Trombone slide positions are usually given to a beginner student without much discussion of how a trombone works. Charts and positions don’t give the full story.
In this article, we’ll discuss concepts that advancing students will find helpful.
Brass Instrument Basic Concepts
Valved instruments can change the length by moving the tuning slides of the valves, but this doesn’t help in most situations.
A more in-depth analysis of tuning can be found in my article: 5 Steps to Playing in Tune.
Brass instruments work by producing a distinct set of notes over top of a fundamental for each length of tubing. This is called the overtone series.
First position on a (standard B-flat tenor) trombone is when the slide is all the way in. The fundamental is a B-flat, and then all the other notes in the overtone series can be produced.
A valve instrument changes the length of tubing by pressing a set of valves down. The trombone changes the length by moving the slide.
A good concept to remember is that the collection of notes made by putting the slide in a different position is the same just shifted down. This is because moving the slide to second position moves the fundamental down by a half-step.
I’ve put the high A-flat in parentheses because it is theoretically part of the overtone series, but it cannot be played in tune or with clarity in
We’ll discuss this more in the advanced sections.
Trombone Slide Positions
Here we’ll go through the slide positions and give a chart for the notes these positions can (roughly) produce.
As we’ll discuss later, the precise positioning doesn’t actually matter for learning the positions. I’ll give you rough ideas to help you remember them.
Some of the notes given are “false,” and should only be used with a modified position in circumstances that call for alternate positions.
Second Position: You’ll be able to see a finger’s width of silver.
Second position produces the following notes:
Third Position: If you stick your fingers out toward the bell, it will be just before your fingers touch the bell.
Third Position produces the following notes:
Fourth Position: This is where the end of the slide is just about the same as the end of the bell.
Fourth position produces the following notes:
Fifth Position: By now, you should be getting a feel for the distance between positions. Fifth position is one position beyond fourth. It is important to note that each position is slightly farther out than the one before it.
Fifth position produces the following notes:
Sixth Position and Seventh Position are the two positions farther out. Most people judge these two by how close to fully outstretched their arm is. As long as you aren’t still growing, this should serve you just fine.
Some people have sixth position as basically fully extended, and then seventh has to get some shoulder extension into it. Other people have a longer arm and seventh isn’t quite fully extended, and they judge sixth based on this.
You’ll have to experiment to find something that works for you.
Sixth position produces the following notes:
Seventh position produces the following notes:
It should be noted that you will probably only use seventh position for the low E and the B-natural. Everything else will give you questionable results, but they can be useful in very special situations.
Advanced Slide Position Considerations:
It turns out that the overtone series doesn’t produce notes as we think of them in our standard Western 12-note scale system (equal temperament).
Some of the notes are pretty close, and others are very far off. The earlier you start learning this, the better. It will take quite a bit of time and practice to become natural.
The trombone is great because the adjustments can be made easily by moving the slide position. You adjust the slide position out a little farther if the note is sharp and in a little more if the note is flat.
Here’s something to consider.
When you tune in
Every instrument will be slightly different, but the general trends are the same. It’s just a basic fact that comes from the math behind the physics of sound.
Here’s some of the ones to get used to.
More Trombone Slide Positions:
If you’ve mastered all of the
This is known as the third partial when you play these notes with the given slide positions. These notes will naturally be a little sharp, and so the slide positions should be slightly farther out than where you learned to play them.
The fifth partial is when you play these notes with the given positions. The fifth partial is quite low and these notes should be played with the slide positions significantly in from where you learned them.
Note that first position cannot come in by definition. For this reason, it is common to play the D in fourth position. If you do this, you’ll be playing the note in the sixth partial, which is sharp.
So, the common alternate is to play the D in a farther out fourth position.
The seventh partial is extremely flat to the point that I put parentheses around it in the first position chart. You should never play any of the seventh partial notes as written.
That being said, the seventh partial has two of the most common alternate positions you should learn. It’s common to play the high G and high G-flat in a very inward second and third position. These are pretty close to halfway between 1-2 and 2-3 respectively.
Each partial has its own tendencies, and each instrument is slightly different. But knowing these three tendencies already puts you into advanced trombone technique.
How Does an F-Trigger Change Things?
When you press down the F-trigger, it shifts the fundamental to an F. Look above to the sixth position chart to get the notes you can produce.
When you press down the F-trigger and play second position, it puts the tubing at the same length as seventh position. You can see the chart above for that.
These are the two main things the F-trigger is used for. It makes playing the third partial C and B-natural easier in terms of scales and tuning. You can develop your own style for other notes depending on the instrument.