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Sousaphones played by Guggenmusik bands during Eis-zwei-Geissebei in Rapperswil, Switzerland

The sousaphone is a brass instrument, related to the tuba and hélicon. It is widely employed in marching band and tanjidor. Designed so that it fits around the body of the musician and is supported by the left shoulder, the sousaphone may be readily played while being carried. The instrument is named after American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa, who popularized its use in his band.


The sousaphone was developed in the 1890s at the request of John Philip Sousa, who was unhappy with the hélicons used at that time by the United States Marine Band. The first sousaphone was developed by James Welsh Pepper in 1893. The hélicon is an instrument that is wrapped in a helical shape and can thus be worn around the player's upper body, facilitating marching activities. Most tuba-sized hélicons have a bell which points between straight up and to the player's left, and the bell is similar in size to that of a common European-style upright tuba. Sousa wanted a tuba that would send sound upward and over the band with a full warm tone, much like a concert (upright) tuba, an effect which could not be achieved with the more directional hélicon bell position. The new hélicon requested by Sousa would have an oversized bell pointing straight up, but otherwise would be like a normal hélicon.

Sousaphone line in a Combat Support Hospital band

Contrary to popular belief, the sousaphone was not initially developed as a marching instrument, as the professional band Sousa started after leaving the Marines (for which he wanted this new instrument) marched only once in its existence. Rather, Sousa wanted a concert instrument which would be easier to hold and play, while retaining a full, rich sound. The tone he sought was achieved by widening the bore and throat of the instrument significantly, as well as pointing it straight upward in a similar manner to concert instruments, a feature which led to the instrument being dubbed a "rain-catcher". Some versions of this design allowed the bell to also rotate forward, projecting the sound to the front of the band. This bell configuration remained the standard for several decades. Versions with the characteristic extra 90° bend making a forward-facing bell were developed in the early 1900s. Early sousaphones had 22-inch-diameter (560 mm) bells, with 24-inch (610 mm) bells popular in the 1920s. From the mid-1930s onward, sousaphone bells have been standardized at a diameter of 26 inches (660 mm). Some larger sousaphones (Monster, Grand, Jumbo, or Giant, depending on brand) were produced in limited quantities (more details below).


Sousaphone player Tycho Cohran with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, at the TFF.Rudolstadt 2012

The sousaphone is a valved brass instrument with the same tube length and musical range as other tubas. The sousaphone's shape is such that the bell is above the tubist's head and projecting forward. The valves are situated directly in front of the musician slightly above the waist and most of the weight rests on one shoulder. The bell is normally detachable from the instrument body to facilitate transportation and storage. Excepting the instrument's general shape and appearance, the sousaphone is technically very similar to a standard (upright) tuba.

For simplicity and durability, modern sousaphones almost definitively use three non-compensating piston valves in their construction, in direct contrast to their concert counterparts' large variation in number, type, and orientation. It has been incorrectly noted that the tuba is a conical brass instrument and the sousaphone is a cylindrical brass instrument; actually both instruments are semi-conical—no valved brass instrument can be entirely conical, since the middle section with the valves must be cylindrical. While the degree of conicity of the bore does affect the timbre of the instrument much as in a cornet and trumpet, or a euphonium and a trombone, the bore profile of a sousaphone and most tubas is similar.


Most sousaphones are manufactured from sheet brass, usually yellow or silver, with silver, lacquer, and gold plating options, much like many brass instruments. However, the sousaphone (uniquely) is also commonly seen manufactured from fibreglass, due to its lower cost, greater durability, and significantly lighter weight.

Saxophone and sousaphone players in a photo from the German Federal Archives


Most modern sousaphones are made in the key of BB♭ (Low B Flat) and like tubas (which are commonly made in pitches of BB♭, CC, EE♭, and F) the instrument's part is written in "concert pitch", not transposed by key for a specific instrument. Although Sousaphones have a slightly more restricted range than their orchestral Tuba counterpart, generally they can all play the same music and usually have parts written in the bass clef and the indicated octave is played (unlike double bass or electric bass that sound an octave lower than the indicated note.) Many older Sousaphones were pitched in the key of E♭ but current production of Sousaphones in that key is somewhat limited. Some tuba music (especially in brass bands) has parts written in the treble clef and is transposed in both pitch and key.


