12 Different Types of Tubas (Plus Interesting Facts)

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The tuba is the lowest-pitched and the largest brass musical instrument. It was invented by Johann Gottfried Moritz and Wilhelm Friedrich Wieprecht and the word “tuba” means horn or trumpet in Latin. Its body is composed of the mouthpiece, main tube, valve tube, valves, and the bell.

Popular tuba players include Andy Kirk, Min Leibrook, Red Callender, William Bell, Oystein Baadsvik, Roger Bobo, Howard Johnson, Dave Bargeron, John Van Houten, and John White.

Basic Types

Marching Tuba

Marching band playing tuba and trumpets.

There are numerous types of tubas, and the ones made specifically for marching usually have a lead pipe that is manually screwed on right next to the valves. The instrument is then rested on the left shoulder, though some can fit the right one, and the bell faces directly in front of the player. Marching tubas are used only for marching and are usually incapable of being converted into a concert tuba.

Instead, most marching bands use the sousaphone because it is easily wrapped around the body of the player. Sousaphones are also less expensive and lighter than marching tubas. In addition, different tubas can be used for marching purposes, including the helicon tuba and the contrabass bugle. If you have a strap, you can use a standard tuba while marching, because it allows you to play the instrument just like you do when you’re sitting.

Sousaphone

Marching band playing sousaphone.

Sousaphones wrap around the body of the player and are, therefore, easy to play either while sitting in an orchestra pit or while on the marching field. Sousaphones are light and not awkward to carry and play, which is one of the reasons they are so widely used in both concert and marching bands. Sousaphones are made of either brass or fiberglass, and they project their sound ahead and above the player and out towards whatever is in front. The bell is very large, and it has a very distinctive, pleasant sound.

Upright Tuba

Upright tuba on a wooden surface near a body of water.

Most tubas are upright tubas, because their bells are facing out away from the player and because they are placed on the lap of the player. Even heavier tubas, which can weigh over 25 pounds, are easily placed on the player’s lap, and their upright design makes them easy to carry even while on the marching field. Because the keys are in front facing outwards, they are easy to press while playing, making the upright tuba an instrument that is easy to carry around and very easy to maneuver.

Specific Types

Baritone Horn

Baritone horn on wooden background.

Sometimes called just a baritone, the baritone horn is low in pitch. It has piston valves and a mostly conical bore, similar to the alto horn and the flugelhorn. Its mouthpiece is shaped like a cup and is wide rimmed, just like the euphonium and the trombone. Furthermore, just like the euphonium and the trombone, the baritone horn is considered both a transposing and a non-transposing instrument.

The baritone tuba has essentially the same length of tubing as the trombone does, the only difference being that its design is in the shape of a small tuba. Therefore, its range is the same as that of a trombone, but its sound is much mellower. In addition, instead of a hand slide, the baritone tuba uses valves. All tubas have dark, powerful, deep tones that are easily recognizable by most people.

Bass Tuba

Musician holding a bass tuba.

The bass tuba is usually in the key of Eb or F, with the F tuba being most common in Europe. The Eb tuba usually plays an octave higher than the contrabass tuba when included in a brass band, whereas the F tuba is used by professional players for solos and various ensembles. The Eb tuba is also most common in the United States, and both types of bass tubas can be supplemented by the CC or BBb tubas whenever necessary.

Most music from the 19th century is written for the bass tuba, a smaller version of the standard tuba, and the instrument is also the very first tuba to be used. Most professional tuba players own both a bass and a contrabass tuba because most compositions have parts for one or both of the instruments. That being said, the bass tuba is becoming more and rarer in bands today, although they can still be found in many orchestras.

Contrabass Bugle/Tuba

The contrabass tubas are the lowest-pitched of all of the instruments in the tuba section. Pitched in either C or Bb – which is usually referred to as CC and BBb – and in orchestras, the CC tuba is most commonly used. In countries such as Russia, Germany, and Austria, the BBb tubas are most common, and this is also a common tuba used in the United States in schools and by amateur musicians.

CC tubas have a fundamental pitch of 32 Hz, whereas BBb tuba is 29 Hz. There are at least five different types of contrabass tubas, most of which are pitched in BBBb, and they sound a full octave lower than the basic BBb contrabass tuba. Most music for this instrument is written in bass clef.

Euphonium

Musician holding an euphonium.

A euphonium is quite large, has conical-shaped bores, and gets its name from the Greek word for “well-sounding” or “sweet-voiced.” It is a brass instrument mostly found with piston valves, although there are models that have rotary valves attached. If played as a non-transposing instrument, the euphonium is usually played in bass clef. It can also be played in treble clef when used as a transposing instrument. In Great Britain, it is normally treated as a treble-clef instrument, while in the United States it can be either treble or bass. There are four separate types of euphoniums:

