If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads. Anatol France
The User-Friendly Clarinet Free-blowing, in-tune, wood-free, and sax-player friendly Bb and C By Windy Dankoff Black • Hole Clarinets May, 2020
Sax player 1 Somebody stole my clarinet Sax player 2 I wish somebody would steal MY clarinet
Background I quit clarinet in 1964 because sax was popular and easier. But in 2016, I heard a performance of Eastern European clarinet. I was hooked on the soulful sound. But now I have a weak jaw joint. Playing a reed hurts my head, unless it’s extra-easy to blow. So, I bought a clarinet, and asked for the easiest-blowing mouthpiece. No luck! I asked distributors, makers, famous technicians, Google past midnight … couldn’t get a straight answer. Eventually, I learned that the mouthpiece has little to do with it. Everything else does.
Soft reed + large bore = low-impedance I started with a soft reed. It was easy to blow, but you can imagine, it played flat, lacking focus and control. A soft reed passes abundant air at low pressure. But a typical clarinet is designed for less air at greater pressure. Engineers call this a mismatch of impedance. Impedance is resistance to alternating current – in this case, vibration of air. For the horn to accept the power of a soft, low-impedance reed, theentire horn must have a low impedance. Some clarinets have a bore (the long black hole) that is a bit larger than usual. These “large-bore” horns are easier to blow (lower impedance) but only if some tone holes are also larger and/or undercut. And, their respective valves may also need to open wider.
Large-bore clarinets were common before the 1960s. Then Buffet introduced a new, smaller bore that gained favor for classical music. Most makers (and educators) followed their lead. The older designs became passé, but not completely. Some are still made, but they are expensive and made of wood, which is not user-friendly. Not all have low-impedance tone holes. Vintage large-bores (some Selmer and LeBlanc) may be expensive, or the wood is in risky condition.
Four years of research I began buying non-wood ebonite (hard rubber) clarinets made in the 40s and 50s, plus loads of mouthpieces and barrels, calipers, reamers and other tools. I knew a lot already from designing and making flutes, and from repairing woodwinds. After two years of active research, I optimized two free-blowing clarinets, a Bb and a C. I can play them for hours without hurting my weak jaw. I found them to be user-friendly in other ways too. I took two more years to understand the instrument and its impedance, hole-by-hole, so I can repeat my results.
Harmonic integrity = simpler intonation AND easier blowing “Intonation” means accuracy of pitch. The intonation of large-bore clarinets (the good ones) comes naturally, using simple fingerings. Complex “resonance fingerings” used by classical players are less helpful and not really necessary. This is evidence that the overtones are well tuned. Tuned overtones reinforce the sound, so less energy is lost. Therefore, it is easier to blow and easier to play in tune. This is a blessing for players without classical training, sax players doubling on clarinet, and people with physical limitations, like me.
More sax-like The large bore helps strengthen the throat tones (top of the low register). I expand on that capacity by refining the “trill keys” B and C to work as primary notes, like the left palm keys on a sax. They avoid some jumps to the 2nd register. But more important, they extend the delicate expressive quality of throat range. Also, the Eb/Bb alternate using the right forefinger is normal for sax and flute players. On most clarinets, that fingering is too sharp. On a large-bore clarinet, it can be tuned well, if attended to.
Expansive and expressive An optimized large bore clarinet has a wide dynamic range; you can play loud, but also soft and lyrical. You get a wide range of color and expression for traditional and modern jazz, Balkan, gypsy, klezmer, you name it. If we were to compare the sound to artisanal 85% chocolate, a modern clarinet would sound more like a Hersey bar. These strengths do not manifest by themselves in the large-bore clarinet. The whole instrument needs to be optimized, as detailed below.
