Let’s be honest, how many of you actually woke up one morning during their search for a new, or first instrument and ever thought…
Eureka, it is the clarinet I want to learn!
Probably not many, right?
Well, this is the sad truth: the clarinet is just not as popular a woodwind instrument as, say, the saxophone…
Which is pretty amusing considering how similar both these instruments are…
To the point that many saxophone players actually switch to the clarinet at some point, or even play both instrument without much trouble.
So if you happen to be one of those saxophone players and are curious to learn more about the clarinet…
Or if you are not a saxophone player, or even not a musician at all…
You have come to the right place since I have in today’s article everything you need to know to quickly get started on the clarinet.
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
The clarinet was invented in the late 17th century in Germany, with origins going back to the Renaissance.
Next up, let’s take a look at clarinet family.
There are a lot of different types of clarinet. In fact, clarinet has the widest family of any instrument, except for percussion instruments.
You could literally have an entiresymphonic orchestra made of ONLY clarinets, and you’d still be able to cover the whole sound range of a traditional orchestra.
From bass clarinets to sopranino clarinets (most high-pitched clarinet) there are dozens of different sizes.
However… for the sake of this article we will only focus on the most common clarinet: the B♭ clarinet, and add some information about the A clarinet, since it is still used by some musicians.
Literally 99% of today’s clarinet players play on a B♭ clarinet, and unless you want to try something exotic or unusual, there is no real reason for you to play any other version.
The clarinet is basically a wooden cylinder with holes, just like a recorder. However, and since it is the wind instrument with the widest note range, it also inevitably has much more holes than any other wind instrument.
The 4 main parts of the clarinet, from top to bottom are:
So let’s look into these parts in more details, shall we?
I’ll go straight to the point: the mouthpiece is the single, most impactfulpart of the clarinet in terms of sound.
Yes, more than the reeds and actuallymore than the clarinet itself! In fact, you could theoretically have a pretty bad, cheap clarinet…
But add a great mouthpiece to it (and a good clarinetist preferentially too) and you’ll have yourself an amazing sounding instrument.
The factors affecting the sound produced by a mouthpieces are:
So let’s dig into these characteristic a little bit more, shall we?
As we saw previously, there are 2 types of key systems: Boehm and Oehler. Well, you actually need to match these systems with their respective mouthpiece.
So, the main thing to remember here is that — theoretically — you can’t fit an Oehler mouthpiece on a Boehm clarinet, and vice versa.
However, you could also — still theoretically — work on the barrel to make it fit one or the other model.
But that’s a way more advanced concept that you might be interested in only if you happen to play one model and truly love a mouthpiece from the other model.
Got it? Next up…
Mouthpieces can be made of:
Old mouthpieces used to be made out of wood, but presented one major drawback: they were weather sensitive and could “warp” under certain conditions…
Therefore literally changing the mouthpiece shape.
Actually, apart form a bunch of “craft manufacturers”, you won’t find any wood mouthpieces on the major resellers’ websites.
Now, the reason most clarinetists use hard rubber mouthpieces is because:
Bottom line: they’re the most obvious choice for ANY clarinetist, of any level…
Unless you’re a broke student, in which case you could settle for a plasticmouthpiece. They are durable and cheap which is often what student look for.
Most popular Vandoren B45
The Tip Opening
The tip opening is the distance between the reed and the mouth piece, right on the upper edge of both these.
Typically, since air resistance is greater on big tip opening, the rule for matching the reed thickness to the tip opening is:
The bigger the tip opening, the softer the reed.
Which is why beginners generally start with a small tip opening mouthpiece which essentially requires less effort to get a sound out of.
The chamber consists of 3 different parts:
The baffle which is a “ramp” that goes down into the bore, inside the mouthpiece. The shape, depth and slope of the baffle all shape the sound.
A not-too-deep baffle will create a resonant sound and a quick response. On the other hand, a deep baffle with a scooped shape will produce a mellower sound with a slower response.
In the end it really is a matter of HOW FAST the air enters and exits the mouthpiece, and how many “obstacles” it encounters while traveling.
The longer the air takes to travel through the mouthpiece, and the more obstacles it runs against, the mellower the sound, and the slower the initial response.
The distance between the sidewalls partly determines the level of air resistance. The further apart the walls, the greater the resistance.
Therefore, to counter balance this resistance:
The throat is the part where the chamber joins the bore. It can be designed in different shapes, 2 being most common:
So these are what you should know about mouthpieces, and probably even more. Talking about more features (such as the siderails and tiprail thickness or window shape) wouldn’t really make sense…
Unless you’re planning on making your own mouthpiece, or starting a mouthpiece manufacturing business.
These are very in-depth concepts and if you’re only looking to improve/change your sound, you don’t need to know all these details, the ones I provided you are more than enough, trust me.
Finally, the Sidewalls
So now that we’ve learned all this useful information, it’s time to find your perfect mouthpiece.
Here are the models I recommend, ordered in 2 price categories:
The reed is the thin strip of material that’s placed on the mouthpiece and that vibrates against it.
When shopping for a reed, there are a 2 factors you need to take into consideration:
So let’s take a closer look at these features.
It can be made out of:
So what are the difference between both materials ? Well, mainly:
The strength of the reed refers to its thickness.
Strengths are ordered by numbers ranging from 1 to 5, 1 being the softest.
In the clarinet world, the rule of thumb is that the harder the reed the better the sound…
And although this can highly vary depending on factors such as the brand, the cut or the material, the truth is that you rarely see beginners playing on hard reeds, or professionals playing on soft reeds.