Contrabass bugle, sousaphone, and trombone players at the Fremont Solstice Parade 2011, in Seattle, Washington

Although most major instrument manufacturers have made, and many continue to make, sousaphones, Conn and King (H.N. White) instruments are generally agreed among players to be the standards against which other sousaphones are judged for tone quality and playability. Perhaps the most highly regarded sousaphone ever built is the .734-inch-bore (18.6 mm) Conn model 20K, introduced in the mid-1930s and still in production. Some players, especially those who find the 20K excessively heavy for marching, prefer the slightly smaller .687-inch-bore (17.4 mm) King model 1250, first made in the late 1920s and also still in production as the model 2350. Historically, Holton, York and Martin sousaphones have sometimes been considered fine horns. Unlike with other brass instruments generally, and tubas in particular, some players dislike the sousaphones made by non-American manufacturers.

Very large bore (>= 0.750 inch) sousaphones, with oversized bells as large as 32" in diameter, were made by Conn ("Grand Jumbo" [46K (3-valve) & 48K (4-valve)]) and King ("Jumbo" [1265 (3- & 4-valve versions)] & "Giant" [1270 (3-valve) & 1271 (4-value)]) in the mid-1920s and 1930s, and by Martin, York, & Buescher, but they disappeared from the catalogs during the Depression or at the onset of World War II. Because of their weight and cost, few were made and even fewer survive, especially the 4-valve models.


Lightweight Sousaphone made from modern materials

In recent years, sousaphones have been available made of fiberglass reinforced plastics instead of brass. Today, the fiberglass versions are mainly used for marching, with brass instruments being used for all other situations. In schools that cannot afford two kinds of tuba for each player, having only the sousaphone type is common. Depending on the model, the fiberglass version normally does not have as dark and rich a tone as the brass (King fiberglass sousaphones tended to have smooth fiberglass and a tone somewhat more like a brass sousaphone; Conn fiberglass sousaphones often had rough fiberglass exteriors and a thinner sound; the Conn was also lighter). Regardless, fiberglass sousaphones are lighter than their brass counterparts and work well for smaller players who could not otherwise play the heavy brass instruments in a marching band. Although the tone of fiberglass models tends to be thinner and less "warm" (earning them the nicknames "Plastic Bugle", "White Trash", "Toilet Bowl", and "Tupperware" among players in some ensembles), it is considered acceptable by the high schools in which the instrument is most common due to the tradeoff in durability, cost, and weight.

Additional valves

In the 1920s and 1930s, four-valved sousaphones were often used by professional players, especially E♭ sousaphones; today, however, four-valved B♭ sousaphones are uncommon and are prized by collectors, especially those made by Conn, King (H.N. White), and Holton. Jupiter Company has started production of four-valve BB♭ sousaphones in the late 2000s. Criticisms of fourth valve on a Sousaphone center around additional weight and increased air resistance (the fourth valve tubing increases the length of the instrument by 1/3).

The sousaphone is played in Banda Sinaloense, a genre of regional Mexican music

Due to the large size of most sousaphones, the sub-contra register (for which the fourth valve is largely intended) is already covered by alternate resonances, known as "false tones" (see Tuba article). Many beginners are not aware of the false-tone resonances on their sousaphones because these notes reside in the sub-contra register, which is nearly impossible for most beginners to access. Some professionals develop a "raised embouchure" to securely play these notes. This is where either the upper or lower lip (depending on the player) takes up most of the mouthpiece area. The embouchure provides almost twice the room for vibration of the single lip (compared to the 50–50 embouchure).

Non-American Sousaphones

Asian sousaphones made in China and India are now gaining popularity in the street band market. In Switzerland and Southern Germany, "Guggenmusik" bands often use these instruments that provide great display and passable intonation. Most are tuned in E. Brands like Zweiss with older British designs make affordable sousaphones that have broken the €500 barrier. These are mostly in the medium-bell size of 23 inches (580 mm). Chinese brands are mostly reverse-engineered models and quite passable.

Special effects

Costumed Sousaphone player, New Orleans, Mardi Gras Day 2005

In large marching bands of the United States, the bell is often covered with a tight fitting cloth, called a sock, which enables the sousaphone section to spell out the school's name, initials, or mascot. The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band Tööbz! have a tradition of painting the front surface of their Sousaphone bells with a variety of images.

