The History of the Trombone: From Sackbut to Jazz

The history of the trombone
By Kevin Christensen
Last updated: May 16, 2024

Did you know the trombone’s story goes back more than 500 years? It started with the sackbut, a brass instrument in the 15th century. Since then, the trombone has found its way into all kinds of music, from choirs to jazz.

The trombone has changed a lot over time. New designs and ways to play have made it a key part of music. From early music to what we hear today, the trombone keeps evolving and inspiring us.

Key Takeaways

  • The trombone has a long and storied history, dating back to its origins as the sackbut in the Renaissance era.
  • The trombone’s design and playing techniques have undergone significant advancements over the centuries, allowing it to become a versatile and indispensable instrument.
  • The trombone has played a pivotal role in a wide range of musical traditions, from sacred and orchestral works to jazz, rock, and beyond.
  • Influential composers and musicians have played a crucial role in shaping the trombone’s evolution and its place in the musical landscape.
  • The trombone’s enduring legacy is a testament to its adaptability and the instrument’s ability to captivate and inspire audiences across generations.

Origins of the Trombone: The Sackbut

The trombone starts from the sackbut, a special brass horn in the 15th century. Its name comes from French words meaning “to pull” and “to push”. These words fit because the sackbut lets you slide to change notes. This made it unique back then.

Etymology: The French Roots of “Sackbut”

The sackbut’s name links to French. It shows how special it is because you could pull and push it to make different notes. This special sliding helped make the trombone’s special sound and ways to play.

Renaissance Prominence: 15th to 17th Centuries

From the 15th to the 17th centuries, the sackbut was really popular. It was key in church and other music. People loved its strong, flexible sound. It was often used in choirs, bands, and even by armies. Composers used it a lot, too.

Design and Construction of Early Sackbuts

The sackbut was unique because of its slide. The slide let you change the notes smoothly. With its shape and sliding part, it had a rich sound. This rich sound helped shape the modern trombone.

The Transition to the Modern Trombone

Over many centuries, the sackbut became the modern trombone. Key changes included the standardization of the slide, better tuning and pitch, and new bore and bell designs. These changes helped make the trombone what it is today, versatile and reliable.

Standardization of Slide Positions

The standard slide positions were a big step forward for the trombone. Musicians and makers worked hard to set the slide’s positions in a clear way. This made the trombone sound better and helped in playing more complex music.

Tuning and Pitch Adjustments

Trombones also got better at tuning and adjusting pitch. With new slide designs and valves, players could control pitch more accurately. This allowed for better music expression and more complicated playing styles.

Advancements in Bore and Bell Design

Advances in bore and bell design were critical too. Makers tried different materials and shapes to improve sound and projection. Together with other improvements, the trombone was ready to shine in various music genres, from classical to jazz.

The history of the trombone in Sacred Music

The trombone has been a big part of sacred music since the Renaissance. It helped support the tenor voices in church choirs. Back then, its rich tone blended well with other musical sounds, making hymns and other pieces more powerful.

Trombone’s Role in Choirs and Ensembles

In old churches, the trombone was key in groups called cori spezzati. These “divided choirs” mixed sounds of brass, woodwinds, and strings. This created beautiful, full sounds that filled the church. The trombone, with its ability to hold long notes, played a big part in these musical pieces.

Earliest Notated Works Featuring Trombones

From the 15th to the 16th centuries, composers like Giovanni Gabrieli started using the trombone in sacred music. They found creative uses for the instrument in their pieces. The trombone didn’t just support the choir; it also played solo parts, showing its wide range of music it could play.

Since the Renaissance, the trombone has kept its place in sacred music. Today, it’s still a crucial part of ceremonies. Its use shows how much it’s loved and respected in religious music over the years.

Secular and Chamber Music with Trombones

The trombone has been used in both sacred and secular music. It offered a special sound for dances and festivals. These were important in the Renaissance and Baroque times.

Courtly Dances and Town Festivities

At aristocratic gatherings, trombone players were very important. They played for dances like the pavanes and galliards. The trombone’s sound filled big halls with music.

In towns, the trombone brought joy to processions and parades. Its powerful sound joined others in bringing communities together. This was part of life in the Renaissance and Baroque ages.

Solo and Chamber Pieces for Trombone

The trombone is not only for big events. It also shines in chamber music with smaller groups. Composers have written beautiful solos and ensemble pieces for it.

These works let the trombone show off its special qualities. It could play with other brass, like trumpets, or with strings. This showed its flexibility beyond just military use.

