“How much does a clarinet cost?” I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked this question. Purchasing a clarinet is a difficult and challenging proposition. Finding the right clarinet for your needs and applications can be a minefield of decisions and tradeoffs. As a clarinet instructor for over 35 years I have guided hundreds of students to instrument purchases at various price points. If you are careful and patient, and invest in the time it takes to do your due diligence, you can find some great deals on excellent instruments. What follows is a primer on how to go about purchasing a clarinet, and some suggestions on how to personalize your playing as you advance forward with the clarinet.
1. Clarinet beginner with little or no experience:
This may be the easiest of the various situations. The best option is to purchase a student model plastic Bb clarinet outright. The two best on the market are the Yamaha Advantage (pictued above) and the Buffet Crampon Premium Clarinet. Most reputable music stores will have one or the other in stock, and you can also purchase them online through Woodwind and Brasswind (wwbw.com) or various other retailers. These horns are durable, relatively cheap, and have great resale value. Be advised there are many other makes and models of student model instruments out there. I don’t generally recommend them, I think they are inferior to the Yamaha/Buffet in many respects. If you are patient and diligent it’s possible to find these instruments used for great prices, look for an original owner selling it, and anything 10 years old or less should work out just fine. Often you have to put a few hundred dollars into a used instrument to get it up to speed but if you grab it at a good price this can save you a lot of money. Of course be sure to have a good repair person do the work and be sure to ask if they warranty their work and for how long. It’s always a good idea to have a plastic clarinet for outdoor and marching band performances. I suggest that even when you step up to a professional model you keep that plastic clarinet for a rainy day. By the way I have two Yamaha plastic clarinets, one was Perry Robinson’s, and I love them. They tune sharper than a traditional Grenadilla wood clarinet which can come in handy in cooler playing environments, and they are lighter weight which is much easier on the right hand if you play for hours at a time as I do.
It is possible to rent these clarinets, however in general rental instruments have their fair share of problems. A good store will not send out a clarinet in poor playing condition and will swap it out if it is rejected by your clarinet instructor for any reason. Often middle and high schools have loaner or rental instruments for their students as well. These instruments usually take a beating over time, don't play very well, and can be a frustrating journey for students as they often need work as they go out of adjustment, if they were ever in adjustment to being with. I will reiterate what I said above.... The BEST option is to purchase a student model plastic Bb clarinet outright.
WARNING: DO NOT BUY A CLARINET AT COSTCO
Generally the instruments at Costco are knockoffs and of poor quality. Often made in far flung locations to less than ideal specifications, these instruments are junk and I don’t take anything of this type seriously. I’ve seen lots of issues with these instruments, they constantly slip out of adjustment, the keys can bend easily. Just stay away from these instruments and save yourself a lot of grief.
2. Intermediate level clarinetist looking to step up to a slightly better horn:
Here’s where it gets tricky. While there are intermediate step up instruments out there, I DO NOT RECOMMEND THEM as a general rule. Without getting into specifics, there are a lot of poorly made medium priced clarinets out there. I have played them all and have yet to find one that I felt was worth the money. If you are looking at spending this amount of money on a clarinet, generally $1500 to $2000, I do feel it’s worth looking at professional models and doubling your budget. It is possible to find some decent used clarinets, mostly older Buffets, and have them overhauled, but beware, this is not a scenario that someone without significant experience should undertake. Older used instruments can be a TOTAL DISASTER, there are many out there that you should stay away from. Older Grenadilla wood clarinets will go flat, losing their intonation center, if they have not been played in years. Often these clarinets have been sitting in a closet for decades and will never be viable. It is possible, as I have done, to find one that you like, and play it and rehab it over a period of a couple of years. You may get it up to speed, but again as I said, it takes skill and experience to pursue this avenue. You are always better looking into a new professional instrument if you are at this point in your clarinetistry. A good instructor can guide you to a medium priced instrument but again the resale value can be very poor with these instruments. Be very careful as this is where people have gotten into trouble in my experience in the past.
WARNING: COUNTERFEIT CLARINETS ARE EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS.
