Having just enjoyed a postprandial glass of wine, I'm going to take a chance on a topic I might not otherwise address: the ostensible primacy of grenadilla wood as the clarinet construction material of choice!
Now, I know that I will probably ruffle some feathers with this, but I've played (and restored) a lot of clarinets in my day and have noticed a couple things: 1) the performer's mouthpiece, reed, oral cavity, articulation, breath support and tonal concept seem to have more to do with the resultant tone than a specific clarinet, and 2) the material from which the instrument is constructed plays less of a role in its tone than the quality of said construction plus setup and its interaction with all the factors mentioned in #1.
The first point is fairly easy to establish in your own practice: if you play classical music, use a narrow tip, large chamber mouthpiece with a stiff, French file cut natural reed and are channeling Reginald Kell as your Tone God, you will have approximately the same dark, focused tone on a Buffet, Leblanc or Thibouville Freres. Likewise, if you play Jazz, use a Vandoren 5JB with a 2.5 Fibracell reed, and love Peanuts Hucko, the bright, flexible tone will shine out from an Orsi to an A. Robert. The ergonomics of key-work and the back-bore pressure will vary, it is true, along with other, subtler factors, but many of these are attributable to the quality of the pad work and the interaction of your mouthpiece with the bore size/taper of the instrument at hand. A change in mouthpiece or brand of reed would result in a more noticeable change of tone!
The second can only be demonstrated with access to a number of instruments over time, which access most teachers and performers don't have, unless they are the kind of hardened collector who has the luxury of both copious funds and unencumbered hours. Being exactly that type myself, I have had the chance to play a variety of wood, hard rubber, metal, and composite clarinets in different keys and different fingering systems and believe that the material has a limited impact on the tone, intonation and play-ability of the instrument.
To be continued....
Recently, in a fit of bravery, I've been purchasing some no-name clarinets, mostly Albert systems. These golden-oldies have gotten harder to find, lately, and the big names are commanding big prices: a $1000 or more for a Buffet in good, un-restored condition, which puts it out of my 'can-risk' range!
I don't buy blind, of course: I look at wood, key-work, and condition and I ask questions. And you would be surprised at some of the nice old horns that I come across! There are a number of reasons: most no-names were made by reputable manufacturers for stores, catalogs and big distributors. If it says 'made in France' and its from the 20's-50's, chances are good that it was a Buffet, Thibouville Freres, Martin Freres, Couesnon, Malerne, or SML. If it was 'made in Italy', a Rampone or Orsi. If 'made in Germany', a Gebr. Moennig or one of a host of excellent (if lesser known) makers from Markneukirchen - not a bad pedigree!
Also, this was the Era of the Clarinet and a poor make didn't stand much of a chance against the flood of reasonably priced, quality instruments on the market. Compare this to today's spate of First Act, Borg, and other marginal junk instruments - they wouldn't have stood a chance 80 years ago! Even some of the old French and American stencil hard rubber or metal instruments play surprisingly well, with a good overhaul and decent mouthpiece.
So, don't be scared of an inexpensive old no-name for personal use. Compare key-work for similarities to known brands (hint: the shape of the lower stack bridge key is a giveaway to at least 3 makers), look for dark wood with a tight grain and pro features (like post lock-downs) and ask Ask ASK questions : are there cracks, ugly repairs, frozen/rusted keys, etc. With practice and a little luck, you can have a fine horn for practically the cost of the overhaul and save another piece of craftsmanship from the junk-pile....
Recently, I posted a blog on Thibouville Freres clarinets, (an obscure French brand with which I've always had good luck), and it got me thinking about all the good playing horns I've handled in the last decade, and how many of them weren't Buffets or Selmers.
Just yesterday I finished this 1920's Pruefer 7 ring - obviously a pro instrument - and was really impressed: Great wood, well shaped keys, nicely assembly touches (like post locks on the lower stack), a large bore and an even, free-blowing response. Why spend $2600 if you can get something like this for less than $500?
