The design of the sousaphone is based on the older instrument called a helicon. The helicon was shaped very similarly to the modern-day sousaphone. The helicon had a much smaller diameter inside the instrument. The size inside diameter of an instrument is called its bore. The helicon also had a much smaller bell than the sousaphone. The bell of the helicon was attached to the instrument and could not be removed or adjusted.
The sousaphone hasn’t changed much since its invention. Early models pointed straight up instead of facing forward like modern instruments. A few sousaphone manufacturers produced horns with four valves, they weren’t very popular, and four-valve models were eventually dropped from production.
Who Invented the Sousaphone?
The sousaphone was invented by J.W. Pepper and Son. Pepper was an instrument maker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He created the first sousaphone in 1893. The famous bandmaster and composer, John Phillips Sousa, requested the instrument. He was unhappy with the helicons in use at the time by the United States Marine Band.
Sousa wanted something more suited for a concert band. His ideal instrument would send sound up and over the band and into the audience. Based on experience and the needs of his band, Sousa gave his suggestions to Pepper, who then developed and produced the instrument.
Sousa’s suggestions included making the bore of the helicon wider and creating a detachable bell that faced upward, toward the audience. Sousa believed these changes would create a bass line instrument with a warmer tone that would project its sound over the rest of the band.
J.W. Pepper created the sousaphone from the specifications of John Philip Sousa along with his own ideas. This first sousaphone was intended to be a concert band instrument. The J.W Pepper and Son company still exists. However, they no longer make sousaphones. It’s commonly believed that J.W Pepper only made the first productions of the instrument. Pepper is now a well-known sheet music publisher.
Today, it’s common knowledge that J.W Pepper made the first sousaphone, but it wasn’t always an accepted fact. For a long time, people believed C.G. Conn made the first sousaphones.
Conn started making sousaphones between late 1897 and early 1898. This was just a few years after Pepper developed the instrument. Conn’s sousaphone took the original instrument developed by Pepper and Sousa and improved upon it.
John Philip Sousa preferred the instrument made by Conn, over the one he helped design. He began using the C.G Conn model instead of Pepper’s model.
According to a newspaper article dated January 22, 1998, C.G Conn supplied the entire John Philip Sousa band with brand new silver-plated instruments at the same time he delivered the first Conn sousaphone.
How was the Pepper sousaphone different from the Conn Sousaphone?
As far as anyone knows, J.W. Pepper only made one sousaphone. The bell of that instrument pointed straight up, toward the ceiling. The Pepper model had three valves, while Conn’s first sousaphone had four valves.
The other differences were in how the tubing coiled around the musician as they held the instrument. Some historians believe there was a difference in bore size between the Pepper sousaphone and the early Conn models. However, the first three Conn sousaphones are unaccounted for at this time, so no one knows for certain.
Other Early Sousaphones
Contrary to popular belief, C.G Conn wasn’t the only company to manufacture and sell sousaphones.
In 1909 Frank Holten’s instrument company began producing the Holotonphone. Mr. Holton was personally familiar with the original sousaphone because he played trombone in John Philip Sousa’s band in the early 1890s.
There are no surviving pictures or descriptions of the Holotonphone, but it was most likely a rain catcher style because C.G Conn invented the forward-facing bell that we know today in 1908.
Also, around the year 1909, the Buescherphone was developed by the Buescher Band Instrument Company in Elkhart, Indiana. Buescher’s sousaphone model was a rain catcher model. It’s interesting to note that the Conn factory was also located in Elkhart, and Gus Buescher worked for Conn before he started his instrument manufacturing company.
In 1910 the King Helicon was developed. The King sousaphone was manufactured by the H.N White company in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1956 King sousaphones were the sousaphone of choice for the Purdue marching band.
Also, in 1910 J.W York in Grand Rapids, Michigan, produced sousaphones.
The Wagnerphone was manufactured by a company in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The Keefer company also started making sousaphones around 1910.
Henry Charles Martin developed the Sousaphone Helicon Bass. These instruments were included in Martin’s 1916 catalog and were of the rain catcher variety.
Where is the First Sousaphone Today?
The very first sousaphone created by J.W Pepper is on display at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California. This sousaphone includes an engraved portrait of John Phillip Sousa on the bell of the instrument. The first sousaphone made by J.W. Pepper was lost for well over 70 years. No one had any idea what happened to it. Then, in 1973 John Baily was walking through a flea market in Pennsylvania.
He happened to spot a three-valve sousaphone that was shaped like the “rain catcher” developed by Pepper and J.P. Sousa. Baily bought the old sousaphone for $50. He intended to clean and refurbish it.
The sousaphone sat in Bailey’s attic for about eighteen years before he got around to the project. When Baily finally cleaned and polished the bell of his sousaphone, he uncovered an elaborate engraving of John Philip Sousa. At that point, Bailey knew what he’d found. He contacted J.W Pepper & Sons, Inc., to share the good news.
