How To Tune A Trombone: Professional Advice Made Easy

how to tune a trombone

The other day I was riding with some other musicians, and we were talking about tuning, and we brought up how frustrating the trombone is. 

So many people don’t know how to tune their trombone correctly and just rely on adjusting their main slide to match the pitch. 

This isn’t bad in and of itself, but it’s not quite right, either. 

You’ll end up learning slightly wrong slide positions and make your lips work harder. 

But I’m here to help with this guide, so let’s dig in! 

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What You’ll Need To Tune A Trombone

  • Your trombone
  • A good tuner (here’s a link to my favorite on Amazon)

With the trombone, I strongly recommend a really good tuner, not just one on your phone. 

Yes, a good phone one will do the job, but it’s not quite programmed correctly to pick up the sound and be as accurate as a dedicated tuner is. 

I like the one at the. link because it’s a great brand with a stellar reputation, it’s accurate as all get-out, and it comes with a clip-on mic to give you the most accurate reading (eliminates extra sounds). 

If all you have is a phone tuner, don’t fret! You can still tune, but I just encourage you to upgrade sooner rather than later. 

How To Tune A Trombone: Step By Step

#1 Check That Your Tuning Slide Moves

Your tuning slide is NOT the one you move to play different notes. 

Your tuning slide is the one at the end of the brass instrument that rests on your shoulder. 

Try moving it in and out. It needs to move in order to tune. 

If it doesn’t move, you’ll need to get it moving. 

Use slide grease around the area you can reach. Try to get it in the crack where the slide meets the horn. 

Take a shoelace and wrap it through the bow or U of the slide. REMOVE the main slide! 

Pull on the shoelace gently with even pressure. Then increase pressure. 

If this doesn’t work, consider taking it in to a music store to get cleaned. 

Warning! Don’t use any gripping tool on the instrument, as it may scratch, dent, or crush the tubing. 

If it doesn’t move, you have to get this fixed first. 

If it comes up, lubricate with slide grease and put your instrument back together. 

Move on to the next step. 

#2 Warm Up On Your Trombone

Start playing your horn. Don’t make the mistake of tuning before you’ve played. 

Your lips are muscles, and they will change as they get warmed up. 

This will affect your tuning. 

The same goes for the temperature of the trombone. Your horn warms up, too, as you blow through it. 

Tuning before it’s warm is useless, as it’ll change quickly as you play. 

I recommend lip slurs, slow scales, fast scales, fast lip slurs, and then an etude or exercise song. 

For more on this, check out our article on trombone warmups (coming soon). 

#3 Play And Notice

Turn on your tuner and get ready to play your Bb concert pitch that rests at the top of the bass clef staff.

If this is too high, I recommend the F that sits in the middle of the bass clef. But the Bb is better. 

Don’t tune your low Bb or High F right away. 

Close your eyes before you play. Play the note and hold it. After 2-3 seconds, open your eyes while playing and look at your tuner. 

Notice if it’s sharp, flat, or right on. Notice how much it’s off by. 

The measurement and display depend on your tuner. Sharp can be shown as + or #. Flat can be shown as – or b

Note: I find people start adjusting automatically if they stare at the tuner as they play. This means they aren’t tuning the instrument but rather their lips. 

#4 Adjust Your Tuning Slide

It’s time to adjust your tuning slide! 

If the note was right in tune, awesome! No need to adjust! 

If the note was flat, you’ll need to push your tuning slide in. A little goes a long way, so don’t move too much. 

If the note was sharp, pull the tuning slide out. Again, little adjustments work best (unless you were way off). 

#5 Repeat 3-4 Until Consistently In Tune

Go back to step 3, close your eyes, and play. Notice the pitch. 

Adjust as needed! When you can land your instrument in tune 3 times in a row, you’re in tune. 

Warning! Tune regularly while you practice (every 30 minutes or so). As your lips tire or warm up more, they’ll adjust the pitch as well. 

Tired lips tend to play sharp. 

Tuning is never done. You need to tune every time you play and match the group you’re playing in. 

Sometimes you might be exactly “in tune,” but every else in a group is off (but they’re off together). Technically, you need to tune to the most people who are correct. 

Make sure whatever ensemble you play in agrees on the same tuning, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you sound! 

Advanced Trombone Tuning Tips

The tuning steps covered above are very basic, but they’ll do you well in most situations. 

If you’re a serious player or at least serious about becoming a better trombone player, you need to step it up in other ways. 

Here are some advanced tuning tips to try: 

Buzzing In Tune

Buzzing is what makes our brass instruments work! 

Your horn will force your buzzing to match a pitch if it’s close and you’re holding the right slide position. 

Let’s say you want to play an Eb, middle of the staff. You move the slide to third position as you’re supposed to. 

If you buzz your lips to any pitch near the Eb, the trombone will force it into place. This is where scooping and playing out of tune come from (even after you’ve “tuned” your instrument). 

If your buzz is too far away, then you get double-buzzing or missed partials. This is when you aim for an Eb, but an Ab pops out. 

Your lips aren’t buzzing the right pitch! 

Get out your tuner and take your mouthpiece off the trombone. 

Have your tuner play a pitch and then buzz with the tone. Match it as best as possible. 

Stop the tone from the tuner and play the pitch on your mouthpiece only. See if you can get it in tune. 

Do this with every note. Jump around the notes, not just in order. 

Do this a little bit every day, and watch your intonation improve dramatically! 

Tuning Your F Trigger Trombone

If you have an F trigger on your trombone, you need to tune it twice! 

Pressing the trigger or valve adds the extra slide length and makes your horn play different notes in combination with the positions. 

It has its own fundamental and needs to be tuned. 

Go through the steps at the beginning of the article, but tune with the pitch F with the trigger engaged. 

Slow Tuning Scales

While playing a scale, get out your tuner. Play each note for four slow counts. 

Close your eyes for the first beat, and then look at the tuner. 

Do you notice any pitches that are off every single time? 

Adjust your slide positions slightly to make them in tune.

If you notice your A is always flat, you’re not keeping second position close enough to first (for example). 

Sixth position and seventh position are also big offenders. 

Sharp means you need to move the slide out. Flat means you need to move it in. 

Do NOT adjust the tuning slide here. Just the main slide. (Unless your Bbs are all out of tune.)

With time, you’ll notice the intonation tendencies of each note for you and adjust. 

Chromatic Tuning

This is the same as above but now do it in order with all the chromatic pitches. Take special note of how little you need to move your slide for each position. 

This will improve your ear and muscle memory. 

After playing slow, gradually speed it up, but make sure it’s still in tune. 

Hum, Buzz, Play

I can’t stress how important buzzing is for brass players. 

It’s what makes the sound on our horns! 

Try this to improve your ear and intonation: 

  1. Play a pitch with a tuner. Make it give you the tone. 
  2. Turn the tuner off. Hum the pitch. See if you’re in tune. Adjust your humming. 
  3. Now buzz the pitch. Check tuning. 
  4. Now play the pitch on your slide trombone. Check the tuning. 
  5. Pick another random pitch* and repeat.

*If you have an etude or slow, melodic exercise you like, choose the pitches from this exercise to do with the Hum, buzz, play.

Further Reading: The Best Trombone Players Ever (With Video)

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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