With the change of seasons, I thought it might be a good time for a vintage clarinet care post - I've been seeing a lot of dried out, neglected clarinets here in the shop!
An older wood clarinet is going to need more care than a new one for best performance, and quite a bit more than that student plastic horn you used to abuse, so let's get to it!
1 - Swab it after you play, but avoid inserts. You want to get the moisture out - not put it back in! Those fuzzy inserts absorb from the body and pads, with regular use, and then it goes...right back in the clarinet! Just swab from both ends and put it away.
2 - Bore oil is your friend. I'm amazed at the number of folks I meet that don't use it and the number of horns I receive that desperately need it! Buy a good quality brand that has some natural oils (not just petroleum distillates) and a fuzzy clarinet bore swab. Put a few drops on the swab and run it through all 4 pieces of the body until you see a light 'sheen' in there: don't soak it! If the horn is really dry, it may be necessary to repeat this a few times in the first week. Eventually, once a month or so will be enough to keep it looking healthy: this will protect it from cracks and warpage and extend the useful life of your instrument!
3 - Humidify. While you don't want a damp insert holding moisture right next to your pads, you do want a little humidity in there, especially during the winter or if you live in an arid part of the country. Take a tip from the old pros and put a couple pieces of orange rind in the bell: it will make the case smell nice and protect the bell in particular from the shrinkage that loosens rings and causes cracks.
4 - Oil the mechanism. A lot of the looseness in old clarinet keys is the result of un-lubricated dirt between the key and the post being rubbed back and forth, thousands of times, until metal gradually wears away. A good way to improve movement and arrest wear is to buy a little bottle of key oil (I like Hetman's) with a needle fitting and hit the contact points at each end of the key with a drop, about twice a year.
5 - Watch that thermal shock! Wooden clarinets don't like dry heat, direct sun, or sudden temperature changes. Don't leave it in a car on a hot day, or march with it, or set it near a heat source. No company guarantees their horns against cracking, and I can't either!
Ironically, your old clarinet will probably withstand the rigors of use better than a new one: its wood blanks were aged longer before cutting, and it has had years to stabilize since then. I see many clarinets 80+ years old that look and play great! If you take care of yours, someone might be playing it many years from now, as well....
So, why grenadilla wood in the first place? I wonder about that myself, and encourage speculation from readers. Before grenadilla, boxwood and various fruitwoods were universally used for woodwind instruments but, at some point in the late 19th century, everyone switched to grenadilla. I know that it is hard, mills well, and is attractive. However, it is also slow-growing, in limited supply, and requires long seasoning for good results: according to an interview with the late Hans Moennig, when he started as a repairman in the 20's, Buffet was aging its wood blanks for over 20 years before milling. At his retirement in the early 80's, it was down to about 7 years - I don't know what it is now...
Buffet's experiment with the 'Greenline' model (or 'Greenstick', as I've heard them referred to, based on how the tenons fracture) of grenadilla dust with a binder seems a promising step in a new direction but, like First Act instruments from China, further refinement would seem to be required :)
I look forward to new materials and technologies to bring the clarinet into the 21st century; improving intonation and performance, lowering cost (anyone tried to buy an R13 lately?), and reducing our dependence on and harvesting of a slow-growing hardwood. Would love to hear other ideas and perspectives on the subject: anyone feel like guest writing a column?
Yes, there are terrible metal and hard rubber clarinets out there: There are also hideous wood instruments, as anyone who has played a post WWII East German/ Soviet made horn with pot-metal keys can attest! However, the mitigating factors always seems to be quality of construction and attention to set-up rather than the material - I offer Tom Ridenour's pro line of Hard Rubber instruments, and vintage metal instruments by Noblet, H. Bettoney or Penzel Mueller as evidence. Tom's instruments have received a lot of kudos for pro quality detailing (like tone-hole undercutting) and, having discarded increasingly expensive and hard to find grenadilla, they are available for less than half the cost of the fabled R-13.
I suspect the factors that initiated the sub-par reputation of a lot of better metal/hard rubber clarinets were: poor mouthpieces and shoddy pad work. If the mouthpieces that have come stock with a number of my acquisitions are anything to go by, Martin Frost at his best would be hard-pressed to draw good music from their narrow tips and uneven facing! Original pad-work shows signs of being equally hurried, in some cases, with cheap pads poorly seated and opening heights at the mercy of whatever cork was on sale that week. Now, take that same horn, overhaul it conscientiously with leather pads and attention to setup and play it with a decent mouthpiece and I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised!
To be continued!
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....
I was buffing this customer clarinet - A c.1900 'Bay State' Albert system in C - when I noticed I'd gone through a layer of black tinting (most likely a colored vanish or shellac) to a lighter color underneath. 'Uh -oh' thinks I, 'now what do I do?' Upon closer examination, I saw that the even layer of black was covering up reddish brown and honey stripes that were far more attractive than the tint, so I kept buffing.
What I ended up with was a body that looks like it was carved out of Tiger's Eye, although my picture only gives a hint of its attractiveness! Is this what's under the ebonized tint on modern clarinets, and, if so, why would they cover it up? Or is the modern wood considerably less attractive and covered up for a good reason?
This isn't the first time this has happened to me, but I don't have an explanation for it, so I thought I'd post and ask: does anyone know the reason for this? Please click on the pic for a better look, and let me hear from you....
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 ?
