I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
There are a BUNCH of different types of clarinets to choose from and it can be hard to choose which is the right one to pursue as a musician.
Sure, the B♭ clarinet is the most popular choice for new clarinetists. But did you know there are many other types, each with their own sound, range and style?
Knowing the difference between various clarinets will help you make the right choice for you.
In today’s article I’m going to introduce you to 10 of the most common clarinet types and some considerations for each.
1. A♭ piccolo clarinet
The A♭ piccolo clarinet is a rare instrument today. It’s smaller than the E♭ clarinet at just over a foot long and has reeds the size of paperclips. The instrument is constructed in one joint with a bell and a barrel attached separately.
The written range of the A♭ piccolo clarinet starts from a low E below the staff and extends up to an F or G an octave above the staff. In concert pitch, this represents a middle C up to an E♭ two octaves above the treble staff.
This instrument first found popularity in Austrian military bands and quartets. Parts for the A♭ piccolo clarinet are rare today. But this clarinet still receives some attention in the clarinet choir.
Some famous pieces of music written for the A♭ piccolo clarinet include several opera scores by Verdi and John Tavener’s modern Celtic Requiem (1969).
This instrument is challenging to play due to its tiny mouthpiece and overall size. But clarinetists with small hands and a strong embouchure can make it work.
Other members of the piccolo clarinet family that generally didn’t survive to the present day include:
- D clarinets
- F clarinets
- G clarinets
What’s the typical price range for an A♭ clarinet?
A♭ clarinets are hard to find for sale. They’re rare instruments and no longer commonly made. The E♭ clarinet is a slightly larger alternative that’s more common and typically sells for between $2,800 and $5,000.
2. E♭ clarinet
The E♭ clarinet is much more common than the A♭ piccolo clarinet. Measuring 19” long, it’s also bigger and easier to play than its A♭ cousin. And it’s easier to play than the D♭ piccolo clarinet because the reed and mouthpiece are larger.
The E♭ clarinet is to the clarinet as the piccolo is to the flute. It makes high-pitched passages easier to play and is common in today’s wind band and orchestra music as well as clarinet choir pieces.
The E♭ has the same number of keys as the B♭ clarinet and operates on the same fingering system. Its written range extends from the E below the staff up to the G two octaves above the staff. This translates to concert pitches at the G below the staff up to the B♭ above the staff.
This clarinet was first made popular in the 1830s and with Hector Berlioz’ classic piece Symphonie fantastique (1830). The E♭ clarinet is featured heavily in the final movement of the piece. The clarinet plays a number of high passages with trills and glissandos (quickly descending figures).
Gustav Mahler also used the E♭ clarinet in his Symphony No. 1 in D major (1889). There the E♭ clarinet has an important role throughout.
What’s the typical price range for an E♭ clarinet?
A good-quality intermediate E♭ clarinet can be bought for about $2,800. Expect to pay $5,000 to $8,500 for a professional-quality instrument.
3. C clarinet
While the C clarinet is an uncommon instrument, it’s still commercially produced today. You’ll mainly find it in orchestras and used as a teaching aid with other concert pitch instruments like the guitar, violin and flute.
Modern C clarinets have the same number of keys as the popular A and B♭ clarinets. They are constructed on the Boehm system (or the French system) that is commonly used today. The C clarinet is similar to the B♭ and A clarinets in terms of difficulty of play.
The C clarinet originated in the 1720s. Vivaldi used it in three concertos during this time period. The C clarinet is less popular today.
Though the instrument is not exactly a rare find, you won’t find many band and orchestra parts for it. Unlike other types of clarinets, the C clarinet is not a transposing instrument.
What’s the typical price range for a C clarinet?
While C clarinets are somewhat hard to find, they are priced in line with B♭ and A clarinets. Buffet Crampon carries a C clarinet as part of its high-quality Prestige line.
You can expect to pay between $4,000 and $8,000 for a new professional-level C clarinet. A student- or intermediate-level C clarinet will cost about $1,000. As always, beware of the low-price models that cost under $500 when purchased new.