And so, if you’re a beginner, start on a 1 or 2 strength reed, and move up when you feel it’s too easy to play…
On the opposite end, if you feel you need to make too big of an effort to get some sound out of your horn, you’re probably playing a reed that’s too strong.
Anyway, a good idea is to buy a pack of different reeds with strengths so you can try a bunch of different ones right of the bat.
Here are some models, and packs that I recommend:
Got it? Next up…
The cut refers to the way the upper, thinner part of the reed is shaped. There are 2 types of cut:
Many players — including professional ones — tend to overlook ligatures… UNTIL they try a good one.
Because, at first glance, they really just look like a small piece of hardware meant to hold the reed against the mouthpiece.
The thing is; there’s much more to the ligature than just a piece of metal. The ligature actually decides how much the reed vibrates, for example. Which is actually a pretty big deal, don’t you think?
And although the difference might not be extremely obvious for the listener, it is quite clear for the player.
And most players say they really feel a significant improvement in their tone an sound when using a better ligature than the stock one.
So ligatures mainly have 3 varying factors:
Metal ligatures produce a bright and projecting sound while fabric “dampens” the sound. Generally, orchestra musicians choose metal ligatures so they can be heard, and small groups clarinetists who play in smaller venues might choose fabric ligatures.
Now, if you look around for ligatures you’ll actually notice some companies do specialize in this part of woodwind instruments…
And among these few niche companies, the brand Silverstein produces probably the most premium and expensive ligatures out there.
Their ligatures are actually more expensive than some entry level clarinets. That is mainly because they use plated gold, or even white gold and are handmade in the US.
However, advanced and professional players who have tried them all agree they feel an improvement in their sound, which ultimately is priceless.
So anyway, here are the ligatures I recommend, ordered by low to high end:
Obviously, keys are an important part of the clarinet to say the least, but more so because of the key systems.
Depending on the key system, clarinets either have 17 (French/Boehm system) or 26/27 keys (German/Oehler system).
But let’s take a closer look at these systems; shall we?
The clarinet is probably the only wind instrument whose keys you should pay attention to before buying.
And that is because there are different LAYOUTS. These layouts are referred to as key system or fingering system and playing on both requires different fingerings.
The general consensus is that Oehler clarinets are MORE DIFFICULT to play that Boehm clarinets, because some notes are harder to reach.
Although there is a handful of key systems, there are 2 major ones and 99% of the clarinetists play either one, or both, with a distinct advantage for the first of this list:
Note that although Boehm clarinets are more common, many clarinet players say it is almost impossible to play classical pieces such as the ones from Mozart or Beethoven on them.
BUT if you’re planning to play anything else (as in anything but classical music), definitely go for a Boehm system.
The next characteristic you should pay attention to before choosing your clarinet is the materials it is made from.
2 materials are used:
Most intermediate and professional clarinet players play on clarinets made out of grenadilla wood or more rarely rosewood.
Grenadilla wood is preferred because of its good acoustic properties and relative abundance.
Some of Buffet Crampon’s clarinets are made with a mix of grenadilla wod and carbon fiber so as to provide the instrument with added resistance to humidy and weather changes.
Like with most musical instruments, there is a bunch of manufacturers that grew almost bigger than the instrument itself.
For the clarinets, there are essentially 3 big names, 2 of which are widely regarded as the very best clarinets manufacturers in the world.
These names are:
Ok so now that you’ve been thoroughly educated on what you should look for in a clarinet, it’s time to actually choose one.
And so for this list I decided to order my recommended models in 2 categories: Student clarinets and Professional clarinets.
Now, not to worry, you don’t need to actually be a student nor a professional player in order to look at those lists, they really only define the price range and overall quality of the instruments.
So if you are a beginner but have a high budget, definitely go for a better instrument, you won’t regret it.
Student Clarinet (Under $750)
Professional Clarinets (Above $750)
Just like the saxophone or the trumpet, the clarinet is a transposing instrument, and depending on the clarinet, transposition will vary.
However, for the sake of this article let’s assume you’re looking at a Bb clarinet, the most common model.
Well, the Bb clarinet is called that way precisely because of transposition, so as to let you know that, when you’ll read and play a C, the note coming out of your clarinet will actually be a Bb…
Meaning the Bb clarinet plays EVERYTHING a full step under concert pitch.
With this method you can then deduce how other clarinets work:
Got it? Good.
For some reason, beginners often — mistakenly — overlook tuning when it comes to woodwind instruments, and they couldn’t be more wrong.
Because if wind instruments generally fall out of tune less often than, say, string instruments, they still do. And when they do, you should be prepared to tune them back THE RIGHT WAY.
Tuning a clarinet is done by pulling out the barrel to flatten the tone or pushing it in to sharpen the tone.
Now the difference between the clarinet and other instruments is that you’ll need to warm your horn before proceeding to the tuning part…
Which is done by playing it for some time, your breath causing the tone to sharpen, meaning that it will play slightly higher-pitched after you play it a little.
Then, if you’re still not satisfied with the tone, you can proceed to tune the clarinet.
Being a woodwind instrument, the clarinet does require some regular maintenance and care, the most important steps probably applying to the mouthpiece and reed.
And so, BEFORE playing:
Now, the biggest part of care and maintenance is done AFTER you’re done playing:
Just grab a cleaning kit which has all the tools you’ll need to fully clean and take care of your horn. Here’ are 2 good options: