All About Sousaphones

October 2, 2013

As a huge fan of all things helicon (I own a 1909 Conn E-flat helicon, and would dearly love to get my hands on a B-flat version), I have long been interested in how the sousaphone came to replace the helicon in the United States. The last US-built helicon was made circa 1930, although they are made to this day in B-flat, E-flat, and F- versions in Europe.

But how did sousaphones replace helicons in the US? And when did the famous bell-front design come into existence?

The classic story is that they were the brainchild of John Philip Sousa. As it turns out, that part of the story is quite true, but there are several aspects of the classic story that are not true. To wit:

  1. They were not intended as marching instruments
  2. They were originally not bell-front – in fact one of Sousa’s main reasons for wanting something other than the helicon was to find an instrument that did NOT project in a specific direction.
  3. The very first sousaphone was actually made by the J.W. Pepper Company circa 1895, although the C.G. Conn company was probably the most famous publicist and purveyer of these instruments.
  4. The first bell-front sousaphone was built in 1908 by Conn, but Sousa himself did not use it – he preferred the original upright bell design and continued to use that one until his death in 1931.

For a lot more detail on sousaphone history, please visit Dave Detwiler’s fantastic blog Strictly Oompah, wherein he delves deeply into the history of the sousaphone.


Heliconology, Part II

June 16, 2011

I have long desired a helicon, as I have previous discussed in my post on Heliconology, Part I. I’ve been considering several instruments, including a beautiful four-valved European (from the little-known maker Ernst David) instrument from circa 1890. However, as I prefer American-made horns, I have finally settled on a Holton from roughly the same vintage as my Holton Special trombone. The trombone is 1912; the helicon is from 1917. Both are Chicago-made instruments. In fact, the helicon’s serial number identifies it as one of the very last instruments made in Chicago before the company moved to Elkhart, Indiana in 1918. I purchased the horn from the fine folks at Dillon Music in New Jersey and the horn arrived in California a week or so ago.

In appearance, the horn is silver-plated. At present, it is entirely tarnished to the point of appearing nearly black in color. I am having the instrument cleaned and brought into playing condition by the wonderful folks at Dick Akright’s Best Music Repairs. Although Dick’s guys do excellent work, I expect to put in some serious elbow grease before the horn returns to its natural beauty. But eventually I shall have some pictures to post here at Newcomb’s Notations.

The repairs themselves will involve a fair amount of work. To begin with, the horn is missing the neck, the bits, the third valve stem and button and some bracing. Dick’s crew started work on it a couple of weeks ago and they estimated approximately two weeks to do the work I am requesting, so I hope to have the instrument in playable condition before too long. I shall post more when I receive it.

Heliconology, Part I

April 7, 2011

I have long been an admirer of the helicon. Oh, you may ask, but what IS a helicon? Well, as it is defined by Grove it is from the Greek ‘helikon’, which means ‘the mountains of the Muses’. It is a valved brass instrument, similar to a sousaphone, but with a fixed, upwards-facing bell. The first known example, according to Grove, was manufactured in 1845 in Vienna and the instrument is typically made in F, E-flat and BB-flat. It was made both in three- and four-valve configurations, though three is by far the most common. In the United States, the helicon has been almost entirely superseded by the sousaphone – American manufacturers ceased production by the 1940s. It is still manufactured in Europe.

I have been looking at various instruments online, as I decide I really want to purchase one of these instruments. I do play a fair number of gigs where a lighter horn than the big Miraphone 186 would be convenient. However, the Miraphone is such a beautiful instrument I have not yet made a move. However, a friend who has a small collection recently informed me that he had one for sale. After I expressed interest, he was kind enough to allow me to borrow the horn for a week to play it and see how I like it. The horn in question is an Ernst European model circa 1890-1900, with four rotary valves. It is pitched in the key of BB-flat. After playing it today, I have one or two preliminary observations, as follows.


  • Weight: The horn is very light and I could easily stand to carry it for a three or four hour performance on my feet.
  • Voice: The horn is also very pleasant in tone and although it is not quite as full as my Miraphone 186 (no surprise there), it has a very capable range and can speak with some authority when necessary.
  • Negatives:

  • The horn has a shoulder brace which is somewhat bent, so I suspect that it could be made a little more fitting. That being said, the helicon has a straight bit that is very limited in adjustment and as a result, I need to hold the horn in order to bring it to my embouchure and raise my shoulder somewhat, which is not the most comfortable position.
  • The rotary keys are not in the most comfortable position, although i suspect that if the above-mentioned aspects were adjusted, this problem might well be resolved as well.
  • I shall continue playing the horn for the next week and intend to use it on the upcoming performance on Saturday. shall continue this series throughout the week and will post my final thoughts at the end of the week. As well as determining if I will or will not actually purchase the instrument I am currently playing!