Tuba Buying Guide - for Parents

Like if this guide is helpful
When it comes time for band parents to buy their kid a tuba, alarms go off. Expensive. Too many different keys. Different sizes. Valve configurations and types. AAAAAHHHH!

There is also a boatload of rubbish passing for advice, written by well-meaning but misinformed or confused players who pass on wrong information. Here is my attempt to make it a bit easier.

First, this is written for BAND parents. The assumption is that junior is going to be playing in a concert band of some type. It is not written for college kids who may need to take the explicit directions of their professor (some practically refuse to teach unless the student has the kind that they promote or use themselves.

1) Key. Tubas come in four common keys, F, Eb (E-flat), CC and BBb (double B-flat). The former are usually thought of as bass instruments, and are about half an octave higher in pitch than the contra-bass instruments in CC or BBb. F is used almost exclusively by soloists who need a very high range, or who are playing specific parts in a symphony orchestra; these are not good choices for most band students. The F cannot play low enough to cover the written tuba parts in concert band music. Eb is a holdover from days when brass bands reigned supreme, and all instruments in the band were Eb or Bb (as in the 1800s and early 1900s). Having them in half-octave pitch spacing made for better orchestration and span. Eb is a good choice for smaller people to play in concert bands, but it is not as useful as a BBb, since it cannot play the lowest written notes. Some girls and smaller women and smaller boys have a hard time with contra-bass tubas and will be happier with an Eb tuba. If equipped with four valves, Eb tubas can play most grade-school level tuba parts, but will come up short on more challenging parts written for high school, college and professional bands. CC is intended to be used in symphony orchestras, and is most often found there. It is OK for concert bands, though, and it can play the necessary low notes. If the kid has a career in an orchestra in his/her dreams, a CC is not a bad way to go. The BBb is the most common tuba, and in the hands of a good player it can handle just about any tuba playing situation. It is the best 'all-round' tuba, and most concert band composers have this instrument in mind when they write the tuba parts. I would recommend a BBb for most kids, as long as they are not too small physically (and there are 3/4 sized BBb tubas that solve many of the small-player issues). By the way, an Eb tuba is half way between a BBb tuba and a euphonium (a.k.a. tenor tuba, sometime called baritone, although a true baritone is a different kind of instrument).

2) Size. Tubas that are 'full-sized' for their respective key are referred to as 4/4 size (remember that an F tuba is almost a half-octave higher than a CC, and an Eb tuba is almost a half-octave higher than a BBb, and their physical sizes are more or less proportional to their pitch.....F and Eb tubas are noticeably smaller than CC or BBb tubas). But there are also 3/4 size versions of some tubas, primarily the contra-bass ones in CC or BBb, made primarily to accommodate smaller players. And for players who can handle them, there are 5/4 (a.k.a. Kaiser tubas) and the freakishly huge 6/4. Unless the player is small physically, go with the 4/4 size. Avoid buying a kid a 5/4; let them buy their own when they are living on their own, with their own money! By the way, a true Eb tuba is pretty small; the most common ones, at least those with four valves, are actually considered to be EEb, because they have more in common with the contra-bass tubas in CC or BBb than they do with really small tubas in F.

3) Valve type. Tubas have two basic types of valves, piston and rotary. Ignoring some odd configurations from before the 1950s or so, the rotaries are all front action (the player's hand works the valves from the front of the horn), and pistons are front, front with an angle or top action. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. In general, I would not recommend front action piston valves for a younger kid, because these are the most fragile and likely to get caught in things like door frames when passing through. Top action pistons are probably the safest for kids who are yet too young to really be aware of the instrument at all times and protect it accordingly. Unfortunately, top action pistons can be pretty awkward compared to the other types, and they are not very popular with better players. Piston valves with an angled front action (they point in between the front and the right side of the horn) and rotary valves are the most common and the most comfortable for the player. Now to decide whether to get the piston or rotary. Pistons are simpler mechanically, and are easier for kids to learn to oil, and no tools are required. But they need to be oiled frequently and many kids don't remember to do this. Rotary valves are more complex, but they tend to require less frequent oiling, and they are enclosed so that they tend to run cleaner and stay out of trouble. But to oil them requires two kinds of oil and extra care in placing that oil. Rotary valves themselves are very robust and are not easily damaged, but their rather exposed keys and valve linkages can be dinged up (but also easily repaired compared to a dinged up piston valve). Both valves types are quick and quiet when properly maintained. So a lot depends on the preferences of the player. For a school kid who does not yet have enough experience to decide for themselves, I recommend not worrying about valve type, and go with whatever valve ends up on a horn picked for its other attributes.

4) Number of valves. Tubas need at least three valves to play all the notes of the scale. They need at least four valves to have a chance of playing the lower notes in tune, and also the lowest notes called for in written band music cannot be played without that fourth valve. For a kid just starting in band, a three valve horn would be OK, but really the school should be supplying the horn. Once in high school or college, the horn needs to have four valves, period. Don't bother with horns having more valves than four; if the kid becomes a professional, they can decide then if they want a horn with the extra valves.

