The 9 Best Clarinets
Understanding The Clarinet
Clarinets have a single reed and a cylindrical bore. Most people are generally referring to A- and B flat versions when speaking about clarinets, but there is actually a wide family of clarinets ranging from tiny E flat models all the way up to super deep-sounding bass clarinets, which are nearly nine feet long.
A standard A- or B flat clarinet, also known as a soprano clarinet, is roughly two feet in length, which is twice the size of a standard recorder. Clarinets are composed of a mouthpiece, barrel joint, upper and lower joints, a bell, and hardware like the keys and ligature. Most clarinets come with two barrel joints, a longer one and a smaller one. Nearly every clarinet can be disassembled for easy transport and storage.
Clarinets can be made of metal, plastic, or wood. The keys and other hardware are generally silver or nickel coated metal. Professional-quality models are most often made from grenadilla wood with silver-plated keys, while the entry level models are composed of some kind of synthetic material like ABS with lacquer-coated keys.
Clarinets look similar to oboes, but have a wider mouth and just a single reed as opposed to an oboe's thin double reed. Their cylindrical bore runs the full length of the instrument and is the same diameter throughout, except for the lower end of the bell. This contrasts with most wind instruments which have bore diameters that vary in size.
The tonal range of a clarinet is the widest of any wind instrument and every type can play as low as an E, with the majority reaching notes as high as c7. This is nearly a four-octave range, which is almost double the two-and-a-half octave range of a standard saxophone, and one more than the three-octave range of most flutes. This allows a single bass clarinet to play all of the notes that a baritone, tenor, and alto sax combined can play.
A Brief History Of The Clarinet
It can be said that clarinets have their roots in a single-reed instrument from 2700 BCE called the zummara, which was played in Ancient Egypt. While it was also a single-reed instrument, it actually had a double bore. There have been a number of single-reed instruments such as the alboka and the arghul. Various forms of these were played in Ancient Greece, the Middle East, and Europe in the Middle Ages, all of which can be considered precursors to the modern day clarinet.
The most recent ancestor of the clarinet is a Baroque instrument that was known as the chalumeau. It was similar in size to a recorder, but played with a single-reed mouthpiece and consisting of a cylindrical bore, as opposed to a recorder's conical bore. It didn't have a register key and was played solely in its fundamental register. It also had a very limited one-and-a-half octave range.
The clarinet was invented in 1690 as a modification of the chalumeau. It is unknown whether German instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner, or his son Jacob Denner, first made the modification, but whoever it was decided to replace two of the chalumeau keys with register keys. This increased the instrument's range by over two octaves. They went on to further modify the chalumeau by improving the bell and mouthpiece.
In the same year the clarinets were invented, the Duke of Gronsfeld ordered two for his musicians. Years later in 1712, four boxwood clarinets were bought by the Nuremberg Town band. It wasn't until 1740 that a third register key was added, which allowed clarinet players to hit the low E note. In 1750, the fourth and fifth keys were added by Barthold Fritz. Around this same time, clarinets were being used in operas and orchestras.
Clarinets In Music
A variety of ensembles utilize clarinets in their bands. They are often associated with classical symphony orchestras or harmonic orchestras, which will employ three or four clarinet players, but they can be found in many other types of music. The majority of military bands and marching bands use anywhere from one to four clarinet players.
In both Tango and gypsy orchestras, ensembles are small and clarinet players are responsible for lengthy solos. Chamber music also makes use of clarinets, usually in quintet with a horn, flute, bassoon, and oboe. Chamber music bands will often play a range of music types from modern to classical, which is one reason many consider this one of the most demanding types of music. It is usually reserved for true musicians dedicated to the art.
Clarinets are also heavily utilized in jazz and big band genres. Clarinet players in these styles of music can expect to perform solos one minute and then in harmony with a larger wind section the next. This is a great way for clarinet players to enhance their skills and open themselves up to a broader range of playing styles. They can also sometimes be found in pop and rock bands, usually in an electronic format.