I wish there were more people out there on the net giving thumbs - up to good old makes like this, so people would have the courage to step up and try something different. Does anyone else have a similar experience ?
One of the clarinet makers I watch for these days is Thibouville Freres, a French company based in Ivry-la-Bataille from pre-1913-1974; sub-contractors for numerous makers and resellers (also seen as JTL or Jerome Thibouville Lamy). Most of the instruments that I see seems to date from the 40's - 60's (based on case, design elements, etc). These restore to be some truly fine playing horns, with nice design features and a slightly larger than standard bore. I've sold them to Jazz/Klezmer musicians and others of uncertain affiliation, always with happy results!
The nicest one I've ever seen was an 'Artist' model that I bought from Goodwill for about 75 dollars! It was a large bore pro horn with all tenons metal capped and sockets metal lined, a metal lined barrel, and 7 rings. After a full overhaul, it was a wonderful player with a fat, 'vintage' tone and good intonation, ideal for Jazz or Classical, depending on choice of mouthpiece.
I do notice, BTW, that mouthpiece seems to be a critical factor: a customer of mine who had purchased one last year (and reported being unimpressed) called me recently, raving about its tone and playability with a change of mouthpiece. Maybe that made all the difference, or maybe he's been practicing more, who knows ?
Thibouville Freres also made nice bass clarinets (under their own name and as stencils, I believe), and was responsible for building some or all of the McIntyre system instruments that I've seen.
Does anyone else have experience to report with this company's instruments and any idea why they aren't a whole lot more famous?
For years, I used natural reeds on clarinet and saxophone. I tried different brands, different strengths, different cuts - all of which changed every time I changed mouthpieces, of course - and invested a lot of time and even more money in the pursuit of the 'perfect reed'.
The conclusion I've come to is twofold : 'there isn't one' and 'if there were, it would be called Fibracell'! After years of throwing out 1/4 of the reeds in a box, or sanding and trimming to save stuffy, poorly cut or worn out reeds, I gave up and tried Rico Plasticovers. They are definitely brighter, longer lasting and more free-blowing, but I found grading inconsistent and had trouble with 'chirping'. I tried Bari clear plastic reeds and found them durable, but tone was monochromatic and they were best outdoors or in a situation where tone wasn't as important, like marching band.
Finally, I found Fibracell. These are a resin/Mylar composite that look and feel very much like natural cane, but the resemblance ends there! They are durable, consistent, don't require soaking, don't get soggy, don't split, crack, warp or squeak and are more free-blowing (important for Jazz and Commercial players who want a brighter, more open sound) than cane. Each reed costs about $14, but will last for months. Many pros and teachers now use them, and I've had good feedback from students as well as improved tone and performance in my playing.
There are a couple of mitigating factors that need to be taken into consideration, however: 1) they run a little softer than cane reeds, anywhere from 1/2 to a full grade. So, your tenor sax 2.5 will become a 3, and your clarinet 3 may become a 4. And 2) I find the stiffness ratio of tip to heart is a little different than cane, so intonation and articulation will have to be adapted accordingly. Regular practicing over a period of a couple weeks should make for a good transition; I wouldn't take one out for the first time on a gig!
I know these are more popular with saxophonists than clarinetists, but I recommend them to anyone looking for a more consistent, free-blowing reed. Especially for doublers, they can't be beat! Buy a couple in different grades, try them for a couple weeks and see if you don't notice an improvement in your tone and intonation. Then, throw away all those half-full boxes of half playable reeds and don't look back..
I buy most of my horns on eBay and have learned, through long and expensive experience, to examine every instrument with a fine toothed comb before purchasing! I've received cracked clarinets, plastic instead of wood clarinets, broken clarinets, clarinets with damaged or missing keys or rings, and even a clarinet that was made of pieces of 3 different clarinets! So, based on my experience and some of the customer horns I've been seeing lately (also purchased on eBay) I'd say its time for an eBay buying tutorial!
