When he was 12, Hugh Rashleigh remembers ‘playing’ his asthma inhaler. He also recalls walking around the house making music on a pair of fire bellows.
“You can make noise on any bit of tubing: ever since hosepipes have been around, people have been demonstrating this,” explains Hugh, now aged 26 and the inventor of the world’s first plastic trombone.
Called the ‘pBone’, it’s become a runaway success with brass-playing musicians across the globe. Available in a range of groovy colours, the full-size, B-flat tenor trombone is half the weight of its brass equivalent and, at about £116, a fraction of the price.
“The vuvuzela, a plastic horn that became famous during the 2010 World Cup, can play a few notes, and plastic saxophones have been around since the 1960s. Fundamentally, the trombone is just a pipe with a funnel on the end.”
Hugh, from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, started playing brass instruments – the cornet and trumpet to begin with – when he was a boy and has “always had a passion” for them.
“There’s a saying that ‘you don’t choose the trombone; the trombone chooses you’. For brass musicians, there’s a presence these instruments have that others don’t: they have a kind of ‘listen to me’ quality about them.”
Hugh is now a brass teacher, gigging musician, musical director of the Royal Spa Brass Band – and fully-fledged entrepreneur. As well as an early love of music, Hugh also developed an interest in designing things and went to Loughborough University to study engineering design.
By this time, he knew it was theoretically possible to make a plastic instrument – and wrote his degree dissertation to that effect. But it was only when he found himself struggling on his course that he decided to see if he could make his idea a reality.
“I wasn’t doing very well on my course, because I was spending too much time playing music. Then this idea came along – and I managed to salvage my degree.”
As he delved further into the idea of actually making a plastic trombone, Hugh discovered that people within the music industry had been testing the idea of plastic instruments since the 1970s.
“But it wasn’t the right time,” he says. “The materials weren’t stable and there wasn’t the modern technology around, namely ‘rapid prototyping’. There was also people’s perception of a musical instrument made out of plastic that had to be overcome.”
Hugh candidly admits that when he first decided to make a plastic trombone, in 2006, it was a bit of fun. “I’d heard a good brass player make a hosepipe sound fantastic,” he explains, “so it wasn’t so much a case of ‘can it be done?’ as ‘why not do it?’ But the commercial element was unfocused – I didn’t know if it would turn into something that was sold.”
Yet the question he came up against most was ‘why would you want to do it?’ Even a musician he particularly admired wondered ‘why bother?’
“But I wanted to prove that it could be done,” says Hugh, “and so I persevered with it. I never doubted that it was possible, although there were lots of frustrations along the way.”
Once he’d decided it was worth doing, Hugh set about working out exactly how to do it. The process of turning theory into commercial reality took more than five years.
“Even then, I was still crying over this thing that wasn’t quite working,” says Hugh. “Having started out as a bit of a gimmick, it had become the most serious thing in the world.
“But the crucial thing was that I was given a lot of time. I got the initial investment in 2007, after I’d been working on it for a year. After that, every day, every week and every month I was working my way around the instrument, solving this problem and solving that one.”
The biggest challenge Hugh encountered was what to do about the trombone slide, which was initially made of solid plastic, but was inhibiting the instrument’s acoustics. “The point where it all came together was when I switched from solid plastic to a glass fibre tube, which made all the difference to the sound,” he explains.
“The first eight inches of the slide are crucial, because that’s where the sound is created. The rest of it is amplification. Once I switched to fibre glass the sound quality improved dramatically.”
It was when he joined forces with Steven Greenall, also a trombonist and the owner of Warwick Music, that the project finally gelled.
“Through writing my dissertation, I interviewed a number of people, including my old music teacher Simon Hogg, who also happened to be Steven’s old teacher and a good friend, and both were involved in Warwick Music.
“Simon spoke to Steven and Steven phoned me up. As a result, I secured the investment needed to make the prototype. Someone putting their money where my mouth was gave me quite a strange feeling and was a reality check – now I really had to do it.”
The making of pBone was “quite a learning experience”, admits Hugh. “What I did was to phone lots of people and ask for help. For instance, I called a company in Leicester that specialised in glues and bonding materials.
"If the people I asked couldn’t help, often they’d know someone who could. Simon Hogg and Chris Fower, a professional trombonist, were also very instrumental in the development – they gave me a lot of time and helped me to understand more about what trombone players wanted. Eventually, I started breaking the back of it and, slowly, things came together.”
Ironically, Hugh decided against making the “perfect” trombone and instead opted for a more ergonomic instrument.
“For example, trombonists are used to the balance of the instrument being a certain way. I could have designed pBone so that it balanced in a more obvious way, but it made sense to make an instrument that felt like a traditional one. The human element was very important – it had to have soul as well as good design.”
Finally, at the beginning of 2011, pBone was ready to go: the parts were manufactured in China, with Hugh assembling them in the Midlands. Because of the time it took to put them together – two weeks of working flat out to make 200 – the instruments were sold, online at first, in small batches.
What no one anticipated was how quickly the business would take off. Thanks in part to a YouTube video of UK jazz trombonist Liam Kirkman playing a pBone, which had 17,000 hits in a few days, a 200-strong batch of pBones was snapped up in just 17 minutes of going on sale. Hugh believes one of the main reasons it took off so quickly is that trombonists are particularly open-minded.
“Trombonists tend to have a certain type of personality,” he says. “The trombone is an unassuming instrument, but it’s very flexible – you can play it in a jazz band, in an orchestra or as a solo performer.
“I think musicians who play brass instruments are the only ones who would accept an instrument made out of plastic when it’s not been done before.
"Someone told me the trombone was a dying breed because it gets overshadowed by trumpets and saxophones, so trombonists welcome an opportunity to see it shine, and pBone is enabling it to do that. That was definitely my ambition – to bring it back into fashion.”
he instruments, available in yellow, green, red, blue, purple, black and white, are now fully assembled in China and then shipped direct to the UK and Europe, Japan and the US, where they sell for US$159.
The pBone’s soaring popularity has been further enhanced by winning two major awards in America, including Music Inc’s Product Excellence Award. Now he has pBone under his belt and has “learned a lot” about business, what’s next for Hugh?
“I really like making things. We’ve already done a baby version of pBone, called pBone Mini, and we’re working towards making plastic versions of the rest of the brass family and other musical instruments. A new world of opportunity opens up when you make something that’s successful.”