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
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
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
A smaller bore size results in a mellow, softer, controlled tone. A
larger bore size, by contrast, results in a brighter, aggressive, more
#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
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
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
#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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Rotary valve trumpets produce smooth transitions between notes making
them ideal for playing lyrical passages like those found in classical