Sousaphone players are also known to perform the 'flaming tubas' in which flash paper is ignited in the bell, thus making it appear as if the musician is breathing fire. David Silverman (AKA Tubatron ) developed a propane powered flaming Sousaphone with a trigger valve to control an array of flame jets across the top of the bell of his horn. The Yale Precision Marching Band has made a tradition of setting fire to the tops of the bells of their sousaphones, including in the fall of 1992 when sousaphones served as the "candles" of a "wedding cake" formed by the band when two band alumni were married during a halftime show. They also utilize what they refer to as the "Überphone", a sousaphone that was disassembled from its coiled format and welded back together on a twelve-foot frame to extend straight up from the player's shoulders.

College marching bands

John Philip Sousa was a benefactor of the University of Illinois music program and a friend of the university's Director of Bands Albert Austin Harding. The Marching Illini became the first band to march and play at the same time, and were the first band to use sousaphones on the field.

The sousaphone sections of some marching bands have developed specialized performance traditions. The University of California Marching Band Bass section traditionally "struts" during the band's pregame show. During the "strut" the section separates from the rest of the band, circles the North goal post, and rejoins the band to complete the Script Cal. The University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band sousaphones play John Williams' "Imperial March" from Star Wars when crossing streets on their way to and from performances on the USC campus. When The Ohio State University Marching Band performs its traditional Script Ohio formation, a senior sousaphone player dots the "i".

The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band sousaphone section (called "Bass Horns" within the university but never, ever "tubas") execute a distinct two-step and four-step counter-march during marching performances. During halftime performances this is accompanied (specifically for the last rank consisting all of 12 bass horns) by a "huh! huh!" from the crowd.

Painted bells of sousaphones from the Virginia Pep Band

The University of Delaware Fightin' Blue Hen Marching Band has several traditions involving sousaphone players. During pre-game, they branch off from the rest of the band. From here, the sousaphone players run in a snake around the field jumping to drum line cadence. At most pre-games they act out a skit as well. At post game, "In My Life" by The Beatles is played featuring a sousaphone solo while the band sings.

After every pre-game show at Florida State University when the section (known by all the marching band members as "Flush") run in a circle around the Seminole head on the field with the head drum major in the center of the circle. This is called "Flushing the field," hence the nickname, "Flush."

The Virginia Tech Marching Virginians perform a version of the Hokie Pokie featuring the sousaphone section putting their sousaphones in, taking their sousaphones out, putting their sousaphones in, and shaking them all about – followed by an all-sousaphone kick line.

The University of Toledo Sousaphone line (also called The RMB Dospas) march off the field in a snake line after home games and performs the song "sonic boon' when the rest of the band meets back with them.

For the last 20 years The University of Idaho Vandals Marching Band Sousaphone section all wear long skirts that were originally used by the 1948 University Women's Chorus. University of Idaho Vandals Sousaphone Section

Musical genres

"Jazz Funeral for Democracy" event in New Orleans

The sousaphone is an important fixture of the New Orleans brass band tradition, and is still used in groups such as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band by Kirk Joseph. Soul Rebels Brass Band from New Orleans features sousaphone player Edward Lee, Jr.

Sinaloa, a state of Mexico, has a type of music called Banda Sinaloense, and the sousaphone is used there as a tuba.

Damon "Tuba Gooding Jr." Bryson from The Roots plays a Sousaphone on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Nat Mcintosh is the sousaphone player and co-founder of Youngblood Brass Band, who play a mixture of traditional New Orleans style brass band music and hip hop.

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, a Canadian self-described "Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Punk-Super-Party-Band", features a sousaphone as one of their instruments.

Red Baraat, a Brooklyn based dhol & brass band that fuses North Indian Bhangra with hip-hop, go-go and jazz music, features John Altieri on sousaphone.

Notable players

Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States, was a sousaphone player.[1]

See also

  • Cornu (horn), an ancient Roman brass instrument that curved around the player's body


  1. ^

External links

  • Virginia Tech Music Dictionary: Sousaphone
  • All The Instruments: Sousaphone
  • Sousaphone History
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