Investing in a new clarinet can be a complex process. There are many elements to consider when selecting an instrument that fits your needs.
Most of the time, when the word “clarinet” is mentioned, we think of the soprano or Bb clarinet—so called because it is pitched in Bb. These clarinets (and other models in the clarinet family) are made of 5 parts: mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint, and bell. Bb clarinets are the standard instrument when students begin school band classes, but there are other types. The bass clarinet, which is substantially larger, is pitched an octave lower than the Bb clarinet, and actually sits on the floor with a peg—it has an upturned bell, so it resembles a saxophone with a wooden or plastic body. The Eb clarinet is smaller than the Bb clarinet and is sometimes called the “sopranino” clarinet; it’s pitched a fourth higher and is designed to play melodies that would be quite high in range for a Bb or similar instrument. Eb clarinets are difficult to play well and are usually reserved for more advanced players. Harmony clarinets (since they often play supporting roles, not melodic ones), such as alto clarinets, are also available, although they are less common. There are also variations on soprano clarinets that are pitched in different keys; the most common are A clarinets and C clarinets, used for classical chamber music and orchestral playing.
Typically, clarinets are either made of plastic or wood. Plastic-bodied clarinets are less expensive and are a great choice for beginning players because they are extremely durable and much less susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature. They are also a great choice if you will be performing outside regularly, especially in areas where wide swings in weather conditions are common. The plastic used is specially formulated to mimic the resonance of wooden instruments. Wooden clarinets, while more expensive, are preferred by more advanced players because of their sound quality; they are, however, more fragile than plastic instruments and require a bit more care. Most wooden clarinets are made of African blackwood, also called grenadilla or mpingo, a type of hardwood with a density that makes it ideal for use in instruments. Buffet Crampon makes a line of wooden clarinets called Greenline instruments that are 95% wood and 5% carbon fiber and epoxy resin. These instruments have the benefits of wooden resonance and sound with the durability of plastic instrument. (See Lisa’s Clarinet Shop for an example.)
Clarinet keys are plated with either nickel or silver, or occasionally gold—but nickel and silver are far more common. Nickel has a nice sheen and is durable, resistant to tarnishing; silver has a brighter glow and warm look but is subject to tarnishing without proper care. Silver-plated keywork usually costs a bit more as well.
The bore, or the inside dimensions of the clarinet, can vary in size as well. Narrower bores are easier for younger or less experienced players to produce sounds on the instrument; wider bores have more pitch variation and are often used for stylistic traditions where pitch bends and other distortions are common—various folk music traditions and jazz, for example.
In terms of clarinet accessories, consideration must be given to the ligature (the circular bit of metal, leather, or nylon cord that holds the reed to the mouthpiece), the mouthpiece, and to the reeds themselves. Ligatures can vary greatly in terms of material and price, but a basic one is included with every instrument purchase. Different materials affect the sound quality and the response of the reeds used in different ways; a recommendation from a private clarinet teacher or band director is a great place to start for a new player. Keep in mind that the ligature should be able to hold the reed snugly to the mouthpiece without constricting its ability to vibrate (and therefore create sound). The best ligatures also minimize wear and tear on the reeds, so they last longer.
Most clarinets, when purchased, will include a basic mouthpiece, but they may or may not be a great fit for every player. There are thousands of mouthpiece options available at all price points, and especially for new players, a recommendation from a band director or private instructor is a very helpful place to start.
Reeds are very important in clarinet playing, because they are the thing that vibrates to create sound. Reeds are available from all kinds of musical accessory companies; some of the most common are from D’Addario and Van Doren. There are many other brands available, and they vary in the way the reeds are cut and in strength. Strength is usually graded on a 1-5 scale (1 is softest, 5 is hardest), and beginning players usually start at about a 2-strength reed. More advanced players generally move up in strength as the demands of the music they are playing change. The type of music being played can also influence reed choice: for styles that involve pitch flexibility, for example, players usually choose a slightly softer reed than they might for classical music.
Other equipment necessary for a clarinet include a cleaning swab (silk or cotton), polishing cloth for silver-plated keys, cork grease to ease the connections among the clarinet’s joints, and a sturdy, secure case. These are the tools that enable good care of the instrument. Also note that a clarinet should be kept at room temperature when not in use; especially with wooden instruments, leaving them in a cold or hot space, or in your car for extended periods of time, is likely to exacerbate stress on the body of the instrument and can contribute to cracks—which may or may not be repairable.
Another consideration is whether you want to rent or buy an instrument. Renting an instrument from a music shop in your area can be beneficial, especially if you are doing so for a brand-new player and aren’t sure whether they will stick with it. But purchasing an instrument is usually more cost-effective, especially if you know you (or your student) will be using the instrument for more than a few months to one school year. You can often buy a good student instrument for less than the cost of a year’s rental, and rental clarinets, like other items available for rent, will show wear and tear from other users—and you will be liable for any damage you incur, as well. Purchasing a student-line instrument and caring for it also means you have something to trade in when it is time to upgrade to something of higher quality, much like trading in your old car when purchasing a new one.
If you want to read more about what to keep in mind when buying a clarinet, visit these sites: Musicians’ Friend and Woodwind-Brasswind.
And finally, Lisa’s Clarinet Shop has many types of clarinets available for purchase for all levels of players’ experience. Their expertise in clarinet playing and the different instruments available will ensure that you find an instrument that fits your needs and your budget.