What is the difference between alto trombone and tenor trombone?

I recently ran across an article posted by Yamaha on the difference between alto and tenor trombone. One sentence at the beginning of the article that caught my attention was, “alto trombones play higher notes than tenor…” Is that true?

As someone who has played alto trombone exclusively for the better part of 40 years, I’ve been arguing against this idea that alto plays higher.

Before diving into the issue of playing higher, let me explain the more fundamental differences between alto and tenor trombones.

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The alto trombone is a smaller trombone. Its size produces a fundamental of Eb instead of the tenor trombone’s Bb. Just like blowing into a smaller bottle produces a higher pitch than blowing into a larger one. So by using the same partial and position on the alto, you will be transposing up a perfect fourth. The slide on an alto, therefore, is shorter. I’ve always thought that the alto was a better horn for young short arms. But because most elementary school band teachers are never introduced to or taught the alto, they cannot very easily teach it to their young students. It’s not their fault, the alto trombone is a much more rare and specialized instrument that is used primarily in classical music.

The alto trombone is not just a shorter version of a tenor. Because of what I wrote above about the fundamental of an alto being a fourth higher, the positions are completely different for the same notes. For example, middle C on a tenor is the third position on the fifth partial. On the alto trombone, middle C is fourth position on the third partial. That is a HUGE difference.

A favorite story about a tenor player picking up an alto for the first time was when J.J. Johnson was handed an alto. After playing a couple of notes he handing it back disgusted asking, “What the f**k is this?” Again, the alto is NOT just a smaller version of a tenor. It really is a very different instrument and takes a good amount of practice to become comfortable with the positions. This is one reason why I dedicated an entire book to learning the alto trombone: Alto Trombone Savvy.

Back to the topic of alto trombone playing higher than tenor, it is true that alto can play higher by using a shallower mouthpiece like a 12C. But put that on your tenor and you’ll also find high C to be easier to pop. But using a shallow mouthpiece on alto has its downside. One downside is that your tone will be thinner than that produced by a larger mouthpiece like the one I use – a 6 1/2 AL. That was the mouthpiece I used when I played tenor. For a full explanation of why I retained the 6 1/2AL on alto, read this.

The rest of the differences Yamaha mentioned are superficial and don’t really get to the heart of the more meaningful differences between alto and tenor. Yes, the positions on alto are closer together and the bore on an alto is smaller, but what does that mean for you as an alto player?

I believe that what I’ll subjectively call the advantages of the alto are:

1. The emphasized overtones on an alto trombone are higher.

The higher overtones make the sound on the alto brighter, which makes for a more present sound on lead (first trombone chair). That was the original intent of composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. By using the alto on the top of the trombone section (alto, tenor, bass), they expanded the frequency range of the trombone section.

I find this true in the jazz and latin trombone sections with which I’ve played. The section carries more within the band. Also, when standing up to improvise jazz, the horn is more present on top of the rhythm section and band if they are playing background.

2. The smaller bore on the alto trombone allows for a quicker response.

For me and the style in which I play trombone, the time the air takes to travel the full distance of the horn is critical. The longer distance air takes for a tenor contributes to a lag in articulation. Let’s be honest, it’s easy for trombones to drag if they are not hyper-aware of the time and their sound. Bass trombones in the back of the orchestra need to anticipate the time even more because they are battling the much longer and larger tubes combined with their position in the back of the orchestra.

Back to jazz, I have found that combined with a good sense of time, the alto keeps the trombone section in a big band up better with the rest of the band. Again, it assumes a good sense of time, but the slightly quicker attack (measured in milliseconds) sharpens up the sound of the section.

The quicker response of the alto makes also for a slightly more present improvised solo. I’m not trying to say that great tenor soloists drag, but just that the alto has a natural tendency to speak quicker.

3. The shorter slide of the alto trombone makes for quicker note response and playing.

Notice that many of the differences between tenor and alto trombone relate to speed. Maybe speed is not important to you, but it is to me, and the shorter distances between alto trombone positions make for quicker notes. I have never been a multi-tonguer but speed is still important, and getting more quickly from one note to the next allows me to express myself more authentically.

So it makes sense that having a shorter distance for the air to travel will create a quicker response. But there is something else. The shorter slide and horn make articulation easier. On the alto, you don’t have as large a column of air to start with your lungs and tongue.

I often joke with people when they react to my sound and technique. I reply, “The alto is a cheat.” In one way that is true. Even though it took me years to play well, I think it is easier to play in certain ways. On the other hand, it is still a trombone that requires a quick ear for pitch, a quick arm for getting to notes, and a coordinated tongue for starting and stopping notes.

But I love the alto trombone and think that the differences between alto and tenor trombones makes it the alto the superior instrument. I hope you’ll join me in playing this wonderful instrument!!

I’ll leave you with a few samples of my alto trombone playing:

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