As a small, lightweight and expressive reed instrument, clarinets are great first instruments for children and adults alike. But sometimes it’s difficult to know how much to invest in an instrument and what exactly it is that you’re paying for. Below is a guide covering several beginner, intermediate and higher level clarinets, and information about reeds, mouthpieces and other accessories you’ll need to consider when buying an instrument.
There are several options available, depending on the age of the player, your budget and your aspirations. If you have very young children wanting to start playing a reed instrument, for example, it might be worth considering a super-durable and easy to master plastic instrument by NUVO.
Nuvo instruments start with the DOOD, a very lightweight plastic clarinet that uses the same fingering as a recorder, so children can move straight from one to the other. It uses plastic reeds as well as plastic casing (in fact, the only non-plastic parts are the metal springs) so they’re nigh-on indestructible, withstanding water, knocks, and cleaning in warm soapy water. Or you can use regular wooden Eb reeds on them to introduce youngsters to regular wooden reeds, and the small size is perfect for little hands. It’s also a steal at £20, and because it’s pitched in C you can immediately play in ensembles with other instruments without having to transpose anything.
If you want a plastic instrument that uses clarinet fingerings but is still lightweight, durable and good for small hands, then the Clarineo is a good option to consider. Designed to lead straight on to a full size, ‘real’ clarinet, it’s a great transition instrument or starter for the more accident prone amongst us. It also comes in fab colours including lime green, red and blue, and gives you access to a range of backing tracks and music online. It’ll take you up to when you’re ready for your first grade exam, or if you’re just playing for fun then the C tuning means you can get stuck into playing your favourite music without having to transpose, whilst still getting a mellow sound.
On the cheaper end of the student instruments (clarinets that can be used in early ABRSM exams and use wooden reeds) you’ll find the Elkhart Student Clarinet. It’s about a third of the price of the Buffet B12, and we consider it to be among the best clarinets you can get for under £200. It’s brilliant if you’re wanting to try a quality instrument but aren’t sure if you or your child will continue with it beyond the first couple of years. If you know you have a burning passion that will keep you practising for longer than that, or your child already plays others instruments and enjoys them, it would be better to invest in a slightly more expensive instrument, as you’re likely to outgrow the Elkhart within one or two years of study. It’s also unlikely to last as long as the more expensive student clarinets, as they are less robust. You can always go for this option, however, as if you buy with us and then want to upgrade at a later stage, we’re always happy to consider a part exchange on a more advanced instrument.*
The next level up, for those looking to take their playing to grade 5 and a little beyond, includes the Buffet B12 model and the Yamaha YCL255. Both are plastic, which makes them lightweight and durable, and both are made to a very high standard. If you get yourself a teacher, you may find that these two clarinets are the ones that they recommend. They can generally go 3 - 4 years between purchasing and needing a proper service**, and both will withstand high variations in heat and humidity, which can cause problems in the more expensive wooden clarinets. This means that if you’re going to be travelling with your instrument, or touring, it can take a proverbial beating without letting you down. In fact, we regularly see 10 or 20 year old clarinets of this type which still play pretty well, so they can definitely stand the test of time!
The main reason you’ll need to change is to be able to access the range of dynamics and expression that are impossible on a plastic or resin instrument. More expensive clarinets are made from wood, and this increases the resonance and richness of the sound. They generally aren’t recommended for beginners because of their price and the extra weight, but they will make a huge difference to the quality of your sound.
The differences between Yamaha and Buffet clarinets become more pronounced at this level, but they are both still fantastic brands – it’s a case of different rather than better. Yamaha is very consistent with its manufacturing, so you’re always going to get a good, consistent sound. The upshot of this is that they have less of an individual character. Buffet makes fewer clarinets, and the slight variation means that you can get a more unique sound. They also offer slightly more expression on the whole than Yamahas, but several Yamaha models are generally preferred for jazz and big bands for their brighter sound, as they can cut through textures with greater ease….it’s swings and roundabouts, really, and we’d always encourage you to try several clarinets from different series at the shop with your own mouthpiece and a selection of reeds to find the perfect clarinet for you.
There are a couple of things you’ll need before you start, but luckily they’re not very expensive. The first thing you’ll need are the things that make the sound itself: the reeds.
Reeds come in a variety of brands and strengths, and you’ll generally start on a softer reed and once you’ve built up strength move onto a harder one. But not every advanced player plays on a hard reed, so it’s not about progressing through from soft to hard. If you’re in any doubt about what strength of reed to get, either ask your teacher or buy a selection (they cost around £2-£3 each) of different strengths and give them all a try. Just bear in mind that because they are made of wood, there will be natural differences even within categories (i.e. two Rico strength 2 reeds may sound and feel quite different), so don’t write any reeds off until you’ve tried a few.
You’ll need to get reeds fairly often, especially when you start (they’re quite fragile at the tips and prone to breaking, and also naturally warp after lots of use, if not allowed to dry between uses, or if not kept flat when not in use), but once you know what brand and strength suits you best you can buy boxes of 10 from us at a 10% discount.
Other things that are useful to have are also cheap and cheerful – a pull-through cleaning cloth to dry condensation from the inside of the instrument, cork grease to help you assemble and disassemble your instrument (which you’ll be doing quite a bit if you need to travel with it), and possibly a rubber thumb rest to stop yourself getting interesting indentations on your right hand.
New mouthpieces are something you only need to consider once you’ve been playing for a while. They can help refine the sound you make, improve tuning or help with volume and projection. But there’s no point in getting a new one until you’ve mastered the basics, as you won’t know what you’re looking for. The truth is, people can recommend this or that mouthpiece to you, but as everyone is different, everyone will need a different combination of clarinet, mouth piece and reed, and what works for your teacher or friend may well be disastrous for you! Think of it as the Harry Potter wand experience – you need to try several mouthpieces on your own clarinet and using a selection of reeds to find your magic combination. For beginners, if you get the Buffet B12 or the student Yamaha (YCL255), then the mouthpiece that comes with your clarinet will definitely be good enough to get started on. A cheaper clarinet will probably benefit from a different mouthpiece – the Yamaha 4c or 5c would be a great place to start if you weren’t sure what you needed. Again, you can bring your clarinet and reeds into the shop and try one or two out for yourself to see what a difference it can make and pick one that’s just right for you.
*depending on the condition of the instrument
** quite often instruments need to be regulated at about 8-12 months, but this just involves minor adjustments to ensure the instrument runs smoothly