In this article we’re going to be checking out the different types of trumpets, from the most common ones, to some more unusual wind instruments in the family.
Trumpets are some of the world’s oldest brass instruments. They were found in ancient tombs, played as instruments of war, and still accompany the military of most nations nowadays.
That means the modern trumpet has had millennia to evolve and change to its current form. With that in mind, you can see why there are so many different types of trumpet out there!
In this guide, we’ll go over the most common ones, as well as the variations you should expect to find and how they affect the sound of the instrument.
A Brief History of the Trumpet
The trumpet is one of the earliest wind instruments humans have played, with archeological examples dating back earlier than 1500 BC. Two of them were even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and were apparently used to start deadly conflicts and wars.
Those were simple wind instruments with a long, straight bore.
They evolved into the natural trumpet: a Baroque instrument that had the general shape of what we know today, but lacked the valves and keys of the modern version.
In 1820, Heinrich David Stölzel, Friedrich Blühmel, and C. F. Sattler invented the first valved trumpet and the rest, as they say, is history.
How Are Trumpets Categorised?
Given the number of different types of trumpets today, it’s useful to know how they are usually categorised. It generally comes down to three things…
According to the Key:
When categorised according to key, you have Bb, A, C, D, Eb, E, low F, and G trumpets. As we’ll discuss later, the most common of these for jazz and orchestral music is the Bb trumpet, with the C trumpet a distant second place.
According to the Valve Mechanism:
In the US, most trumpets available for learners and musicians alike are piston-valve trumpets. However, if you go across the pond and into Europe, you’ll find that the standard trumpet in Germany and Austria is the rotary-valve trumpet.
Does that make a difference in the sound? Well, according to Dr. Jack Burt, Professor of Trumpet at the University of Maine, the rotary valve trumpet allows for a great flexibility and smoother tone.
Thanks to the valve keys (or “klappen” in German) that help you play notes in the upper register, resistance is decreased and you get much better accuracy. The instrument itself also requires much less blowing force than piston-valve trumpets.
According to Size:
Given that brass instruments make their sound by passing air through a length of metal, it’s unsurprising that the size of the instrument affects this.
When you look at a tiny piccolo trumpet or a pocket trumpet, you’ll notice that they have a much higher-pitched sound caused by the length, width, and location of the bore and the bell.
Types of Trumpets
Now that we got labels out of the way, let’s talk about the most popular types of trumpet and what sets each one apart…
The Bb Trumpet
Also known as the B flat trumpet, this is the most popular type of trumpet regardless of level (beginner to professional) and style (classical, jazz, pop…)
The Bb trumpet is a transposing instrument, which means that when you play a C on it, it comes out a Bb.
The prevalence of the Bb trumpet is most likely due to it’s easy size (not too big, not too small) and ability to both stand out in a group (think legendary trumpet player Louis Armstrong’s brash solo style) or blend into an orchestra or ensemble (think those Birth of The Cool tunes by Miles Davis).
Whatever the reason, the majority of all trumpet music out there today is written for this instrument and it will almost always be the option offered to beginner trumpet players.
The C Trumpet
More popular among orchestras than jazz musicians, the C trumpet has a shorter tube which gives it a slightly higher pitch that it’s Bb counterpart.
The fact that it is in the key of C also means you don’t have to transpose the music to play along with an orchestra or piano. It’s likely it’s cleaner, direct tone which makes it so suitable for classical work, compared to the more emotional and wide-ranging palette of colours a lot fo jazz and pop players search for.
The D Trumpet (+Eb upgrade!)
The D trumpet is the lesser-known sibling of the previous two instruments.
Whilst you might not be too familiar with it today, it was a star in the 1800s when it’s bright, piercing tone was used in Baroque music.
Its tube is shorter than the C trumpet so its sound has an even brighter, more vibrant sound.
It’s almost silvery in tone, which makes it a perfect solo instrument, but less of an easy-to-blend team player.
The D trumpet today can be modified slightly into an Eb trumpet. Taking it yet another semitone higher in terms of pitch, this is an even brighter ‘standout’ option for certain musical situations.
The Natural Trumpet
As we mentioned earlier, the trumpet had much more humble beginnings than todays modern machine…
In fact, before the valved trumpet was invented, the natural trumpet was all there was. It’s a simple winding tube that produces different notes by embouchure, or changing the mouth position.
