Letters From New York, Part One

By Sam Burtis • June 01, 1998 • 11 min read

Several months ago, I discontinued writing this column because I thought that I had said just about everything I knew about the trombone that it was possible for me to say in this Internet form. In a sense I still believe that. However, during the past two years I've been corresponding with a group of people on an Internet mailing list known as Trombone-L. There are about six hundred trombonists subscribed to this list, and the trombone related information, discussions, and camaraderie that make up the list have become an important part of my life.

The various types of players who post on the Trombone-L range from well known professional players, renowned teachers, and students and amateurs at every possible level of learning and expertise. An Internet mailing list is a very democratic, ad hoc kind of forum in that a letter from someone like Doug Yeo takes up just as much space as one from a beginner freshman in high school, takes just as long to read, and, surprisingly often, each contains as much food for thought as the other in one way or another.

Recently, I decided to clean and back up my overstressed hard drive, and during that task I realized that I had saved well over a hundred of the E-mails I had contributed to the Trombone-L. Upon examining them, they seemed to fall into several broad categories, and I filed them as such. At about the same time, Richard Human, the publisher of the Online Trombone Journal, contacted me to see if I might have more material for some new "Out Of The Case" columns. I decided to put what I considered the best responses I had written to the Trombone-L into article form, and these will be published over the next few months as Letters From NY.

By far the largest folder of posts on my hard drive had to do with equipment and equipment choices, and the letters I'll reprint in this first column will deal with that subject. The messages are mainly about horn choices this time around, and I've slightly altered some of the posts, paraphrasing the original questions both to protect the innocent and to avoid the impossible task of having to write and ask permission to use the words of the many people whose names are often no longer on the postings I saved.

There have been a lot of posts about small bore vs. large bore horns for jazz work. What are people in NYC playing these days?

The equipment used is generally what works best for the demands of the music people play. Here in NYC, among the 30 or so tenor trombonists with whom I most often work, players who work playing primarily small and large group jazz and Latin music, freelance studio recording, and play on Broadway shows (remember, recording and Broadway OFTEN require something approaching a real orchestral style and sound), I count:

Most of these instruments are being played with mouthpieces in the same size range as a Bach 6 1/2 AL--a few 11 Cs, one 7C, one 6 3/4 C, a couple of 6 1/2 As, some 5Gs--nothing substantially bigger except two 1 1/2 Gs. I rarely see a "smaller" mouthpiece, mostly because they just don't work as a third trombone timbre, too bright at volume and in the low range.

Larger equipment is almost always played by people who concentrate on playing jazz in what might be called a J. J.. Johnson/Slide Hampton style, or players who spend a lot of time in orchestral settings but who don't want to play two different tenors.

My own personal preference in a four trombone, non-orchestral section is to have a brighter horn on top, say a Williams 6, smaller Bach (12, 16) or a King 2B or 3B, a Bach 16, 3B, or Bach 36 on second, and a Bach 36 or 42 size horn on third, with, of course, a bass trombone on the bottom. The brighter lead horn tends to bridge the gap between the trumpets and trombones better, and when the trombone section is playing as a solo voice, the brighter sound shines a light on the entire section.

Too many trombone sections have no presence, no brilliance, and whatever is written for them tends to disappear in the murk of the rhythm section, never to be heard from again. The gradual increase in size in horn from top to bottom means each horn will play most of the time in its strongest register, giving the whole trombone section an easily achieved muscularity and presence. (I've noticed, although it's a rare occurrence, that when you get a section comprised of all the same brand of horn, the blend is REALLY good.)

A section comprised entirely of smaller horns often begins to sound like a pack of wild dogs, yapping and snarling their way through the music, especially if there's any real volume required.

As far as a solo jazz horn, it all depends on what style of playing you want. Larger, and/or less resistant equipment tends to favor more midrange, tongued styles like J. J. Johnson's, while smaller and/or more resistant equipment goes more to high-range, flexibility-oriented styles like those of Urbie Green and Jimmy Cleveland. However you play, choose the kind of equipment you should be playing. Or, if you want to get a little more subtle about it, whatever kind of equipment you choose, that's the way you're going to be playing.

How does one best evaluate a horn?

Blindfold tests, although logistically difficult, are my preferred method of evaluating horns. Line up several horns, and, keeping your eyes closed, have someone hand you each one without telling you which ones are which. If the horns are too dissimilar to fool you, add more horns to the group until you ARE eventually confused about which horn you're playing. (I've even gone so far as to wear heavy skiing mittens so that I can't FEEL the differences in my hands.) Only after you've eliminated your own inevitably acquired prejudices about which horns and sizes are "good" and which are "bad" can you really begin to evaluate instruments. Try it.

