The Clarinet - A Classic Woodwind Instrument
The clarinet family is one of the largest of all musical instruments, comprised of 14 instruments with a similar form. The most familiar clarinet is the Bb Soprano Clarinet - this is typically where student clarinetists start. Within the clarinet family, you'll find the piccolo clarinet on the very top of the orchestral range, all the way down to the rare subcontrabass clarinet at the very bottom of the range. Few musical instruments can match the clarinet family for its variety, range and versatility.
With so many options available, be sure to do your homework so you find the best clarinet for your skill set, playing style and environment.
The Anatomy of a Clarinet
The clarinet has five major parts: mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint and bell.
The Clarinet Mouthpiece
The mouthpiece attaches to the top of the clarinet and, along with the ligature, holds the reed that produces the instrument’s sound. Clarinets have different styles and makes of mouthpieces available for a wide range of applications, tonal variety, bore sizes and ensemble requirements. These mouthpieces are made from several different materials, each with their own characteristic effects on the sounds produced. Most beginner models will include mouthpieces while some professional level models will leave this item to be purchased separately by the performer.
Ligatures & Caps
The ligature holds the reed to the clarinet mouthpiece. The type and material can have an impact on the functioning of the reed, in addition to the player’s personal preference. There is a wide variety of material used in their construction including all metal, leather/metal combinations, carbon fiber, and synthetic materials. Caps are used to cover the mouthpiece, ligature and the attached reed to protect them from damage. They are typically made of impact resistant plastic or metal.
As with mouthpieces, these items are typically included with beginner and most intermediate models, though it may be left to the player’s discretion for the professional models.
The clarinet reed is responsible for the production of sound on the instrument. These reeds are most commonly made with giant cane, though synthetic and synthetically-coated variations are also in wide use. Reeds range in hardness on a scale from 1 to 5, with the higher numbers indicating harder reeds. Harder reeds produce a better quality sound, but require more control and experience as a performer to use effectively. Beginner students typically use softer reeds to learn the instrument as they are easier to create a sound on. As with most woodwind instruments, clarinet reed preference is a highly personal choice for the player and becomes more so as the player improves in ability.
Cleaning Accessories for Clarinets
As with any instrument, proper care and cleaning for a clarinet improves the performance and the lifespan of the instrument. This is even more true in the case of wooden clarinets. Cork grease is used to make the attachment of the mouthpiece to the barrel, the barrel to the upper joint, and the upper to the lower joint easier, while ensuring the seal is air-tight and allowing for easier adjustment. Key oil is used to ensure the delicate keys of the clarinet remain fast and responsive, while bore oil can help protect a wooden clarinet from being exposed to high moisture. Mouthpiece, neck and body swabs and snakes can prevent buildup inside the instrument and help prolong the life of the instrument.
In some cases with wood instruments, humidifiers should also be considered for extremely dry conditions to maintain a safe environment for your instrument and keep it in the best possible playing condition.
Types of Clarinets
As mentioned above, there are 14 different instruments within the clarinet family. While there are great similarities among them, there are also important differences and types to understand. These types are distinguished by many factors including tunings, size and style. It is common for advanced and professional clarinetists to have several instruments; this is especially true for orchestral players. The three most common types of clarinets are as follows:
As mentioned previously, this is the clarinet most people are familiar with (and is the clarinet pictured in the illustration above). The soprano clarinet comes in multiple tunings - though Bb is the most common, the soprano clarinet in A is also frequently used in orchestra music. The least commonly used soprano clarinet today is the soprano clarinet in C, though it is still in use in some orchestras.
Sopranino clarinets are very similar in shape, but are smaller and higher sounding, than soprano clarinets. They're available in Eb and D, but the Eb variety is far more common and is frequently used in orchestras, concert bands and wind ensembles. Lastly is the rarely heard piccolo clarinet, or sopranino clarinet in Ab.
Alto and Bass Clarinets
Once a performer is comfortable with the basics of clarinet and looking to expand their repertoire, their next step will typically be an alto or bass clarinet. These instruments (along with the less common basset-horn) are pitched lower than the soprano clarinets. They are both common in both concert bands and wind ensembles, with the deep and versatile bass clarinet frequently used in musical orchestras and even as a jazz instrument. Both of these instruments are larger and are often played with the support of a floor peg (attached to the bottom of the instrument) or a neck strap.
Clarinet Body Materials
Clarinets enjoy a greater variety in construction materials than most musical instruments. Plastic and wood are by far the most common, but hard rubber, metal, resin and even ivory are variations that have appeared over the years. With the advent of newer technology, blends of natural and synthetic materials have become available that can produce high quality instruments with higher durability.
Plastic and Plastic Resins
Plastic and plastic resin construction is the overwhelming choice for beginning- and intermediate-level clarinets. These instruments exhibit high durability and survivability under typical student wear and tear, while retaining the musical qualities necessary to give the clarinet its signature sound.
The traditional wood used in the manufacture of clarinets is Grenadilla wood, sometimes referred to as African Blackwood or M’pingo wood. Responsible for the characteristic and traditional sound of the clarinet, instruments made of this material are sought after by professional level players. However, as is common with most wood instruments, this level of perfection also comes with the cost of additional time for care, maintenance, and adjustment to changing climates to prolong the life of the instrument. In addition, these instruments require a “breaking-in” period when you first receive it before you can begin using it for extended periods. More information on this process and regular care for wood instruments will be included later in the guide.
Due to the amount of care and adjustment required for pure wood clarinets, a demand rose for materials that would provide the sound of the true wood clarinets while minimizing the care. Mixed material options are now available, like the Buffet Crampon Greenline clarinet. These clarinets blend traditional grenadilla wood with synthetic materials and resins to create an instrument that is much more tolerant of temperature and humidity changes. This blend eliminates cracking and reduces the time required for maintenance.
