What are the best clarinet brands?

best clarinet brands

There is no “best” clarinet brand for everyone. Each brand has its own characteristics regarding response, tone, and intonation. Some are heavier than others. Some have more keys than others and so on. There are several brands that are recognized throughout the clarinet world, however, for excellence in their particular niche.

Bundy

This is a student horn that is made from plastic. Beginners are notoriously rough on instruments, and Bundy clarinets are made to take a lot of punishment. Many times, they can fall off of chairs, get kicked over, or be trod upon and still play. When I was in the army band, one of the clarinet players left his instrument on the bumper of the bus. It was a Bundy. When the bus took off, the clarinet went under the wheels, and the bus ran over the bell. The instrument flipped and landed on the concrete. Aside from the broken bell, it still played. Is this a horn for a pro? No, it’s not, but for its intended purpose, it’s terrific.

Buffet

For many years in the U.S., Buffet horns were the gold standard. They are still exceptional horns, but others have equaled them in quality in the 21st century. They come in varying bore sizes and shapes. The RC bore, for example, flares more at the end than the R13. The tone produced is different, with the R13 being brighter and the RC being darker and more similar to the German sound.

Buffet also makes student and intermediate models. The C12 is the student model, and the company’s commitment to quality is no different than on its professional models. Their intermediate, or “step-up” instrument, is the E11. Both of these excellent clarinets cost far less than their professional counterparts. Parents usually buy one or the other for their children when they progress into high school. The advantage is that if the student doesn’t want to go further with music, then the parents won’t have spent an inordinate amount of money for “too much instrument.”

Selmer

Selmer clarinets have traditionally been “jazz horns.” The chief difference between them and other brands is that the tone holes are undercut. This gives the player great flexibility when it comes to intonation. Selmer players can also bend pitches much more easily than the would be able to on other instruments, which is where Selmers got their reputation for jazz.

This characteristic doesn’t negate the quality of the instrument, however. Selmer makes top-flight clarinets. Some players swear by them, but the instruments’ response is not for everyone. Players used to the freeness of a Buffet horn, for example, might not be able to work with the more restrictive feel of a Selmer.

LeBlanc

LeBlanc was always famous for making excellent clarinets. After the 2004 merger, however, when Conn-Selmer bought the company, it ceased to exist as a separate entity. To its credit, Conn-Selmer didn’t stubbornly morph its LeBlanc instruments into copies of its own. It kept the sweet sound and magnificent intonation for which LeBlanc horns were famous.

The bad news is that the merged company now no longer makes professional-quality horns. All professional models are older, which means they would have to be sought out and bought used. The Opus model horns are superb intermediate instruments, but they lack the sensational tone of either Buffet or older LeBlanc models. Still, for the right players, they are great choices.

Backun

For generations, clarinets were made from grenadilla wood, which is harvested from the M’Pingo tree in Tanzania. The famous African blackwood is so hard that it will break saws and cause axes to need sharpening every few blows. In the past, clarinets were made from boxwood or other woods that were easily obtained. Backun specializes in clarinets made from woods other than grenadilla. These include rosewood, boxwood, and even a carbon-fiber and wood composite. The Canadian company still makes grenadilla clarinets, of course, but they provide these other options for discerning clarinetists.

Wurlitzer

This German company will make you a clarinet to order with either the Oehler system keywork or the Reformed Boehm system keywork. When you order a clarinet from them, they will actually have someone go cut the M’Pingo tree for you. They are the pinnacle of clarinets with the dark, German sound. They even give the player the option for custom roller keys for the little fingers of each hand, which gives the player unparalleled flexibility.

Wurlitzer also makes a basset clarinet in A. That’s the same instrument for which Mozart composed his famous clarinet concerto. Although the modern version has a full set of modern keys, it still most likely sounds just like what Mozart heard when Stadler played his concerto. It’s one of the few horns that goes to a low C. That lets the player play the concerto with the original notation in several key measures.

Choosing the Right Clarinet

Professional players should play every horn they plan to buy. In fact, they should play many horns before buying. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to do that with Wurlitzers, but those horns are built for the player, so it’s largely not necessary.

When trying out new horns, players will look for response, feel, intonation, and sound. Response is how quickly the instrument produces a sound when the air is applied to the reed. Of course, reed strength plays a part in that as well. Feel is how it feels to play. What kind of back pressure does the horn create? Is it free-blowing, or does it create resistance? Many players love the resistance so that they can use soft to medium-strength reeds. Selmer clarinets fit this bill.

Other players want a free-blowing horn that requires very hard reeds to create the resistance. This is the school to which I belong. Generally speaking, the free-blowing horns are darker in sound while the horns with resistance are brighter in sound. Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Players will also tinker with mouthpiece, ligature, and reed combinations with different horns before buying one. Because clarinets are a sizable investment, with Backun models costing as much as $13,000 U.S., getting the right one is crucial.

Intonation is how well the instrument plays in tune. All instruments are compromises when it comes to intonation, but players have to know the characteristics of the horn in question. Also, companies can make clarinets that are slightly sharper or flatter than others. In modern orchestras, A442 is the standard almost everywhere. The Berlin Philharmonic even once played at A445, which is much sharper than almost any other group plays. The clarinetists in the orchestra had to have special barrels to ensure they could play at the proper pitch.

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