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A Good Instrument – Clarinet

A Good Instrument – Clarinet

Even if you take a closer look, it may be hard to see the differences between one soprano clarinet and the other. They’re all the same shape and size, they’re usually all black, and all the keys, rings and holes are in the same places. Yet one may cost five or ten times as much as the next, one can sound much better, and antoher may be easier to play. This chapter tells you more about the visible and invisible differences between clarinets, and provides handy tips for auditioning clarinets.

More than anything else, the sound of a clarinet depends on you: A good clarinetist can make even a student instrument sound impressive. Next in importance are the reed, the mouthpiece, and the barrel.

Different sounds
There are all kinds of reasons why clarinets can sound and play so differently. This chapter begins with the different material instrument can be made of, followed by important topics such as the bore (the shape of the inside of the instrument), the tone holes, the mechanism, extra keys and the full Boehm clarinet, and German clarinets.

With your ears – All the same
Clarinetists rarely agree about anything. The following chapters won’t tell you who is right, or what is best, but rather what various experts think about different issues. You’ll only discover who you agree with by playing and by listening to as many clarinets and clarinetists as you can.

All clarinets
This article is mainly about the Bb clarinet, but most of what you read here also applies to all other clarinets as well.

Student clarinets are typically made of plastic; more expensive ones are made of wood, and some companies offer an in-between solution with wooden clarinets that have a plastic bell. What are the differences?

Plastic: the advantages
Plastic clarinets have many advantages. They are less expensive, can’t crack, need less maintenance, and weigh considerably less (about a quarter of a pound, or 100 grams) than wooden instruments. This is especially good news for children.

Playing outdoors
Plastic clarinets are also better resistant to rain or sunshine, and they’re insensitive to changes in air humidity or temperature; you don’t have to keep returning them when it gets colder or hotter either. This is why they are often used for outdoor playing.
Preferably wood

Even so, most clarinetists prefer to play wooden instruments, as they usually sound richer, darker, and warmer. That’s certainly not all because of the material: The main reason why wooden clarinets tend to sound better is simply that clarinet makers use wood to make their better instruments. There are no professional plastic clarinets.

Most plastic clarinets are easy to recognize, usually because of their shinier, solid black look. Not all plastic instruments look that way. Some use plastics that look a little like wood (i.e., wood- grained polymers), or they have a matte or a little less smooth (brushed) surface. Colored clarinets, in bright yellow, red, blue, or other colors, are also available.

Graphic 5.1 bass clarinet Larger clarinets – such as this bass clarinet, which extends to low C – have a metal neck, bow, and bell.

Only the barrel and bell
Some otherwise wooden clarinets have a plastic bell. Why? To make a wooden bell, you need a fair-sized chunk of expensive wood. Some of these instruments have a plastic barrel too. The sound of the instrument will often audibly improve if you replace the plastic barrel with a wooden one. Replacing the bell has a similar effect, though it will be Iess dramatic.

Wooden clarinets
Most wooden clarinets are made of an African wood variety that is extremely hard, heavy, and very dark, almost black in color. It is usually called grenadilla, although you may come across other names, such as African blackwood, m’pingo, and ebony, or the official name, Dalbergia melanoxylon. The French company Buffet also makes clarinets from a mixture of (mainly) resin and compressed grenadilla powder.

Other kinds of wood
Less common, but sometimes also used for clarinets is West Indian ebony. This type of wood is also known, Brya ebenus, cocuswood, or granadilla. Rosewood, a reddish-brown wood that is said to give a lighter, softer or sweeter tone, is rarer still. There’s also a US company that makes hard rubber clarinets. This natural material doesn’t crack and is said to make for high quality instruments.

Breaking it in
In order to prevent a new wooden clarinet from cracking, it’s best to break it in carefully. That way the wood, which has been dried in the factory, gets used to the moisture you blow into the instrument.
Various approaches
There are various approaches to how you should break in your instrument. One would be to play it for fifteen minutes every day for the first week, and fifteen minutes per day longer every following week. Others start playing their new instrument five minutes the first day, and add five more every day, or they play no more than half an hour a day for the first month, for example.
Some brands give all their wooden clarinets an extra dark hue by staining them. Other brands don’t color them, and some brands offer staining as an option. There is no audible difference.
Metal parts
Larger clarinets, such as the alto and the bass, have metal necks instead of barrels. The bell is just about always made of metal too, as is the bow that joins it to the instrument.

