Quick guide to popular Sousaphones

The Sousaphone

This wind instrument is actually a type of bass tuba and classified by many musical enthusiasts as such. It was created by John Philip Sousa; a well-known American Band Master, also known as the “Marching King”, as the helicon.

In around 1886, Sousa enlisted and developed the marine band and transformed it into a virtuoso group. Sousa wrote 136 marching pieces including Semper Fidelis, Stars and Stripes forever, and a mini opera called El Capitan. It was during those years that he developed the helicon into what is now known as the Sousaphone. The sousaphone has a detachable bell. Still others call it the Helicon, or the Contrabass. It is not always made of brass owing to its size and weight. Some tubas are now made of fiberglass to make them lighter.

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The History of the Sousaphone

The helicon was actually originally developed for the tuba family by Ignaz Stowasser in 1845. The spiral shape of the bell of the helicon rested on the player’s shoulder that enabled him to carry it while marching. When it comes to finishes, brass tubas are usually manufactured in yellow gold, brass yellow, or rose brass. Usually gold has a darker sound compared to the rose that has a warm tone and slightly higher pitch. There are also lacquer tubas as well as silver finishes


Purchasing a Sousaphone

Sousaphones can cost up to $20,000 for professional sousaphones but some can be had as used items at $3,000. Older tubas are a good collection item. Beware however of too cheap price that can mean that the instrument may have a hidden defect.  Sometimes, a good alternative is to just rent them. Renting will give the player time to be familiar with the sousaphone, and to come up with an informed decision as what is perfect for him before he goes out and buys one.

When checking the sousaphone, make sure that all valves aren’t too tight but air-tight and move freely.  Pressing down should create a low popping thunk sound. The mouthpiece should easily fit and so should be checked for dents and dings. Check also for visible soldering which may indicate that the bass tuba has been repaired.


Plastic and Fiber Glass Sousaphones

Plastic and fiberglass sousaphones are lightweight and the sound quality is not sacrificed. These materials for sousaphones are the products of years of research and manufacturing. They usually use four metal rotary valves and an ABS bell. The sound is not as perfect as the brass tuba but the difference is not much actually.

How many valves are necessary? The more valves there is in a sousaphone, the bigger its range. But there ought to be at least 3 valves for the time being but as the player progresses, a 4th one or a 5th one may be necessary for more finger patterns. However, sousaphones with more valves are costlier and heavier as well.

Brands. Yamaha and Miraphone are trusted brands when searching for high quality instruments. So if you don’t know much about sousaphones, it is recommended that you stick to a well-known brand or those brands that are well known in the industry.

Used sousaphones, if well cared for by previous owners, will save you a lot of money but you ought to be careful when buying one. You can inspect the instrument to determine its condition focusing on the valves, and the finish, looking for dents, the accumulation of dirt, dings and welded parts.  Online purchases of old units can be disastrous because they cannot be inspected. So, although, it costs much more, the best thing is to buy a brand new one. There will be payment options via credit card and once fully paid, unlike in rentals, the unit becomes yours. Also buying a new sousaphone is more sanitary. Some buyers replace the mouthpiece of an old unit for sanitation purposes.

As always, it is best to have a teacher or a professional accompany you when buying an instrument.

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