At this point, it was 1991, and the original sousaphone had been missing for about one hundred years. Pepper & Sons bought the instrument from Bailey, and they still have it today. Steve Dillon and Matt Walters of Dillon Music refurbished the iconic sousaphone so that Mr. Dave Detwiler could use it in a performance on May 3, 2015.
You can watch parts of the refurbishing project, an interview with Dave Detwiler, and the original sousaphone’s first performance in over 100 years on this video on J.W. Pepper’s YouTube Channel.
How Does the Sousaphone Make a Sound?
Like all brass instruments, the sousaphone makes its sound when the player buzzes into the instrument’s mouthpiece. Buzzing is similar to blowing raspberries. The musician purses his/her lips and blows air through the small opening. This creates a vibration that produces the sound.
All brass mouthpieces are shaped the same. They look like a small bowl with a tube coming out of the bottom. The tube inserts into the instrument while the musician buzzes into the cup.
Sousaphone mouthpieces are big and have a large cup to hold air. The quality of sound on a sousaphone is determined by the mouthpiece being used and lip placement. Some sousaphone players place their lips equally spaced on the mouthpiece, while others prefer a more top or more bottom-leaning lip placement.
Most sousaphone mouthpieces are made from metal. If you have a metal allergy, finding a sousaphone mouthpiece made from plastic or metal is possible. Regardless of material, sousaphone mouthpieces come in a variety of sizes and shapes to accommodate different playing styles. Cup sizes range from about 28 millimeters to roughly 34 millimeters in diameter.
The depth of the cup can range from small to medium, and even the thickness of the mouthpiece rim can vary between brands, sizes, and music types. Some mouthpieces give the sousaphone a big, full sound, and other mouthpieces offer a more lively tone.
Pitch and Range of the Sousaphone
The modern sousaphone is in the key of BBb. This means it’s in the key of Bb below the staff. They have a range of G1 to G4.
What are Modern Sousaphones Made out of?
Most modern sousaphones are made from sheet brass. They are typically yellow or silver and are finished with either lacquer, silver, or gold plating. Sousaphones vary in tubing length. Most use between 13 and 18 feet of tubing to create the instrument.
Because brass sousaphones are heavy, some can weigh as much as 50 pounds (23kg), many marching instruments are made of fiberglass. The differences in sound quality on the marching field are minimal, but the lightest fiberglass sousaphones weigh in at 18 pounds (8kg).
Where are Sousaphones Played?
Today, sousaphones are played primarily in high school and college marching bands. Many marching bands use the large sousaphone bell to create special effects on the field. Some use bell covers with letters to create words, and others have specially painted bells.
More daring marching bands use a special sousaphone with a flame trigger valve. The trigger valve opens and ignites propane to produce a flame across the top of the bell. The Yale Precision Marching Band from Yale University is known for using this effect.
Outside of high school and college football season, you’ll see sousaphones used in New Orleans Jazz, Mexican Banda Sinoloense music, and parades, and the occasional brass band.
Brands and Types of Sousaphones
Most major brass instrument manufacturers make sousaphones. Conn and King Musical Instruments (formally the H. N White Company) are generally regarded as the best sousaphones in terms of tone and playability. The gold standard sousaphone was developed in 1930 by the C.G. Conn company. Conn model 20K has a 0.734-inch bore (18.6 mm). This model is considered to have the best tone of any sousaphone ever developed.
The King model 1250 is lighter and better for marching because it’s lighter. This model has a 0.687-inch bore (17.4 mm).
In the mid-1920s and 1930s, some manufactures made large and very large bore sousaphones. The Conn “Grand Jumbo” came in 3 or 4 valve models. These sousaphones had an oversized bell that was about 32 inches (81 cm) in diameter.
The bore on these instruments was between .75 and 1 inch. Buescher, Martin, and York also made large bore sousaphones. These instruments disappeared between the Depression and World War II. There are very few of these instruments left.
Some modern sousaphones come with a detachable bell. The bell is stored in its own case. This makes traveling with the sousaphone much easier. Marching bands sometimes use fiberglass sousaphones. They are lighter and easier to paint and decorate.
Some performing sousaphone players like to decorate their bells with strings of lights, garland, costumes, and even painted smiley faces. High schools and colleges often buy bell sleeves. These fabric sleeves slip over the bell of the instrument and have letters or images printed on them, allowing the sousaphone section to spell out words or create pictures on the field.
Interesting Sousaphones in Marching Bands
College marching bands sometimes use their sousaphone section for special effects.
The University of Southern California has their sousaphone section play the Imperial March (Written by John Williams) from the movie Star Wars while they march through campus on their way to football games. The University of Deleware often has their sousaphone section act out a short skit on the field. They also form a line away from the rest of the band and snake their way around the field while they dance to the drum cadence.
Sousaphone players with the Virginia Tech “Marching Virginians” often dance the Hokey Pokey with their sousaphones instead of the usual arms and legs. At one point, the sousaphone section of the University of Idaho Vandals Marching Band wore skirts. The skirts were the same long outfits worn by the University Woman’s Chorus in 1948.