Metal clarinets
In Turkish, Greek, and other international folk music groups, you may still find soprano clarinets made entirely of metal. You’d expect them to sound very different from wooden or plastic clarinets, but in fact the difference is barely audible. Metal clarinet are a lot lighter, because their walls are very thin. Graphic 5.2 A single walled metal clarinet

Tip box Single and double walls
Clarinet makers always state the diameter of the inside of the – the bore – for each clarinet. The dimensions of the bore have a major effect on how an instrument sounds and plays.

Large or small
Most clarinets have a bore of between 0.577″ and 0.585″ (14.65 – 14.85 mm), measured halfway up the instrument. The difference between these ‘small’ and ‘large’ bores may not look like much on paper, but they are when you play the instrument.

Clarinets with a really large bore (up to 0.591″/15 mm) are mostly used by beginners, because they respond more easily. Jazz clarinetists are also likely to chose this type of bore. Though it requires more air, it gives you the volume you often need for playing jazz, and a sound that is usually described as big and open

Small bore
For a darker, warmer and more subdued, classical type of sound, you’ll probably choose an instrument with a smaller bore diameter and a greater blowing resistance.

Different country, different bore
The preferred bore size also varies by country. Clarinetists in France usually go for a small bore; in Austria they prefer a large bore, and most US clarinetists tend to prefer an instrument with a medium size bore. German clarinets come with both small and large bores.

Inches to millimeters
Bore sizes are usually stated in inches. To convert to millimeters, multiply that size by 25.4. So for example, a 0.575″ bore is 0.575 x 25.4 = 14.60 mm.

The bore of a clarinet is the same diameter along the greater part of its length: Clarinets have a largely cylindrical bore. At certain points, though, the bore diameter becomes smaller, or larger.

Air column
The exact shape of the bore is very important for how a clarinet plays and sounds. Why? When you blow, the reed makes the air in the clarinet vibrate, and vibrating air is sound. In other words, this vibrating air column ‘makes’ the sound of the clarinet. The character of a clarinet’s sound depends to a very large extent on the shape of the air column – and that shape is of course the same as the shape of the bore. Graphic 5.3 The shape of the air column is essential for the character of the sound.

Tip box: The dimensions
The bore becomes steadily larger towards the end of the instrument. This conical section usually begins somewhere about halfway down the lower joint, and is of course most pronounced at the bell.

Reverse cone
At the top of the upper joint of the clarinet, the bore usually: smaller by an almost invisible amount (reverse cone or reversing cone). This produces some extra resistance, and it makes the sound a little darker, warmer, deeper, or more colorful.

Bright and open
A clarinet with an upper joint that doesn’t get any smaller, or doesso only by a very small amount, usually blows very easily, having a rather bright, open sound – just like an instrument with a large bore. For a somewhat warmer, more focused tone, you may try an instrument with a tapered bore.

Different names
Because this narrowing at the top is so important, all kinds of terms are used to describe that small section. For instance, a linear cone means that the tube becomes larger evenly, while dual taper indicates that it does so in two steps (first rapidly, then a little more gradually, or the other way around). Many instruments have a poly cylindrical or a poly conical bore, i.e., a bore that narrows in three or more steps.

All of that jargon is only really important to clarinet makers and technicians, rather than to clarinetists. After all, you don’t buy a clarinet because it has a particular bore but because of the way it plays and sounds. That’s why most makers also explain the characteristics of the various bore types of their instruments, from more volume to a tone that is easier to control, or a richer sound.Check out clarinet brochures and clarinet makers’ websites for such information.

A look through the lower joint and upper joint of your clarinet tells you how smoothly the bore has been finished. A smooth bore allows an instrument to sound easier and literally smoother. If a pre-owned clarinet has a really messy-looking bore, that may be because it hasn’t been kept clean properly.

