The internet is a notoriously fickle and unpredictable medium for disseminating information. On the one hand, sometimes a forgotten page or file can, if not removed by its author or owner, remain available indefinitely. One of my simple pleasures in internet browsing comes when I search for something and the search engine directs me to a 1990s-vintage (that’s “old” for the internet, right?) page that has obviously been neglected for years. Somehow the “FrontPage 98” look seems quaint barely fifteen years after the fact.
On the other hand, sometimes resources that one has used for years disappear almost without notice, and without a readily available replacement. Such is the predicament in which I find myself, as I recently discovered that a webpage to which I have long directed both applied and methods class students regarding trombone slide cleaning and maintenance has ceased to exist. Having found no suitable replacement, I suppose it is time for me to create my own. This will be the first of three posts providing short tips on cleaning, lubricating, and maintaining low brass instruments. Next week (D.V.) I will write on rotary valves (as well as axial flow and other valves used on trombones), and the following week on piston valves. These will be short, “ready-reference” types of resources rather than the more thorough treatments sometimes found in brass methods course textbooks and other print materials. After completing the three posts I will add them to the already large amount of material I have created for my Low Brass Methods course at Ole Miss.
The trombone slide is simple in construction and elegant in appearance and function when used well, though achieving that elegance is notoriously difficult. Not only does this require years of diligent practice, but slide function must be optimal if smooth and efficient slide action is to be achieved. Given the length of the slide and the close tolerances between the inner and outer tubes, ineffective lubrication and/or excessive buildup of dirt, food particles (!), and even old lubricant can make playing a difficult and frustrating experience. The same is true for dents and alignment problems, but for the purposes of this article I am taking for granted that the player will take special care to avoid damaging the slide, and will have it repaired by a qualified technician if and when damage does occur. Here I will discuss the two regular aspects of maintaining optimal slide function: cleaning and lubrication.
Trombone Slide Cleaning
Trombone slides require cleaning much more often than the moving parts of most other instruments. This is true because of the length and close tolerances of the slide as I just mentioned, but also because of the types of lubricants most trombonists use. Unlike the petroleum-based oils (or synthetic equivalents) used on both piston and rotary valves, the cream-based lubricants normally used on trombone slides do not evaporate or “trickle down” until emptied along with the condensation that collects in the instrument. Instead, these creams tend to “build up” around the slide stockings over time and create a residue that ultimately impedes slide action and, if left long enough, hardens to the point that a professional chemical or ultrasonic cleaning is needed to remove it. It is thus important that the trombone slide receive at least a cursory cleaning every time new lubricant is applied, both to remove the residue of old lubricant that is no longer evenly distributed, and to remove food particles, etc. that might collect in the slide.
For these regular cleanings, the following materials are needed:
- Trombone cleaning rod with cheesecloth, strips of cotton (cut from old t-shirts, etc.), or the Slide-O-Mix toweling sheaths (my recommendation).
- Bassoon swab (optional).
- Paper towels (I prefer Scott Scott Shop Towels).
- Spray bottle filled with clean water.
Begin the cleaning process by disassembling the slide. Place the inner slide on a table (or anyplace that it will not be damaged). Take the cleaning rod, cover it with a toweling sheath or wrap it in cotton or cheesecloth, and swab out each of the outer slide tubes. This helps to remove lubricant residue and other materials that might have stuck to the insides of the outer tubes. Do take care to hold the tube that you are cleaning as you are working the cleaning rod in and out, so as to avoid pushing the tubes out of alignment. After completing this step, place the outer slide on the table and pick up the inner slide.
An optional step at this point is to clean the insides of the inner tubes using a bassoon swab. Simply drop the weighted rope or chain through the top of each tube and pull the swab through the opposite end. This idea, taken from the S.E. Shires website, helps to prevent even more “gunk” from collecting in the slide tubes and crook. While all slides will benefit from performing this step, I have found it to be particularly helpful and even necessary when working with slides with particularly close tolerances, such as those manufactured by Shires.
Finally, spray each of the inner tubes liberally with water, and use a paper towel to wipe old lubricant off of the tubes. Grip the tubes firmly when doing this, but take care to not use force sufficient to bend the tubes out of alignment.
Completing these steps each time you re-lubricate the slide (usually 1-3 times per week, depending on how often the instrument is played) will keep it quite clean, make the more thorough process described below a relatively rare necessity, and almost eliminate the need for professional cleanings which require harsh chemicals (and the expense of a trip to the repair shop).
