How Trombone is Similar to Electric Guitar

When comparing the two instruments side by side, it’s hard to see any similarities, but brass and wood have more in common than you think. They don’t look the same, are made out of completely different materials, and aren’t played in nearly the same way.

But look again. Mark Mullins, of New Orleans, Louisiana, electric trombonist and lead vocalist in brass-fronted rock band Bonerama (, plays anything from “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles to “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. While typically thought of as guitar songs, Mullins was drawn to the sound and worked hard on translating classic rock riffs to his trombone.

electric trombone

While transcribing guitar music on the trombone, Mullins was pleased to find that the differences in the two instruments are only skin deep–frets and strings have more in common with breath and slides than you might think.

Slide and Frets

A trombone slide has seven positions that are similar to the frets on a guitar. “Each position on a trombone is a half step, just like traveling down the fret board,” Mullins says. “It’s easiest to think of it like a fretless instrument.”

Screaming Rock Sounds

Of course, the other similarity between a distorted rock guitar and a trombone is that throaty, dark sound, which can be made even dirtier with stomp boxes. Mullins runs his trombone signal through a wah-wah pedal, harmonizer, and distortion pedal, and then into a guitar amplifier for a real guitar god sound.

Lips and Strings

For every fret on a guitar, there are six different notes you can play just by changing strings. Similarly, you can get several different notes for each slide position by changing the air flow. “The strings are invisible on the trombone, because the strings are similar to the size of the air opening of your lips,” Mullins explains. “Make a smaller hole, and jump to another string. It’s really very similar.”

Thriving on a Riff

The similarities mean that riff-based rock music is very accessible on a trombone, as well as special effects and techniques. “The ability to bend notes with the slide in a subtle way is like the way a guitar player would pull on a string,” says Mullins. “All of these things together contribute to the ability for riff-based guitar music to translate seamlessly to the trombone.”

This article is from our November-December 2010 issue. Click to order!

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