What is a Sousaphone?

Along with trumpets, trombones, and horns, tubas—which include the baritone, euphonium, Sousaphone, and tuba proper—form one of the four main groups into which the brass family of instruments is often divided. The Sousaphone is a bass tuba that, like the marching tuba, is primarily used in marching bands, though it was once used in concert bands as well. The Sousaphone is no longer used in orchestras today.

The sousaphone is one of a small group of instruments with eponymous names, that is, instruments named after their creator. The Sousaphone was invented American composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa, putting it in the same category as the Wagner tuba—a horn invented German composer Richard Wagner—and the Saxophone, one of Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax’s many inventions.

Sousa devised the specifications for the first sousaphones, which were built in the 1890s and were based on the helicon, an instrument that wraps around the player and rests on the left shoulder. He requested a bell-up design, earning him the moniker “the rain-catcher,” and the bell-forward model was not created until the early twentieth century. The helicon is the name given to the Sousaphone in southern Europe.

While both marching tubas and Sousaphones are designed to be carried, the Sousaphone is unique in that it encircles the player, giving the impression that it is being worn rather than carried. Fiberglass bodies began to replace metal bodies in the 1960s, making the instruments lighter, easier to handle, and less prone to dents.

The Sousaphone, like the tuba, is a non-transposing instrument that can be played in Eb or Bb. A special “sousaphone chair” has been developed to hold the instrument in a concert setting because it is sometimes used off the playing field and parade ground. The instrument is supported braces on the chair, so a seated player does not have to bear the weight. The Sousaphone chair is patented Harry Wenger, a music educator and inventor. Children who were too small to support the instrument were able to learn to play it thanks to the chair.

Tuba Gooding, Jr. of the hip hop band The Roots and Nat McIntosh of the Youngblood Brass Band are two notable sousaphonists of the twenty-first century. Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is a well-known New Orleans brass band Sousaphonist, and his teacher, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, was a well-known late-twentieth-century sousaphonist.