Trust your ear and your body to tell which horns are best for you. Consider the ones that seem to almost automatically draw real music out of you. Some horns and players naturally start singing together. Try all different sizes and styles of horn. Consider playing a couple of horns for different styles, different ensembles.

Don't eliminate used horns from your consideration. Mt. Vernon and NY Bachs, Conns from the '20s to the '50s, older Holton basses, and Earl Williams horns from the '50s + '60s have been my personal choices for 25 years, and not because of cost considerations. Consistently, in blind tests those horns felt "better" to me than new ones.

If you do decide to buy a new horn, make the effort to get as many examples of the particular model as you can and try them all. Switch bells, slides, and tuning slides until you get the best possible combination. Go to the factory if you have to, but don't expect any sort of consistency from horn to horn. If the horns are mass-produced, the companies have cost factors that preclude absolute quality control.

If, on the other hand, you're buying a more "custom built" instrument, then have it built your way. You may have to pay more, but really, a new trombone is probably the cheapest professional musical instrument in the world.

Take the time to find the right equipment, then you can forget about it and go on to the more important stuff.

Isn't this preoccupation with equipment really just consumerism and/or materialism? Does any company have a better horn?

A quality horn maker doesn't necessarily make a "better" horn, but each manufacturer most definitely makes a "different" horn. The same goes for mouthpieces.

If this interest in equipment is an "ism" it's probably not so much consumerism or materialism as it is perfectionism. The great pieces of equipment I have played over the years have definitely made me a "better" player, or at least allowed me the freedom to express myself in increasingly more focused ways.

If the ideal as a musician is to play as personally and originally (within certain idiomatic parameters) as one can, then the choices of a Conn over a Bach, a Jet Tone mouthpiece over a Dennis Wick, gold over lacquer, are certainly major factors. J. J. Johnson would not have sounded the same on an 88H or a Bach 6, nor would Joe Alessi or Dave Taylor or Trummy Young or any great player if they had chosen equipment radically different from whatever they played.

The search for equipment can certainly degenerate into "keeping up with the Joneses" and/or an obsessive collecting mentality. However, the phrase "Get the right tool for the job" is one we should all remember. Any fine craftsman or artist will tell you the same thing.

I find that it's not worthwhile to switch horns until I can play better than the horn I'm playing now can handle. What's the sense of trying equipment and/or switching horns every few years?

Every horn I've ever played has taught me something. Even a "bad" horn, or a horn with idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses, can teach you something, even if it's how you don't want to play.

One of the most valid reasons for searching for great equipment is to learn from that equipment. Most great horns--stock or modified--are the result of a long design and manufacturing process that involves any number of highly qualified participants.

For a young player to be able to pick up a horn that has been designed to the specifications of a musician as serious and committed as Doug Yeo can be a teaching experience that no amount of instruction can equal. Playing really old horns, horns that for one reason or another have gone "out of style," can be a highly instructive form of time travel.

A couple of hours on a really good 78H or 2B from the thirties (and an equivalent mouthpiece) will tell you more about the orchestral and big band styles of the period than any number of lessons (or listening) could ever impart. Further, if you are so lucky as to get even a few minutes on the equipment of really great players, that few minutes can serve as a window into how they play that's more informative than anything they might ever say to you. Better equipment can make you a better player, and playing different equipment can broaden your horizons.


Much of what I (and others) do as far as equipment choice is done by deductive reasoning. That is, first you find out what "feels" good, then deduce from that what the various components of that "feel" are, then go looking for components that will "feel" better. They in turn alter your physical setup, eventually sending you in search of other good equipment. (Finding the right equipment is a process, not a goal.)

Many fine players have found different ways that work for them; I have found a way that works for me. There are as many approaches as there are good players. For relatively young players, players who feel they're still developing an individual approach to playing, I would recommend two things:

  1. Check out the equipment used by the players who play the way you would most like to play yourself, and try that (type of) equipment.
  2. Don't let your mind eliminate any possibilities. Try any and all equipment. Try equipment in any sort of blindfold situation you can muster. Let the playing tell you, let your ears and your body and your subjective feelings tell you, what's going to "work" and what's not.

Some people have found that a switch to smaller, more resistant equipment has actually given them a "bigger" sound. Others have found that by playing lager equipment, their high range and endurance improve. These are not uncommon situations. Don't be fooled by the "bigger is better" school of brass playing, or by jazz players who insist that .509 bore (or smaller) is the only way to play jazz.