Last week, I overhauled my first Buescher True Tone clarinet and found myself with many questions. Its a wonderful horn - well built of tight grained grenadilla wood and wide, solid nickel alloy keys, with a .595" bore. It has a big, open tone and good intonation (at least with my dubious skills)...but...did Buescher build this thing? Online research turned up no serial number list that seemed to correlate (the serial # was in the 17,000's) but I did find a reference suggesting that it may've been built by Penzel Mueller on contract!
Oddly, the build and serial would seem to bear this out: the serial number, instead of being cross-ways on the back of the lower stack, was incised longways on the side. Penzel Mueller was the only company I know of that did this, and the serial would date a PM to the late 30's/early 40's. Keywork seems to bear this out this age range, as the throat Ab/A has an adjustment screw and the LH pinky keys are mounted on separate posts. Also, the wide, flat rings are very reminiscent of PM's of the period. Finally, .595" is a pretty big bore for the period, but most PM Artist clarinets (their pro model) that I've worked on from the period have measured .595".
Does anyone have information about True Tone clarinets that they'd like to share? This is such a good instrument that I plan to keep my eye out for one and would like to learn more in the meantime. It would be interesting and slightly ironic if Buescher, who made so many saxophones under so many names for others, had their better clarinets made by Penzel Mueller. But, given the quality of the latter's Artist model, I wouldn't be surprised at their choice...
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 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; lots 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....
How Old is My Clarinet?
This blogpost is actually in response to a Facebook page comment on another question, but it occurred to me that people might like some tips on identifying the age of their clarinet, or one that they're planning to buy! If it is Albert or another fingering system, chances are its already an oldie, and most people aren't running into those, so I'll restrict myself to Boehm system - the most common system - for this post.
The easiest way to date a horn is by serial number: all the major (and some minor) makers have serial number lists available on Google. If you have a Buffet, Selmer, or Leblanc its a piece of cake...or is it?
Buffet serial numbers before the 1930's are a confusing hodgepodge of letters and numbers: does J134 come before 134J or after? Selmer numbers start, dependably, around 1929...before that, good luck! Leblanc lost decades of records in a factory fire, so anything before 1964 is guesswork based on model and ... KEY WORK.
Key work is your friend when it comes to identifying an older Boehm system clarinet. Its often a combination of more than one thing, but this will get you started :
1) Material - Before the 1960's, most instruments had keys made of solid nickel alloy, silver soldered together by hand for strength. This gets pretty oxidized with age, but will shine up like a new penny over and over again with buffing. Later work can be cheaper metal keys with nickel plating, or even cast pot metal - of which horror I shall not speak! I shouldn't have to tell you which of these sets of solid nickel keys is the Before photo...
There are a few exceptions, (like Conn, which was doing good plating before WWII), but generally, if you see grey-green oxidized nickel alloy like the above, you're looking at the 1950's or earlier.
2) The A/Ab crossover - the earlier the clarinet, the more likely that there is no adjustment screw. Earlier horns just have the arm with no screw: I think early makers wanted to keep musicians from messing with the adjustments, but that's a private theory - please don't repeat it! :-P
3) LH pinky keys mounted on one post instead of 2 - You rarely see this after about 1930. I don't know the reason for the change, although the early design can be harder to swedge if it gets loose from wear.
4) Leaf springs under keys - most makers use needle springs mounted in a post on all keys now, but earlier horns often had flat leaf springs (mounted on the key) on upper stack C# and lower stack F#. This also starts to disappear in the late 20's/early 30's and, again, I'm not sure why. If you have an Albert or Simple system instrument, you'll see leaf springs on many keys, or sometimes all - that's an oldie!
There are other tricks, (like wood and case design), but those are the easiest for the layperson. Hope they help!
I frequently receive old mouthpieces with every clarinet I buy, and I like to clean them and put them up for sale: some are collectible/desireable and others are just well made old mouthpieces that might be of use to someone wishing to save some money over a new mouthpiece. The main problem is - they often look terrible! Crusty...discolored...tattered cork...who would want that?!
Well, it turns out that cleaning up an old mouthpiece isn't that hard, so I'm going to share my experience:
Here's a recent set of untreated vintage mouthpieces - pretty ugly!
