Guide to Clarinets: Alto vs. Bass vs. Contrabass

The clarinet is one of the earliest of the true single reed instruments. It first appeared in the late 1600s as an evolution of the chalumeau, which was the first single reed instrument. The clarinet is also unique among the woodwinds in that it has a cylindrical bore, which is the same diameter throughout the instrument. Most woodwinds (saxophones, oboes, bassoons) have a conical bore that gets larger from the neck to the bell.

The modern clarinet emerged in the mid-19th century, when the Boehm fingering system used by the flute was adapted to clarinet. Clarinet is also unique among the woodwinds in that it “overblows” at the interval of a 12th. On all of the other woodwinds, the thumb key breaks the instrument into octaves. On the clarinet, fingering a low C and applying the thumb key will raise the note to the middle G a 12th above low C. This quality gives the clarinet its rich dark sound, due to the overtones created.

Although the clarinet is predominantly used in classical music, Dixieland jazz also features the instrument. There have been several notable jazz clarinetists, including Pete Fountain, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman.

There are five members of the clarinet family that are most often seen and used today. They are (smallest to largest) the Eb, Bb, Eb alto clarinet, Bb bass clarinet and the Bb contrabass clarinet. All are made of wood or plastic, except for the contrabass clarinet, which is made of metal. Like the saxophone and flute families, all of the fingerings are the same – so when you learn how to play the clarinet, you can play any member of the clarinet family.

Eb Clarinet
The Eb clarinet is the smallest member of the clarinet family and is sometimes called the “baby-clarinet.” It is not much bigger than a recorder, and has a very bright sound. It was originally developed to replace the high trumpet or cornet in the orchestra. If you listen to a master clarinetist play the upper register of the instrument, you’ll noticed it almost sounds like a trumpet.

Bb Clarinet
Most students who are learning how to play the clarinet start their studies on the

Bb instrument. It has found a home in all styles of music from orchestral to marching band, small ensembles, and jazz. It has a large range of 3 1/2 to 4 octaves, and offers a beautiful and expressive tone. Typically made of wood or plastic, there are also some older metal clarinets around. They were used specifically for outdoor playing in marching bands, but are not commonly seen today.

Eb Alto Clarinet
The alto clarinet is pitched one octave below the Eb baby clarinet. It is larger and its slightly-curved shape resembles an alto saxophone more than a traditional clarinet. It is also the first of the “closed hole” clarinets, another trait shared with the saxophone. The alto clarinet has a beautiful, rich sound and is typically used in small ensembles or woodwind quartets. The alto is more difficult to play due to its larger size and larger mouthpiece. Much like the bass clarinet, it has a floor peg and is played wearing a neck strap for added stability.

Bb Bass Clarinet
The bass clarinet is pitched one octave below the Bb clarinet. It is curved and keyed like the alto clarinet, but is larger and heavier. The bass clarinet has a strong dark sound and is at home in the orchestra or small ensemble. The bass clarinet is also used occasionally in a jazz context. Because of the weight of the instrument, it has a floor stand attached and is played sitting down.

Bb Contrabass Clarinet
The largest member of the clarinet family is extremely rare. It is pitched one octave below the bass clarinet and is made of metal and wood. Spanning over six feet if it were straightened out, it takes tremendous wind to play. It is also extremely expensive and is mostly owned by orchestras and universities for use in their ensembles.

Most students begin learning how to play the clarinet on the Bb instrument. Once you have mastered tone production and fingering, you might want to give some of the other members of the family a try. Many professional clarinet players also play alto and bass clarinet. All are used in ensemble and orchestra playing, and this will increase your opportunity for getting work.

The clarinet is a beautiful instrument that will give you hours of pleasure throughout your lifetime. When choosing a clarinet always look for a wooden instrument. The plastic beginner instruments are great to learn how to play, but the wooden instruments have richness in tone that will inspire you to practice!



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