trombones are two separate instruments and the playing of each one of them is an art within itself.
Some fellow trombonists try to double on both the tenor and bass trombones however this is often short lived. Because of the variations that exist in the professional playing of the bass trombone, trombonists often find that doubling on both instruments becomes unsatisfying.
The approaches to these instruments directly relates to the sound. Due to the construction of the instruments the quality of the sound is based on the size of the bore. The bore size refers to the diameter of the tubing that is used in the design of the instrument. The diameter of the inner slide is measured in the thousands of an inch. A typical tenor bore size is around .500 to .464. In contrast, a typical bass trombone bore size is around .547 and above.
As a music director, it is necessary not to put your least competent player on bass trombone but rather one of your best players. Not only should he or she want to play the bass trombone but should also be as talented as any other player within the section.
An other aspect that affects the sound for trombones, other than the bore size, is the thickness of the metal. Trombones made with thinner metal thickness tend to have a brighter sound. This is appropriate for tenor trombonists playing in the higher registers. In contrast, most bass trombones have a thicker metal with makes them sound darker. Keep in mind that it is not the hardness or softness of the metal but rather the thickness.
Modern day bass trombones also often have a second trigger which is either “dependent” or “independent” of the first trigger. This means that in the dependent trigger system, the second trigger will not work unless the first trigger is engaged. The independent trigger system allows for each trigger to be used independently. In addition to the F attachment depressed with the thumb, which can be found on both tenor and bass trombones, the independent bass trombone double mechanisms boasts a D side of the horn produced in first position with the the thumb and finger (both triggers) pressed and a G (or Gb side) of the horn when only the second trigger is depressed. Additionally, some bass trombones will also have a piece of tubing that can be removed from the second trigger side of the horn that will provide an additional E or Eb side of the horn.
Source: https://www.schillerinstruments.com/schiller-studio-elite-double-trigger-bass-trombone-7
To recap, there are four important technical considerations in the production of sound for trombones. These are the mouthpiece, bore size, the length of tubing recognized in the series of triggered attachments and the size of the bell. The bass trombone, in comparison to the tenor trombone, has larger dimensions on all four of these parts.

The Mouthpiece

If asked what would be a mouthpiece preference for the bass trombone, it would be one that must be large enough to operate with ease between the low Bb and pedal F (maybe even lower.) It should also be large enough to allow the player to have a quick response and maneuverability in the low range. It is also important to recognize that a bass trombonist should never sacrifice low tones for an easy upper register. A Bach 2G, or it’s equivalents, would be a wise mouthpiece size for a bass trombonist.
As a tenor trombonist, it would be likewise similar to not sacrifice his or her low register for the upper register. Consider starting a beginner tenor trombonist on a middle of the road mouthpiece with a not too flat rim so that the edge will be sharp, not too wide of rim where it will cause issues with his or her flexibility and a deep enough cup for a good round sound. A beginner tenor trombonist should consider using a Bach 7, 11, 12 or 15 (or their equivalents.)

Expected Ranges

In theory the tenor and bass trombones can, and often are, the same lengths, however there are different ranges you should expect them to be able to play in. The larger bore and larger mouthpieces make it difficult for the bass trombonist to play in the higher ranges and easier in the lower ranges.

In contrast to how many tenor trombonists work to increase their range, bass trombonists work in the opposite manner. Bass trombonists think of developing range downward. This is done by starting in a comfortable range and working their way down. The bass trombonist must operate comfortably as far down as pedal E. He or she should be able to comfortably sound tones all the way down to pedal Bb.

One of the biggest mistaken beliefs is that bass trombone players often don’t seem to practice much in the real bass trombone register. These players should spend most of their time practicing from low Bb on down, with extra emphasis on playing the notes that use the trigger.

Whereas, the tenor trombonist not only covers parts in the tenor range but also parts that would have been played by an alto trombone. Often reference books will show that the range of the tenor trombone tops out at around the second Bb, C or D above the staff however, it is truly up to the individual. This top range for tenor trombonists varies based on how the individual feels at the moment.

In the downward direction, tenor trombonists without an F attachment, reference books state that they are not suppose to have notes below low E or pedal Bb. However, it is wise to practice down in this area because it helps open up the sound on the overall horn. Essentially, these players can play down to low E, skip the next series of notes that the instrument cannot play and then practice in the pedal Bb to pedal E low range. Again, this depends on the individual.

Relating this concept back to the bass trombonist, for all practical purposes, the upper register shouldn’t be ignored either and players should be able to get up to at least a high Bb.


The Trigger F Attachment

The trigger F attachment refers to the (often) rotary valve that is depressed by a thumb trigger to engage an extra partial on the horn and offer additional alternate positions. But, consider is there a difference in F attachments on the tenor and bass trombones. The answer is no. They are the same. In fact, this attachment benefits both horns by giving the instrument the ability to lower itself a fourth to F. The biggest advantage to this is that the area between low E and pedal Bb is and strong. This is particularly helpful for bass trombonists. In addition, now anything that was played in 6th position can be played with trigger and 1st position.

The Future of Trombone

The days when trombones used to play musical passages requiring exceptional agility and technical skill continue to expand in expressiveness. Now trombonists are also expected to play in very light and delicate passages as well. It takes careful work on the horn to play with a very legato intent.`

The fact that more modern trombones have and use F attachments, it also important to work on matching the sound with and without the trigger. This is a facet that too often gets overlooked by players who use the trigger.

Another problem is that too often a conductor may see a trombonist with the F attachment and put him or her on a bass trombone part, whereas the player may not have the sound, register or technique for the low parts. In fact, the horn itself may be too small for the bottom parts. Likewise, we also see the opposite where players with large horns are sometimes given the labor intensive first trombone parts that go up quite high.

In the past, the bass trombone has mainly been in an orchestra, or wind ensemble, and played more less glorified tuba parts. However, this is certainly not the case today. Contemporary bass trombone parts call for much more finesse than before. In fact, many professional bass trombonists have popularized the instrument by demonstrating tremendous amounts of flexibility and control.

Bass trombonists have advanced to the point where now the instrument provides a whole new resource for composers and arrangers. Now these writers can come to expect an other dimension of sound color unique to the world of music.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the tenor and bass trombones share positive similar qualities however, function more as separate instruments. The key identifier of what truly separates tenor and bass trombones is the type of sound they produce. This is influenced by the thickness of metal, size of bore, size of bell, music repertoire, range of play, size of mouthpiece and their use of additional rotary or Thayer valves. As a result of tenor and bass trombonists staying true to their sound development they will benefit the entire spectrum of music performance.

Sources

Douglas Yeo FAQ: Bass Trombone Valve Systems. (n.d.). Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://www.yeodoug.com/resources/faq/faq_text/valves.html

Farrant, D. (2022, June 1). The different types of trombones: Hello music theory. Hello Music Theory: Learn Music Theory Online. Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://hellomusictheory.com/learn/types-of-trombones/

The Instrumentalist. (1976). Brass anthology.

What’s the difference between alto, tenor and bass trombones? – yamaha M. Yamaha Music. (2022, February 11). Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://hub.yamaha.com/winds/brass/whats-the-difference-between-alto-tenor-and-bass-trombones/

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, June 10). Bass Trombone. Wikipedia. Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bass_trombone

 

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