alto sackbut

Also:       sagbut      saqueboute      alto Posaune      discant Posaune      trombone      

Contextual Associations

The alto sackbut, the precursor of the modern alto trombone, is a lip-reed aerophone of Europe. The basic concept of the trombone has changed little throughout its nearly 600-year history. Their relatively loud sound (compared to string and many woodwind instruments) made sackbuts ideal for large indoor settings and for processions and other outdoor events during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. In the 16th century and beyond, the alto was often united with other-sized sackbuts (see first detail image) and with cornetts and/or shawms in court and municipal bands, which provided music for civic occasions. Iconographic sources also suggest it was a common church instrument, most likely doubling the tenor-range vocal part of choral works. Although it is known from written records and iconographic sources that the alto sackbut was a frequently used instrument in the Renaissance, very little music survives that specifically calls for the instrument. A small body of Baroque era works has survived for which sackbuts, including the alto, are specified (e.g., some works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Heinrich Schütz, Matthew Locke, and John Adson).


At the core of a sackbut is a telescoping slide: the inner part of the slide is made from a pair of cylindrical tubes held parallel to one another by a cross-brace near their top end; the outer part is made from another pair of cylindrical tubes (with a slightly larger bore diameter) that are held together at their bottom end by a soldered-on U-shaped tube segment and near their top end by a cross-brace. Into the top end of one of the inner tubes is inserted a cup-shaped mouthpiece. The U-shaped bell section is attached to the top end of the other inner tube. Up to this point the bore of the instrument has been cylindrical, but from this connection point to the bell-end of the instrument the bore is conical (see Detail 2). The funnel-shaped bell of the sackbut most clearly distinguishes this instrument visually from the modern trombone with its flaring bell. With the slide all the way in, the instrument is basically a 6' 8" length of tubing with two U-bends.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player grasps the cross-brace of the inner part of the slide with the left hand while resting the bell section on his left shoulder. The right hand fingers hold the cross-brace of the outer part of the slide. Sound is produced when the player forces an airstream through his tensed lips (embouchure) the ‘buzzing’ of which sends pulsations of pressure into the instrument. A fundamental pitch of E-flat2 and the first ten or so harmonic partials in the natural harmonic series above it can be produced with the slide all the way in. By extending the slide, the player can locate other, increasingly lower in pitch, fundamentals and their harmonic partials on the instrument. The fundamentals do not speak well and are not used. Playing involves a negotiation between tube length (position of the slide) and partial selection (through control of airstream pressure and rate of lip vibration). The effective range of the alto sackbut is A2 to F5. It has a wide dynamic range.


The sackbut probably evolved from the Renaissance slide trumpet and came into existence in the 15th century, possibly as early as the 1430s but certainly by the 1470s (Carter, p. 97). The earliest depiction of the instrument is from around 1490, and the oldest extant instrument (a tenor) was made in 1551. Changes to the shape of its bell (which became more flared) and in other subtleties of design and construction took place throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and eventually resulted in the modern trombone.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1981. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Schribner's and Sons.

________. 1984. NGDMI v.3: 628-636.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Myers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, & Performance Practice of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, Stewart. 1994. "Sackbut," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 97-108.

Herbert, Trevor. 1997. "'Sackbut': the early trombone." In The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. eds. Trevor Herbert and John Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 68-83.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.22 aerophone--chromatic labrosone slide trumpet: the tube can be lengthened by extending a telescopic section of the instrument whilst it is played

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - cylindrical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over cup mouthpiece at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: incremental lengthening with telescoping slide of air cavity in which the standing wave is active

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple - changing length of standing wave by adding tube length with valves or slide and by selecting partials through overblowing


32.5 in. length assembled 80 in. length of bore 0.41 in. bore diameter at mouthpiece end 3.2 in. diameter of bell

Primary Materials



Böhm & Meinl



Entry Author

Roger Vetter