ET's Clarinet Studio
What is a Good Clarinet to Buy?
by Eric Tishkoff



Original Email

Could you send me some names of clarinets that might be good for me. I'm looking for a horn that I could play all the way through high school and college. I play in the marching band so I need something that will take that kind of play.


Your decision about which clarinet to get will depend on a number of personal factors. I cannot address these here because I don't know your playing or your situation. I can, though, pass along my opinions about instruments. Your job is to weigh my suggestions with your individual needs, goals, means, and aspirations.

My usual recommendation is: get the best instrument you can afford. Which instruments are best? I know of four brands in common use by professional clarinetists in the US. In order of most common to least common, they are Buffet, Leblanc, Selmer, and Yamaha. Less common brands I have seen advertised include Jupiter, Howarth, L. Rossi, and Patricola.

I have tried several instruments of each of the big four makers, although, certainly not every model in their professional lines. Don't let my lack of familiarity with the less common brands dissuade you from them. Try as many different makes and models as you can find in your search for the best fit. One final note, the dollar amounts mentioned with some models may not be accurate. They are intended to give only a relative idea of prices and don't necessarily reflect what you'll find in stores or catalogs.

The Buffet R-13 is by far the most widely used professional soprano clarinet in the US. It retails for around $2000. There is also a "prestige" model which has some worthwhile additional features, and is essentially an enhanced R-13. It sells for around $2700. The R-13 is what I have been playing since the first day I held a clarinet in my hands.

Buffets are famous for their full, dark, resonant tones. I have yet to hear another clarinet whose characteristic sound I liked more. However, that sound has always come at a price: intonation. Along with its famous tone, the R-13 suffers from uneven pitch. The most infamous difficulties are with the intervals thumb F to high C and low F to third-space C. When shopping for an R-13, always test these intervals with a tuner. Some instruments are worse than others. Which brings up my other complaint: eneven quality. In my experience, shopping for an R-13 is like trying to find a good reed in a box of ten. Of course choosing a poor reed doesn't set you back two grand. Always have a good player play-test a prospective new R-13 before buying it.

Buffet takes top honors in my opinion for their professional bass clarinet. In addition to sounding fantastic, the instrument's newly designed mechanism is smooth, light, and stays in adjustment--a true accomplishment for a bass clarinet. Normally, the stock mouthpiece included with a new instrument is a throw-away that just takes up space in the case. However, the mouthpiece that comes with the Buffet bass is unquestionably the best bass mouthpiece I have played.

Leblanc has several pro soprano models, which are more alike than different. While sharing the same bore dimensions, they have slightly different mechanisms. I characterize Leblancs as extremely smooth, both in terms of mechanism and tonal attributes. These instruments come closer to perfect intonation and evenness of tone than any others I know. Leblancs feel great to play! However, in my opinion, Leblanc clarinets do not produce as big a sound as a good R-13--neither for me, nor for any of the well-known clarinetists I have heard perform on them. Leblancs are somewhat more expensive than R-13s, perhaps running around $2200-$3000.

I got to try several Selmer Signature series clarinets recently. They were smooth both mechanically and tonally. While trying them I quickly discovered that many of the sub-conscious embouchure adjustments that have become engrained in my playing (on Buffets) were unnecessary on the Selmers. They played easily and sounded beautiful. Tonally I was hard pressed to tell them apart from my Buffets, except that the Selmers seemed more in tune. The mechanism is somewhat different than I am accustomed to. The left-hand third finger tone hole is raised so that it matches the height of the adjoining tone holes; there is a left-hand A-flat/E-flat key; and the various pivots and attachment points for keywork seem very thoughtfully placed. These differences were all things that I liked and which added value to the instrument. In short, the mechanism felt outstanding, and seemed as if it might be easier to maintain. While I am not ready to switch to Selmer on the basis of one playing, these instruments merit serious consideration.

Yamaha makes two professional models, the CX-72 and CS-72. They sell for slightly less than the R-13. Some time ago I played a friend's Yamaha CS-72 (prototype) that is one of the best instruments I have ever tried. Since then, every Yamaha I have played has been a disappointment. Most of them suffer from irregular intonation in the throat tones and have an undesirable, characteristic difference in tone quality between upper and lower registers.

As for student clarinets, my experience is very simply that the more the instrument costs, the better it is. At the bottom of the heap are beginner clarinets made of plastic. They serve a valuable purpose in that kids who have no experience playing or handling instruments can get started playing relatively inexpensively. A plastic clarinet is also just the thing for outdoor playing whether that be marching band, a camping trip, or, like a student of mine, playing on one's sailboat.

Intermediate clarinets are made from wood and can range in price from about $500-$1200. In addition to better tone quality and intonation, wooden clarinets usually have better-made keywork than beginner instruments. An intermediate instrument is appropriate for anyone who has learned proper care and handling, and has demonstrated a commitment to continued playing. The higher-end intermediate clarinets often share features with their professional big-brothers, and can serve as satisfying instruments for an amateur player.

Keep in mind that these are MY opinions. Often in music, there is more than one way to reach one's goal. Tone is a particularly personal part of playing clarinet; every player has a different take on how the clarinet should sound and how to produce that ideal sound. It's possible that the criticisms I have for certain models are more reflective of my playing style than something inherent in the particular instrument's design.

With any pro or good intermediate instrument, have an accomplished clarinetist try out the horn before you buy. A good private teacher is usually the best resource. Even with these professional models, quality control varies greatly, and, as with reeds, there are lots of average and poor examples for every good one.

As for playing in marching band, tone quality does not strike me as an overriding consideration. The greatest benefits of a pro clarinet over a student model are the improvements in tone and intonation. These qualities are generally lost or irrelevant in the context of marching so I see no reason to use a good instrument in marching band. I would never march with a wood clarinet. Keep your old student plastic clarinet for marching. It weighs less than a wood model, and isn't degraded by excessive moisture or harsh temperatures. However, if you insist on using a good instrument for marching, Buffet has a professional instrument called the green-line clarinet. It is made from a synthetic material and uses pads that won't wilt in high heat or humidity. A colleague of mine who plays a lot of outdoor gigs in the brutal Kansas summers purchased one and has been very pleased with it. Best of all, this instrument won't crack no matter how cold or dry the environment.

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Copyright © 2001, Eric Tishkoff. All rights reserved. This article may not be used commercially without the express written consent of the author.