1) Start by washing - the rest of the process will work best if you remove any greases and oils. I use mild dish detergent, COLD water and an old toothbrush. A drop of soap on the brush, scrub inside and out, rinse. Why COLD? Hot water is the fastest way to turn that old hard rubber mpc green!
2) Soak in vinegar - the acetic acid will dissolve any mineral buildup and soaking (10-15 min on average) will help loosen any remaining stubborn gunk. More toothbrush scrubbing after this...Repeat as needed.
3) Rub with 3 in 1 oil - this trick rejuvenates the hard rubber and removes much or all of the age discoloration. Put a drop on the mouthpiece, rub thoroughly with fingers. Let sit for a couple days - you'll see darkening and increased shine - repeat if needed.
4) Rub with a polish cloth, gild logos with a gold crayon, and recork - polishing will remove the last of the oil and heighten shine, gold crayon will make faded logos pop, and corking will complete visual cleanup and make the mouthpiece suitable for use by the next owner! I generally use 3/64" sheet cork and 3M rubber cement.
As you can see from the photo below, its an amazing improvement from the original condition! However, if you don't see all the green oxidation disappear, just let it go. I haven't found any process that will get all of it, except buffing with compound...and you have to be GOOD at that not to ruin the mouthpiece! Let it be a little green...
Clarinet Re-pad vs. Overhaul
Occasionally, people will ask about the difference, and why an overhaul costs more. Here's my best answer:
On a newer plastic student horn, a re pad might only include dis-assembly, washing the body, quickly hand-ragging the keys, replacing missing corks, replacement of all pads, reassembly and adjustment: about a 2 1/2 hour job for about $180. For an instrument with fresh tone-holes, snug posts, tight mechanism, shiny nickel plated keys and recent springing this might be sufficient, especially if its going into the hands of an 11 year old of indifferent ability.
An overhaul, on the other hand, would include everything necessary to return the instrument to as close to 'like new' play-ability as is feasible (sometimes extraordinary measures are not justified by the value of the instrument), and address the preferences of the more advanced player in question. This might include:
Swedging/countersinking the key-work to remove lost motion, re-facing of tone-holes to assure optimal pad seat, tightening of posts, replacement of all cork (including adjustment of opening height to regulate tone and intonation), thorough oiling of body, buffing of body, posts and keywork, polishing of the bore, straightening or leveling of bent keys, key cups and rods, realignment of keys with tone holes, replacement of weak springs, repair of small cracks or chips, installation of a mix of high quality double bladder/leather and cork pads, reassembly and adjustment, and re-gilding the logos! Total of 6-10+ hours depending on age, complexity of mechanism, and condition.
Many techs who routinely repair only band grade instruments have neither the time, the knowledge, nor the specialized tools to complete all these tasks, and little incentive to acquire them: At the $60 an hour that the average shop currently charges (plus supplies), a $600 bill wouldn't be out of the question and few customers are discerning or serious enough to make this kind of commitment to their instrument. Trying to explain why all this is necessary frequently got me looks suggesting that I was peddling Snake Oil: We are, after all, a nation of bargain hunters, and quality work is no bargain!
However, once your older instrument has been thoroughly overhauled in this manner, you can be assured that, not only is it playing its best, but that it will require little maintenance other than oiling and adjustment for years to come!
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.
After clarinet porn comes mouthpiece porn: The gleaming, moodily lit photo, the famous artist endorsements, the promises of great tone, singing altissimo and perfect intonation...and, of course, the high price tag. Why do we fall for it?
My sax teacher years ago gave me the best piece of wisdom on the subject: "When you try a new mouthpiece, you're playing the piece. After a week, you're back to playing you." I think what he was trying to say is that a sudden change emphasizes the differing qualities of the mouthpiece. It takes time for your embouchure to settle down and adapt to it and, in that time, your playing habits, (good and bad) reassert themselves...often with a vengeance. Do you close your throat and pinch going for high notes? That squeak and thin tone will be back. Do you have a poor ear for intonation? A $250 hand faced Zinner blank can play just as out of tune as a $30 plastic Yamaha 4C.
