A sackbut is an early form of the trombone used during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. A sackbut has the characteristic telescopic slide of a trombone, used to vary the length of the tube to change pitch, but is distinct from later trombones by its smaller, more cylindrically-proportioned bore, and its less-flared bell. Unlike the earlier slide trumpet from which it evolved, the sackbut possesses a U-shaped slide with two parallel sliding tubes, rather than just one.

Records of the term trombone predate the term sackbut by two decades, and evidence for the German term Posaune is even older. Sackbut, originally a French term, was used in England until the instrument fell into disuse in the eighteenth century; when it returned, the Italian term trombone became dominant. In modern English, an older trombone or a replica is called a sackbut.

The bell section was more resonant, since it did not contain the tuning slide and was loosely stayed rather than firmly braced to itself. This trait and its smaller bore and bell produce a “covered, blended sound which was a timbre particularly effective for working with voices,… zincks and crumhorns”, as in an alta cappella.

The revived instrument had changed in specific ways. In the mid-18th century, the bell flare increased, crooks fell out of use, and flat, removable stays were replaced by tubular braces. The new shape produced a stronger sound, suitable to open-air performance in the marching bands where trombones became popular again in the 19th century. Before the early 19th century, most trombones adjusted tuning with a crook on the joint between the bell and slide or, more rarely, between the mouthpiece and the slide, rather than the modern tuning slide on the bell curve, whose cylindrical sections prevent the instrument from flaring smoothly through this section. Older trombones also generally don’t have water keys, stockings, a leadpipe, or a slide lock, but as these parts are not critical to sound, replicas may include them. Bore size remained variable, as it still is today.

Terminological history

The first reference to a slide instrument was probably trompette des ménestrels, first found in Burgundy in the 1420s and later in other regions of Europe. The name distinguished the instrument from the trompettes de guerre (war trumpets), which were of fixed length.

The next word to appear in the 15th century that implied a slide was the sackbutt group of words. There are two theories for the sources: it is either derived from the Middle French sacquer (to pull) and bouter (to push) or from the Spanish sacar (to draw or pull) and bucha (a tube or pipe). The term survives in numerous English spelling variations including sacbutt, sackbutte, sagbut, shagbolt, sacabushe, shakbusse and shakbusshe.

Left to right: replica alto, tenor and bass sackbuts

Closely related to sackbutt was the name used in France: sacqueboute and in Spain, where it was sacabuche. These terms were used in England and France until the 18th century.

In Scotland in 1538 the slide instrument is referred to as draucht trumpet (drawn trumpet) as opposed to a weir trumpet (war trumpet), which had a fixed length.

In Germany, the original word was Posaune, appearing about 1450 and is still used today. This (as well as bason) derives from busine, which is Latinate and meant straight trumpet.

In Italy it was (and remains) trombone, which derived from trumpet in the Latin tromba or drompten, used in the Low Countries. The first records of it being used are around 1440, but it is not clear whether this was just a nickname for a trumpet player. In 1487 a writer links the words trompone and sacqueboute and mentions the instrument as playing the contratenor part in a danceband.


The trombone developed from the buisine trumpet. Up until 1375 trumpets were simply a long straight tube with a bell flare.

There are various uses of sackbut-like words in the Bible, which has led to a faulty translation from the Latin bible that suggested the trombones date back as far as 600 BC, but there is no evidence of slides at this time.

From 1375 the iconography sees trumpets being made with bends, and some in ‘S’ shapes. Around 1400 we see the “loop”-shaped trumpet appear in paintings and at some point in the 15th century, a single-tube slide was added. This slide trumpet was known as a “trompette des ménestrels” in the alta cappella bands.

“Busaun” (trombone) and various trumpets by different names, from the 1511 treatise by Sebastian Virdung.

The earliest clear evidence of a U-shaped slide moving on two inner tubes is in a fresco painting by Filippino Lippi in Rome, The Assumption of the Virgin, dating from 1488 to 1493.

From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the instrument designs changed very little overall, apart from a slight widening of the bell in classical era. Since the 19th century, trombone bore sizes and bells have increased significantly.

It was one of the most important instruments in Baroque polychoral works, along with the cornett and organ.

Sackbut in a fresco by Filippino Lippi in Rome

Instrument sizes
VoicePraetorius’ namePraetorius’ pitchModern pitch
AltoAlt oder Discant PosaunD or EF or E♭
TenorGemeine recht PosaunAB♭
BassQuart-Posaun or Quint-PosaunE and DF (quart) and E♭ (quint)
Double BassOctav-PosaunA (octave below tenor)B♭ (octave below tenor)

The pitch of the trombones has (notionally) moved up a semi-tone since the 17th century, and this is explained in the section on pitch.

