Investing in a new clarinet, whether you’re buying a step-up clarinet or this is your first one, is a purchase you’ll want to consider carefully. Use this buying guide to discover important features and components to consider to find the best clarinet for you.
The clarinet family includes a number of instrument types, characterized by their registers and tunings. This guide will explore the common clarinet types along with detailed considerations for each.
The clarinet has five major parts: mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint and the bell.
Clarinets are usually made of plastic or wood, though they can also be hard rubber, metal, resin or ivory.
Most student or entry-level clarinets are made of plastic, due to its ruggedness and ability to withstand student use and abuse. The plastic used in clarinet-making is specifically engineered to possess certain musical qualities that allow the clarinet to sound like, a clarinet.
Grenadilla (also known as African Blackwood or M’pingo wood) is the traditional material for clarinets.
Advanced students and professionals generally prefer clarinets made of grenadilla wood, which produces an unmistakable sound and resonance. However, as with other wood instruments, wood clarinets need proper care to last. Humidity levels are critical to maintaining the health of a grenadilla clarinet because extreme fluctuations in moisture can cause cracks in the body. We’ll discuss how to care for wood clarinets later in this guide.
For players seeking the sound and quality of a wood clarinet with the ability to withstand temperature changes, Buffet Crampon manufactures Greenline clarinets. Made with 95% grenadilla wood fiber mixed with 5% carbon fiber and epoxy resin, they are created using the same process as 100% grenadilla instruments. Greenline clarinets are advantageous because they can endure temperature and humidity changes, require less maintenance and don’t crack.
The key work on a clarinet is generally plated with nickel or silver (gold is rare, but possible). Nickel plate is durable, is less prone to tarnish and has a moderately shiny appearance. Silver plate is warm and has a nice feel to the touch, but it tarnishes easily compared to nickel plate. With proper care, silver-plated keys can remain free of tarnish and retain their beauty throughout the instrument’s life. Choosing nickel vs. silver is a personal choice and arguments can be made for both materials. Try both out to see which works better for your style.
The bore of a clarinet refers to the inside dimensions of the instrument. Students may find smaller bore clarinets easier to play in tune. Larger bore clarinets are more flexible in pitch. For example, jazz clarinet players who need to bend notes and produce a big sound often choose larger bore instruments. Most clarinets, including the best-selling Buffet Crampon R13, are a standard 15mm bore which allows players to select mouthpieces from a variety of manufacturers.
The ligature is a piece of metal that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece. It has a big impact on the tone and playability of the clarinet because it controls how much the reed vibrates. To help a player deliver a full, rich sound, the ligature needs to let the reed vibrate freely while holding it securely in place. A well-designed ligature also prevents wear and tear on reeds, allowing you to get more use out of each reed.
Clarinet reeds are a highly personal choice and simply changing the reed you use can make a huge difference in your sound.
A majority of clarinet reeds are made of a woody grass called Arundo Donax. Most of this cane comes from France and for many clarinetists, natural cane woodwind reeds are still the only way to go.
There are also synthetic reeds that are being improved with each new generation. The key advantage of synthetic reeds is that they're completely neutral to humidity. They sound consistent no matter the weather conditions, making them a great choice for marching band.
Reed strengths range from soft to hard, typically rated on a 1-to-5 system (with 5 being the hardest). A hard reed generally produces a fuller and thicker sound, while a softer reed will be easier to play. Most music educators will advise their younger and beginner students to start with softer reeds and build up to harder ones.
Reeds come in two different cuts: regular or French-file. Advanced players may appreciate the French-file's quicker response, but they do come with a slightly higher cost.
Take a look at the Clarinet Reed Buying Guide for more information.
There are several different types of clarinet, distinguished by their tunings, body styles and sizes. Advanced clarinet players may switch between different models, depending on the style of music or the specific composition. Read on to learn about the different types of clarinet.
When you picture a clarinet, you most likely visualize the long, thin body of a soprano clarinet. Did you know there are actually multiple soprano clarinet types, which differ in their tunings and sound profiles? Let’s take a look at them.
