Trombone Slide Maintenance
It’s sometimes easy for trombone students to fall behind on slide maintenance. I’ll always remember the look of horror a friend gave me (and my embarrassment) as a freshman in college when he asked to try out my horn and was shocked at how poorly my slide moved… I had been lazy and guess I didn’t really know how good a trombone slide should feel on a regular basis. As a result, I didn’t stand a chance up to that point of playing with consistent slide positions, a beautiful legato, etc.!
Fortunately, I’ve long since moved to the opposite side of the spectrum and am a stickler when it comes to taking care of my slides! Read on to learn everything you need to know about trombone slide maintenance.
Lubricating Your Slide
Let’s make sure you know the basics, including the different types of lubricants and how to use them.
Types of Trombone Slide Lubricants
The good stuff… There are so many good liquid lubricants nowadays that I have a hard time recommending anything but this type. These feel like a sort of hybrid somewhere between oil and cream… They are as easy (or easier) to apply than oil, faster than cream, and keep the slide very clean. Most come in a single bottle and are a mixture of a soap/detergent and/or silicone.
My go-to is the Yamaha Slide Lubricant (Model YAC1021P… It used to be, very confusingly, labeled as “slide oil”). I’ve found it works great on all of my different slides and is readily available… Some students have said it has a strong, almost perfume-like, smell, but that doesn’t bother me at all and rarely notice it. I’ve also used and would recommend Ultra-Pure‘s products. Slide-O-Mix Rapid Comfort is a good option, but Slide-O-Mix products can build up and leave a hard residue on the slide if you don’t keep up with great slide hygiene. You might not always need a spray bottle for these, but I keep one on hand and like the feeling with a little water.
Slide cream is the professional option of yesteryear. Not my preferred option anymore, but you can absolutely have great slide action using creams. They are just a little more involved and can be difficult for young students to work with… Most students use way too much slide cream and aren’t good about wiping it off between applications, leading to a lot of gunk that has to be cleaned out later.
If you really want to use slide cream, I recommend Trombotine. It lasts a long time. Be sure to have a spray bottle as well – any cheap, portable option will do… there is nothing special about $10 trombone-specific spray bottles! If you have a beauty supply store near you, this is often the cheapest way to find them (and in a variety of shapes, sizes, & colors).
I despise slide oil. It’s simple and cheap, so it ends up in a lot of rental cases for beginners, but it’s terrible… It makes a mess, smells bad, doesn’t last long, and doesn’t really make the slide move very smoothly! In the past, when the only alternative was a thick slide cream, there may have been a case for it. But, nowadays, it’s time to get rid of the oil and use one of the far superior products available!
- Wipe off the slide with a lint-free cloth. I keep a rag in my case for this. It’s tempting to skip this step – don’t!
- Apply a small amount of lubricant. Follow the instructions on the bottle/tub/tube, but less is more! If using a cream, use no more than a pea-sized amount and only worry about covering the stockings. The entire slide should not be covered in lubricant.
- Use the outer slide to spread the lubricant around. Use your spray bottle to put a little water on the slide if things feel a little gummy/slow. If it still feels gummy, you probably put on too much lubricant – wipe off a little with your cloth, spray some water, and work it in again
- If you’ve been around trombone slides for a while (i.e. very comfortable taking off and replacing the outer slide) and don’t use a dual-bore slide, try the way I spread lubricant around: Take the outer slide off and put the lower tube of the outer slide on the upper tube of the inner slide (e.g. spit valve side of the outer slide on the inner slide tube that has the slide lock on it), then carefully rotate the slide and/or move the slide up and down. Do the same with the other set of tubes. There’s also another, similar method in the comments! Be sure to replace your slide as usual afterwards.
- Reapply, and/or refresh with water, often. If you notice your slide not moving well, it has been too long already.
Cleaning Your Slide
Using a good slide lubricant and applying it correctly will significantly cut down on the frequency & difficulty of cleaning your slide, but it’s not entirely avoidable. Every so often, I give my trombone a bath using this procedure:
- Start filling a bath tub with lukewarm water (*Do not let the water get hot, as hot water can damage lacquer finishes*).