4. B♭ Clarinet
The B♭ instrument is the standard model of today’s clarinet family. The B♭ clarinet originates from the chalumeau, a single-reed instrument from the 1600s (related:A Brief History of the Clarinet).
Joseph Dunner is credited with inventing the modern clarinet by putting keys on the chalumeau, notably the A key and the register key. These keys were constructed to broaden the instrument’s range and made it more versatile.
More keys were gradually added to the modern clarinet as it was standardized. The instrument now has 17-19 keys and measures 23.6” long.
The B♭ clarinet has been popular since the early 18th century. Many composers and players enjoy its distinctive clear tone, which has been said to be the closest reproduction of the human voice.
This clarinet type is also one of the easiest to play among the clarinet family. And it’s the first instrument taught to most clarinetists when they’re young.
Clarinet music comes in a broad range of styles. Some examples of these musical styles include:
- Chamber music
- Wind band
- Clarinet choir
Some famous pieces for clarinet include Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944) and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major (K. 622) (1791).
Famous clarinetists include Benny Goodman (1909-1986), the swing clarinetist and bandleader, Martin Fröst (1970-) and Sabine Meyer (1959-).
What’s the price range for a B♭ clarinet?
You can typically find a good-quality student or intermediate instrument for between $1,000 and $1,500. Professional-level models tend to be priced between $3,000 and $8,000.
5. A clarinet
The A clarinet is a convenience for orchestral musicians. The A clarinet plays the same as and is no easier than the B♭ clarinet. But when playing a clarinet in the key of A, many orchestra pieces are in easier keys than they would be with a B♭ instrument.
The A clarinet was invented in the mid-18th century. It was intended to make life easier for the players by reducing the number of sharps or flats they were expected to play. The A clarinet was much easier to keep in tune as well.
Orchestral pieces are split half-and-half between the A clarinet and the B♭ clarinet. So a player needs to keep both instruments on hand. Double cases are sold so an orchestral player can carry them easily and switch back and forth.
What’s the typical price range for an A clarinet?
An intermediate A clarinet costs anywhere from about $1,500 to $2,500. Professional models cost between $4,500 and $7,000.
6. Basset clarinet
The basset clarinet is an uncommon instrument today. But professional models are still commercially produced by some of today’s top manufacturers.
Most modern basset clarinets are built on the Boehm system of fingering, using both little fingers to play the deepest notes.
The basset clarinet is several inches longer and not much harder to play than the soprano or B♭ clarinet. It took its inspiration from the basset horn (see #7 below). The basset clarinet is essentially an A clarinet with an extended lower range. The player will need to learn the extended range fingerings.
The basset clarinet found its popularity in the Classical period. Anton Stadler, a friend of Mozart, was one of the first well-known basset clarinetists. Mozart wrote his timeless Clarinet Quintet in A major (K. 581) and his Clarinet Concerto in A major (K. 622) for the basset clarinet.
Today’s best-known basset clarinetist is Sabine Meyer, whose work on the great Mozart clarinet pieces has not been equaled.
What’s the typical price range for a basset clarinet?
Only professional models of the basset clarinet are produced. You can expect to pay around $10,000 for this type of clarinet.
7. Basset horn
The name “basset horn” sometimes confuses people who are unfamiliar with musical history. The instrument was probably called a “horn” because it resembled the hornpipe or English horn. But it’s always been a member of the clarinet family.
The basset horn has the same number of keys as the basset clarinet, with special keys for A♭/ E♭ and high B♭.
The basset horn in F is the direct ancestor of the alto clarinet in E♭. While both instruments are still played today, the alto clarinet has become more popular.
The basset horn has an especially intriguing history among clarinet types. Experts believe the basset horn was invented around 1770 by Anton and Michael Mayrhofer of Bavaria. In its earlier history, the bore of the instrument was curved in almost a C shape and rested on a wooden block. Later, the basset horn was straightened out and given a bent neck instead.
The basset horn was a special favorite of Mozart and Mendelssohn. Mozart’s best-known work for basset horn is his Requiem in D minor, K. 626. And he also wrote several solo and chamber works for the basset horn.
