In this guide, I want to show you how to tune the trumpet.
On the trumpet, we have three main methods that we can alter the pitch in order to help us stay in tune.
To adjust the pitch of all the notes, we have the first method which uses the main tuning slide, to a just the tune specific notes that are naturally sharper on the trumpet we have the second method that uses first and a third valve slides, to make fine adjustments we have the third method which is adjusting the trumpet embouchure, and to make tuning specific notes easier we use can use alternate fingerings.
Let’s look into how to do each of these step-by-step.
How to tune a trumpet
Before you tune your trumpet, first make sure you are warmed up because temperature affects pitch. Make sure you play a few long tones and a few scales, at a minimum, or just have a proper warm up, beforehand.
Another thing to keep in mind, don’t make the mistake of thinking that once your trumpet is tuned, that it will always be in tune.
As musicians, we always have to use our ears and adjust to different pitches, so practicing with what we call a drone is really important as well. That will allow really make adjustments with our embouchure as we hear the note and respond to it.
Method #1 — Using trumpet slides
If you’ve done that, you probably already know we have a series of slides on our instruments.
There is the main tuning slide, there is the third valve slide, and there is the first valve slide. These are the slides we are primarily interested in. We also have the second valve slide but that doesn’t actively move in our pitch adjustments.
So, the first method we have to tune the trumpet is by using the slides.
The first thing you need to do is make sure that your trumpet is properly maintained so that your slides are in good working order in addition to the rest of your instrument.
First, let’s go over the main tuning slide.
Using the main tuning slide
The main tuning slide adjusts all the notes we play on the trumpet. If we pull it out and make the trumpet longer, the pitch flattens. If we push it in and make it shorter, the pitch sharpens.
This is one way you can adjust all of the pitches on the trumpet.
So as you’re playing, if you realize you are playing sharper than everyone, you need to pull that main tuning slide out just a little bit.
To tune a trumpet with the main tuning slide, follow these steps:
- Step#1 — Start with your main tuning slide all the way in (you’ll see why in a second).
- Step#2 — Play a long tone facing and looking at your tuner, the second line G for instance. Play a nice full sound with a good quality tone. Your tuner will tell you what the note you played is. If your main tuning slide is all the way in, that note will likely be a concert F — G on B♭ trumpet, but pretty sharp. When we think about the size of the instrument, our trumpet is as small as it can possibly be because our main tuning slide is all the way in. The smaller the instrument, the sharper the notes.
- Step#3 — Adjust the pitch. Like any other instrument that is too sharp, we adjust the pitch by making it longer, by pulling the main slide out, gradually. If your note is still slightly sharp or slightly flat, you need to make very fine adjustments until you get it exactly right on the chromatic tuner. Some of the adjustments will be so fine that they are almost not visible to the eye.
This is how we adjust the trumpet pitch using the main tuning slide.
While just an app on your phone will probably suffice as a quick fix, using a chromatic tuner in really good so that you can visualize how that note sounds.
Visualizing how the note sounds is really important so that we can make adjustments with our embouchure as we hear the note and respond to it.
That is where drone exercises come in.
Using the first valve slide
The other two slides we can use on the trumpet are the first slide and third slide. This helps us with notes that are typically out of tune.
The first valve slide will be used with a note that uses the first valve, potentially when you are playing an E or an A or possibly a B♭ or an F.
Using the third valve slide
Using the third valve slide follows the same logic as the main tuning sliding except, same as the first valve slide, it will adjust specific notes that are out of tune.
The third valve slide will be used with a note that uses the third valve such the note D.
Let me explain why we need to tune the D, for instance.
When the trumpet was designed, it was designed with this third valve slide with an ability to move. The reason being that the D on the trumpet is just naturally very sharp if we don’t make any adjustments.
Pulling the third valve slide will bring it in tune right away.
To know how much you need to pull, you need to practice with your tuner to make sure you are pulling out correctly. You will also use your ears to hear when the note is in tune, compared to other players.
The next note you really need to be aware of is the C♯ or D♭. When that no is played, it’s even sharper than the D was, that we just looked at.
That note with no adjustments is literally between a concert B, and concert C — that is between C♯ or D♭ and D on a B♭ trumpet.
To make an adjustment, in this case, we have to pull the tuning slide even further than we did before.
You might even need to make an embouchure adjustment (method #3) to get it fully in tune.
The science of why this works again is because we are making the instrument longer and flatter. If the valve is not pressed down, the air is not traveling through the tuning slide and consequently pulling or pushing the tuning slide has no effect.
So that’s important to know.
It is only the combination of a pressed valve and a tuning slide adjustment that works on the first and third tuning slides.
Feel free to experiment with these slides. Get your hands in a position where you’ll be able to control them well.
You don’t want your fingers all the way into the slide ring that because that hampers your flexibility with that hand to be able to move slides quickly.
A nice curved hand with the left is going to allow you the necessary flexibility to do this.
Method #2 — Using alternate fingerings
The second method that we can use to adjust pitch on the trumpet is by using alternate fingerings.
Valve 1 and 2 together or just valve 3 produce the same notes.
You can, for instance, play note E with first and second valve and valve slide kicked out, and then play E with the third valve and the valve slide in, and they will both will be pretty much the same in tune.
But if you started with that E with the slide in all the way, it a little bit flatter.
Method #3 — Using the trumpet embouchure
The third method we can use to adjust pitch on the trumpet is by using our lips.
I do not recommend using this method a lot because it can create some fatigue in our embouchure.
Sometimes, this method is our last resort such as when we cannot move a slide on the note we are playing. We also can’t move the main tuning slide as we are playing.
Let’s say we are playing the second valve note. We cannot move that second valve slide as we play — we only have two hands.
We use our lips to bend the pitch down and back up.
Having a really great embouchure setup is going to give you the best tone quality and the best intonation on your trumpet, that you can possibly have.
I wrote an in-depth step-by-step guide on how to form a trumpet embouchure. That is the place to start before you even think about trumpet tuning. In that guide, you will find the simple, reliable 4-step method used by accomplished trumpeters the world over.
To get up to speed with this method, I recommend you spend time with a drone, matching the pitch with the drone, finding out which notes are out of tune the way you play your trumpet, and finding different ways to correct those pitches.
Drone exercises are the way to go if you want to adjust the pitch of a note using just the trumpet embouchure. You want to try and listen for the most amount of resonance in the room as you play as that note that you’re playing is combined with the note of the drone.
This approach is only used when all you need to do is make fine adjustments to your pitch. This means that you are already in a position where you do not need to touch the tuning slide at all.
That way when you play with your friends in the ensemble you are much more enjoyable to have in that ensemble because you are always playing in tune.