Be sure to do some research when purchasing instruments from certain sources. Check out model numbers and ask where the instruments were made. Fake model numbers and tell tale signs of bogus instruments can tip you off to counterfeit instruments. If you find a clarinet at half or less than what WWBW sells it for brand new, BEWARE.
3. Aspiring college clarinet student/major or adult intermediate to advanced players and professionals:
The industry standard for clarinets has been the Buffet R-13 for a long time now. I prefer silver plated keys but I do have both a silver plated Buffet and a nickel plated R-13. The silver keys do no effect the sound, the silver just feels a little better in your hands. Also be aware that silver keys can and do tarnish a bit over time, however they can be polished and will return to their original luster. Buffet has over the last 30 years or so expanded their pro line of clarinets to include step up models like the Prestige R-13, the Festival, the Tosca, and the Prestige RC. While I don’t keep up with these “innovations,” my sense is a lot of this is a marketing gimmick meant to drive prices up. Sure, these clarinets may have a different bore, or a key or two added for ease of playing certain combinations of notes, but for the average pro or advanced student I don’t think they warrant the extra cost. That being said I do have a Prestige Bb clarinet I bought years ago that is a great instrument. So I think it matters more the individual instrument, whether it’s a good vintage, rather than the actual model. Remember, there are plenty of lousy clarinets out there. Don’t get stuck with one.
It’s worth mentioning here that clarinets vary a great deal from instrument to instrument, and often batches arrive from the manufacturers containing both winners and losers. I suggest when purchasing a new professional instrument you try at least three clarinets for comparison. I would personally like to pick from a litter of about a dozen, although when you get into more horns than that it’s easy to get confused. Again, someone with experience can help you with this part of the process.
While I am partial to the Buffet R-13, Selmer and Yamaha also make excellent professional model clarinets at various price points. Again I have not done an exhaustive, comprehensive study of these instruments, being a Buffet guy, but you might want to see if there’s something there that might work for you. I don’t think I’ve ever played a Selmer clarinet of any sort that I thought I’d use long term, but some people swear by them and feel they have done some legitimate work improving the intonation of these instruments. Maury Backun (https://backunmusical.com/) also makes clarinets that are highly regarded, and although I’ve never played one, I do see them around. Warning: They are PRICEY. Again, I don’t see the point of going off into the wild blue yonder with these instruments, I prefer to find a good R-13 and go on from there. Also keep in mind that the source you purchase an instrument from is important. Ask about warranty and repair service; it’s not uncommon for a new clarinet to experience swelling at the tenon joints, which need to be fixed and fixed properly, and….horrors….clarinet joints do crack and will need to be replaced or pinned. Ask in advance and get it in writing if you can, these problems will need to be addressed if they occur. Many stores don’t have the experience with clarinets to properly manage these issues, so give that some thought before you plunk down your hard earned cash. Lastly, as I stated above, always try at least 3 clarinets back to back for comparison and pick the one that feels best. A good store should have at least that many clarinets for you to try before purchasing. I have tried up to 100 clarinets at a time, in Los Angeles years ago, and picked number 98 for purchase. That clarinet has turned out to be my number one instrument over the last two decades.
Simply put, barrels do make a big difference. Matching a barrel to your clarinet, as opposed to just playing the barrel that comes with it, is standard practice for upper level clarinetists. My good friend Clark Fobes makes some great barrels, I have played his Cocobolo barrels (pictured above) (https://www.clarkwfobes.com/collections/barrels/products/fobes-clarinet-barrel-cocobolo?variant=38534190800) in the past and really like them. I think it’s a good idea to have both a 66mm and a 65 mm barrel for Bb clarinet, and I even have a 64mm barrel. Clark also makes a great synthetic barrel (https://www.clarkwfobes.com/collections/barrels/products/fobes-bb-clarinet-barrel-hdp-synthetic?variant=6112183173) for plastic clarinets that are amazing. I do think it’s worth your time and energy to experiment a bit with barrels, look for something that gives you the resistance you like and the type of sound you’re after. I often hear orchestral clarinetists say they want to sound “dark.” To me this is a total farce. And I’m a trained and recovering orchestral clarinetist. The clarinet is a dark enough instrument to begin with, and when you start to burnish out the inherent highs in the clarinet sound you lose a lot of the projection and individual resonance of your instrument. This can really be accurately perceived when you get into a recording studio and hear yourself back in that environment. I prefer a little high frequency “sizzle” to my sound so that it will have the overall balanced tonal quality that I like to hear back on a recording. Orchestral players tend to play in big halls with stiff reeds on close facing mouthpieces, which gives them the type of “dark” sound they like to hear in that context, but for me it’s not something that works at all in the recording studio or for live jazz playing. Jimmy Hamilton is arguably the best sounding clarinetist you can find on record, and he’s certainly got a pinch of high end brightness to his sound.