Wall thickness
Some clarinets have thicker walls than others. A thicker wall is said to give a thicker, more robust sound that carries further (projection). A thin-walled instrument usually responds better and sounds lighter, sweeter, and less penetrating.

Big clarinets
The larger clarinet voices have bigger bores. Alto clarinets, for example, usually have a bore of between 0.670″ and 0.710″ (17-18 mm), and bass clarinets are between 0.905″ and 0.945″ (23-24 mm). The smaller Eb clarinets typically has a bore of around 0.530″ (13.5 mm).

The bell is more important to the sound than you might think. It doesn’t just influence the sound of the long-tube notes, which you play with all or almost all of the tone holes closed, but also the notes that sound from the middle section of the clarinet. Without the bell, your instrument sounds much less resonant than it does with the bell attached.

Try it out
It follows that a clarinet may sound slightly different with one bell than with another. A bell with a wider flare can open up the sound a little, for instance, and a bell with a slightly thicker wall can make for a slightly ‘thicker,’ darker sound. To be able to hear those differences you need to be a competent musician and have a good instrument. If so, it can really be worthwhile to experiment with different bells. Also check out the section on barrels on pages 94 – 97. Quite a few small companies specialize in custom make bells and barrels, as these parts can have similar effects to the sound of your instrument.

Some clarinetists with very good ears even carefully rotate the bell until they’ve found the position in which it makes the instrument sound its very best.

For sale separately
Bells are sold separately, not only to improve the sound of the instrument, but also to replace a broken bell. Standard replacement bells soon cost around fifty dollars or more. Special bells can be a lot more expensive; exclusive wooden bass clarinet bells may cost a thousand dollars or more.

Tip – Plastic or wood
Some plastic student clarinets come with a optional wooden bell, replacing the standard plastic bell. The wooden bell may cost you some ten to fifteen percent extra. If possible, check out the difference in sound this creates!

Bell ring

Because thin wooden bells are especially vulnerable, they usually have metal bell rings. Plastic clarinets have bell rings only for show and some brands allow you to choose between an instrument with or without a ring. A bell ring makes the instrument a tiny bit heavier. Tip: On wooden instruments especially, rings can come loose and cause buzzes.

Most clarinets have metal body rings wherever two joint meet. These rings, also known as joint rings or ferrules, are said to influence the sound a bit, restricting the vibrations of the instrument. This is why some clarinets have only very thin body rings or none at all. Do note that it’s quite hard to hear this subtle difference.

Tenon rings
The cork-covered ends of the upper and lower joints are the tenons. They are often reinforced with metal tenon rings. On lower budget clarinets, not every tenon has a ring.  Graphic 5.4 A tenon without, and one with a tenon ring

Too thick
Always check how easily the barrel, lower joint, upper joint, and bell fit together, and make sure to apply a little cork grease before you do. If the sections slide too easily, there’s a chance that air will leak. If they’re very hard to assemble, the tenon(s) may need to have a bit of the cork removed. A tip: Assembling a new clarinet will always be a little harder, as the tenons are quite thick. They will get a bit thinner after a while.

Clarinets have three kinds of tone holes: Some tone holes have closed keys, others have ring keys, and a few are just open holes. The tone holes that have closed keys are slightly recessed (counter sunk) and have beveled edges, which helps the pads to seal the holes properly.

The tone holes with rings have small “chimney.” On some clarinets these tone holes have plastic or hard rubber inserts that are often said to give a brighter sound and be less likely to crack or deform. Other instruments have integral tone holes, meaning that the tone holes and the joint they’re in are the same piece of wood.  Graphic 5.5 The ring key fits around the chimney
Graphic 5.6 A raised C/G tone hole (Selmer)

Raised tone hole
The tone hole under the left ring finger really is just a hole, without a ring or a key. On some clarinets this tone hole is raised, bringing its edge up to the same level as the rings so that all of your fingers go down the same distance.

