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....
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 stencilled 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, freeblowing, more direct than sweet. Intonation is very good on most of the horns I've tried, and the keywork 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.
Why Vintage Clarinets?
With the holiday (clarinet) shopping season upon us, it seems like a good time to broach the question; why should you spend your hard earned dollars on a vintage clarinet rather than a new instrument? Here are a few thoughts...
1) The retail markup has already been paid: Instead of $600 for a new plastic or $1800+ for a new wood instrument, how about $400-800 for a fully refurbished intermediate or pro quality wood clarinet? The price represents the initial cost of a vintage instrument, shipping, overhaul (buffing, pads, cork, etc), photography, writeup and customer service time. You can speak directly to the technician that restored the instrument, who will take time to answer your questions and find the best horn and mouthpiece for you. Then, you can put the rest of your money back in the bank.
2) Quality materials: Instead of a body made of plastic or cheap dyed wood sporting plated, cast metal keys, you'll get grenadilla wood of a quality rarely seen any more and solid nickel alloy keys hand soldered for strength and durability. These old horns were built to last and will give you years of dependable service.
3) Quality construction: these horns were built by craftsmen with pride in their work, not just an eye for the bottom line. Many features that were once common, like post locks, solid nickel keywork and fittings, and extra keys to facilitate challenging passages are rarely seen except on the most expensive modern horns. Also, many old horns received more tuning time than modern budget instruments and still play well in tune after many years. I've sold more than a few high end vintage clarinets to players who subsequently sold their modern Buffets after comparing the two...
4) More choices: instead of overpriced Buffets and Buffet clones, there were many fine makes, 50+ years ago, with distinct personalities. Thibouville Freres, SML, Leblanc, Penzel Mueller and many more offered everything from small to extra large bore sizes, custom keywork, and tones from bright to dark and sweet to brazen. Players of Jazz, Klezmer, and various ethnic musics (as well as Classical and commercial) owe it to themselves to experience the range of sounds and feels available with vintage/antique horns and mouthpieces before settling for an expensive, mass produced modern horn.
5) USA made and played: all of these horns were bought/made here, refurbished here, and the money I earn stays here! How many of the big stores (and bigger websites) can say that? We need to move back to American goods and services to revive our economy and I'm happy to help.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. Let me know your thoughts, experiences and wishes for the future - please just keep it concise and polite, as this is a public posting....
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.