First, I'd restrict my buying to the US and Canada unless you are fluent in another language and can afford to risk the high shipping. Mistakes can happen with overseas communication, and it can be much harder and more expensive to force a return if things aren't as represented!
Second, look at feedback: while feedback can't tell you everything (with one negative, ebay's current policy of basing it on only the last year's transactions can make a small seller look worse than he/she actually is) it is a good place to start. Numerous negatives/neutrals and unflattering comments about misrepresented condition, poor communication, and high shipping can be a tip off that you aren't dealing with someone who is professional or honest - best to move on; lot of fish in the sea...
Third, what does the ad show and tell you? Is it full of sharp pictures and copious details or a few badly taken pictures and a very skimpy description posted from a mobile phone? Is the person obviously knowledgeable and informative about the instrument, or just a garage sale picker looking for a quick sale at the highest price?
Fourth, is there a return policy? Honest, knowledgeable sellers know that mistakes can happen, especially if they are selling something that they are not familiar with - I had to return a clarinet just a few weeks ago, as the ad failed to show or mention that the upper half of the bridge key was broken off and missing! Luckily, she was honest and pleasant about it, but I haven't always been so lucky. Ebay will sometimes assist you in forcing a return if an item has been misrepresented, but it is a troublesome process and they keep track of how often you use it: too many returns, and you risk losing access to the service, whether you are in the wrong or not!
So, fifth and last - ask questions! Here are some of my favorites:
'Is the instrument in playable condition?'
'Are all pieces wood?'
'Do all pieces have logos that match?'
'Are there any cracks, chips, repairs, or any missing, damaged or frozen keys?'
'What is your return policy?'
If you get what seem like thoughtful, honest answers, their feedback is in an acceptable range, and the photos look good, you are most likely safe to go ahead. If you receive no answer or something like "I know nothing about clarinets but it looks good to me" (one of my favorites) then be prepared to pass, or set a bid at a low price, or ask more questions.
Also, avoid tunnel vision or 'gotta have it' syndrome: there are lots of clarinets for sale this week and there will be next week, too. If you're not a 100% percent satisfied with what you are looking at, look some more. Remember, its just a clarinet....
After years of refurbishing Penzel Mueller clarinets, I'm still amazed at the obscurity in which they linger! From a buying point of view, great: from a selling point of view, not so good. So, here's a little info to pique your interest in this unjustly forgotten brand.
The company was started by 2 German immigrants, Penzel and Mueller, in the early 1890's in Long Island City NY. They offered a variety of clarinets and flutes, as well as some saxes and brass which I suspect were made by someone else and stenciled with the PM logo. If someone can shed more light, please do! The company operated through the late 1950's (as best I can determine), before ceasing production.
Their clarinets (especially the Artist, Studio Recording, and Super Brilliante models) were top of the line horns, easily comparable to anything coming out of Europe during the period. Woody Herman played an Artist model, in fact. The tone was more 'American' than 'French' in concept - think Conn rather than Buffet - great for Jazz as well as concert music, free-blowing, more direct than sweet. Intonation is very good on most of the horns I've tried, and the key work is comfortable unless you have very small hands: there's a bit of a spread, which is welcome for us large fingered folk!
A customer in Texas was kind enough to forward a model/price list from their 1955 catalog:
Super Brilliante $340
Artist, new model $265
Bel Canto $185
American Professional $165
Standard Model $129.50
The only one I've worked on that I don't see here is the 'Studio Recording' model, which was a pro horn that came with 3 barrels. Perhaps it had been discontinued by 1955? Anyway, I hope this is enough to get you to keep an eye out for one of the better PM's in good playing condition. Regardless of the style you play, I believe you'd enjoy it.
The Licorice Shtick Blog is the creation of the Vintage Clarinet Doctor, a Winston Salem, NC based woodwind instrument repair shop specializing in vintage and antique clarinets, saxophones, and the occasional flute.