So you’ve decided to switch to bass trombone, or are thinking about making the change. This article is the perfect resource for you, as we’ll talk about the art of changing from tenor trombone to bass trombone, talk about who should or should not actually purchase a bass trombone, go over features of the bass trombone that make it different than other trombones, and go over some recommended brands for players on a variety of budgets.
What It’s Like to Play Bass Trombone
Making the switch from tenor trombone to bass trombone may seem like a giant step. The general pedagogy of brass playing that goes back decades and decades has shaped the idea that bass trombone and tenor trombone are two completely different instruments that require different conscious efforts and setups to play. In a recent video uploaded to YouTube, James Markey (bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – one of the best in the world) goes over some evidence found by the late Arnold Jacobs. Arnold Jacobs is perhaps the greatest and most respected pedagogue in the history of brass playing; he had immense technical knowledge for how everything worked and sought to back up his ideas (and put others to the test) with science. He discovered that in regards to the difference in size, the bass trombone is not as different as some would have us to believe. Of course, there is a difference so ultimately your playing will differ a little bit, but Markey suggests avoiding thinking too much about consciously changing how you play, and just letting the body learn how to play it and adjust over time. This method doesn’t have a step-by-step “do this, and then do this, and then this will work right” set of requirements, so it can be daunting, but it is the most natural way that we learn, and ultimately the best way to resonate the instrument rather than fight it (and since you’re made of flesh and the instrument is made of metal, the instrument will always win in a fight). For more details and clarification as to James Markey’s approach, check out this video. Know that this is one approach, and there are several out there that work for others; this is the approach that we recommend.
When Should You Switch
If you started playing trombone in the school band, you should spend a number of years on tenor trombone before switching to bass trombone. By and large there won’t be a need for a bass trombone in middle school. High schools usually play music with a bass trombone part, and if there is not a part marked for bass trombone, the bottom trombone part can be played on bass trombone. If you’re thinking about switching to bass trombone, a recommended time would be around the sophomore or junior year of high school. This way, you have learned valuable skills that you can apply to bass trombone, there will be parts in the ensemble that you can play, and if you decide to continue music in college (as a major, or just playing in the college band), you’ll have a few years on bass trombone under your belt. For those picking up trombone later in life, it is more up to you as to when to make the switch.
Now, just because you have decided to play bass trombone doesn’t necessarily mean that you should buy one right away. To the adult, yes, you will need to buy one because it is harder to find one to borrow. For the student, in most cases there will be an instrument for you to use in high school. Because of the expense, unless you are serious about playing after high school, there is no need to buy a bass trombone. Even if you want to play in college, many universities have a bass trombone in their inventory that you can borrow or “check out” to use. If you are serious about music and want to play throughout your whole life, you will eventually want to buy your own bass trombone. We still recommend that you start off on your school’s bass, even if you plan to buy one. This way, you have a feel for it before you buy one of your own. If you like the one you play on, you might even be able to find the same kind of bass trombone to purchase. We’ll cover some recommended bass trombone brands after going over some of the features that come with these horns, making them different than tenor trombones.
Features of Bass Trombones
Bass trombones are bigger and bulkier than tenor trombones. The bell is wider, and the slide is wider. It requires a mouthpiece with a large shank to play. The majority of the bulk and extra weight comes from the additional valves.
Number of Valves
Bass trombones have triggers that are operated by the left hand. When used, they reroute air through the extra tubing on the bass trombone, making lower notes possible. The majority of contemporary bass trombones have 2 valves, but some will just have one (some even have no valves, but those are rare and we are purposely leaving them off of this list). Bass trombones with one valve are different than their tenor-with-f-attachment counterparts in that the bass trombone has a larger bell and likely a larger bore and/or a dual bore slide. We recommend to the general musician in this day and age to get a bass trombone with 2 valves.
Alignment of Valves
On bass trombones with 2 valves, there are two different combinations – the valves can be “dependent” or “independent”. Independent bass trombones look like this. Independent valves, because of their location, can function independently from each other – the first or second valve can be used alone, or both of them can be used together. A dependent valve system looks like this. The dependent valve system is set up where you can only operate the second valve when the first valve is also in use. The convenience of more combinations is the advantage of an independent system, making it the preferred option today. Others argue that the sound and feel of a dependent bass trombone is better for them because the air has less to get around when neither valve is used. These trombonists claim that the second valve alone is unnecessary, and are willing to sacrifice that for what they perceive is the sound that they want, and what is a better “feel” for them. While it is ultimately up to you, it is worth noting that an independent system is the current standard. Dependent style valves are more of a niche product for certain players who prefer them, like the single valve bass trombone.
Recommended Bass Trombones
Now that we’ve gotten some general information out of the way, let’s talk about equipment! The following is a list of 5 best bass trombones that might fit your individualized needs for a bass trombone. Trombones that won’t be on this list are the ones that are fully customizable; some of the key brands with custom options are Edwards, Shires, and Rath. These brands are all excellent, and are commonly played by professionals, but getting the right customized trombone is impossible to do online – you need to go to the shop personally and try out all the different options available. There is a Shires trombone on this list, but that is because it is a stock horn, it is not one of their custom series horns.