- Add a few drops of a mild dish soap – something like Dawn works great. We want dish soap (not hand soap) because it contains a degreaser.
- Separate the inner & outer slides and let soak in the tub 5-10 minutes.
- Keep the slide submerged and use a trombone brush/snake to scrub inside of each tube. Use several short strokes (~2-3 inches at a time). Be careful while pushing the brush down into the crook of the outer slide, and don’t try to go past the half-way point from either side.
- Rinse thoroughly.
- Dry throughly. I usually use the HW Brass-Saver Trombone brush and/or a cleaning rod with cheesecloth, but I’ve also (carefully) hung up the slide to air-dry.
- Lubricate your slide.
If you don’t have a tub, you can use a shower – it’s just trickier.
- If possible, don’t switch lubricants without cleaning your slide first. It’s not a good idea to mix different types of lubricants (e.g. use slide cream at home but use a classmate’s slide oil at school, etc.).
- Avoid eating or drinking anything but water during or immediately before playing. It will end up in your slide. Some people like to carry around a travel toothbrush in their case!
- If you use a slide cream, I’ve found it helpful between cleanings to swab out the slide with the HW Brass-Saver Trombone brush, a cleaning rod with cheesecloth, or the Slide-O-Mix kit mentioned earlier. When I used Trombotine regularly, I would try to do this anytime I reapplied the cream at home.
- How often you need to clean your slide really depends on your overall slide hygiene and amount of playing. When I was using slide cream and eating all sorts of junk while playing, I had to bathe it every month or so. Now, I go several months without cleaning it, and it is still cleaner than it used to be at each bath.
- I don’t usually bother to clean the bell/valve section of my trombone – I leave that for when I take the horn in to a technician to look every year or so.
- The exception is an occasional stubborn tuning slide, where I follow the exact procedure above, but with an additional step of wiping the outside gunk with plentiful dish soap on a sponge.
- Another great resource is the Edwards Trombones website, which has a page dedicated to maintenance and slide care. This page is especially valuable to those that are less familiar with this process because it has a few quality videos as well.
- Yamaha Slide Lubricant YAC1021P (it’s also in Yamaha’s Trombone Cleaning Kit that is found in many stores – it’s a good value if you don’t already have a snake & mouthpiece brush)
- Hetman Tuning Slide Gel
- Hetman Rotor Oil, Light
- Hetman Bearing & Linkage Oil, Medium
These are all great for quick slide/valve action, but also for the minimal residue that they leave behind, which makes maintenance so much easier. Keep in mind that every trombone (even between the same brand or model) can have slight differences that affect how well a particular cleaning method or lubricant works. It will take some trial and error to find what works best for you. In general, newer, professional equipment is built with close tolerances and needs lower viscosity lubricants than older equipment.
When to see a repair technician
Sometimes, the issues are physical and no longer in your control… here are some signs that your trombone slide needs some help from an experienced repair technician:
- Dents – Even minor dents can have a major impact on slide movement. If you encounter a little snag, look down at the bottom of the outer slide… where the dent would be hitting the stocking (the bottom of the inner slide) for the first time. Sometimes it’s easiest to see dents if you stand near something with sharp contrast (like a wooden door next to a white wall or a bright window) and look at the reflection/light bouncing off of the slide to see any aberrations.
- Alignment issues – Sometimes, the inner slide tubes can get out of alignment (especially on cheaper instruments). One obvious example of this is if you take your outer slide off and can’t get it back on the inner slide without bending a tube slide. There can be less obvious issues as well… There is always a slight gap between the inner & outer slides but, if your inner slide looks like it’s pushed tightly against one side of the outer, you may want to have a technician inspect your slide.
- Deposits – It’s possible for gunk to build up in a way that just can’t be easily cleaned at home (e.g. I’ve been told by technicians that Slide-O-Mix crystallizes if you leave it on too long without regular maintenance). If this happens, it’s time for a technician to do a deep clean using harsh chemicals and/or an ultrasonic bath.
As always, feel free to comment below or contact me!