As usual, this article is called Buying a Tuba, but it actually refers to both tuba and euphonium. I have some pretty strong opinions on this topic.
These opinions come from my own experience of unknowingly getting the wrong instrument, and I’ve been stuck with it ever since. I currently play on a silver plated Yamaha YEP 321 euphonium.
I think it’s important to first clearly state what makes buying a tuba or euphonium hard (in comparison to pretty much every other instrument).
First, kids start on loaner instruments from schools. This means that almost no one buys a cheaper student instrument.
As the low brass player gets better, they will outgrow this loaner instrument. This often happens in early or late high school. The parents and student come to a decision about getting their own instrument.
This puts everyone involved in a very awkward position because the long-term is hard to think about. Maybe the student doesn’t end up playing after high school. Maybe the family can’t afford something on the professional end.
I came into some money when I was in high school because my grandfather died. The intent was to use it for college, but my parents offered using it to get my own instrument.
I couldn’t wait. I was using a crappy, dented 3-valve student loaner instrument. I went and tried some out at the local music stores. Let’s just say that the YEP 321 was probably the highest quality instrument they had that fit my budget.
Here’s the position music teachers are in. They either don’t know enough to know that this $2,000+ instrument is still considered a student model.
Or, they know this but feel awkward suggesting a parent dish out $6,000+ on something that will take them to the highest levels when the kid could stop playing at any time.
Seriously, I feel for them and their awkward position. But this meant I basically had no guidance in this expensive endeavor. That’s why I’m writing this article.
I know. You’re thinking: get on with it. But I want to point out why no other instruments have this problem. It helps to fully understand the situation so that you can make a more informed decision.
My brother plays the
So, my brother coasted along on that until he was well past the intermediate stage. This way he knew for a fact that he was ready for a professional model.
He had no problem finding a professional model for roughly the cost of my intermediate model.
It’s a bit awkward when you have to scrounge up a huge sum of money for something that should last you the rest of your life only to find out a few years later that you paid very little and need to upgrade.
I felt sick when my teacher looked at my instrument when I got to college and said something like, “Oh, you’ll need to get a different instrument soon.”
My instrument was practically brand new. I had gotten it two years earlier. How could I already need a new one
Things to Consider
Now you understand the problem. The very first thing you must consider is what the purpose of the instrument is going to be. Is it to get through high school and then to occasionally play in a local community band as you feel like it?
Or, are you planning on going to college? Or, are you hoping to become a professional?
You must think long-term. If you play at an intermediate level, it may be far more severe of a long-term cost to get an intermediate instrument and then have to get a professional model when you could make the investment once.
No one wants to be the awkward person to tell you this, so I’m doing it here. Splurging for that higher end instrument that will last you the rest of your life might be the better financial decision.
It was close to twenty years ago, and it still frustrates me a bit to think about. I don’t play anywhere that would justify the cost of a professional model, so there’s no way I’m upgrading now.
But I used to, and the fact that I’m stuck with something that is essentially a top-end student model is very annoying. It has a small bore, and it has non-compensating valves. It is not a good instrument at all for someone at my level.
I’ll end by saying that if you plan on becoming a professional, then most of this is moot. You’ll be getting that professional instrument (and probably several of them!) eventually.
Waiting it out with whatever you’ve got isn’t so bad. I did graduate with a 4.0 and auditioned into the top band every semester (and it was not one of those schools with low competition).
Used vs New
The next decision you’ll have to make is if you’re getting a new instrument or a used instrument.
This never even came up as a possibility when I was getting my instrument. I think part of the problem was that my band teacher was a trumpet player. It probably also never occurred to him to get a trumpet used when professional model trumpets cost so little (in comparison).
There’s a bit of a stigma associated with used instruments. Instruments aren’t cars. They don’t get worse with age if they are properly maintained.
I see almost no upside of getting a new instrument. The main thing a store or manufacturer will be able to give you is some sort of insurance and/or return policy.
We’ll get to testing an instrument later, but these should not be serious considerations that limit your choices. You may be able to find incredible instruments for cheaper than a new student model.
With new instruments, you’re limited by what’s in stock. With used instruments, you’re limited by what you randomly find for sale. Both have downsides in this department.
The main thing to worry about with used instruments is a seller that isn’t truthful and extra costs to make sure nothing goes wrong.
You’ll probably have to pay your own shipping insurance. You need to do this. There is no compromising on this “optional” shipping upgrade. Pretty much every major shipping company has wrecked instruments. Do not take chances when it comes to this.
I’d also recommend trying a used instrument that doesn’t have a well-known track record. This means you might be limited to local people.
If you go with eBay or some other online source, try to get the seller to produce a certified letter from a music shop saying what the estimated cost of work needed. If you can’t get them to do this, make sure you can return it.
Check the seller’s track record.
I’d personally always play an instrument before buying it (unless it’s through a company with a zero-questions asked full refund return policy).
There are numerous reasons to try an instrument. The first is the tone quality. You should have something in mind for how you want to sound. If you’re still developing as a player, this might not be something I’d rate highly, but it should still be a factor.
You also want to make sure there aren’t any insurmountable intonation issues, especially with your mouthpiece of choice. There are some weird mouthpiece/instrument combinations where things get screwy.
Of course, changing your mouthpiece is the better option if you run into an instrument you really want.