When Alvin Batiste (pictured above) played by himself point blank in front of me in New Orleans I was surprised at how bright he sounded, yet in context he didn’t sound bright at all, and on record he sounds fantastic. Don’t be deceived by anyone’s preconceived notion of sound, let the feedback of a quality recording of yourself be your guide. I will write a blog post detailing the various recording techniques I have used including microphones, microphone placement and other details regarding the recording process in the near future.
You can spend a fortune looking for the perfect mouthpiece, and probably never find it! I’ve come to the conclusion that the magic is in the facing and the blank, not necessarily the maker. Without getting too deep into the weeds here, my suggestion is you should play a middle of the road mouthpiece with a middle of the road facing, 3 or 3 1/2 reeds, and play that set up for several years until you understand it’s quirks and tendencies. You need that baseline grounding before you can move into the more specific territory of trying to develop you own sound and style. A good teacher can guide you with this. For me now as a mature jazz player with tons of experience I know the facing I like, and what blank I like it on, and have had great results refining my sound and pitch. Working with someone who can reface mouthpieces well can make a big difference, helping you to get exactly what you want. Again this is very advanced clarinetistry and not for the faint of heart. You can spend a fortune going down this rabbit hole as well if you are not careful. A final word on new mouthpieces, find a mouthpiece that is hand finished by a reputable maker. Bigger companies mass produce mouthpieces that are punched out on a computer controlled lathe, and they never receive any hand finishing or are test played by someone with the chops to refine that mouthpiece. You may find something of this variety you like, but in general a more discerning player will be disappointed with this approach.
Finally, Mauro at Reedgeek (https://www.reedgeek.com/product/klangbogen-bore-reed-stabilizer-3-pin-set-one-piece/) makes something called the Klangbogen for saxophone and clarinet. You will have to contact him to find out more specifics about this product, but let me state here for the record that the Klangbogen has made a tremendous difference for me personally and I recommend it highly. The specific name for the clarinet version is the ClariKlang, and Mauro refers to it as a bore and reed stabilizer. I admit I was skeptical at first but the results have been tremendous. The response of the clarinet is improved and the altissimo register is easier to play, definitely more clear and precise. I have been able to move up at least one reed strength with this as well, and I have used it with great results in the recording studio. It’s a miracle of sorts and you will be amazed at the results you will get from the ClariKlang.
Bottom line regarding clarinets….you should be able to find and put into service a good plastic instrument, outfitted with a good pro barrel and mouthpiece, for $800 to $1200 more or less. You should probably skip over the intermediate clarinets unless you have someone skilled advising you on this. And you can expect to pay $4500 or more for a good professional clarinet. Various accessories can be helpful as well. Please be aware of the pitfalls outlined above, and expect that it takes to time to develop your artistry to a high level. Shoot for the moon and be very patient as the clarinet is a challenging and rewarding instrument. Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts with respect to sound and style, and record yourself with a high quality recording set up for the best feedback, you can’t trust what you hear behind the instrument yourself. Above all have fun and be sure to marvel at the high bar that has been set by such amazing clarinetists as Eddie Daniels, Buddy DeFranco, Jimmy Hamilton, Jimmy Guiffre (pictured below) and many others. Let’s not let the clarinet become obsolete and disappear from the sonic landscape in the future.
Thanks for stopping by my blog….Markos