Of all the brass instruments, the trombone is simplest in design. Throughout time, its construction has changed the least of all brass instruments. The trombone first appeared around the mid-fifteenth century as a relative of the Renaissance slide trumpet and was likely first produced by Flemish makers who supplied instruments to the court of Burgundy. By the sixteenth century, the trombone was frequently used in town and court bands and as a supporting instrument with church choirs. With technical improvements, including a system of seven chromatic slide positions, the trombone found its place in the orchestra by the late eighteenth century.
Various types of trombones are in use today including the tenor, tenor-bass, bass, contrabass, alto, soprano, and valve trombone. Of these, the tenor trombone is most widely used and is often referred to simply as a trombone. Like all brass instruments, the trombone is sounded by the vibration of the player’s lips. The trombone consists of three main parts: a bell section which incorporates a tuning slide; inner hand slides which fit and lock into the bell section into which fits a cup-shaped mouthpiece; and outer hand slides joined by a U-shaped crook which move over the inner slides. The majority of tubing is cylindrical and expands throughout the bell section and tuning slide. With the slide retracted, the total length of tubing measures nine feet. Although primarily made of brass, many trombones have bells composed of gold brass, nickel-silver, silver, bell-bronze, or copper with chromium or nickel-plated slides. The trombone is the only brass instrument which uses a slide rather than valves to facilitate changing of notes by altering the length of the instrument. The common trombone, or tenor trombone, is pitched in Bb (its fundamental note is Bb without use of the slide). In addition some trombones are equipped with F or F/E attachments used to lower the pitch a perfect fourth or tritone. Music for the trombone is typically notated in concert pitch using bass and tenor clefs. The range of the trombone is from “E” to “b-flat1” in addition to which pedal tones from “BB-flat” down to “GG” and lower are frequently employed. Although seven distinct slide positions are used to produce the entire chromatic range of the instrument, because of its slide the trombone is the only brass instrument capable of producing a true glissando (constant glide or change in pitch between notes). Since changing of slide position requires a gradual rather than virtually instant change in instrument length, a special technique of light tonguing is required to play many slurred and legato passages on the trombone without unwanted glissandi between each note.
Today the trombone is heard in symphony orchestras, bands, brass and mixed instrumental ensembles, jazz ensembles, popular groups, film scores and as a solo instrument. Romantic composers such as Berlioz, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Ravel and Strauss have made frequent use of the trombone’s broad range of emotional expression capable of everything from, according to Berlioz, ‘religious accent, calm and imposing . . . to wild clamors . . .’. The trombone is also characterized by its distinct glissando and vibrato capabilities as often demonstrated by jazz and avant garde musicians. Trombonists often use mutes of materials such as wood, cardboard, plastic and metal which fit into or over the bell to alter the timbre of sound. In addition, the plunger mute is often used to create a comical, talking effect. Standard solo repertoire for the trombone includes works by composers such as Albrechtsberger, David, Grondahl, Hindemith, and Wagenseil. Although the trombone is not typically known as a solo instrument, many fine artists of today such as Branimir Slokar and Christian Lindberg have demonstrated the unique capabilities of this instrument.