Keeping the slide slick and slipping

Trombonists are the only instrumentalists who have to push a pair of tubes as much as two feet along a pair of narrower tubes inside. They have a wide variety of choices for lubricating the slide–a variety of oils, creams, silicon.

And they discuss slide lubrication so much that sometimes they even bore each other. Oh no! Not another discussion of Slide-o-Mix™ vs Superslick™! (No need to panic now. That’s not where this is going!)

A recent discussion on Trombone-L, a popular email list, proved worthy of the attention to a wider audience both for its historical erudition and the way it touched on, shall we say, a variety of contemporary issues.

For background, I want to share some brief personal notes. When I started playing trombone in 5th grade (1958-59), I used slide oil. To the best of my knowledge, the first oil made especially for trombone slides was developed by Frank Holton late in the 19th century. In the research for my upcoming book, I learned that Victor Cornette recommended watchmaker’s oil in 1830.

By the time I got to college, I was using cold cream and spraying it with water. I don’t recall just when I made the switch. I also don’t know offhand who first started using it. The earliest published reference I know is in a 1963 book by Edward Kleinhammer, then bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The latest lubrication thread on Trombone-L first became of possible interest to a wider readership when Howard Weiner called attention to his recent article on an instruction manual by Joseph Fröhlich published in 1811.

Fröhlich, apparently the earliest writer to address the subject, recommended lubricating the slide Provence oil, which needed to be wiped off every couple of days and replaced with fresh oil. Weiner learned that Provence oil is an especially high-quality olive oil grown in that region.
Chuck DePaolo, part owner of Hickey’s Music in Ithaca, New York, thought immediately of the environmental benefits  of going back to olive oil and responded according to his understanding of modern marketing techniques:


Oh boy, you’ve opened a can of worms!  We should resurrect the old formula and give it a 21st Century twist:

“Hickey’s All-Natural Oliviotine (Olivi-O-Mix?, OlivioSlick?) Organic (has to be organic) Extra Extra Virgin Pure Slide Oil. Grown on picturesque hillsides in southern France and Genoa, Italy by free-range (have to insert “free range” in here somewhere) olive farmers, using traditional techniques handed down over the centuries from father to son.  Lovingly processed in four hundred year old oak casks and purified using only natural fiber filters. Packaged in compostable cornstarch bioplastic bottles and shipped to you in solar powered UPS trucks.  What, they don’t have those yet?

–Chuck (recycling nut of the first order)

Later contributions to the thread pointed out that at gigs where the band gets to eat, but serve only Thousand Island Dressing, having olive oil along has obvious advantages as more than a slide lube.

Someone else suggested filling the spray bottle with balsamic vinegar. The very idea! Who ever sprays anything on an oiled slide? And, as others mentioned, the smell of olive oil might make a trombonist very hungry. It’s hard to play and salivate at the same time. And the thought of yuppies dressing their salads with slide oil . . . Well!

Someone else objected to the environmental impact of making the compostable cornstarch bottles. If we return to an ancient slide lube, it should be packaged in the ancient manner, too: reusable goat or sheep bladder bags. Who could object except vegans and the folks from PETA?

Oh, and back to cold cream: as I said, I don’t know when trombonists started using it, but probably sometime in the early to mid 20th century. That doesn’t mean cold cream was a recent product. Weiner pointed out that the 2nd-century Greek  physician Galen  invented it. The formula included beeswax, water, rose petals, and, oh yes, olive oil.

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