5) Compensating valve systems. Brass instruments with valves select their pitches (notes) by playing bugle calls on a length of tubing within the horn, with the player's lips selecting from a small number of availabel pitches for a given length of tubing. The first valve adds some extra tubing, allowing the player to play those bugle calls at a lower set of pitches. The second valve adds tubing too, but not quite as much as the first valve, so those bugle call are in between the pitches achieved with no valves and those achieved with the first valve. The third valve's tubing is longer, being approximately the same as the first and second valved combined, but except for special situations the third valve is not used by itself. Valves are used in combinations such as 1+2, 2+3, 1+3 (and with a fourth valve, the player can use fourth by itself, or along with any combination of valves 1, 2, 3). Each length of tubing added to the horn's overall length by the valves is tuned using the slide on that valve's tube, so there is a first valve slide, second valve slide, and so on, plus the main tuning slide that is tuning the horn with no valves in use. Here's the rub....if you tune each valve slide for the proper in-tune bugle call pitches with those valves used by themselves, the acoustical physics involved dictate that when used in combinations such as 1+2, etc; the combined lengths of tubing added by those valves will be just a little bit too short for the proper pitches desired by that valve combination. The 'normal' remedy is for the player to force the pitch slightly with his lips when necessary. The fancier remedy is to have the horn automatically add little bits of short tubing whenever valves are used in combination like this; horns equipped thusly are called "compensating" tubas. Only tubas and euphoniums can have this system, since smaller brasses need such very short compensations that it is impractical to do it automatically (this is why trumpets have finger-operated slides on the first and third valves..it is their way to fix the problem). But compensating tubas are much more expensive, heavier, harder to repair and clean. I would recommend avoiding compensating  for school age kids; if they make big bucks later as a professional, they can buy one then with their own money. And the majority of serious players get along just fine without compensating tubas, using their lips and some alternate fingerings that become second nature.

6) Configuration. The pure tuba is always an upright model, meaning that it sits between the players legs on the chair, or on his lap, and its bell points straight up. Special tubas include marching varieties; the drum and bugle corps type (avoid this except for drum and bugle corp purposes), the classic helicon (worn around the body with the bell pointing at an angle up and forwards, and the Sousaphone, which is a kind of helicon having either an upright bell or a forward facing bell. Unless you find an antique "raincatcher" Sousaphone, it will be the forward facing bell type. All marching types are fine for that purpose, but are not very good choices for concert band playing. Sousaphones in particular almost always have only three valves, which keeps their weight and complexity down, but which limits their range so that they cannot play all the notes required by more of the serious band music, and without a fourth valve they cannot compensate for pitch problems as well. Sousaphones also suffer from stability problems resulting from the turbulence caused by all the 'gooseneck' bits between the horn and the mouthpiece; these are necessary to align with the player's mouth, but they are like playing on a very dented lead-pipe on a regular tuba...not good. Stick with the regular upright tuba.

7) Manufacturer. These days, most venerable American tuba brands are made by a handful of manufacturers, including venerable Japanese companies (Yamaha for example) and not-so-venerable Chinese companies. European tuba makers still mostly make their own horns. Almost any German made tuba maker is a good choice for a good playing, high quality, long lasting tuba; but their price might be a bit steep. Yamaha tubas are also good, even when they appear with another brand on them, and they can cost a bit less. Some tubas made in eastern Europe (e.g. Cerveny) or Russian (e.g. St. Petersburg) can save you some dollars, but in my experience their quality control is spotty and it can be trickier to pick out a good one, and the kid may not be the best judge of this until he gets more experienced. My advice would be to find a good used American tuba by Conn or Holton, or a good used German made one (popular brands include Miraphone/Mirafone, Meinel Weston, etc), or a new Japanese one. Avoid tubas made before the mid-1900s, since they can have significant intonation issues, and REALLY avoid those made before the earlier 1900s since the entire horn may be made for a different pitch standard, making it difficult or impossible to play in tune with modern band instruments.

8) Mouthpiece. If buying a new tuba, stick with the one the manufacturer provides. These are usually perfectly good ones, and are likely to match the horn pretty well. The manufacturer does not benefit from shipping their instruments with inappropriate mouthpieces! The kid can always stick in another mouthpiece later on.

9) Price. This is a hard call, but my rule of thumb for new tubas is that a so-so grade school tuba in EEb or BBb should cost between $3000 and $4000, a very good EEb or BBb for high school or college would run $4000 to $6000, and serious players and professionals would be looking at $6000-$12,000. Used models will run less, and older tubas will run less still unless they are sought-after by collectors. If you look at a tuba less than these numbers, it might mean that the seller does no know the horn's worth, or just wants to find a good home for it, or it might mean that the horn has issues or is in some unusual pitch standard, etc.

10) Condition. The horn must have all its pieces. It must have tuning slides that work freely. It must have valves that work freely AND are air-tight enough that when the valve tuning slides (NOT the main tuning slide) are pulled out partially followed by pressing the valve, a "thunk" (low pitched popping sound) will be made. It can have no dents in the section of tubing between the mouthpiece and the first valve. The mouthpiece receiver must not be dented or deformed, so the mouthpiece inserts and seals up properly and easily. Tiny dents in other small tubing of less than 1" diameter can be tolerated so long as they do not prevent tuning slides from moving properly. Dents of about half the size of a golf ball can be tolerated on larger tubes, and dents of half the size of a tennis ball can be tolerated near to the bell. With dents, try to visualize how deep the dent is relative to the diameter of the tube at that point, and if the dent is more than 1/8 the diameter, it can be a problem. There can be no loose solder joints or leaks or holes in the tubing. Take any used horn to a qualified repair person for a cleaning and tune-up/repair session before letting the kid play it. Dead animals, insect nests, toxic molds and other surprises can be found inside used tubas.
Explore more guides