Piston vs. Rotary Valve Trumpets (Comparison)

by ReverbLxnd in Trumpet

This guide compares rotary valve trumpets and piston valve trumpets highlighting the difference between them. Most common instruments, such as trumpets, french horns, even tubas have both rotary valve and piston valve variations. Here's everything you need to know about both.

Most people in the US grew up without a functional knowledge of what a rotary valve trumpet is, what the differences are with the regular piston valve trumpet, and how to play them.

This guide will help you know everything you need to get started on the rotary valve trumpet.

Let’s start with the basic construction of a rotary valve trumpet and the differences it has from a regular piston trumpet.

Let’s dive right in.

What is a rotary valve trumpet

A rotary valve trumpet is a standard instrument in Austria, Germany. If you grew up playing trumpet there, you played on of those.

They’ve also been played for decades in large american orchestras, and we’re seeing them more and more these days in colleges and even in smaller orchestras.

Both piston and rotary valves achieve the same thing but in different ways. In both, when the valve is pressed, air is rerouted through additional length of tubing lowering pitch. The valve is then returned by spring.

Instead of moving up and down a rotary valve rotates through a right angle to redirect air. But everything else remains the same.

Rotary valve trumpet vs. piston valve trumpet

Let’s look at the differences between a rotary valve trumpet and a regular piston valve trumpet.

#1 — Rotary valve trumpets have much shorter lead pipes

If you look at a piston trumpet, you can see the lead pipe goes into the tuning slide, goes around, and then goes into the third valve slide. It’s a fairly long stretch of pipe before you hit the third valve slide.

The rotary valve trumpet is very different, by comparison, there is about a 5 inch lead pipe and immediately we enter the valve section.

After you go through the valve section, you come out, there’s the tuning slide and you have the big bell.

This has a huge effect on the response of the instrument and how it feels to play. It is very essential to how rotary trumpets sound and it is the biggest difference between the two horns.

#2 — Rotary valve trumpets have narrower bores

Besides the obvious structural difference we just looked at, there are some internal differences that aren’t so obvious.

The bore size on a rotary trumpet is much smaller than on a regular piston trumpet. It is narrower all the way through.

The bore size specifically is the diameter of the tubing used to make the trumpet.

A smaller bore size results in a mellow, softer, controlled tone. A larger bore size, by contrast, results in a brighter, aggressive, more pronounced tone.

#3 — Rotary valve trumpets have bigger, broader-flared bells

When you get to the end, rotary trumpets have bigger, broader-flared bells than piston trumpet.

A rotary valve C-trumpet in comparison is about a quarter inch more than a piston valve C-trumpet. Again, this has a huge effect on how the instrument plays, how it feels to the player and what it sounds like.

A larger bell size creates darker tones, while providing a softer, mellow feel. A smaller bell size, by contrast, produces sharper, brighter, brilliant sounds.

#4 — Rotary valve trumpets are more subtle and colorful

One of the major differences in feel, when you play a rotary trumpet is how it blows.

I’ve always made the comparison that a rotary trumpet feels like a small sports car and a piston trumpet feels like a heavy-duty truck. These two have significantly different feels.

A rotary trumpet is capable of a lot more subtelty, and color than a piston trumpet.

The tonal spectrum of the piston trumpet remains the same throughout it’s range whether it’s soft or loud. The rotary trumpet changes color quite rapidly, from mellow in piano volume to white-hot molten in fortissimo.

So the color change, which is something we don’t necessarily want on a piston trumpet, is something that prized on the rotary.

#4 — Rotary valve trumpets require less air, especially in the lower register

One of the most important things is how you use your air, especially in the lower register. It is important to not press the rotary trumpet with too much air.

A rotary trumpet is easily overblown.

On a piston trumpet, we can push hard in the lower register and really get our air sound.

The way to counteract overblowing a rotary valve trumpet is to think of blowing warm, hot air, like you’re fogging a mirror, as opposed to blowing fast cold air.

This difference is very important to getting a good response in the lower register.

#5 — Rotary valve trumpets are significantly louder

One of the great things about a rotary trumpet is that you can actually push it and play it significantly louder than a piston trumpet.

Like I said earlier, a change in volume comes with a dramatic change in color in the rotary trumpet, much more than the piston trumpet.

#6 — Rotary valve trumpets have a couple extra keys for playing the upper register

One of the first things people notice when they see a good rotary trumpet, are the extra keys. You’ll see a normal water key, and then these two extra keys and wonder what they are.

Each of these keys has a certain function which helps us play in the upper register.

Each of these keys decreases the resistance and increases the accuracy of a series of notes in the upper register.

One is a B-flat key that does a B-flat chord. The other is the A key that does an A chord. You open up when you want to play those notes. There is also a Vienna C key which plays an A-flat chord.

All these chords are in the upper register.

So if you find certain orchestral excerpts that are hard, you can make them much easier and much more secure with the use of these keys. Perhaps the most famous one is the Zarathustra call.

These keys increase your security, makes you feel better. It’s almost like cheating!

And they are found on all rotary trumpets in varying degrees. Every gets a spit valve, so you can always do the high B-flat and the high D. But the others are options — you can add the A, the A-flat, the Vienna C, you can also do a B key which would do a B major chord.

The idea is to experiment with these and figure out how they work. You can use false fingerings, to play them, or you can use regular fingerings, for instance.

The idea is you push them down as you go for the high note. High notes become something you don’t worry about so much.

#6 — Rotary valve trumpets are easier to play

In Germany, if you were to play an orchestral audition you have to play on the B-flat trumpet and the required audition piece is the Hyden concerto.

It sounds crazy but is actually an easy piece to play on the B-flat rotary trumpet than it is in the B-flat piston trumpet.

First, this is because of flexibility.

The rotary trumpet, probably because of it’s narrower bore, and the smoothness of the valves, is a little bit easier to do trills on.

The F to G trill, especially, is very hard on the piston trumpet, and it feels clunky and it’s almost always never smooth. On a rotary, it is simple.

Same goes for the G to A trill and the guhe leaps between notes. None of that is as easy on the piston trumpet as it is on the rotary.

#7 — Piston valve trumpets are better for half-valving

Although a case could be made for either, there is plenty of travel in piston trumpets making half-valving a much accesible technique. This technique is common with jazz players.

Half-valving a rotary trumpet is much more difficult, by comparison.

#8 — Piston valve trumpets have clean, definite transition, rotary valve trumpet have smooth transitions

Piston valves produce clean, clear and definite transitions between notes making them ideal for quick passages where each note needs to be heard clearly.

Rotary valve trumpets produce smooth transitions between notes making them ideal for playing lyrical passages like those found in classical music.


I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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