  1. Compensating euphonium. Very commonly used by professionals, the compensating euphonium has three upright valves and one side valve, utilizing a three-plus-one system. It also has extra tubing to produce a certain sound. Not all euphoniums with four valves are compensating, however, because only the ones that have the extra tubing in them fall under this category.
  2. Double-bell euphonium. These contain a second smaller bell in addition to the main bell. Players could switch back and forth between the bells easily by using a small lever operated by the left hand. The double-bell euphonium sounds a lot like a trombone and therefore, it is thought they were used when a trombone wasn’t available. They were created in the late 1880s and are virtually nonexistent today, being very rarely known by younger players.
  3. Five Valves euphonium. Of all the euphoniums in existence, these are the rarest and most valuable ones. In addition to the three main piston valves, it also has two extra valves on its side. These are not to be confused with the double-bell euphoniums that have five valves, as some of them do, because they are played differently and have different functions.
  4. Marching euphonium. Because brass instruments can be quite heavy, some of them – including the euphonium – are also made in small and lighter versions to make them easier to march with. There are two main types of marching euphoniums, and they are light enough to carry comfortably on the marching field. One of these two types is called the convertible euphonium, and it is usually manufactured by companies such as Yamaha or Jupiter.

The euphonium is also called the tenor tuba, and it is pitched in Bb. When you hear the term “tenor tuba,” it normally refers to the Bb rotary-valve tubas pitched in the same octave as euphoniums. There is also a “small Swiss tuba in C,” which is a tenor tuba in C and which has six valves to accommodate the lower notes of a musical piece.

Helicon Tuba


Street choir playing different musical instruments including trumpets, drums, and helicon tuba.

Most helicon tubas are in the key of Bb, but they can also be in Eb, F, and tenor sizes. The sousaphone is actually a specialized version of the helicon tuba, and when these were first made they had an upright bell, earning them the name the “rain catcher.” With later versions, two main changes were made. First, the bell faced forward with a larger flare and a diameter of up to 28 inches; and second, a lead-pipe that has a “goose-neck” shape was added. The latter provided better adjustability of the position of the mouthpiece, and both helicon tubas and sousaphones are worn on the shoulder and have circular shapes.

Saxhorn

Woman playing a saxhorn.

Developed by Adolphe Sax, the saxhorn has bores which are conical in shape and mouthpieces that are deep and shaped like a cup. The saxhorn’s sound is mellow and blends very well with other brass instruments. It also has valves like many other brass instruments do. Saxhorns range from soprano to contrabass, and they were developed using the bugle as a model for the end result. Below are a few types of the saxhorn:

  • Bb soprano saxhorn – the flugelhorn
  • Eb alto/tenor saxhorn – the alto/tenor horn
  • Bb baritone saxhorn – the baritone horn or euphonium
  • Eb bass, Bb bass, and Bb contrabass saxhorns are the same as the modern tuba, Eb bass tuba, and BBb contrabass tuba, respectively

Sousaphone

Sousaphone resting on the concrete ground as the marching band stands idly.

Developed in 1893 at the direction of the American bandleader John Philip Sousa, it was designed so that it is easier to play than a regular concert tuba, whether the player is marching or standing. It was also made to carry its sound above the heads of the rest of the marching band members. Unlike the tuba, which is carried in front of the player, the sousaphone is circular and fits around the player’s body.

These days, both fiberglass and brass sousaphones can be found, and they are used widely in most marching bands. Although some people confuse the sousaphone with a tuba, it is easy to tell the difference between the two instruments once you know what each of them looks like.

Subcontrabass Tuba

Although extremely rare, the subcontrabass tuba, pitched in BBBb, does exist. There are four separate versions of the subcontrabass tuba; two are in BBBb, one octave below the BBb contrabass tuba; a tuba pitched in FFF that was developed in the early 1900s and was in the World Exhibition in New York in 1913; and a subcontrabass tuba in EEEb, which is mostly used in comedic music festivals. For the FFF subcontrabass tuba, two players are needed – one plays the valves and one blows into the mouthpiece.

Subcontrabass tubas are extremely rare, but today a music professor at Harvard University owns one. The tuba is even used periodically for concerts. Most subcontrabass tubas were originally pitched in either C or Bb, and both have excellent intonations and sounds. Ironically, it is recommended not to play this instrument above the middle C note, as the notes can sound strained and thin. After all, lower-brass instruments are meant to sound low, and if you choose a tuba instrument with more than three valves, you can play even lower notes than you would if you had a tuba with only three valves.

Wagner Tuba

Wagner tuba

The Wagner tuba is rarely used today, and it has characteristics of both the trombone and the French horn. They can also be called Wagner horns, Bayreuth tubas, Bayreuth-Tuben, or simply Tuben. Many of Wagner’s published scores refer to these instruments as Tuben, which is plural for tuba. The Wagner tuba usually comes in one of two keys – F (bass) and Eb (tenor) – and they usually have rotary valves. Some are combined, however, and can be configured in either key. Some musical experts think the name “Wagner tuba” does not fit the instrument, as they are actually modified horns and not tubas.

The Wagner tuba uses a mouthpiece just like a horn’s mouthpiece, and it can be thought of as a hybrid instrument because it has characteristics of both the tuba and the horn; in fact, it is played by traditional horn players. It has a limited repertoire, so if a French horn player plays the Wagner tuba part, it can sometimes result in problems with intonation. However, the instrument does have a dignified and noble sound, providing a great addition to the sound of any orchestra or band.