Whilst the general sound of the natural trumpet is similar to modern-day instruments, it’s much harder to play and requires a very specific skillset when it comes to airflow and embouchure.
Mainly used today in the Renaissance music with which it came to wider audience, it is nonetheless an interesting addition to any trumpet’s collection.
The Slide Trumpet
As anyone who has seen a trombone will know, valves weren’t the only way that early brass instruments developed.
And whilst the slide mechanism is mainly reserved for this bigger cousin in the wind family, slide trumpets do exist – with use in various genres.
It’s appearance actually dates back to the Renaissance period, where the addition of a slide was a much easier feat of engineering than the modern valve system.
But, unlike the natural trumpet, this instrument has maintained it’s place (albeit niche) in today’s scene.
Largely relegated to the area of ‘party piece’ there are nonetheless examples (as per the video below) of how the slide effect can fit well with the higher trumpet tone.
The Piccolo Trumpet
As you may well be aware, the word ‘piccolo’ is usually heard to describe an instrument which is, in essence, a mini version of the flute.
But it lends it’s name to plenty of other miniature versions (piccolo coffee, anyone?) including the piccolo trumpet.
This cute little addition to the trumpet family has a very specific sound thanks to its unique configuration. The tube is much shorter and narrower than a standard Bb trumpet.
At around half the length of a standard Bb, it has a bright, high-pitched and soaring sound exactly 1 octave above it’s more famous counterpart.
Not too dissimilar to the D trumpet, its smaller size and extended range makes it a lot more prevalent nowadays, including (perhaps most famously) on on the Beatles song “Penny Lane.”
The Pocket Trumpet
This is one small but mighty trumpet!
Unlike the piccolo trumpet, the pocket trumpet is a regular standard Bb trumpet that’s condensed to a smaller size. The two names are often confused but the two instruments sound nothing alike!
The secret is, as always, in the tube length. A pocket Bb trumpet has the exact same tube length as the standard, which is 4’10” (1.48 m). That makes it sound pretty similar to the standard trumpet, if not a little better.
Read more: our in-depth guide to pocket trumpets
Extended Trumpet Family: Honorable Mentions
The next three instruments often get lumped in with trumpets but aren’t quite in the immediate family. The differences are minuscule, but change the sound quality, nonetheless.
This beloved military musical instrument is one of the forefathers of the modern-day trumpet.
Bugles are simpler in design, and utilise a similar playing style to natural trumpets, but their more compact size means they are usually relegated to fanfares and military tattoos.
The cornet is a very similar instrument to the trumpet, and it shows. Think of how many musicians, most prominently Louis Armstrong, moved fluidly between the two.
The main difference between the two is the shape of the bore. In a trumpet, the bore is cylindrical in shape, which means it’s almost all the same diameter, except for the final third of the instrument.
A cornet, on the other hand, has a conical bore, which contributes to its mellower, almost sweeter sound.
Like the trumpet, the most common cornet is in Bb, which is also a transposing instrument. You can also find soprano cornets in Eb, and cornets in A and C.
If the trumpet and cornet had a lovechild, it would be the awesomely-named German Flugelhorn. But believe it or not, it evolved from a different origin than mixing those two instruments.
Flugelhorns evolved when Heinrich Stölzel added valves to the regular, valveless English bugle. The design was then used as inspiration for the saxhorn by Adolphe Sax, and in turn, inspired the modern-day flugelhorn.
The sound of a flugelhorn is darker and more mellow than either a trumpet or a cornet, that’s largely due to the exaggerated conical bore of the instrument.
There are so many types of trumpets, thanks to the long and colourful history of the instrument.
From animal horns to war cries, the concept of the conical trumpet evolved over centuries into bronze, silver, and most recently, brass.
Trumpets come in many sizes, can have different valve mechanisms and are tuned to a range of different keys. But perhaps their versatility as both a standout solo instrument or a well-blended part of an ensemble is the biggest reason they’ve stayed relevant all this time.
But whilst it’s fun to look at the different types out there, let’s not forget that it’s the standard Bb trumpet which is the overwhelming choice for most players and one of the most played wind instruments ever.
Thanks for reading!
If you’re looking for more trumpet, check out our round up of the most famous trumpet players in jazz history or, on the more technical side, the best trumpet mouthpieces for playing jazz.