1. Bach 50 (Tied)
Choosing a trombone is personal, and what works for one person may not work for another. That being said, the Bach 50 is one of the most preferred bass trombone models out on the market. When it comes to Bach, there’s a following of artists who swear by their trusty Bach; and for good reason – they are superior quality instruments. The Bach 50 comes with a variety of options, namely when it comes to the valves. There are different styles of valves out there, each with their own set of pros and cons; the Bach 50 can come with several of the most popular styles, including standard, Hagmann, and Axial Flow (sometimes called “Thayer”) valves. It comes down to the preference of the individual, as each offers a different feel to how the overall horn plays. The Amazon listing for the Bach 50 actually only comes with 1 valve. This makes it look like a tenor trombone with an F-attachment, but it is still a bass trombone. Because of this, we recommend either looking at the listings on eBay, or waiting to see if Amazon has a double trigger Bach 50 for sale in the future. Single valve bass trombones have a hard time stacking up in comparison to their double valve counterpart. If you’re a seasoned bass trombonist looking for a new horn specifically with one valve, the Amazon listing might be for you, otherwise check eBay, local music stores, or wait to see if Amazon has a listing in the future for a double valve Bach 50 bass trombone.
1. Yamaha YBL-830 Xeno Series (Tied)
Yamaha first introduced their “Xeno” line of trombones with tenor trombone models only. Based on what they learned from their first releases, as well as feedback from top bass trombonists, Yamaha has released the bass trombone to their line of Xeno instruments. The newly designed bell and specifications of the rest of the horn add more substance to the sound and improve the resonance. This Yamaha trombone is a double trigger bass trombone with the valves in the independent style. Yamaha’s redesign makes this trombone a forced to be reckoned with for a wide array of musical settings.
3. S.E. Shires Q-Series TBQ36YR
The S.E. Shires brand is well known for their completely customizable models. Those trombones run on the expensive side but are regarded by many as the top-of-the-line when it comes to craftsmanship. These trombones are impossible to order online, as the customization is done specifically to find what works the best for the person being fitted for the trombone. Shires, with the help of their parent company, Eastman, has come out with a line of trombones that are “stock horns” (no customization), this Q-Series trombone being one of them. The Q-Series trombones reflect Shires’ desire to come out with the best possible trombones, and Eastman’s desire to come out with quality trombones for players on different budgets. Shires describes this trombone as an “entry level professional instrument”, which features a 9.5 inch lightweight bell, 2 independent standard valves, and 3 different interchangeable leadpipes for the slide
4. Conn 62HI
Along with Bach, Conn has established itself early on as a top quality brand of musical instruments, trombones in particular. Well made, especially for solo playing as well as the symphonic setting, the Conn 62HI is another two valve independent style bass trombone. With careful selection of its specifications, Conn has developed a trombone that operates efficiently and produces a warm, rich sound that is classic of all Conn instruments. To be fair, it is rare to see one of these trombones in the orchestra setting, or professional setting to begin with. While it has its place, and like any instrument has people swear by it, we feel that unless this trombone possesses the sound or feel that you’re after, other trombones on this list are likely a better long-term fit – the Bach 50 or Yamaha YBL-830 Xeno in particular.
5. Yamaha YBL-620G
The Yamaha YBL-620G is actually designed with the school band director in mind as an excellent bass trombone for the school’s inventory for students to use. Specifications such as the lighter weight, offset valves, durability, and slightly smaller bell size makes it an excellent bass trombone for the “advancing” player – whether they are just switching to bass trombone, are fairly new at it, or go back and forth between bass trombone and tenor trombone. This trombone is made to achieve a great sound quality for players in these categories. This Yamaha trombone is a double trigger bass trombone with valves in the dependent style.
Recommendations for Players on a Budget
The trombones brought up in this list are all more or less on the expensive side – and while you get what you pay for, there are plenty of people shopping on a budget. When it comes to players shopping on a budget, generally the first thing out of the mouth of someone experienced is to shop for a used instrument – either online or in a music store. The benefit to shopping used is since the instrument will be at a reduced cost, you can still end up with a high quality brand. For online shoppers, we recommend checking listings on eBay as the simplest and fastest initial approach. In general, stick with users who have very high customer ratings if possible. If you are able, there are also groups on Facebook dedicated to buying and selling equipment (often used). Because you are interfacing with (most commonly) people who actually play trombone, they are often more help than an eBay listing, but they also know exactly what the instrument is worth – you can get very lucky on eBay in the right circumstances (I once purchased a trombone for under $400 that is worth substantially more).
Any of the trombones listed above can be searched for used – our pick for the best one of them to find used is the Bach 50. Two other bass trombones to look out for used are Holton bass trombones and the Benge 290 bass trombone.
The best brands (for purchasing brand new) for players on a budget are hard to come by on both Amazon and eBay. Some of the most recommended brands are JP (John Packer) Rath, Wessex, Holton, and Mack.
This list of bass trombones is far from comprehensive; there are many options out there. When you have made the decision to switch to bass trombone and buy one of your own, we recommend that you find a way to try the instrument before you buy, if at all possible. Given the investment of buying a bass trombone, you’ll want to make sure you find one that is a great fit for you.