The Trombone’s Revival in the 19th Century

In the 18th century, the trombone faced hard times. It wasn’t as popular in music then. But, things changed in the 19th century, with help from top trombone composers. They showed the world what the trombone could do, making it stand out in music groups. This led to a big interest in playing and listening to the trombone.

One main person behind this change was the famous composer from Germany, Richard Wagner. His works, like “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” made the trombone shine. The trombone added deep feelings and a heroic touch to the music. Thanks to Wagner, people saw the trombone in a new light.

Another key player in the trombone’s story was the celebrated composer from Italy, Giuseppe Verdi. In Verdi’s operas, like “Aida,” the trombone was a star. It brought out strong emotions and highlighted key moments in the stories. Verdi’s works helped make the trombone more important in music.

The love for the trombone grew stronger in the 19th century. And this love stayed strong, leading the trombone into the 20th century and beyond. Now, it’s a must-have in music groups and many styles of music.

The Trombone in the Modern Orchestra

The journey of the trombone in today’s orchestra started with key composers. These included Beethoven in the 19th century. He popularized the trombone with its strong and emotional sound. This helped establish its key role.

Beethoven’s Influence

Beethoven’s music, like the Ninth Symphony, showed the trombone’s power. It added depth and drama to the tunes. His use of the trombone boosted its importance, inspiring new trombone composers to push its limits.

Transition to Tenor and Bass Trombones

The trombone’s sound kept changing as its part in the orchestra grew. The old alto trombone was replaced by the tenor and bass versions. They offered a bigger, more varied sound that suited orchestras well. This change let trombone orchestras mix better with other brass instruments, making the ensemble stronger.

The Trombone in Military and Marching Bands

The trombone is not only in orchestras, but it’s also key in military and marching bands. Its bold sound fits just right with the lively tunes of parades and events.

Trombone orchestras and the military music love the trombone since ancient times. It perfectly marches along with other brass instruments in bands. The bold notes of the trombone stand out in every parade or ceremony.

Think of the stirring songs played by trombones in parades. These tunes lift the spirits of everyone around. The trombone truly shapes the powerful spirit of military and marching bands.

The Rise of the Trombone in Jazz

The trombone is a key part of jazz music, standing out among brass instruments. It started in New Orleans bands and became famous for its solos. The trombone’s role has always been vital in shaping jazz’s unique sound.

Importance in Early Jazz Ensembles

The trombone was vital in jazz’s early days, offering a deep sound. It blended well with the energetic trumpets and the band’s rhythm. Its sliding feature helped create the smooth, soulful notes that set jazz apart.

Notable Jazz Trombone Soloists

Many great players have made the trombone shine in jazz history. Jack Teagarden, J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, and Slide Hampton are just a few. They mixed bebop, modal jazz, and other styles to expand the trombone’s use.

The Trombone in Modern Genres

The trombone is not just for traditional music anymore. It stands out in rock, pop, and ska. This shows its power and influence across different genres.

Rock and Pop Music

In rock and pop, the trombone brings a unique and loud sound. It plays strong brass lines in old rock songs and shines in pop hits. Artists like Bon Iver and Panic! at the Disco use it to make their music diverse and rich.

Ska and Reggae Influence

Genres like ska and reggae welcome the trombone with their upbeat rhythms. Its slide make it perfect for these lively styles. Bands such as The Skatalites have used the trombone to create unforgettable tunes.


The trombone has come far, from its start as the sackbut in the Renaissance to its key role in today’s music. It shows how versatile and meaningful this instrument is, through the years. It has always been a big part of many musical styles, from sacred music to exciting jazz, rock, and more.

The trombone began in the Renaissance, playing a major part in choirs and ensembles. It rose again in the 19th century, helping shape the modern orchestra. It can switch easily between music types, showing its flexibility. This is due to the talents of trombone composers and soloists, who push the instrument’s limits.

Looking back on its history, the trombone’s impact is impressive. It’s a symbol of innovation, artistic expression, and the universal power of music. This journey continues to interest and motivate people in the music world. The trombone will always be a key part of music history.

By Kevin Christensen
Trombone Geek, managed by trombone player Kevin Christensen, is a comprehensive resource for trombone players of all levels worldwide. Christensen's 20+ years of professional experience and training at prestigious institutions provide valuable insights into trombone playing. Trombone Geek offers tips, tricks, and advice on all aspects of playing the instrument. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced player looking to improve your skills, Trombone Geek is an excellent resource for learning and mastering this fascinating instrument.
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