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So you wanna play trombone in a ska band?

June 29, 2011

I’ve been playing trombone for a ska band here in Singapore for about a year and a half now, and so I thought I’d share some guidelines for aspiring horn players out there who are looking for resources they can use to learn the songs they want to play.  I think you could insert any horn into the title here, but since trombone is my instrument, I’m going to lead off with that.

So, without further ado, I’d like to present to you:


A Horn Player’s Guide for Learning Ska Songs


1.  Register at

One of the things that’s great about playing guitar is that there are so many resources available online.  Even if you can’t read any music, you can learn to read tabs.  This is possible because everybody plays guitar.  As a horn player, your options are much more limited.  Luckily there are some communities that are available to help you out with this, and, as far as I can tell, is the best.  You won’t be able to find every song you want there, but the biggest hits from the larger ska bands will be on there.

One of the really cool things about this site is that they have a sheet-music-generator which allows you to turn their text-file tabs into readable sheet music.  Of course it’s pretty basic, but it helps in a pinch.


2.  Find a program like Guitar Pro

Guitar Pro

Even if you can’t always find a tab for a song on, you can often find a beefier version of a guitar tab labeled as a Pro Tab or a Power Tab on most guitar tab sites (I recommend  When you open these files with a program like Guitar Pro you can often find MIDI tracks for the full range of instruments a song uses.  Not only can you separate out the different tracks (so you can just listen to the horn track, for example), they often have a sheet-music visual that you can use to learn the notes.

3.  Buy a keyboard

Roll Up Keyboard

This is only truly helpful if you actually know some rudimentary piano, but if all else fails you can always label the keys and it will be just as good for your purposes.  Most standard horns only range about 3 octaves (unless you’re ridiculously good) so you don’t even need one of the huge expensive keyboards (although they are pretty awesome…).  I was lucky enough to have an awesome girlfriend who bought me the roll-up keyboard that you see in the picture above.  Good for those of you who don’t have a lot of space to store one.

Anyway, the idea is that you can just listen to the song you’re trying to learn on repeat and try and figure out the notes on the keyboard first.  Just match pitch.  Everybody can do that much.  It takes a little bit more time, but if you have the patience it’s not actually that difficult.  The only downside to this is that sometimes it’s a little tough to distinguish between half-steps.  I find that it helps to have a second opinion around to help you out when the note is a bit more ambiguous.  It’s a good idea to write down the notes that you figure out in a notebook so that you don’t have to do this process over and over again.  On the upside, it’s much less noisy than my next tip…:

4.  Play along with the song

Where's my trombone?

This, of course, is about as basic as you get, but it’s how most people learn ska songs for their horn.  This can take quite a bit of time, but one of the benefits is that you are memorizing as you go.  Since you are going to have to learn measure-by-measure, you’re going to be doing A LOT of repetition.  It helps if you have a media player on your computer that allows you to adjust the start and stop times for a song so you can set it to only play about 10 seconds and then repeat.  If you have much of a music theory background this becomes easier because  you can establish what key a song is in pretty quickly.  Even if you don’t, however, you can pretty easily figure out what the notes are that you keep seeing over and over again.  Just as with a keyboard, write these notes down in a notebook so that you’ll be able to remember them later on.

Okay!  That’s about it!  I’ve found these methods very helpful in learning many of the songs that I play.  Hopefully you’ll be able to use them as well.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gofasterstripes permalink
    January 30, 2013 10:08 pm

    I really want to learn to play brass in a Ska band – no musical skills yet, but one day you’ll be bopping to my songs 😉 Thanks for the tips

  2. StevetotheH permalink
    November 29, 2014 6:53 pm

    Thanks! I carried this thing around all through school, time to make it pay off with some jams!

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