The sousaphone is a brass instrument in the same family as the more known tuba. Created around 1893 by J. W. Pepper at the direction of American bandleader John Philip Sousa, it was designed to be easier to play than the concert tuba while standing or marching, as well as to carry the sound of the instrument above the heads of the band. Like the tuba, sound is produced by moving air past the lips, causing them to vibrate or "buzz" into a large cupped mouthpiece. Unlike the tuba, the instrument is bent in a circle to fit around the body of the musician; because of the ease of carrying and the direction of sound, it is employed in marching bands, as well as various other musical genres. Sousaphones were made out of brass but in the mid-20th century started to be made from lighter materials like fiberglass; the first sousaphone was built by James Welsh Pepper in 1893 at the request of John Philip Sousa, dissatisfied with the hélicons in use by the United States Marine Band. Some sources credit C. G. Conn with its construction, because of the first sousaphone he built in 1898.

Sousa wanted a tuba-like instrument that would send sound upward and over the band, much like a concert tuba. The new instrument had an oversized bell pointing straight up, rather than the directional bell of a normal hélicon; the sousaphone was developed as a concert instrument rather than for marching. Sousa wanted the new instrument for the professional band which he started after leaving the Marines, this band marched only once. Sousa used sousaphones built by C. G. Conn. Although less balanced on a player's body than a helicon, because of the large spectacular bell high in the air, the sousaphone retained the tuba-like sound by widening the bore and throat of the instrument significantly, its upright bell led to the instrument being dubbed a "rain-catcher". Some versions of this design allowed the bell to rotate forward, projecting the sound to the front of the band; this bell configuration is the standard today. The instrument proved practical for marching, by 1908 the United States Marine Band adopted it.

Versions with the characteristic extra 90° bend making a forward-facing bell were developed in the early 1900s. Early sousaphones had 22-inch-diameter bells, with 24-inch bells popular in the 1920s. From the mid-1930s onward, sousaphone bells have been standardized at a diameter of 26 inches; some larger sousaphones were produced in limited quantities. The sousaphone is a valved brass instrument with the same tube length and musical range as other tubas; the sousaphone's shape is such. The valves are situated directly in front of the musician above the waist and all of the weight rests on the left shoulder; the bell is detachable from the instrument body to facilitate transportation and storage. Except for the instrument's general shape and appearance, the sousaphone is technically similar to a tuba. For simplicity and light weight, modern sousaphones always use three non-compensating piston valves in their construction, in direct contrast to their concert counterparts' large variation in number and orientation.

Both the tuba and sousaphone are semi-conical brass instruments. No valved brass instrument can be conical, since the middle section containing the valves must be cylindrical. While the degree of bore conicity does affect the timbre of the instrument, much as in a cornet and trumpet, or a euphonium and a trombone, the bore profile of a sousaphone is similar to that of most tubas. To facilitate making the mouthpiece accessible to players of different height or body shapes, most sousaphones contain a detachable tubing gooseneck which arises from the lead pipe on the upwind side of the valves. One or two slightly-angled bit are inserted into the gooseneck, the mouthpiece is inserted into the terminal bit; this arrangement may be adjusted in height and yaw angle to place the mouthpiece comfortably at the player's lips. Most sousaphones are manufactured from sheet brass yellow or silver, with silver and gold plating options, much like many brass instruments. However, the sousaphone is commonly seen manufactured from fiberglass, due to its lower cost, greater durability, lighter weight.

The weight of a sousaphone can be between 50 pounds. Most modern sousaphones are made in the key of BB♭ and like tubas the instrument's part is written in "concert pitch", not transposed by key for a specific instrument. Although sousaphones may have a more restricted range than their concert tuba counterpart they can all play the same music and have parts written in the bass clef and the indicated octave is played. Many older sousaphones were pitched in the key of E♭, but current production of sousaphones in that key is limited. Although most major instrument manufacturers have made, many continue to make, sousaphones and King instruments are agreed among players to be the standards against which other sousaphones are judged for tone quality and playability; the most regarded sousaphone built is the 0.734-inch-bore (1

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