Trumpet Lubricants: Valve Oil, Slide Grease, and General Maintenance

This article is all about trumpet lubricants (valve oil and slide grease). This subject should be really straightforward, but the more you know, the more you find that there is to know about these things.

Most beginning players really only need some kind of Valve Oil and some sort of Slide Grease. If you’ve bought or rented a Trumpet these consumable items should be provided with the instrument. If they aren’t already in the deal, either twist the sales person’s arm or buy them. They aren’t optional.

Various Valve Oils

Any valve oil is better than no valve oil. If there’s no problem with your valves this is a place where you can get by with the cheap stuff. On the other hand, if your valves are giving you grief (by not going up and down quickly and smoothly) it might be time to upgrade. There’s more info on Valve Oil in this other post.

Photo of Slide Grease

Slide Grease is another item that one needs, just less often than valve oil. Music stores sell something called Slide Grease that will get you started. As a bare minimum all of the slides on a trumpet should move. To keep that happening requires that they have some grease on them and that they get moved from time to time. Two or three of these slides should be moved regularly as a part of playing the instrument, but one or two of them might be left in for months between cleanings. Let’s consider these separately:

The main tuning slide (the big slide near the bell that forms the first turn in the tubing after the leadpipe) will have to be adjusted so that the player is in tune with whatever other instruments are in the room. This isn’t generally a big deal in a beginning band class because it’s likely that nobody is playing in tune with anybody else. If that’s the case, it’s always nice to pretend that it isn’t by setting a Trumpet tuning slide somewhere around 5/8″ or 1.5cm out from its fully collapsed position. As players begin to make better sounds it actually becomes possible to make meaningful tuning slide adjustments. The difference that tuning makes to a group is like night and day, so this slide does have to be adjustable. If you have an old Trumpet that was under your auntie’s bed for the last 20 years and that slide won’t move, get it fixed at a repair shop. It’s worth it. Keep it working by applying a little slide grease every few weeks. It can be any old grease. My main tuning slide usually gets the leftovers from what I put on the other slides. I kept a tub of automotive wheel bearing grease by the sink in my band room for decades and it was just fine for anyone’s main tuning slide – mine included.

The same “any old grease” is good for the second valve slide. The main purpose the grease serves on the 2nd valve slide is so that you can get it out the next time you clean your trumpet, but that alone is worth it. If there isn’t any grease on that slide it is possible that some air will leak out and affect your tone, so put a little grease on it.

The first valve slide gets the same treatment if it doesn’t have a ring or saddle for adjusting “on the fly”. If it does have a thumb saddle or ring it’s because it is meant to be moved while you’re playing to bring certain notes that might be a tad sharp better in tune. If that’s the case, treat it like the 3rd valve slide described below.

The third valve slide is a special one. There are some notes that use the third valve that are so badly out of tune that the 3rd valve slide absolutely must be moved out for those notes to sound decent. That slide might need a little work so that it can be moved without the whole horn trying to move with it. There is a description of this business somewhere on this other post, but for the purposes of simply getting the horn lubed up for playing lets assume that your slide isn’t moving that easily. The first step might be just to get the slide out. If it won’t come out with some gentle persuasion it’ll need a visit to a repair shop. It’s a quick fix but an important one. If you don’t know the history of the instrument well (like the last time it was really well serviced) it is probably time to get a shop to clean it and get everything working properly. More likely you will be able to get the 3rd slide out but not so easily that you could do it smoothly as you play up and down past notes that need it in and notes that need it out. (If you really want to risk yanking on it be sure to leave the valve in its casing to reinforce it. It is possible to yank too hard and start bending things in a bad way.) Once the slide is out try using some regular slide grease. That might do it, but probably not. Next use a drop of valve oil to thin that grease and see if it improves things. If it does, great; if not you’re going to have to clean that slide up a little. Read on.

Remember the oath – “First, do no harm”. Use some gentle polish and a clean cloth to polish off some of the tarnish on the brass that’s exposed when the slide is removed. I usually use Brasso, but any gentle metal polish will work as long as you’re gentle with it. By gentle I mean don’t try to remove all of the guck at once. This process might take several tries to get where you need to be. It’s always easier to simply do it again than it is to put some brass back onto the slide after you’ve polished it off. Remember that they use brass because it’s soft. Polish it a little, rinse it off, grease it, thin it and see how well it moves. Repeat. When you finally get close to where you want to be it’s time to go back to experimenting with greases. The simplest, as mentioned above is to use the store-bought slide grease and thin it with a drop of valve oil.

My current recipe is to grease that slide with an automotive product called Superlube (a synthetic, food-grade grease) and thin it with synthetic valve oil (Yamaha for my newer Trumpets, T2 for the old ones). Back in the 80’s we used to ask the pharmacist for a dab of Anhydrous Lanolin and thin it with old-school (non-synthetic) valve oil. As a starving student with several instruments on the go I used automotive wheel bearing grease on slides and kerosene for valve oil but people could smell me coming. Use whatever works for you, but use something. If you can’t move that slide easily while playing, it isn’t working. This fingering chart shows where you’ll need it.

One more thing. If your third valve slide has an extra section at the end that is also removable (perhaps because your 3rd slide doesn’t have a spit valve), lube it with regular slide grease.

Among the Slide Grease products available at music stores I really like the red stuff (that turns clear if you have it long enough) from Selmer and the line of heavy to light greases from Hetman. Yamaha’s slide grease dilutes nicely with their valve oil too. I probably should just use those but I enjoy tinkering with the recipe myself.


Jim is an orchestral Trumpet player and retired high school Music teacher.

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