The Sackbut’s Tale: A Brief History of the Sackbut

Would you listen to an album by Sackbut Shorty? I probably wouldn’t, either, but I sure do listen to Trombone Shorty. The sackbut is a type of trombone, is what I’m trying to say. And this, then, is the sackbut’s tale…

A Sackbut By Any Other Name Would Sound As Sweet

The earliest references to the precursor to the modern trombone, le trompette des ménestrels, come from early 15th century France. The name “trombone,” of Italian origin, predates “sackbut” by a good two decades; ze Germanz were calling essentially the same instrument the “Posaune” even earlier than that; later, the Scottish term draucht trumpet, or drawn trumpet, came and went. The French were also the first to use the term “sackbut,” but the name was ultimately more widely used by the English. Eventually, trombone became the preferred term, because English is a stupid language.

This cat is the Jimi Hendrix of the sackbut.

76 Sackbuts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trombone evolved from the trumpet. Until circa 1375, trumpets were basically just a  long, straight tube with a flared bell at the end. By 1400 or so, Renaissance metalworkers had developed methods of custom tube winding that allowed them to produce the “C” and “S” shaped bends needed to create trumpets that looked and sounded more like what we know today.

By the end of the 15th century, the slide trumpet—a regular trumpet with a single, short slide—had become popular in the alta capella wind bands found in towns and cities throughout Europe at the time. The slide trumpet quickly grew in size and complexity to become a distinctly new instrument, the sackbut.

Sackbuts of this era had bells that were just over four inches in diameter, giving them a different sound than modern trombones, which have bells between seven and nine inches in diameter. As such, many 21st century practitioners of Renaissance and baroque music utilize replica sackbuts instead of modern trombones. (Modern reproductions often add spit valves, stockings, slide locks, and other anachronistic details that do not affect sound but that increase playability and player comfort.)

Truth in advertising.

The sackbut’s bell continued to widen and its slide continued to lengthen until it reached the proportions of modern trombones, sometime in the early 1800s. After that, the sackbut unfortunately faded away and the trombone became music’s preeminent telescoping brass instrument.

Top photo credit: failing_angel via / CC BY-NC-SA

Bottom photo credit: *Tom* via / CC BY-NC-SA