Purchasing a new clarinet, whether it is your first or a step-up instrument, is a big decision with many factors to consider. Musician's Friend would like to guide you in the process of buying a new clarinet by pointing out the critical features and components to consider in searching for the instrument that's right for you.
The clarinet family includes the contra-alto and bass models, but we will focus on the instrument most often thought of when the word clarinet is used: the Bb clarinet. This is the most popular form, used for music from Mozart to marching tunes and especially prominent in jazz, swing, and Dixieland. Useful in ensemble and solo playing, the clarinet can also be a good crossover instrument, allowing players to easily pick up the saxophone or flute at a later time.
Generally the ideal clarinet tone is one that is rich, dark, and focused with lots of fundamental and a pleasant mix of overtones (both lower and higher). The presence, or absence, of overtones is where personal taste comes into account, but a clarinet should always produce a smooth and centered fundamental tone. The clarinets offered by Musician's Friend will deliver fantastic fundamental tone, and we'll help you understand the instrument features that will let you achieve ultimate tone and playability.
Parts of the clarinet
The clarinet is composed of five separate parts that are assembled to make up the instrument: the mouthpiece A, the barrel B, the upper joint C, the lower joint D, and the bell E, in that order. Clarinets are usually divided into three different categories: student clarinets, intermediate-level clarinets, and professional clarinets.
Clarinets are chiefly composed of two substances: plastic and wood.
The type of plastic used in clarinets is specifically engineered for that use. Its benefit is that it has all the forgiving ruggedness typical of plastic while possessing certain musical qualities that allow it to sound like a clarinet. The majority of clarinets constructed from plastic are student, entry-level instruments.
The material traditionally used for clarinet composition is grenadilla wood. Grenadilla clarinets are preferred by advanced students and professionals for the unmistakable sound and resonance only a wood clarinet produces. The wood clarinet's drawback is that it needs proper care to live a long life; care that most students are not disciplined enough to provide. Air moisture is critical to maintaining the health of a grenadilla clarinet, extreme fluctuations in moisture can cause cracks in the body, ruining the instrument. Consistent air moisture is ideal but nearly impossible. Thankfully, there are methods of caring for wood clarinets that guarantee a long life (see below).
There is a subcategory of wood clarinets known as Green Line clarinets. Green Line instruments, manufactured by Buffet Crampon, are composed of 95% grenadilla wood fiber mixed together with 5% carbon fiber and epoxy resin. They go through the same manufacturing process as 100% grenadilla instruments. Their advantage is that they can withstand temperature and humidity changes, require less maintenance, and don't crack.
Keys and plating
The key work on a clarinet will be plated with either nickel or silver (on rare occasions gold). Nickel plate is durable; does not tarnish as easily as silver; and has a shiny, attractive luster. Silver plate is very attractive with a warm, brilliant appearance; has a nice feel to the touch; but tarnishes easily compared to nickel plate. With care silver-plated keys can remain free of tarnish and retain their beauty throughout the instrument's life.
Clarinets come in several different styles and sizes of bores (the inside of the clarinet). In general, smaller bore clarinets are easier for students to play in tune, and it is easier for them to cover the finger holes. Larger bore clarinets are more flexible in pitch and are most often used by jazz players who need to bend notes and produce a big sound that projects adequately in a band setting.
Breaking in a wood clarinet
A new clarinet, or one that has been stored unused for some time, needs to be acclimated to avoid cracking. There are two general rules of thumb to follow in taking care of your grenadilla clarinet.
Rule #1: Do not keep your wood instrument anywhere you would not keep a baby. You would not leave a baby out in the cold or in your car on a hot day, so don't do either with your wood clarinet.
Rule #2: When not playing, always store your instrument in its case.
Also, grenadilla clarinets have to be broken-in before you can play them for extended periods. During the first week, play your clarinet no longer than 15 minutes per day, and swab the bore carefully afterwards to remove moisture. The second week, extend playing time to 30 minutes and follow up with swabbing the bore. The third week extend playing time to 45 minutes and swab the bore. During the fourth week you can push your playing time up to one hour and remove moisture from the bore afterwards by swabbing. After this regimen, if you have followed it closely, your clarinet should be broken-in. If you live in a dry climate, your clarinet will require more care since moisture is pulled from the wood quickly, causing problems. In this case, using a humidifier will help prevent the wood from drying too rapidly and cracking.
Purchasing your clarinet from Musician's Friend means you can try it out at home, giving you a chance to discover if it's the instrument for you.