Friday, January 4, 2013

The Trombone

 It stands to reason that, given the title of this blog, I should write something about my trombone. The trombone that I use the most, the one that I own, has gone through some changes in the past year. Parts of it are the same horn that I first got when I was in college back in 1997, but some parts are virtually brand new. (As a side note, many parts of this horn are the one that I'm playing as a member of the University of New Mexico Wind Symphony on Joseph Alessi's Illuminations CD. As another side note, I am the only trombonist besides Mr. Alessi who plays on every track of that recording.)

 My trombone is an Edwards bass trombone. Edwards is the professional line of instruments made by the Getzen company. My parents bought the trombone for me when I was a college student at the University of Tennessee and had switched from tenor to bass trombone. It has a rose brass bell, medium weight. The original slide was a standard dual-bore bass slide, though a couple of years later I upgraded to a nickel-crook slide that had better response. The original valve section was a dual axial-flow valve, which was popular at that time for its very "open" feel and sound. And make no mistake, a lot of great players still use and prefer that particular design. But in recent years, I began to feel that those valves were a bit mechanically cumbersome, and didn't allow me to get quite the sound that I wanted, with a little more "edge" to it. I did quite a bit of research, trying various other designs by other manufacturers, but never committed to making a purchase.

 I finally decided to make some changes after I returned from Afghanistan in the fall of 2011. The horn had spent the better part of a year not being played while I was overseas, and just wasn't working the way I wanted it to. I realized it was time to get an overhaul. I decided to have a conversion done by the Greenhoe company in Wisconsin. Founded by Gary Greenhoe, who played in the Milwaukee Symphony, they make customized valve sections that are based on traditional rotary valves but with modifications in the design to improve resonance and airflow. To ensure a proper fit, I sent them the bell and tuning slide of my trombone, which was easy given that Edwards horns are modular in design. While they were working on the horn, they were able to smooth out a crease in the bell that had happened several years ago. In addition to great craftsmanship, they have great customer service--more about that in a little bit.

They also re-lacquered the main tuning slide in order to make it match visually with the new tubing.

When my modified horn arrived, I was quite pleased. The improvement in response and tone quality was immediately apparent, and getting the proper sound took noticeably less effort. The valves operate very smoothly, and quietly, and there is virtually no difference between the feel of playing with no valves or using both at once. And they look good too!

 One thing still was not quite right: the slide. Upon having a local repairman examine the slide, I learned that the problem was red rot--the brass was corroding from the inside out, and any attempt to do chemical cleaning could make the corrosion worse. (The problem likely resulted from the months of non-use while I was deployed, allowing small particles to sit and corrode the metal when regular use would have discouraged build-up.) The fine people at Edwards informed me that red rot was covered under the warranty. I sent the slide to the Edwards plant and they replaced the entire upper tube, while also removing a small dent from the slide crook and re-lacquering the lower tube to remove some small normal-wear scratches. As a result, the slide worked smoother than it had in years.

 The final change was made when I attended the National Brass Symposium in the spring at Kennesaw State University. While there, I was able to try out some leadpipes. (That's pronounced "leed," not "led." The lead pipe is where the mouthpiece is inserted into the horn, and it is now common for horns to have interchangeable leadpipes which allow a player to further customize the way the horn responds.) I decided to go with a sterling silver leadpipe, which "felt" better than the one I had been using. My trombone upgrade was complete!

 Now, about that customer service at Greenhoe that I mentioned earlier. I had for years carried the horn around in a Reunion Blues gig bag, which was lightweight and easy to carry but offered little in the way of protection. In recent years, modern technology has caught up with the instrument case business and several manufacturers offer cases that are compact and light but still offer good protection from dents, dings, most destructive impacts. Greenhoe offers BAM cases on their website, so I inquired about the options. They told me their new bass trombone cases were out of stock, but that they did have one available that had been used for transporting horns to some conferences but was in virtually new condition. Thus, they offered it at a discount. Thus, I got a great deal on a new case for my partially-new trombone. I have already sent it on a few airplane trips as checked baggage, with nary a scratch on the horn.

 So I now have the horn I've always wanted, one that plays beautifully and easily, mechanically reliable and one that allows me to express myself musically as I never have before. There is only one downside: anything that doesn't sound right can no longer be blamed on the horn, but the guy playing it! Guess I'd better get back to practicing....

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