Register tube
If you look through the upper joint of a clarinet, you will see two small metal tubes or sleeves: the register tube or speaker tube inside the register key’s tone hole, and another tube inside the thumb hole. These tubes stop the moisture you blow into your clarinet from running out through those holes. They also affect the sound of an instrument and its intonation (how well in tune it is). That’s why German clarinets have a register tube too, even though the corresponding tone hole is positioned at the front side of the tube, where it can’t get waterlogged.

Tip box: Gold: some clarinets come with gold-plated register and speaker tubes. This plating is said to help prevent condensation. Graphic 5.6 The long narrow register tube and the shorter tube in the thumb hole.

Most clarinets have undercut tone holes, which mean every tone hole gets slightly larger at the bottom. Undercut tone holes may improve an instrument’s tone, its response, its intonation, and much more: It makes it sound and play better, in other words. If your instrument has straight tone holes – you only really find such tone holes on low budget clarinets – it’s harder to adjust the exact pitch of your notes. This actually makes things easier for beginners, since it helps to prevent pitch fluctuations. Graphic 5.7 An undercut tone hole

Vent holes
Some clarinets have extra holes to make particular notes sound better or more in tune. These resonance holes or vent holes may be open, or they may have keys.

Most orchestras, ensembles, and other groups tune to concert A (A4; see page 11). If you play this A on a piano, the piano strings vibrate 440 times per second, usually indicated as A=440 hertz (Hz). Graphic 5.8 Tipcode CLR-005
Sound little higher.

Some ensembles tune a fraction higher, for instance to A=442.That ever-so-slight adjustment makes instruments sound just a little brighter or more brilliant.

Different turnings
Ideally, your clarinet must be built to the tuning of the orchestra. For this reason, most quality clarinets come in both 440Hz and 442Hz versions, and some even in a 444Hz tuning. For each tuning, the tone holes are distributed along the clarinet slightly differently. If you do occasionally need to make your instrument sound higher or lower, you can use a longer or shorter barrel (see page 95). Graphic 5.9 Tipcode CLR-006

The mechanism should feel nice and smooth under your fingers, and it shouldn’t rattle or produce other unwanted noises. A play-testing tip: If you operate the keywork without playing the instrument, it’s easy to tell whether the keys and levers are quiet enough. Use all the keys, and pay special attention to the ones you operate with your left little finger.

A proper seal
The mechanism must ensure that all the keys close properly. If a key doesn’t seal the tone hole, you won’t be able to play that note – and possibly lots of others – properly, if at all. Usually this is a matter of adjustment, but a leaking key can also be caused by a torn pad, for instance.

Needle springs
Each key has a spring, which makes sure the key opens again after you’ve closed it, or the other way around. Some keys use needle springs. These springs do indeed look like needles.

Leaf springs
The trill keys, the A key, and the register key (the see-saw keys), have leaf springs, which are narrow metal strips. On a well-adjusted instrument, the springs are set to give all keys the same resistance.

Keys should move smoothly. If their springs are adjusted too lightly, however, you may find that you can’t really feel what you’re doing, or that the keys become sluggish and don’t return as quickly as they should. If a spring is much too lightly adjusted you may even blow the key open when you play the instrument really loudly.

If the rings are too high when open, it’s hard to seal the tone holes with your fingers. If they are too low, the coupled keys won’t respond immediately as they should. Some clarinets like their ring keys to have a fairly high adjustment, others prefer them set quite low.

Proper fit
Some clarinets appear to be built for large hands, others for small hands, or for thick fingers or thin ones. You probably won’t notice such differences fully until you take the time to play the instrument. The position and shape of the left little finger levers in particular can vary. A tip: Some companies make low-budget clarinets with mechanisms made especially for children’s hands. Graphic 5.10 The differences are often greatest at the left little finger levers. In particular, look at the (auxiliary) Eb lever.

Adjustable thumb rest
An adjustable thumb rest can make the instrument more comfortable to play. Some clarinets have a coin-adjustable rest, which requires no extra tools. The illustration on the opposite page shows such a thumb rest (left), as well as an adjustable thumb rest with strap ring, and a basic, fixed thumb rest (right). Graphic 5.11 Three types of thumb rests
Thumb saver
If the thumb rest cuts into your thumb, spend a few dollars on a rubber thumb saver. This small but useful accessory simply slides over the thumb rest.