Clarinet Key and Plating Materials
The keys on modern clarinets are typically made of a nickel alloy sometimes referred to as “nickel silver” or “German silver.” These keys can be plated with various materials, including silver, gold and nickel, depending entirely on personal preference.
Clarinet Bore Styles
The “bore” of a clarinet refers to the dimensions of the inside of the instrument. The body of a clarinet is a cylindrical bore, meaning that the inside of the body of the instrument stays more or less the same size throughout the length of the instrument (as opposed to a conical bore instrument, like a saxophone, where the diameter increases over the length of the saxophone body). Most Soprano Bb clarinets used today use an inner diameter of 15mm, however there are options for larger bores. More traditionally bored instruments are easier to play in tune. Larger bore instruments will require more control from the player but also allow for a greater degree of pitch flexibility and the “bending” common in jazz music while simultaneously allowing a larger sound.
Wood Clarinet Break-In and Care
Wood clarinets are the ultimate expression of the clarinet maker’s craft. However, as mentioned above, these remarkable instruments require additional care as well as a break in period before any extended use to ensure they remain in the best playable condition possible.
Breaking In a New Wood Clarinet
When you first receive your new wood clarinet, you will be more than a little tempted to begin playing it at length as soon as possible, enjoying the benefits of such a well-constructed instrument. However before you begin regular lengthy playing sessions there are a few steps you need to complete to properly break the new instrument in and acclimate the wood to being played regularly. This is a lengthy process, so keep that in mind when purchasing a new instrument. The results are worth it in the long run!
- Week 1: Play the clarinet for no longer than 15 minutes per day. Once you’re done, be sure to completely swab the bore very carefully to remove moisture.
- Week 2: Extend the playing time to 30 minutes per day, again following-up with swabbing the bore.
- Week 3: Once again increase the playing time, this time to 45 minutes. Don’t forget to completely swap the bore afterwards.
- Week 4: Last week! Increase your playing time to an hour, making sure to remove moisture from the bore afterwards by swabbing.
After completing this process your clarinet should be fully broken in and ready for regular use. In order to keep the instrument in top condition, be sure to completely swab and clean the instrument after practice or performance and keep the instrument safely in its case between sessions.
Wood Clarinet Care
Once your new clarinet is broken in, you will still need to practice regular and proper maintenance to ensure that the wood remains in playing condition and to avoid the natural wood from cracking. The primary causes of cracks are sudden changes in temperature and/or humidity. The first step to proper maintenance is preventative: avoid leaving your instrument in extreme situations, such as in a hot or cold car, or in a non-air conditioned garage or storage space, and most definitely do not leave the instrument outside. When you’re not playing your instrument, keep it securely in its case and keep the cleaning materials and supplies close at hand, making sure to completely swab out the bore every time you’re done practicing or playing.
If you live in a dry climate, keep in mind that clarinets can dry out quickly, potentially leading to cracking. In-case humidifiers are a good option if the natural humidity is under 40% for extended periods of time, in addition to regular care.
On the other end of the spectrum, extremely humid and wet environments can damage the Grenadilla wood in your clarinet, and preventative and post-use care are both required to prevent cracking, mold or corrosion. If you will be playing your instrument outside, as you would in a marching band, use a light coat of bore oil to protect your instrument from the conditions and follow up any performances in these conditions with a through drying and cleaning. Keep the instrument in its case as much as possible to protect it from the elements.
Renting versus Buying
When considering your options for an instrument for a new student, the initial low cost of instrument rental can be tempting, especially if you and your student aren’t certain they’ll be sticking with the instrument. However, there are several factors to keep in mind that make purchasing the better option in the long run:
- Rental fees: While the initial investment can be low, the cost of monthly rental fees, even over the course of a single year, can quickly out-pace the cost of a beginner clarinet.
- Retained value: Instruments, especially well-cared for instruments, will retain value. When the time comes that your student decides to move to a higher quality instrument, their beginner instrument can be traded in or sold to offset the cost of the new instrument, allowing you to generally recoup a substantial portion of the initial cost.
- Quality: Rental instruments are typically recycled and previously owned. This could mean your clarinet has aesthetic deficiencies like nicks, dents and scratches. Despite this, as a renter, you would be responsible for any damage to a rented instrument.
Buying a Clarinet from Woodwind & Brasswind
Every clarinet purchased, whether for the professional or the beginner, needs to take into account the performer’s ensemble needs, age, and skill level to ensure years of satisfaction. When buying a beginner’s first instrument, it is very often beneficial to speak to the student’s band director or private instructor before making a final buying decision, and keep in mind the importance of following proper care for your instrument to give yourself the longest life-span possible.
No matter what type or category of clarinet you are looking for, Woodwind & Brasswind has been meeting the needs of students and professionals for decades. Each purchase is backed by Woodwind & Brasswind's 100% Satisfaction Guarantee, giving you 45 days to decide if the instrument is right for you. If it’s not everything you need it to be, you can return it for a full refund.* While making sure you find the right instrument is important, making sure the price is right matters, too, and Woodwind & Brasswind’s 45-Day Price guarantee means that if you find the same model clarinet for less elsewhere, we’ll make up the difference. As musicians of all levels have done for decades, you can buy from Woodwind & Brasswind with complete confidence that you received the best instrument for the very best price.
*All returned woodwind and brass instruments are assessed a $10.00 sterilization fee. Instruments priced over $3,000.00 are assessed a $20.00 fee. All mouthpieces are assessed a $4.00 fee.