The clarinet is a woodwind instrument played with a single reed. Clarinets come in many different sizes, with different pitch ranges. Though there are more than a dozen different modern clarinet types, the most common ones used in orchestras and bands are the B flat and A clarinets. The bass clarinet, which is much bigger than the standard and has an upwardly curved bell, is also frequently used in modern bands and orchestras. The standard clarinet consists of five parts—the mouthpiece, the barrel or tuning socket, the upper (or lefthand) joint, lower (or right-hand) joint, and the bell. A thin, flattened, specially shaped piece of cane called a reed must be inserted in the mouthpiece before the instrument can be played. Different notes are produced as the player moves his fingers over metal keys which open and close air holes in the clarinet's body.
An instrument similar to the clarinet—a cylindrical cane tube played with a cane reed—was in use in Egypt as early as 3000 B.C. Instruments of this type were used across the Near East into modern times, and other clarinet prototypes were played in Spain, parts of Eastern Europe, and in Sardinia. A folk instrument found in Wales through the eighteenth century, called the hompipe or pibgorn, was very similar to Greek and Middle Eastern cane single reed instruments, but it was made of bone or of elder wood. Through the Middle Ages and up to the seventeenth century such single reed instruments were played across Europe, but they were almost exclusively peasant or folk instruments.
The modern clarinet seems to have been originated by a Nuremberg instrument maker, Johann Cristoph Denner, sometime around 1690. Denner was a celebrated manufacturer of recorders, flutes, oboes, and bassoons. His early clarinets (the word is a diminutive of the Italian word for trumpet, clarino) looked much like recorders, made in three parts and with the addition of two keys to close the holes. A clarinet with a flared bell, like the modern clarinet, may have been made by Denner's son. Parts scored for clarinet were soon found in the music of notable eighteenth century composers, including Handel, Gluick, and Telemann. The early clarinets were usually made of boxwood or occasionally plum or pear wood. Rarely, they were made of ivory, and some used a mouthpiece of ebony.
The design of the clarinet was improved by the end of the eighteenth century. The two keys gave way to five or six, giving the instrument more pitch control. Composers and virtuoso performers began to exploit one of the signal characteristics of the clarinet, its versatile dynamic range, from whisper soft to loud and penetrating. Mozart composed a concerto for clarinet in 1791, showing that he realized its possibilities as a solo instrument. By 1800, most orchestras included clarinets. The clarinet developed further in the nineteenth century. Its intonation was improved by a rearrangement of the holes, more keys were added, and the instrument's range was extended. Virtuoso performers toured Europe and influenced composers such as Spohr and Weber to write clarinet concertos and chamber works. Instruments continued to be made out of boxwood, though makers experimented with silver and brass as well. Some clarinets were made out of cocuswood, a tropical wood found mostly in Jamaica. French makers began making clarinets out of ebony, a heavy, dark wood from Africa, in the mid-nineteenth century. But gradually the preferred material became African blackwood, which is similar to ebony but less heavy and brittle.
Clarinets made after 1850 are generally the same as modern clarinets in size and shape. Nineteenth century makers experimented widely with different key and fingering systems, and today there are two main key systems in use. The simple, or Albert, system is used principally in German-speaking countries. The Bohm system has more keys than the Albert and is standard in most other parts of the world.
Most modern clarinet bodies are made out of African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon). There are actually many different trees in the African blackwood genus, such as black cocus, Mozambique ebony, grenadilla, and East African ebony. It is this heavy, dark wood that gives clarinets their characteristic color. Inexpensive clarinets designed for students may be made out of artificial resins. Very occasionally, clarinets are manufactured out of silver or brass. The clarinet mouthpiece is made out of a kind of hard rubber called ebonite. The keys are usually made out of an alloy called German silver. This is made from copper, zinc, and nickel. It looks like pure silver, but does not tarnish. Some fine instruments may be made with pure silver keys, and expensive models are available with gold-plated keys. The key pads require cardboard and felt or leather. The reed is made from cane. Other materials used in the clarinet are cork and wax, for lining the joints, and a metal such as silver or a cheaper alloy for the ligature, the screw clip that holds the reed in place, and stainless steel for the spring mechanisms that work the keys.
2 When the manufacturer receives the billets, workers inspect the lot. Then skilled workers place the billets on a borer, which drills a hole lengthwise through the center of each piece. The diameter and shape of this hole, called the bore of the clarinet, is crucial to determining the tone of the instrument. The bore may be drilled in a straight cylinder, or the cylinder may be slightly tapered. After the bore is drilled, the body pieces are turned on a lathe. The rectangular billets become smooth, round, hollow cylinders. These cylinders are then seasoned again.
After the rough pieces have been seasoned for the second time, they are reduced to finished size. The pieces are turned on a lathe and trimmed to exceedingly precise diameters. The joints where the body pieces fit into each other are turned after the exterior is completed. The bore may be reamed more precisely, and then it is polished on the inside. Then the joints are painted with a black dye.
3 Body parts for clarinets made of plastic are produced by injection molding. Plastic pellets are melted and forced under pressure into molds. The molds for clarinet body parts produce hollow cylinders. In some cases, the molds are so precise that these cylinders do not need any additional reaming. Or they may be reamed and polished, as are wooden clarinets.
The steps that follow apply to both wooden and plastic models.
5 Early clarinets were made with hand-forged keys. The modern method is usually die-casting. Molten alloy (usually German silver) is forced under pressure into steel dies. A group of connected keys may be made in one piece in this method. Alternately, individual keys may be stamped out
After the clarinet is fully assembled, a worker checks the instrument for visual flaws, checks the action of the keys, and then play tests it. By playing it, the worker can note the tone quality, intonation, and action of the new instrument.
The finished clarinet should be checked for precision tuning. The clarinet's sounding A natural should be at 440 cycles per second, and the other notes in tune with this. If the instrument has been manufactured according to a standard model, with care to exact diameters of bore and tone holes, it should play in tune automatically. It may be tested with an electronic tuner, and the diameters of the tone holes made larger by more reaming, if necessary. If tone holes are too large (producing a flat note) they may be filled with a layer of shellac.
The wood of the clarinet body should not crack, and the action of the keys should be smooth and not too loud. Ideally, the instrument should last for decades without warping, cracking, or any serious defect.
Clarinet manufacturing itself is a fairly conservative industry, relying on highly skilled craftspeople who do much work by hand. Most of the innovations in clarinet design are now 100 years old. One area that is still in flux, however, is the manufacture of clarinet reeds. While the best reeds are said to come from a species of cane grown in France, some players and makers are experimenting with wild cane that grows in California. Synthetic reeds have also been developed recently, and more research is being done to improve them. As sources of natural cane diminish, and overall quality is not high, synthetic reeds may be what most clarinet players use in the future.
Rendall, F. Geoffrey. The Clarinet. Norton, 1971.
Robinson, Trevor. The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker. University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Armato, Ben. "Raising 'Cain' with the Growers." The Clarinet. February/March 1994, pp. 32-33.
— Angela Woodward