You also need to test out the feel. Are the valves slow and difficult to press? Are there dents you couldn’t see in the picture. This is the instrument you’re playing for the foreseeable future. No minor annoyance is too small to take into consideration.
For a used instrument, test all the valves and tuning slides. Makes sure none of the valve caps are stuck. Pretty much all of these are fixable if you’ve found the perfect instrument, but you’ll have to take into consideration repair costs if you are on a strict budget.
You should know that both B-flat and C tubas are popular, and they’ll look basically the same. Unless you have perfect pitch, they’ll even sound and feel mostly the same when you try one.
Make sure you know what key the instrument is in before you buy it!
The difference between a B-flat and C instrument is a decision you’ll have to make. This will mostly be decided by where you plan to play most.
Bands tend to want a B-flat tuba for the broad bass they provide. Orchestras tend to prefer a C tuba for contributing to the overall sound of the ensemble. It’s not a strict rule. You can find prominent examples of exceptions to this rule.
If you go with a C, you should know that you’ll have to transpose when you read ensemble music.
The different materials will have different tones and resonances. This, like many of the other things you must consider, is personal preference. It’s also a good reason to try the instrument before buying it.
I can try to give generic differences to expect, but the truth is that every instrument will react differently. You’ll need to go by your ear, feel, and preference. You definitely shouldn’t go with rose brass just because someone told it would have a warm sound.
I’d also recommend not paying too much attention to the finish. Many people mistakenly think that a silver finish is professional and a lacquer (gold-colored) finish is for student models.
It’s true that the finish affects the tone and resonance, but you can find professional instruments in both. Go by what works for you. Do not feel pressured to get a silver finish to look more professional.
Bore Size and Valves
With all this being said, the two main considerations that distinguish a lower end “student” instrument from a professional level instrument are the bore size and valve consideration.
The first thing that I’d never skimp on is a fourth valve. The fourth valve is essential at pretty much every level of play after middle school.
If you’ve seen my article on playing in tune, then you know that certain valve combinations are wildly out of tune by the physics of sound itself. The two most egregious examples of this are 1-3 for low C and 1-2-3 for low B-natural.
These two notes are in practically every piece of music, and the fourth valve is there to help put them in tune.
The fourth valve also opens up the possibility for more combinations of alternate fingerings.
The other valve consideration is whether to have compensating valves. This is basically where known valve combinations reroute through a different set of tubes to make the lengths closer to the ideal length.
Again, this is to make it easier to play in tune. I’d put compensating systems on the bottom of the list of most important features to have.
Once you get to a certain level of play, there’s a chance you’ll wish you had such an instrument, but my euphonium does not have compensating valves. I can still play every note in tune.
Larger bore sizes are usually considered for more advanced players. This will allow you to play with a more open and beautiful tone, among other things.
There isn’t too much to consider here. I’d say to err on the side of going too large or you’ll really regret it in the long run. It’s easier to grow into a larger bore size than to get the tone you want on something too small.
Still, there’s a compromise to be made if you find the professional bore sizes to be uncomfortable for your current level.
Where to Buy a Tuba
(I know I’ve repeated myself here, but I’m not assuming everyone has read every section).
Music Store Pros
I’m a bit on the old-school side of things here, but I’d always recommend a good and trusted music store.
The staff there should be able to guide you through this large and difficult decision. Bring questions you have from this article, and make sure you’re comfortable with them.
If they try to rush you or up-sell you, don’t stick around. But remember how this article started. They will probably be a bit more honest with you about the benefits of a more expensive instrument than some of the other people guiding you.
The point of the store is that you’ll be able to try it and they’ll have return policies and probably even built-in insurance policies. They should be able to get instruments they don’t have in stock for you to try.
It’s also good to support music stores since this is likely where you’ll take your instrument for repairs and cleaning.
Music Store Cons
Stores are very limiting. You’ll be able to find a far larger variety online. You’ll also be able to find professional instruments for a more affordable price if you buy a used instrument.
I can’t really recommend any specific sites since I don’t have a lot of experience with them.
That being said, there’s always an inherent risk with online sales. If you can’t try the instrument, it might not be a good fit and you might not be able to return it.
You could be misled. I’d recommend trying to find a local used dealer or private seller that will let you try it first.
If that’s not a possibility, I’d move on to specialty places like www.tubaexchange.com or the www.dwerden.com message boards. There’s less risk when lots of knowledgeable people can offer opinions.
I’d only resort to a random eBay seller as the lowest option. Check the user’s reviews.
Buying a Tuba: Weird Stuff
If you’re reading this guide, then you probably need an instrument that will be suitable for both improvement (in other words, taking lessons) and standard ensembles. You probably do not yet have a “standard” all-purpose horn.
I highly suggest steering clear of weird stuff. Double bells are fun. An early prototype from 1880 is fascinating. You love marching band, so you’re tempted by the marching baritone over a concert euphonium.
The tuba family has more variants than pretty much any other family of instruments. But I highly suggest only getting these fun variants as secondary and specialty purchases.
Your first serious purchase should serve all your standard needs.
At the end of the day, if you have a knowledgeable teacher that understands your goals, they will probably know what’s best for you.
Have the discussion with them, and even if you don’t plan on following through on it, ask something like, “If money were no obstacle, what should I do?”