Now, these are the things I've found that make a genuine difference, regardless of the mouthpiece you choose:
First and most important, tonal concept. What are you trying to achieve? Who's your idol and can you hear the tone in your head? When a high school-aged kid comes for a jazz lesson, I ask "Who's your hero, who do you want to sound like?" If they say "I dunno", I know I'm in for a lousy school band tone, regardless of their horn and setup. If you can't hear it, no $3k horn will get it for you! Regardless of what style you play, listen to the greats. If you're channeling Buddy DeFranco or Sonny Rollins now, fine. You'll find your way to you, if you keep playing...but you have to have a tonal concept.
Second, a decent setup that's headed in the right direction. If you're playing a vintage Buescher TrueTone alto sax with a Rascher mouthpiece and you love Reggae...you're in trouble. Likewise, channeling Debussy on a Yanigasawa with a screaming Dukoff mouthpiece will probably fail to enchant! I'm offering extreme examples, but I've seen choices just as bad. What do you want to play? What setup do prominent players of that style use? But, don't fall into the trap of paying $500 for a vintage Big B Brilhart ligature because Charlie Parker used one - he also used a bent spoon and a rubber band as a substitute key - but find something, vintage or modern, that's headed in the right direction. I love off-brands, like Dolnet saxes and Penzel Mueller clarinets. Lots of bang for much less buck...and that goes double for used mouthpieces on ebay!
Third, pick a good mouthpiece...and stick with it! It takes time to explore and master a mouthpiece and consistent results come most easily from a consistent setup. If you're constantly changing parameters, your embouchure, lungs and ears won't settle in to get the best from your 'piece. And you needn't spend hundreds: old Selmer and Portnoy clarinet mouthpieces, for instance, sell used on eBay for $30-50 routinely...and they can be great mouthpieces. Try a few before breaking the piggy bank for the latest shiny Uber-mouthpiece!
Last, practice practice practice...but intelligently. No mouthpiece, however fancy and expensive, is a substitute for daily, thoughtful practice! Now, scales and etudes are a good start, but playing a scale from the root to the octave and back, out of time and without a tuner, won't teach you the horn or the key...2 bar scale patterns, in time, all over the horn, with a tuner, will. Long-tones are great for your chops...but so are overtone exercises and I'm surprised at the players I meet who aren't familiar with them. There is so much good info online to help you with your growth, whether you have a teacher or not - use it! YouTube videos covering everything from breathing to improv are yours for free...wish we'd had them back in the 80's...
I hope some of these ideas are helpful, whether you are a beginning or advancing player. Save your money, try the above, and let me know what you think!
A customer just wrote to ask : "What's a good set up for jazz on the clarinet? I've changed my embouchure a lot but I'd like to have the best set up possible also, any advice would be great! Thanks!"
I'd like to have the best setup possible, too! So, here's my answer:
" Well, that's a tough question...Its very individual. If you look at a list of famous players on any instrument (especially woodwind) the setups tend to be all over the place. Generally speaking, Jazz players use a more open tip and a lighter reed than classical, but a bigger part is having a 'jazz tone' in your head, and adjusting your timing, attack, phrasing, etc. to reflect a Jazz concept. Who do you listen to? Buddy DeFranco? Artie Shaw? Lots of listening and practicing with play-along tracks will help the most...
Now that, being said, its harder to get a Jazz sound on Vandoren M13 mpc with #4 reeds - that's a pretty closed, stuffy setup. I've used Bernard Portnoy mouthpieces on my horn and with students and had good results, either the BP02 or more open BP03 facing. These can generally be found on ebay for about $40 used. Also, an older Selmer HS** (2 stars, not one) gives a nice tone and is open enough to give some flexibility. For a REALLY open facing, the Vandoren 5jb is a favorite, but some players find it tiring and you would have to work on intonation with a tuner - its got a great tone, though!
Also, don't forget reeds! I'd try a Fibracell 3.5 or 4 synthetic, (as they run about a grade softer than Vandoren cane) or, if you really prefer natural reeds, look at a non-classical cut from Alexander: they make some really nice reeds cut specifically for a Jazzy sound.
How's that for an answer?
