If you’re in the market for a superbly handcrafted trombone, I strongly urge you to visit Steve Shires’ shop in Hopedale, Mass., about an hour southwest of Boston. He offers a tremendous variety of options to choose from: two (soon to be three) types of valves; bells in yellow, gold and red brass, leaded or unleaded, light, medium or heavy weight; various leadpipes; and two styles of slides—large crook or small crook (also offering yellow, gold or red brass), standard or lightweight. He even has a line of mouthpieces.
Shires is dedicated to quality and consistency in his instruments. Unlike some other manufacturers, he claims that you could select any two bells, for instance, with the same makeup and specifications, and they will play the same. I performed this test with two gold-brass, unsoldered bells and they did play essentially the same.
For the purpose of this review, I informed Shires about the equipment I mainly use: a Bach 42 with an unlacque-red bell, Thayer valve and a lightweight slide. This is a horn that I play all styles on, using different mouthpieces for different situations. Sometimes I play a small-bore horn, and Steve had a couple of those on hand for me to try when I visited his shop.
Once I arrived at Shires’ factory, I started the audition with a Thayer-style valve and a regular weight slide. Unfortunately, there were no lightweights available to try in the large-crook-style slide. I did try a lightweight small crook (more like a King) paired with Shires’ current rotary valve. This was a very nice instrument, but I opted to focus on the Thayer-style horn since that’s what I am accustomed to.
I tried out no fewer than seven different 8 1/2-inch diameter, medium-weight bells. I settled on two that felt most comfortable to me. One was yellow brass, soldered and lacquered. The other was the aforementioned gold-brass unsoldered, lacquered bell. A friend who was with me that day came to the same conclusion regarding which bell was right for me. His favorite was the yellow brass. Each bell that I tried really did have its distinct characteristics. Choosing among them seems a lot more satisfying than auditioning horns that are all supposed to be the same, which you might do at a factory showroom of some larger manufacturers.
My first opportunity to try out the horn with the yellow bell was on a commercial jazz job, and I was impressed from the start. The horn is a real powerhouse. Granted, I am accustomed to an unlacquered bell and a lightweight slide, but I have played lacquered 42s with regular-weight slides that did not have the same presence and projection as this horn. I did not have to work as hard to achieve my usual results. Other musicians on the job who were familiar with the sound from my horn could definitely hear the difference.
I used the horn in various other settings, including a Broadway pit orchestra, a couple of big bands, other commercial venues and in my practice studio. I found the horn with the yellow-brass bell to be exceptional in all those situations in terms of sound, intonation, projection and flexibility. With a Bach 42 there are certain notes that are consistently out of tune that we all make adjustments for (such as the 4th line F in the bass clef, which is always a little sharp). These types of adjustments were hardly necessary with the Shires. I tried my Bach lightweight slide with the Shires bell section. This worked fine, but mostly I used the Shires slide. Steve had put a slightly less open lead-pipe in it, which worked best for me with the overall setup.
The gold brass unsoldered bell has a warmer, less responsive sound that worked beautifully with a brass ensemble. Several orchestral players favor these bells, and the blend was just what I was looking for. It did not work well for me in more commercial or jazz settings, however, simply because it doesn’t have the same quick response and presence, so you have to work a lot harder in those situations.
I was equally impressed with Shires’ smaller-bore horns. As a trombonist, he was frustrated with the difficulty in switching back and forth between large- and small-bore horns. He addressed this problem by making the smaller horns very free-blowing. I had no trouble switching over to these horns and feeling very comfortable in all the registers.
The trombones are not cheap. It costs $3,200 for the large bore and $2,270 for the small bore. In my opinion, they are well worth it.