Types and Construction (Characteristics) of Tubas

Construction

Street musician playing a tuba.

Tubas are generally made of brass, and it can be unfinished or lacquered, or even electroplated with gold, silver, or nickel. Unfinished brass offers challenges because it occasionally tarnishes and therefore, it needs to be polished occasionally to continue to look good. This is the reason that tubas and other brass instruments can be referred to as brass-wind instruments.

Pitch and Size

Orchestra band playing tuba instruments.

Tubas vary in overall width of the tubing, the fundamental pitch, and of course, the length of the instrument. Their sizes are generally indicated by a quarter system. A 4/4 tuba indicates a full-sized tuba, but larger instruments can be 5/4 or 6/4, and smaller tubas can be 3/4 in size. When it comes to the tuba’s size, the designation refers to the large outer branches and not the tubing at the valves. The quarter system also has nothing to do with the size of the bell, though there is often a correlation between the two. In American grade schools, younger tuba players usually play 3/4 tubas since the full-sized ones can be too cumbersome for them. These tubas are tuned and keyed just like the full-sized tubas, but they almost always have three valves instead of four or five.

Valves

Tuba valves

Tubas usually have either piston or rotary valves, with the following characteristics:

  • Rotary valves were invented by Joseph Riedl and were first used in the 1840s or 1850s. These valves are usually preferred by German players. They also require less maintenance than piston valves, because oiling them is rarely needed. In addition, rotary valves are very difficult to assemble and re-assemble because they are complex and usually need to be assembled by an expert.
  • Piston valves were developed for the saxhorn family of instruments, and they can point to the top of the instrument or out the front of the instrument; in other words, front-action or side-action valves. Piston valves are usually preferred by American and British players. They are higher maintenance than rotary valves because they have to have regular oiling to keep them working right. They are also easy to assemble and re-assemble, especially compared to rotary valves.

As a general rule, tubas have from three to six valves, although some have different amounts. The least expensive tubas, preferred by beginners, generally have three valves, as do the sousaphones. Advanced players often use four- or five-valve tubas, and there is even a very rare F tuba that has five or six valves.

There are also automatic compensating valves in some tubas, which make fingering much easier and eliminates the need to continuously adjust the slide positions. When several valves are used in combination to accurately tune the instrument, these valves come in handy. Although there are many advantages to compensating valves, there are disadvantages as well.

For one thing, the instrument can sound stuffier because it is more resistant to airflow than tubas with non-compensating tubas. Second, the instrument is much heavier. However, most tuba players still prefer the compensating valves because of the way they improve the overall tone and sound of the instrument. There are usually either three or four compensating valves on a tuba.

Interesting Facts About the Tuba

  • Tubas are held upright while they are being played, which is the opposite of the way trumpets and trombones are played.
  • Tubas have been members of the symphony-orchestra since the mid-1800s.
  • The average tuba has roughly 16 feet of tubing inside of it.
  • Tubas usually have between three and six valves.
  • The most common keys for tubas include Eb, F, CC, and BBb.
  • The tuba has the lowest of any of the brass instruments.
  • Tubas are often called either concert tubas, which are the earliest unaltered tubas; and recording tubas, which are forward-facing tubas that made them easier to record.
  • Many composers have written tunes centered on the tuba, including concertos and various symphonies.
  • Tubas come in various pitches, from the deep subcontrabass tuba to the higher pitches of the tenor tuba.
  • Tuba parts are found in brass ensembles, pop and jazz groups, tuba quartets, orchestras, brass bands, and wind bands.
  • When tubas were first included in orchestras, they replaced an instrument called the ophicleide, an instrument that was similar to the bugle, but had keys and was used in Renaissance times. It was a good instrument, but the tuba was considered to be more modern and contemporary. It was the perfect marketing campaign.
  • The parts of the tuba include the mouthpiece, main tube, valve tube, valves, and the bell.
  • The tuba was invented in 1835.
  • Jazz bands once used the tuba as an alternative to the stringed bass to protect the instrument when playing outdoors.
  • Tubas are heavy and can weigh up to nearly 30 pounds, which is why players hold them in their laps instead of holding them up to their mouths to play.

The Valves on a Tuba

  • First valve: this valve lowers the pitch by one step
  • Second valve: this valve lowers the pitch by a half-step
  • Third valve: this valve lowers the pitch by one-and-a-half steps
  • Fourth valve: this valve is used in place of the combination of the first and third valves; it can be tuned to lower the pitch of the main tube by two-and-a-half steps
  • Fifth and sixth valves: these valves essentially provide alternate fingerings to reach lower levels and to improve intonation

A BBb tuba can become an Ab tuba when the first valve is pressed. The third valve can even lower the pitch of a BBb tuba by one-and-a-half steps, although it cannot do the same for an Ab tuba. You can use the fourth valve to lower the pitch of the main tube by four-and-a-half steps, which means you can do this to correct the tone when it is too sharp.

If there is a fifth and sixth valve on the instrument, you can more easily reach the lowest notes of the instrument, as well as use alternative fingerings whenever necessary. You can also trill more easily while using these two valves.





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