Mendelssohn used the basset horn in his famous Concert Piece No. 1 in F major, Op. 113.
The basset horn is especially suited to Classical and Romantic music. The instrument’s popularity began to wane by the end of the 19th century.
What’s the typical price range for a basset horn?
Basset horns, like basset clarinets, are produced only for the professional market and are priced accordingly. Expect to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 for a new model.
8. Alto clarinet
While the alto clarinet and the basset horn look very similar, they are descendants of different instruments. The alto clarinet is pitched in E♭ with a range extending from the second octave below middle C (concert G2) to the second octave above middle C ( E♭6).
Historians attribute the invention of the alto clarinet to Iwan Müller (1786-1854) and to Heinrich Grenser (1764-1813) around the turn of the 19th century. Though some consider clarinets in G with flared bells, which appeared as early as 1740, to be alto clarinets.
The alto clarinet was widely accepted during the 19th century. Many players and conductors believed that it brightened the “dull” tone of the period’s basset horns. The alto clarinet appears in most wind band music written in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The alto clarinet and the basset horn have been locked in competition for many years. Many band directors believe that the alto clarinet is a flawed instrument. And they advocate replacing the alto clarinet with the basset horn and its better-developed sound.
What’s the typical price range for an alto clarinet?
A good intermediate-level alto clarinet will typically be priced at around $2,000. Professional models often cost about $7,000.
9. Bass clarinet
The bass clarinet is my own instrument, and I have a special interest in its history. Bass clarinets have existed since 1772 when they were called “bass-tubes.”
There were many versions of the instrument until Adolphe Sax (1814-1894)—who later went on to invent the saxophone—standardized and patented the instrument in 1838. He gave the bass clarinet its well-known appearance with a curved neck and upturned bell.
Today’s bass clarinets are pitched in B♭ like the soprano clarinet. They come in two ranges:
- The standard range instrument which extends down to a written low E♭ below the staff; and
- The extended range instrument which extends down to a written C
The extended range instruments are gaining in popularity as more modern composers take advantage of their lower range.
The bass clarinet is mostly used in wind band music, though it has also become popular in orchestras. It’s gaining a following among jazz musicians as well.
The bass clarinet is not difficult to learn but is challenging to master. Young players often have to wait until they’ve grown large enough to manage the weight and breath support of the instrument.
What’s the typical price range for a bass clarinet?
An intermediate-level student bass clarinet should cost about $2,000. Expect to pay upward of $10,000 for a professional model.
10. Contra-alto clarinet and contrabass clarinet
The EE♭ contra-alto and BB♭ contrabass clarinets are closely related and are the two largest among clarinet types.
The modern contrabass clarinet is pitched one octave lower than the bass clarinet and two octaves lower than the B♭ soprano clarinet.
The contra-alto clarinet is pitched one octave lower than the alto clarinet. The contra-alto can play baritone saxophone music at the same pitch, making it a handy substitute in some cases.
The earliest known contrabass clarinet was invented in 1808. Future innovations brought the batyphone and later the pedal clarinet in 1889. These iterations led to production of a contrabass clarinet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that more closely resembles today’s models.
The first contra-alto clarinets were pitched in F when they appeared in the first half of the 19th century. Contra-alto clarinets in E♭ didn’t achieve some popularity until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Contra-alto and contrabass parts are found most frequently in wind band music, though a few jazz musicians have begun to take notice.
These instruments are challenging because they require an especially strong embouchure and breath control. Players of average height cannot sit in a regular chair to play. They must sit on an elevated stool to accommodate these larger instruments.
What’s the typical price range of a contra-alto and contrabass clarinet?
Intermediate contra-alto clarinets can be found for about $3,500. Intermediate contrabass clarinets are about $5,700. Professional level contrabass clarinets can run as much as $36,000.
The clarinet family has a fascinating history and a broad range of tones. Most people will choose the more popular B♭ clarinet as their first to learn. This clarinet type can be a more affordable option for would-be clarinetists and is the most versatile.
The most important things to consider when choosing an instrument from this family are the range of styles you can play in and the difficulty of the instrument. Any one of these clarinets can give you a rich and rewarding playing experience.