Because the tenor instrument is described as “Gemeine” (common or ordinary), this is probably the most widely used trombone. The basses, due to their longer slides, have a hinged handle on the slide stay, which is used to reach the long positions.

Trombones in Syntagma Musicum (1614-20), by Michael Praetorius.

A giant contrabass sackbut known as the Octav-Posaun (lit. ’octave trombone‘) was known in 16th and early 17th centuries, and is represented by only a few existing instruments. One surviving original instrument in B♭, an octave below the tenor, built in 1639 by Georg Nicolaus Öller in Stockholm, is housed in the Scenkonstmuseet. In addition, Ewald Meinl has made a modern copy of this instrument, and it is currently owned and played by Wim Becu.


The bore size of renaissance/baroque trombones is approximately 10 mm (0.39 in) and the bell rarely more than 10.5 cm (4.1 in) in diameter. This compares with modern tenor trombones, which commonly have bores 12.7 mm (0.50 in) to 13.9 mm (0.55 in) and bells 17.8 cm (7.0 in) to 21.6 cm (8.5 in).

Modern reproductions of sackbuts sacrifice some authenticity to harness manufacturing techniques and inventions that make them more comfortable for modern players, while retaining much of the original character of the old instruments.

Some original instruments could be disassembled into the constituent straight tubes, bowed tubes, bell flare, and stays, with ferrules at the joints. Mersenne has a diagram. (Little imagination is needed to see how it could be reassembled—with an extra tube—into something approaching a natural trumpet.) There is a debate as to whether they used tight fittings, wax or another joining substance. Modern sackbut reproductions are usually soldered together. Some modern sackbut reproductions use glue as a compromise to give a loose fitting for high resonance without risk of falling apart.

Tuning slides came in during the very late 18th century. Early trombonists adjusted pitch with the slide, and by adding variously shaped and sized crooks. Modern reproductions often have a bell bow tuning slide or telescopic slide between the slide and bell sections. Crooks are still used, as are variously sized bell bow sections for larger changes.

The stays on period sackbuts are flat. While the bell stay remained flat, from about 1660 the slide stays became tubular. On many modern reproductions round slide stays are much more comfortable to play and easier to make.

A loose connection between the bell stay and the bell is thought key to a resonant bell, and thus a better sackbut sound. Original instruments have a hinge joint (a looser connection helped imperfect slides slide). Modern copies with a tuning slide in the bell can need more support for operation of the slide, so either an extra stay by the tuning slide is provided or a joint without play in only one axis is employed.

The original way to make the slide tubes was to roll a flat piece of metal around a solid cylinder mandrel, and the joining edges soldered together. Modern manufacturers now draw the tubes. They also tend to have stockings, which were only invented around 1850. In addition, modern made slides are usually made of nickel silver with chrome plating, giving a smoother finish and quieter action than simply the brass that would have originally been used.

The water key was added in the 19th century, but modern reproductions often have them.


Until some time in the 18th century, the trombone was in A and the pitch of that A was about a half-step higher than it is today—460–480 Hz. There was a transition around the 18th century when trombones started to be thought of in B♭ at around 440 Hz. This change did not require a change in the instrument, merely a new set of slide positions for each note. But it does mean that the baroque and renaissance repertoire was intended to be played at the higher pitch.


The sackbut was described as suitable for playing with the ‘loud’ ensembles in the outdoors, as well as the ‘soft’ ensembles inside.

The alta capella bands are seen in drawings as entertaining outside with ensembles including shawms, trumpets and trombones. When pushed, sackbuts can easily make a loud and brassy sound.

The sackbut also responds very well to rather soft playing—more so than a modern trombone. The sound is characterized by a more delicate, vocal timbre. The flat rims and shallow cups of the older mouthpieces are instrumental in providing the player with a much wider palette of articulations and tonal colours. This flexibility lends itself to a vocal style of playing and facilitates very characterful phrasing.

Mersenne wrote in 1636, “It should be blown by a skillful musician so that it may not imitate the sounds of the trumpet, but rather assimilate itself to the sweetness of the human voice, lest it should emit a warlike rather than a peaceful sound.”

Lorenzo da Lucca was said to have had “in his playing a certain grace and lightness with a manner so pleasing”.