David Silverman developed a sousaphone with a propane trigger. When the trigger valve is engaged, it emits flame jets over the top of the sousaphone bell. Yale University’s Yale Precision Marching Band is known for using this technique on the field.
They even used it to create the illusion of candles on a cake in 1992 when two band alumni were married on the field during a halftime show.
Famous Sousaphone Players
Herman Conrad (1867-1920)
Mr. Conrad was the first sousaphone player ever. He was originally from West Prussia and emigrated to America sometime before 1891. Conrad started playing for the Gilmore band in 1888. He was a helicon player. Some historical accounts also mention him playing the giant Besson tuba in the Gilmore band as well.
He was part of that band on December 17, 1891, when the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded the Gilmore Band on what was known as the Edison Wax Cylinder. You can listen to that famous recording on YouTube. In 1893 Conrad began playing helicon for the great bandmaster John Philip Sousa.
Mr. Conrad became the face of the sousaphone in an 1895 advertisement for the instrument. At that time, Conrad had been playing the sousaphone in Sousa’s band for some time. The sousaphone went on its first tour in 1986. The International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City, Utah, has an archived photo of the John Philip Sousa band with Herman Conrad playing the sousaphone.
The photo is dated March 7, 1896. Not only is this picture the first of the sousaphone on tour, but it’s also the earliest known picture of the Sousa Band. The sousaphone in this photo is the original instrument designed and manufactured by J.W Pepper. The Conn sousaphone was not available for sale until 1898.
The show in Utah was just one of many tours that Conrad took with the sousaphone. He played all over Europe with the Sousa Band.
In 1902 Herman Conrad was the featured tuba soloist in the Victor Recording of John Philip Sousa’s band, playing a tune called Fackletanz by Meyerbeer. You can listen to the sousaphone feature piece here. Beginning in 1903 until his death in 1920, Conrad was part of the elite house band for the Victor Talking Machine company.
Sometime in the early 1900’s the Frank Holton company created a tuba mouthpiece in honor of Herman Conrad’s dedication and role in promoting the sousaphone. The mouthpiece was called the Conrad Model.
Arnold Jacobs (1915-1998)
Arnold Jacobs was born in Philadelphia, but his parents raised him in California. As a child, he played bugle, trumpet, and trombone before he finally settled on the tuba. He received a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when he was 15 years old.
In 1936 Jacobs began playing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. From there, he moved to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In 1941 he went on tour with the All-American Youth Orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski. Mr. Conrad joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1944 and remained there until he retired in 1988.
During his tenure with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jacobs took time away to tour England and Scotland with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mr. Jacobs was the first tuba player ever invited to the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico. He was also involved in historical recording music by Giovanni Gabrieli in 1968.
Arnold Jacobs was one of the founding members of the Chicago Symphony Brass Quintet. He’s also known for his recording of Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra by Vaughan Williams. He played this piece with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim conducting.
President Warren. G. Harding (1865-1923)
William G. Harding was the 29th President of the United States. He played sousaphone. There is little information about where and when Harding learned to play the sousaphone. However, he must have learned while in school because some sources claim Harding played sousaphone for his high school band.
There is no public record of Harding playing with any group after high school. However, he played the sousaphone well enough to play with the band during his Presidential Inauguration celebration. Harding is the only U.S President to play with his inauguration band.
Jeanie Schroder is an accomplished musician who plays sousaphone, flute, double bass, and sings for the 2006 Grammy-nominated band DeVotchka. The group has released more than 10 albums. Their album, A Mad & Faithful Telling (March 2008), reached the top 10 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and the top 30 on the Top Independent Albums chart.
You can listen to samples of their music on the band’s website.
Damon Bryson AKA “Tuba Gooding, Jr.”
Damon Bryson is the sousaphone player for the American hip-hop group The Roots. The Roots started playing together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as buskers. They released their debut album, Organix, in 1993 in London. Since then, The Roots, along with sousaphone player Tuba Gooding, Jr, have released over albums, won 3 Grammy awards, and made several world tours.
Answer: The sousaphone is a large instrument that is typically used in marching bands. It is played while standing and wraps around the player’s body, resting on their shoulder. The sousaphone has a very large and wide bell that points forward. Sousaphone bells can be as large as 32 inches in diameter.
The concert tuba is smaller. It’s typically used in concert bands and orchestras. Tuba players sit in a chair and rest the tuba in their lap while they play. The bell of a tuba may point toward the ceiling, or be bent toward the audience.
Technically, both the sousaphone and the concert tuba are classified as tubas.
Answer: The instrument is named after the famous bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa. Sousa lived from 1854-1932. The sousaphone was made at John Philip Sousa’s request.
Answer: A sousaphone is sometimes called a marching tuba. An early nickname for the sousaphone was “the rain catcher.”
Answer: Nothing. The sousaphone is the largest brass instrument.
Answer: The University of Illinois marching band, the Marching Illini, under the direction of Albert Austin Harding, was the first band to use sousaphones on the football halftime field. John Philip Sousa was a benefactor of the university and friends with Mr. Harding.