Shop Talk: A New Bass Tuba Fifth-Sixth Valve System
by Sam McFerrin
My name is Sam McFerrin—alias “tubasam.” I studied music at Indiana University for 3 years, MTSU for 2 years (music and computers), and The University of Memphis for 1.5 years (graduating with my Bachelor of Music Degree). I studied with William Bell at Indiana University in the 1960s and later, after graduating first in my class at the Navy School of Music, I played principal tuba followed by principal euphonium in the Marine Band. I have played in orchestras, military bands, German bands, Dixieland bands, and other groups for over 40 years including performing in such venues as the Vienna Philharmonic Hall and the 1982 World’s Fair.
In 1974, I was in the Army Band in Heidelberg, Germany. That year I not only qualified for an additional pro pay, but equaled the highest grade of any tuba player in the army on my music testing and overall teamwork evaluation. While there I went to several tuba factories, i.e., Miraphone, Alexander, Scherzer Sanders, and Meinl-Weston (known as Wenzel Meinl in Germany). Anton Meinl ended up making me an F tuba with six valves and extra slides for the 5th and 6th valves. Over a 19-year period, I tried various combinations, thinking there was no best combination, only personal preferences. I was wrong. There definitely is a best combination that works with the other four valves for ease of playing and best compromise for tuning.
The result was similar to a popular version of the French tuba from 150 years ago. This 6-valve tuba had one valve the length of a 1, 2, and 3-valve combination and another valve the same length as the 2nd valve (1/2 tone). My tuba has a long 5th-valve and short 6th-valve, both of which are slightly shorter than the valves on this French tuba.
The 5th valve is slightly longer than the 4th valve and is a sharp 1, 2, 3-valve combination. It fills in the bottom 2 registers (leading to the pedal and double pedal notes). Tune 1 and 5 to be centered where the 4-valve fingering goes to 1 and 4 (or 1, 2, and 4). This enables the lowest half octaves of the tuba to be played with the 5th-valve held down while the right hand uses the same fingerings as the octave above (for ease of playing and better tuning).
The 5th-valve can be used by itself, but the addition of my 6th-valve does double duty. It fills in on a note just above the pedal and double pedal in combination with the 2 and 4 or 1, 2, 3 valves (2 and 4 preferred if possible). It also helps make a 1/4-tone tuba (being cut at about a 3/8 tone or between 1/4 tone and 3/8 tone), which can also act to sharpen or flatten notes as in popular music, for example.
I have shown my tuba at two major ITEA (formerly TUBA) conventions and to various individuals. What I’m finding is that the older artists may see something to the idea, but prefer the ways they are used to, while the young people or people new to 5th and 6th valves are more apt to like the idea. I have taken down names of people to whom I’ve demonstrated the horn and often the words amazing or ingenious appear in the comments.
I would like to see this tuba made in all the standard keys, i.e., F, E-flat, CC and BB-flat.
Here are some of the comments:
- John Hayes (a graduate student) writes: “These valves help with the break around the pedal to enable smoother playing.”
- Euphonium/Trombone artist Demondrae Thurman says: “This is an awesome tuba.”
- The tuba artist Jens Bjørn-Larsen said: “It is like the trumpet (since the valves on the right hand are the same in the second 1/2 of the lower octave), but one would have to get used to it.”
- Don Harry of Eastman School of Music and the Buffalo Philharmonic: “Cool.” He also mentioned a friend of his that would likely be interested in buying one.
- A valve trombone player that I showed my tuba to said, “It’s got to be made.”
- I found out while talking to the tuba students at the University of Alabama that one of them had a B-flat “quint (he called it)” valve (larger bore slide on this valve) on an F tuba he just sold. That might be a good idea for my 5th valve to get a bigger sound in the low register. Also, a thumb trigger to push out the main tuning slide may be a good idea as long as it has a set screw to return to the main tuning note length.
Why my 6-valve tuba is better than a compensating tuba.
The compensating system works well for baritone and euphonium but is not the best for tuba.
- Many serious tuba players like to stretch the limits of the low range, to be responsible, if you will, for getting as low as their instrument and their chops will allow (which is usually to the double pedal note and beyond; otherwise, the F tuba, for instance, is simply a French horn on steroids). The compensating system cannot reach the double pedal note except by “lipping” down, which may be harder and less accurate.
- Lip movement between the notes is greater on tuba than on euphonium or other higher pitched brass instruments. This makes slurring and trilling harder. If slurring between notes that have the same fingerings is too hard to do smoothly or fast, then the tuba player can do what the great tubist and my teacher William Bell called “fingered slurs.” This means that the tubist can use an alternate fingering for one or more of the notes. The extra valves create more alternate fingerings to help with this.
- As with the trumpet, many of us that play tuba prefer to lip up or down the notes that need it. Five and six valve systems were invented to help with the tuning and make possible the lowest notes above the pedal and double pedal. My 5-valve system is the best “compromise” to not only make the notes in tune or close enough to lip in tune but also keep the fingering of the right hand the same as the octave above. My added 6th valve will make the last 1/2 tone above the pedal and double pedal in tune and centered. Some of the compensating instruments have a thumb trigger or other methods for pushing out the slides, particularly the tuning slide, since some notes above the pedal are slightly sharp. If I had wanted to move slides all the time, I would have taken up trombone.
- The advantage of having 1/4 tone capability is, of course, very hard for many notes on the compensating 4-valve tuba. My added 6th valve makes that easier than just bending the notes or using alternate fingerings. However, lipping notes and/or using alternate fingerings still apply to the extreme registers. Another plus is the fact that my 6th valve is not as limited to the tempered scale and can more easily sharpen or flatten notes (to a resolution, for example).
TUBA FINGERING CHART INCLUDING MY 5TH AND 6TH VALVES
Valve numbers and the fingers that operate them:
1 Index finger of Right Hand
5 Index finger of Left Hand
2 Middle finger of Right Hand
6 Middle finger of Left Hand
3 Ring finger of Right Hand
4 Little finger of Right Hand
0 Tuning note (mid-range)
12 or 3*
13 or 4*
123 or 24*
0 Lower octave
123 Lowest note above pedal on a 3-valve tuba (Fake fingerings)
15 14 4-valve tuba 0
125 or 35* 234 4-valve tuba 2
235 134 4-valve tuba 1
135 or 45* 1234 4-valve tuba 12
12356 or 2456* 1235 or 245* 5-valve tuba 23
1245 or 0 0 3- & 4-valve tuba Pedal octave
1345 or 2 2
123456 or 1 1
The Pedal octave continues the same as the Lower octave.
1245 Double pedal notes
1345 Lowest note on my 5 valve tuba
123456 Lowest note on my 6 valve tuba
*Except for pedal notes, the fingering with in front is preferred.