Brass instruments in the West have evolved throughout history into what we recognise today. Trumpets, cornets, horns, trombones and tubas are ubiquitous, appearing in practically every genre of Western music in one form or another. But what about the more unusual ones? In the Darwinian fight for survival, certain older designs have fallen by the wayside, replaced by louder, more efficient, easier to play or simply more wieldy instruments. Others have never been mass produced, used only by the players who invented them. Here is my list of the top 5 unusual and rare brass instruments:
The Sackbut (no sniggering at the name please) is a predecessor to the modern trombone that was popular throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras, up until the 1700s. Modern Sackbut replicas are used in period accurate performances of works from this time. The instrument had a smaller bore size and less-flared bell than a modern trombone and was produced in alto, tenor, bass and double bass varieties.
A distant ancestor of the modern Tuba, this bizarre looking instrument gets its name from its distinctive snake-like shape. Although the instrument was generally made from wood and covered with leather, it is considered a brass instrument due to the style of mouthpiece used. To change pitch, the serpent uses a series of fingerholes and keys. Playing one is no mean feat as certain notes require the player to override the natural pitch produced by some of the finger combinations.
When you think of the trombone, you probably have an image of a fairly large instrument in your mind. While it is true that tenor and bass trombones are the most common, several sizes of trombone exist.
The next smallest trombone after the tenor is the alto, pitched in the key of Eb. While rarer than its tenor cousin, the alto trombone can still be found in many works from the classical period through to modern period. The pBone Mini is an example of an alto trombone.
Smaller still is the soprano trombone. Pitched in Bb in the same register as the trumpet, the soprano is notoriously difficult to play in tune. Repertoire is unsurprisingly rare for the instrument though jazz trumpet and trombone players have been known to adopt it due its superior ability to glissando between notes.
Jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon plays a mean soprano trombone:
Finally, at the most ridiculous end of the trombone register is the piccolo. These instruments are extremely rare but they do appear in some trombone choir repertoire. Standard piccolo trombones are pitched in Bb an octave higher than soprano trombones while the similar Eb sopranino resides an octave above the alto. And they look adorable. So cute.
This strange-looking instrument was developed by Holton in conjunction with Maynard Ferguson. It gives the player the option to play using either valves or a trombone-like slide. In order to keep the tubing the correct length for the instrument to be in Bb, the slide could only be made with four positions instead of the standard 7 on trombone. Since the original Firebird was first built in the late 1970s, the instrument’s maker Larry Ramirez has developed a way to make a fully functioning 7 position version. Don’t go rushing out to buy one though- only two models have ever been made!
The Fluba is an invention of freelance musician Jim Self. Essentially a tuba sized flugelhorn, the Fluba is a one-of-a-kind instrument that Self says sounds different from both the tuba and the similar contrabass trumpet.
Honourable Mention: Tromboon
Invented by Peter Schickele’s creation, fictional spoof composer P. D. Q Bach, this instrument combines the reed and bocal of a bassoon with a trombone body resulting in an unusual and comical sound. The Tromboon could technically be considered a woodwind as the sound is produced using a reed and it’s also dubious whether it can be considered a legitimate instrument, but it was too amusing not to share it on this list.
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