The Bb (pronounced B-flat) clarinet is by far the most popular clarinet. It is suitable for all types of music, and it is especially prominent in jazz, swing and Dixieland. The majority of clarinet music is written for the Bb, as such, it is the most common choice for beginning students. The Bb clarinet is also an excellent crossover or doubler instrument, allowing players to easily pick up other woodwind instrument like the saxophone or flute.
A popular Bb model perfect for beginning players, the Buffet Crampon B12 Student Clarinet is made of a resin that captures the sound and appearance of Grenadilla wood, but is more durable.
While the Bb clarinet is most broadly used, the A clarinet is particularly important for clarinetists who play classical music. When performing classical compositions, players may switch from the Bb to the A clarinet, sometimes within a single piece of music. While it would be possible to transpose parts written for the A clarinet to be played on the Bb, doing so would make the parts much more difficult to play, and the music likely wouldn’t sound as good. Therefore, classical clarinet players typically carry a set case with both a Bb and A models.
If you are an intermediate to advanced-level clarinetist who plays classical music, consider an A clarinet to supplement your Bb instrument.
The Eb (pronounced E-flat) clarinet is often called a “sopranino” instrument, because of its smaller size and higher pitch. The Eb clarinet is often used by orchestras and concert bands, and it typically takes on the higher melodies that would be hard to play on a Bb or A clarinet.
The high notes the Eb produces require advanced fingerings, and it takes a keen ear to keep the instrument’s intonation spot on, so it is not recommended for beginning players. But, for an experienced player looking to expand his or her skills and take on a new challenge, the Eb could be a great choice.
The Amati ACL 261 Eb clarinet has a .512-inch bore, nickel plating and a wooden body. It offers great value for the price and is ideal for players looking to add an Eb as their second instrument.
The bass clarinet, while not as common as the soprano models, has a sizable repertoire, and can be heard in classical, orchestral, jazz and even pop music. Due to its significantly larger size, the bass clarinet is positioned on the floor using its thorn (a peg at the base of the instrument) or attached to a strap that helps the player carry it. The bass clarinet’s bell is turned upward, so that it almost looks like a cross between a clarinet and a saxophone. There are two typical ranges: to low Eb (with the lowest key on the bell) or extending to a low C.
The bass clarinet is tuned to Bb, one octave below the Bb soprano model. It produces a deep, sweet tone that sounds great solo or with an ensemble. While most beginning students select the Bb clarinet to start with, there is no reason an ambitious beginner shouldn’t select a bass clarinet!
The Selmer 1430LP Bb bass clarinet sounds great and is durable and easy to play. It’s tough enough to withstand the rigors of the bandroom, but has a truly beautiful sound.
As mentioned earlier, if you select a wooden clarinet, you must take care to avoid cracks, which will doom the instrument. Extreme changes in temperature and humidity are the most common causes of cracks. Therefore, don’t leave your instrument in a hot or cold car, garage or storage space; don’t leave it outside; and when not playing, always store your instrument in its case. And, be sure you have a good supply of clarinet care & cleaning materials on hand.
If you live in a dry climate, moisture is pulled from the wood quickly, which can lead to drying and cracking. An in-case humidifier should be used to maintain wood moisture (ideally a minimum 40% humidity level). Always clean the instrument after playing.
Too much moisture can also be bad for the instrument. If you will be playing outside in wet conditions, for example in marching band, it's important to apply oil to the bore. A light coating of bore oil can prevent the clarinet from absorbing moisture into the bore wall. Additionally, after every playing session, clean the instrument and remove any moisture before placing it back in its case to avoid corrosion, mold and cracking.
If you choose to purchase a new Grenadilla clarinet, you’ll need to break it in before you can play it for extended periods.
A general break-in schedule looks like this:
After following this regimen closely, your clarinet should be broken in. Always clean/swab your instrument after playing and always return it to its case for safe keeping.
If you’re shopping for a beginning student, it’s tempting to rent an instrument as it’s difficult to determine if your young student will stick with the clarinet. However, there are very good reasons to opt for a purchase instead, including:
When buying a clarinet, the skill level and the musician's age need to be taken into consideration, as well as what the instrument will be used for (school band, orchestra, gigs, ensembles, etc). If it's for school, it might be a good idea to ask the band teacher for guidance.