Stalking the Cabart Clarinet
I just finished overhauling my 2nd "Cabart A Paris" clarinet and was so impressed with the result that I have been doing some research online. As with many of my favorite old makes (French and otherwise), the lack of solid, user-friendly information is frustrating! Here's an entry from the 'Clarinet BBoard':
"From The New Langwill Index:
Cabart WWI fl Paris 1842-c1869, a1893-p1950, fl Ezy 1869-p1950.
1842 established in Paris; 1869 re-located as THIBOUVILLE-CABART at Ezy as successors to THIBOUVILLE-BERANGER (according to Jansen, it was `Cabart' that was successor to `Thibouville-Beranger' while, according to Rendall, `Cabart' was successor to `Thibouville-Cabart'); according to Pierre, from 1893 certain artist-quality instruments made by `Thibouville-Cabart' were marked `Cabart'; in the 1930s `Cabart a Paris (Thiberville succr.), Ezy' (see THIBERVILLE) was reported; from c1946 used as trade-name by a French WWI maker/ dealer."
(galleon) / CABART / A PARIS / b # (natural)
And here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
The Thibouville family is from La Couture-Boussey (Eure, France). From the early nineteenth century, its members would create about two dozen musical instruments brands with the name Thibouville. Jean-Baptiste Thibouville, born May 4, 1832, in La Couture-Boussey, was the inheritor of the brand Thibouville-Herouard (his parents' names) founded in 1842. First, He created two companies in Paris, which only last a short time because of the death of his associates. In 1867, he married Rose Leonie Cabart, daughter of Jean Michel Cabart, owner and comb manufacturer in Ezy-sur-Eure (Eure, France). In 1869, he established in Ezy-sur-Eure the Thibouville-Cabart factory.
Factory's life from 1869 to 1977
In journalese, this kind of content is known as MEGO - My Eyes Glaze Over! It tends to discourage further speculation, but I remain curious. They were well known and respected for their oboes until the Lorree buyout c.1974, but not much is said about their clarinets. Both of the instruments I've restored were of a high order of manufacture: gorgeous wood, solid nickel alloy keys, which were hand silver soldered for strength, comfortable springing, good ergonomics and intonation. They rarely turn up for sale online and, when they do, sell for ludicrously low prices, given the quality of construction.
If anyone has further information about Cabart and their clarinets, including playing experience and ownership, I'm all ears!
There's a topic in the world of clarinets that I've never heard touched upon, so I'm going to chance it tonight - Clarinet Porn versus the "Good Enough" clarinet. I may not make any friends with this, but I think it needs to be said...to YOU! "Yes, you there with your $5000 Backun with gold plated keys, custom barrel, handmade mouthpiece, $100 ligature and reeds hand shaved on the thigh of a Cuban virgin!"
Now, all kidding aside...I've been on Instagram for months and the volume of Clarinet Porn has to be seen to be believed: there should be parental settings on that darn site! Yes, Backun, Selmer, Buffet, Patricola, et al make some really fine horns (for thousands of dollars) and if you are in the top 5% of serious clarinet players you'll be able to tell the difference...and so will your audience?
I'm sorry to tell you this, but... its the player, not the fancy horn. I know pros who like hard rubber clarinets (for volume and cheapness), who like metal horns, who use synthetic reeds...and even my buddy Glenn, who has a 1970's Bundy student flute...and he can smoke on that thing! If you're in school but not planning on a career in performance, if you're getting back into playing late in life, if you're doubling from saxophone - in other words, the other 90 something % of players - please just buy a Good Enough clarinet and spend the rest on that transmission noise and your student loans!
Ideally, a Good Enough clarinet would be an older wood instrument (like a Leblanc Dynamic, Penzel Mueller Artist, or Series 9 Selmer) in good condition, competently refurbished with good quality pads, played with a hard rubber mouthpiece made by someone with enough pride of craftsmanship to put their name on it, using a Rovner or Bonade ligarture, holding a reed not made in China! I'm not going to get too specific, as there are lots of good clarinets, mouthpieces and reeds - you need to TRY them and see what feels good in your hands and sounds good to your ears...
That's it - that's all you'll need. You'll make beautiful music, your bandmates will love instead of envy you and your tranny will shift like a dream!
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.