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What Is a Valve Trombone?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

A valve trombone is a type of trombone, which is a brass instrument. As the name implies, instead of having a slide such as is found on a "regular" trombone, this form of trombone has valves, although the overall shape of the trombone is preserved. The valves make this type of trombone similar to instruments such as the trumpet, tuba, baritone or euphonium in the way it is played. They are less common than slide trombones but are still used on some occasions in orchestras, bands and other ensembles.

In regular trombones, pitch is controlled through combinations of slide and embouchure or mouth positions. In a valve trombone, as with other valved instruments, the valves are what impact the air column inside the instrument and, working with the embouchure, allow change from one note to another. Valve trombones may have either three or four valves. Those with four valves are more prone to problems of intonation.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Three distinct types of valve trombone exist according to valve style. The instruments may be rotary, piston or disc valve. The action of each type is slightly different and also impacts repair to a degree, so some players prefer one valve style over another.

Valve trombones are found in nearly all sizes of trombones. The most common size, however, is the tenor, because this is the size most frequently called for in band and other ensemble scores. Bass trombones with valves also are fairly common, too. The length of the trombone loop on any valve trombone may be either standard or short.

The major benefit of valve trombones is that because of the valve action, players are capable of using the instruments to perform very rapid passages. Instead of having to move a slide a fairly long distance to change notes, control of pitch requires the musician only to press down or release the valves with his fingers. Valve trombones thus are an asset any time a musical passage requires greater clarity and facility, so jazz musicians often find them valuable. The trade-off for this facility is the inability to produce a truly sensitive legato, as well as the need to rely more heavily on change to the embouchure to fix any problems with intonation.

Valve trombones developed sometime around 1820, first produced in Vienna, Austria. By the end of the century, this type of trombone was widespread in German and Italian orchestras, although orchestras mainly used bass valve trombones. Valve trombones remained in use until the middle of the 20th century. In addition to being used in bands and theater ensembles, they were used in orchestras in European, Asiatic and Latin nations. Although the use of valve trombones has declined, they are in high enough demand that manufacturers still produce them with regularity.

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