Special thumb rests
When you play, the entire weight of the clarinet rests on the furthest joint of your thumb. This can cause pain and other symptoms, especially when you’re playing for long stretches at a time. To avoid this, you may want to invest in a ergonomic thumb rests that divert the weight of the instrument to the first joint. Graphic 5.12 Ergonomic thumb rest (Kooiman)

Another way to reduce the pressure on the thumb is to use a neck strap (see page 22). Although typically used by children, these are increasingly popular with adult clarinetists.

Nickel or silver
Most low budget clarinets have nickel-plated mechanism, and the same goes for the entry-level instruments of some of the traditional clarinet makers. Silver-plated key work is available as an option in some cases; other companies reserve silver plating for their slightly more expensive clarinets, with prices around seven or eight hundred dollars. A few companies also make five hundred dollar instruments with silver plating.
Tip: The differences between nickel and silver-plating is clearly visible: Nickel has a slightly “harder” shine than silver, and silver looks a bit whiter. Nickel is less expensive, it needs less polishing, and is more resilient than silver. On the other hand, nickel feels more slippery, which can be a problem if you tend to have sweaty fingers. If you suffer from a nickel allergy, you will need to buy an instrument with silver-plated key work, of course.

If you have very acidic perspiration, it can make silver tarnish quickly that you’re better off with a nickel-plated mechanism. As an alternative, you can have your key work gold-plated, which is less expensive than it sounds. New clarinets with a fully or partly gold-plated mechanism are rare, but they are available.

On some models only the posts are gold-plated. The posts are the small pillars that attach the key work to the clarinet. Often, some of the posts are anchored to the instrument by a small screw which resists the pressure of the needle sprint that could otherwise rotate the post. Graphic 5.13 An anchored post

For a completely different look, some companies offer clarinets with a black-anodized key work.
Tip – Nickel Silver
Rounded or pointed keys
Virtually all clarinets have so-called French-style keys, indicating that the key cups come in two varieties: rounded (also called rond-bombé) or in a slightly pointed shape (conical or China cup).
Power-forged keys
Most clarinets have power-forged keys, meaning that they are shaped by pressure, when the metal is cold, rather than cast.
Trill keys
The trill keys come in two types. Offset trill keys have a kink just before the key cup; in-line trill keys don’t. The movement of the key cups is a little more logical with the in-line system, as it moves vertically up and down, rather than slightly diagonally. The difference isn’t very meaningful, though, and you find be systems on both low-budget and professional instruments.
Graphic 5.14 Offset (above) and in-line trill keys,

Separate mountings
What does make a difference is whether certain keys are individually mounted, having separate post mountings. If so, they tend to be easier to adjust, and the key work may last longer. On most more expensive clarinets, each trill key is individually mounted, while on less expensive instruments the Bb and B-keys share their posts. Some lower budget clarinets also have only three posts by the A and Ab keys, instead of four. More expensive clarinets may have more individually mounted keys, e.g., the C#/G# and the Ab/Eb keys. Graphic 5.15 An individually-mounted Ab/Eb key (above), and a regular one.

Adjustment screws
Pretty much all clarinets have an adjustment screw on the A and Ab keys, on the upper part of the left-hand joint. You’ll find other adjustment screws only on more expensive clarinets. Typically, the F#IC# and E/B keys will be adjustable, with two extra screws under the crow foot by your right little finger. Very occasionally, the F/C key will also have an adjustment screw, or the bridge will. Of course, a clarinet can also be adjusted without screws, but only with some very careful bending. The mechanism of very low-budget clarinets is often harder to adjust or repair. Some clarinet technicians won’t even work on such instruments.  Graphic 5.16 Adjustment screws hidden under the crow foot

Various keys need to be adjusted by sticking pieces of cork of varying thickness under them. This is a job that you’d better leave to a specialist. Corks are also used to make the mechanism quieter, by keeping parts from clattering against each other.