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The sousaphone is a type of tuba that is widely employed in marching bands. Designed so that it fits around the body of the tubist 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.



File:Santaclaus2007 Sousaphones
Sousaphone players in a Santa Claus parade
File:Horn player in Washington Square by David
Sousaphone player Tycho Cohran with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble in Washington Square, New York City
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Sousaphone section in a marching band (Santa Claus parade)
Sousaphone line in a Combat Support Hospital band
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Lightweight Sousaphone made from modern materials
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Sousaphone use in Banda Sinaloense, a genre of Regional Mexican Music
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Sousaphones used by Guggenmusik bands during Eis-zwei-Geissebei in Rapperswil, Switzerland

The sousaphone was developed in the 1890s by C.G. Conn at the request of John Philip Sousa, who was unhappy with the hélicons used at that time by the United States Marine Band. The hélicon is an instrument that resembles the sousaphone in principle but has a far narrower bore, and a much smaller bell which points between straight up and to the player's left. 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 narrower-belled (and thus highly directional) hélicon.

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.) .


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 fiberglass, due to its lower cost, greater durability, and significantly lighter weight.


Most modern sousaphones are made in the key of BBb (Low B Flat) and like Tubas (which are commonly made in pitches of BBb, CC, EEb, 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 Bass Guitar that sound an octave lower than the indicated note.) Many older Sousaphones were pitched in the key of Eb but current production of Sousaphones in that key is somewhat limited. Some tuba music (especially in Brass band (British style) have parts written in the treble clef and they are transposed in both pitch and key.


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.


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" 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. Despite the disdain of sousaphones held by most serious tuba players, a quality modern sousaphone is often a better choice for the high school or semi-pro player due to more stable intonation and less breath effort needed to generate tone.

Additional valves

In the 1920s and 1930s, four-valved sousaphones were often used by professional players, especially E flat sousaphones; today, however, four-valved B flat 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 4 valve BBb Sousaphones in the late 2000s.

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 EUR 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.

Additional information

In large marching bands, 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 sock also minimizes the likelihood of an object being thrown by a spectator into the large, inviting target. 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.

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 Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band Tööbz! have a long tradition of painting the front surface of their Sousaphone bells with a variety of images.

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

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.

A famous marching band tradition involving a senior sousaphone player is dotting the "i" in Script Ohio, as performed by The Ohio State University Marching Band.

Another marching band tradition features four sousaphone players performing the dance routine to "Long Train Runnin'" at every post game performance by The Ohio University Marching 110.

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

Sousaphonist, Mike Hogg and his band BS Brass Band have produced three albums of Jazz, Funk and New Orleans R&B and regularly entertain Chicago crowds during Mardi Gras. Hogg also plays tuba with the Prohibition Orchestra and Jeff Newell's New-Trad Octet.

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. this is often highly anticipated and enjoyed by the crowd. 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.

See also

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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Man playing a sousaphone.


Named after John Philip Sousa, the famous march composer and conductor, with the suffix -phone.




sousaphone (plural sousaphones)

  1. (music) A valved brass instrument with the same length as a tuba, but shaped differently so that the bell is above the head, that the valves are situated directly in front of the musician a few inches above the waist, and that most of the weight rests on one shoulder.
    • 1990, Thomas D. Rossing, The Science of Sound‎, page 230
      One version of the large tuba, popular in marching bands, is called a sousaphone in honor of bandsman John Philip Sousa.

Derived terms



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