This more thorough process, which should only be necessary 1-3 times per year, requires the following materials.
- Lukewarm water, preferably running water. If you have a sink or tub to which you can attach a hose, that would be best. Do not let the water get too hot, as hot water can sometimes damage or remove lacquer finishes.
- Trombone cleaning snake (vinyl or rubber-coated).
- Dishwashing detergent.
- Trombone cleaning rod with cheesecloth, strips of cotton, or the Slide-O-Mix toweling sheaths (optional).
- Baking soda (optional).
- Wright’s Brass Polish (optional).
- Paper towels (again, I prefer Scott Shop Towels)
First, take the assembled slide, place a small amount of dishwashing detergent in each tube, fill with water, and then run the cleaning snake through each tube, and into the crook. Then, pour out the soap and water (and materials loosened by the snake), and flush the slide with water until all of the soap residue is removed.
It is important that the snake be run through the inner tubes while the slide is assembled. Pushing a cleaning snake through the inner tubes of a disassembled slide will almost certainly push those tubes out of alignment!
Next, remove the outer slide, place the inner slide on a table or in another safe location, and repeat the above process with the outer slide only.
Finally, take a small amount of dishwashing detergent in one hand, and, holding the inner slide under running water with the other hand, wipe each inner tube with the detergent in order to loosen any residue on the inner slide tubes, then continue to rinse until the detergent is all removed.
Afterward, you might or might not want to dry the inner and outer tubes with a paper towel.
Some players like to add extra steps to the above process. One method involves completing the first two steps with baking soda instead of detergent, in order to provide a bit of extra “cleaning power.” Afterward, those steps might or might not be completed again with detergent. Alternatively, a cleaning rod could be wrapped with a moist cloth with some baking soda sprinkled on it. In either case, the slide should be thoroughly flushed out afterward.
Another optional step is to place a small amount of Wright’s Brass Polish on the end of the cloth with which the cleaning rod is wrapped, and then to actually polish the insides of the outer slide tubes. I have found this to be somewhat beneficial at times, but if you choose to do this make sure that you use a water-based polish (such as Wright’s) rather than an oil-based one (such as Brasso). The former can be cleaned out of the tubes when the remainder of the cleaning process is completed; the latter will be notoriously difficult to remove.
These last two paragraphs are included only “FYI.” I almost always find the process as described up to that point to be effective. Besides, if you are taking care to complete the “quick” cleaning process every time the slide is re-lubricated, you will find this more thorough process to be needed very rarely, indeed.
Trombone Slide Lubrication
There are a number of fine trombone lubricants on the market these days, and while others have their preferences, the product I use and recommend is Yamaha Trombone Slide Lubricant. Application of this product is simple. Assuming that the slide has been cleaned, simply place a four- to six-inch “line” of product on the top of each inner slide tube, assemble each pair of tubes individually and work the slide up and down to distribute the product, assemble the slide, and spray with water (optional—sometimes it works fine with very little or even no water). That’s it. If you prefer similar products such as Slide-O-Mix Rapid Comfort, Reka Super-Slide, or Ultra-Pure Trombone Slide Lube, the application process is similar to that of the Yamaha product.
If you prefer more “old-school” products such as Trombotine or Superslick, the application process is a bit more complex. Take a small amount of product in your hand and spread it out on each inner slide tube. Next, work each pair of tubes individually, then together. At this point, I have always found it best to lightly wipe off each inner tube with a paper towel, as the amount of lubricant needed for these products to work best is extremely small. Optionally, one might want to add a bit of a silicone additive such as that manufactured by Superslick to each tube. Finally, spray with a fairly generous amount of water—the water will “bead up” and provide the actual lubricating function.
You can choose whichever cream-type product you prefer; I will recommend any of them over the petroleum-based “slide oils” often included with student-line instruments and used by young students. While similar oils work just fine on piston valve instruments, these oils provide uneven coverage and evaporate too quickly to serve as effective trombone slide lubricants.
Proper cleaning and lubrication is vital to keeping your slide moving quickly and thus enabling you to play your very best. While the steps described here might seem time-consuming, they eliminate many problems that can lead to damage, expense, and playing time lost “down the road.” Most importantly, when your slide is clean, properly lubricated, and in good repair, playing the trombone is much more fun!