While trombones are often joked about as giant tuning slides, they actually have tuning slides of their own. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to tune a trombone using that tuning slide.
In short, to tune a trombone, you’ll want to make sure your tuning slide works. If so, make sure you get a hold of a tuner. Then, start warming up. With your horn ready to go, blow a few tuning notes (B♭ above the staff) into the tuner and adjust the tuning slide as needed. If you’re sharp, pull out. Otherwise, push in.
In the remainder of the article, we’ll go into each of these steps in much greater detail.
In general, there are four main steps to perform if you want to tune your trombone—especially if you haven’t done it before or don’t do it often:
Of course, you may skip to steps 3 and 4 if you already have what you need.
Step 1: Make Sure Your Tuning Slide Works
It may seem obvious, but you should make sure you’re able to move your tuning slide first. After all, if you haven’t been using your tuning slide, it may be stuck. if that’s the case, you’ll probably want to get it in the shop.
That said, even if you can move your tuning slide, it’s probably a good idea to clean it up. For instance, you might want to give it a good bath. To do that, you’ll not to remove the tuning slide and scrub it down. If you have the tools, now would be a good time to snake out the tuning slide as well. For all sorts of tips related to cleaning your trombone, check out my 8-step guide.
With the tuning slide all clean, you’ll want to get a decent helping of grease on both tubes. To do that, apply some slide grease to the circumference of each tube. Then, work each tube on individually to spread out the grease. Finally, work the tuning slide into playing position and wipe away the extra grease. For more tips on how to grease a trombone tuning slide, check out my 3-step guide.
Step 2: Acquire a Tuner
Again, it may seem obvious, but it’s pretty hard to tune a horn without a proper tuner. Sure, you could pull up a YouTube video and try to play to some tuning notes, but it’ll be a lot quicker to use a tuner.
If you’re frugal, most smartphones have free tuner apps. For instance, I use InsTuner on iPhone, but there are literally hundreds of options including TonalEnergy, Free Chromatic Tuner, and more.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can always purchase a professional tuner. When you buy a tuner, you’ll usually get more options like the ability to change the reference frequency (i.e. A = 432 vs. 440 Hz). In addition, some tuners also combo as metronomes, so you can use the device throughout a practice session. Finally, they also occasionally have fun features like the ability to be clipped onto surfaces like guitar necks or music stands.
Step 3: Warm Up
While you might be tempted to start blowing directly into your tuner, it’s important to warm up first. After all, it can take some time to settle in for both you and your horn.
If you haven’t been playing much, you might want to do some long tones and lip slurs. Each of these exercises can help you get in a state where you’ll spend the remainder of your rehearsal. If you tune too early, you may find that your pitch changes as you begin to settle in.
In addition, you’ll want your horn to reach some equilibrium temperature with the environment. If your horn was out in the trunk on a hot summer day, it might be a bit hot. As a result, the horn is going to tend sharp, so give it some time to cool off. On the flip side, if your horn is cold, it’s going to lean flat. Take some time to warm it up—literally.
Once you’re warmed up, it’s time to tune!
Step 4: Sustain, Interpret, and Adjust As Needed
At this point, it’s safe to blow a few tuning notes into the tuner. Typically, trombone players tune to a B♭ above the staff. As you stare at the tuner, pay attention to what it’s telling you.
If the tuner says you’re sharp, then you need to make your trombone longer. To do that, pull out your tuning slide a bit. Then, try again. If the tuner says you’re flat, then you need to shrink the tubing a bit by pushing the tuning slide in.
After a few iterations, your trombone should be fully calibrated. If you want to go the extra mile, you can try tuning other notes. Of course, if the note is outside of first position, you won’t want to play with the tuning slide. Instead, adjust your main slide. Over time, you’ll start to develop a bit of muscle memory for those key positions.
If you have a trigger or two on your horn, you’ll want to tune those as well. Unfortunately, I’m not as familiar with attachments, so I’m not sure how you would go about tuning them. That said, I suspect the process is similar.
While tuning might seem like a straightforward process, there’s actually a lot of effort that can go into it. After all, if you haven’t been taking care of your tuning slide, you can’t exactly tune your horn.
At any rate, here’s the main summary:
- Make sure your tuning slide works
- Acquire a tuner
- Warm up
- Sustain, interpret, and adjust as needed
If you follow these steps, you’ll be all tuned up in no time! As always, thanks for checking out this article, and don’t forget to respect the brass!