The foundation of any good overhaul is prep work. To overhaul student horns with modern tolerances, shiny plating etc., little is required other than cleaning, new pads, and fresh cork as needed. For a 40+ year old wooden clarinet, its a whole different story: many suffer from a myriad of afflictions, and one of the worst (and most noticeable) is loose keywork.
Loose keywork is a given on any older instrument that has been regularly played, (largely due to metal loss from wear) and the fix is a simple one: about half an hour of swedging and countersinking will bring the mechanism back to near factory snugness.
Ironically, although the procedure is straightforward and the tools inexpensive, I see a lot of rebuilt horns with loose keys. Even when the pad-work is well done, time and effort is largely thrown away due to noise, lost motion, and inconsistent pad seating. To simply clean and replace pads as though it were a modern student horn compromises the functionality of the instrument and wastes the time and money of its owner, as well as perpetuating the illusion that older horns simply can't compare to modern instruments in terms of playability. Here is the fix, in a nutshell:
Swedging - on any key that runs on a rod, the process of stretching the key's metal to bring it tight on the rod and snug against both posts. This is done by compressing the softer key material (brass or nickel alloy) between the steel rod and a steel swedging tool, giving the metal nowhere to go but out.
Often, gaps are small, but even a significant amount of end-wear can generally be remedied by this method. It also helps minimize the wear that takes place inside the tube, bringing it back snug around the rod and thus minimizing play in two dimensions.
Countersinking - for a key that is held between 2 posts by screws, the general option is countersinking the screw hole in the post, allowing the point of the screw to extend further out the other side and take up lost motion in the key between them.
As with swedging, this remedies both end- and side- play, stabilizing the key in two dimensions. Countersinks come in a variety of sizes and it is only necessary to measure the head of the screw to choose the correct one for the task. Then, a few twists in the hole, a test with the key, repeat on the other post, and you're done! Always do both posts, to avoid removing too much material from one and leaving the next tech nowhere to go...I try to think of the future when I work on a horn, having been the recipient of so much poor work in my time.
Most older instruments only need a combination of the 2 treatments on a few, heavily used keys. But some clarinets, either more worn or with more generous manufacturing tolerances, require that the work be executed on most keys. It sounds onerous, but half an hour to forty five minutes is the maximum that I generally have to invest, unless I'm dealing with a really old horn, or one with an unusually complex mechanism (such as a Full Boehm).
When both are done properly, the difference is like night and day: Tight, smooth, quiet keys, with pads that seat accurately every time! When next you consider an overhaul for your clarinet or sax, ask the tech if all needed swedging and countersinking is included in the estimate. If he says 'No', or looks confused, take your horn and get the heck out of there! You'll be glad you did...
One of the clarinet makers I watch for these days is Thibouville Freres, a French company that 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 players, Klezmer players 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 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 $9, 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 get asked for advice on this one frequently, and have a hard time coming up with a good answer! The reply I want to give is often "the one that sounds best for you" or "Practice an hour a day and you won't need a new mouthpiece". However, no one really wants to hear either of those, they want the perfect mouthpiece; it will be powerful, yet capable of great dynamics; in tune, but flexible; will blend but also cut through when needed...do you see where I'm going with this? If we could get all this from a $75 piece of hard rubber, we wouldn't have to practice!
There are some basic (and obvious) guidelines I can offer: if you want a dark, 'Classical' sound, use a more closed tip with a heavy reed, like a Vandoren M13 with a #4. If you want a brighter, more flexible sound, suitable for jazz or Klezmer, try a Bernard Portnoy 03 with a 2.5 Alexander, etc. The only problem with this is that there are a zillion mouthpieces out there and way too many brands of reeds!
Not only will you have to crack open that piggy bank til it hurts but, as many folks don't seem to realize, your embouchure changes with every mouthpiece change you make. For the first couple days, all you notice is the difference: "Wow, what tone/high range/flexibility", you think. Then, a strange thing happens - you start to sound less like the mouthpiece and more like yourself! Your embouchure is adapting to the change and you are starting to slide back into the problems/habits that made you look for a new mouthpiece in the first place.
So, if you possess a good instrument in good repair and you already practice regularly but are dissatisfied with your sound and want to make a change, try this: buy a bunch of the Rico Royal Graftonite mouthpieces and be scientific about it - they only cost about $16 each on Amazon, so you won't go broke. The 'A' has a large chamber for a darker tone, the 'B' a medium chamber for a more middle of the road tone, and the 'C' has a smaller chamber for a brighter sound. They also have 3 tips: the 3 (more closed facing with a shorter lay), the 5 (medium facing and medium lay) and the 7 (open facing with a longer lay).
I'd stick with the A and B, unless you really covet a bright sound. Try the different facings with a good, middle of the road reed, like a #3 VanDoren bluebox, and see what you like, playing each for at least a few days so you can distinguish between the sound of the mouthpiece and your sound WITH the mouthpiece. You might be pretty well satisfied with a Rico, as they are well designed and material doesn't matter much as people would like you to believe.
On the other hand, you could take note of the measurements and look for a 'better' hard rubber mouthpiece of similar playing characteristics. Selmer, Vandoren, Portnoy, Hawkins, and many more are excellent pieces. Myself, I use a Rico B7 with a Fibracell reed (I know, I can hear the classical players out there shuddering). I get a sound that I like and the reeds require no soaking, scraping or other maintenance.
So, next time I'll talk about reeds....
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.