Hard rubber (ebonite) instead of wood I’m lazy, so I wish to eliminate the maintenance and risk of wood. Hard rubber (ebonite) was the alternative before the age of plastic. Unlike plastic, it sounds great, even amazing. After all, it is the normal material for great mouthpieces. An ebonite clarinet can be left wet in a hot or freezing car, and it won’t crack.! And, it’s making a comeback. (Reference: Ridenour, The Grenadilla Myth)
The C clarinet The modern C clarinet has a large bore because it takes a Bb mouthpiece. It matches the behavior of the large-bore Bb and is especially easy to blow. It’s user-friendly in another big way, because you can read C music. And, it’s easier in many keys that string music favors. I play a Chinese hard rubber C that I refine to concert quality. I enjoy its bright bouncy sound, and play it more than my Bb.
The Pruefer Silver Throat, 1940-55 My favorite vintage horn is the Pruefer Silver Throat (PST). It’s ebonite, and the upper joint is lined with metal. It has an oversized bottom bore with highly undercut tone holes. It’s a unique instrument, designed to carry power in a field of brass. It was a high-end instrument in the school band market (in 1942, it was priced at today’s equivalent of $1700). It’s said to have a cult following among jazz musicians. I got one and was hooked in no time. I have some PSTs that were mummified for 50-60 years. They are well-made and can be restored and improved.
If you search the internet, you’ll find opinions of the PST ranging from useless to the best jazz horn ever. After studying 9 PSTs made between 1940 and 1960, I found these reasons for the mixed reputation: (1) Overhauled PSTs are often degraded by not having extra-wide valve openings; (2) Versions made after 1955 have a smaller bottom bore, and play less in tune, except with a hard reed; (3) Only those late versions carry the Silver Throat name, and most are inferior. (4) Many of the original barrels were not optimally bored. Knowing all this, I take special steps to bring out the best in a PST.
User-friendly optimizing for Bb and C clarinets Optimizing starts with a large-bore Bb or C, and may include any of the following changes as needed: Barrel bore and length optimized for softer reed, if desired Modified tone holes, pads, or action, especially to tune top and bottom Slight bore expansion at top of upper joint Trill keys B and C optimized to use as primary notes Optimized thumb-key Bb Improved Eb/Bb when using right forefinger Careful selection of synthetic and leather pads, to shape airflow and refine some action
Ergonomic improvements Keys may be adjusted to small or large hands Springs adjusted for light and balanced action Luxury thumb rest option Custom requests
Reed strength If easy blowing is your priority, you can try a #2 reed like I use. It produces wonderful tone in the large bore. But, it limits rapid attack, staccato, and altissimo above G#. A soft reed tends to play flat, so I supply a shorter barrel for it. To tune lower, the barrel can be pulled out. In large bore clarinets, the pull-out gap has no side effects, so it’s likely you won’t need a second barrel. If you use a harder reed, you still benefit from the low-impedance of the horn. I will then supply a normal length barrel.
Standard mouthpieces are fine! Here is a fortunate twist of history – Today’s mouthpieces still follow the design standards of the 1950s, so they are native to large-bore instruments! Modern clarinets use a reverse-tapered barrel to adapt them to the modern bore. (Reference: Clark Fobes, Tuning and Voicing the Clarinet.) Your favorite mouthpiece will work fine, but best not to use a modern barrel.
Availability Occasionally, I produce a user-friendly PST or C clarinet for sale. Some clients have bought both. They join me in being twice as happy. I can also supply a matched vintage mouthpiece, for easy blowing and amazing tone.
A musician’s review of my Black • Hole optimized Pruefer Silver Throat With any strength reed, the Pruefer clarinet played very well in tune throughout the lower register and the throat tones. I was impressed as to how well in tune the throat tones were. Those are usually the hardest to keep in tune on most clarinets. As with most clarinets, it wanted to go sharp on the altissimo notes above high C (2 bars above staff), however opening my throat more while blowing easily brought them right down into tune. I am impressed with the Pruefer clarinet. Other than playing a little brighter it holds up well against my Buffet R13. I was amazed at throat Bb and A. They’re usually crappy but they come right out good. — Dave D., Santa Fe
I hope I have conveyed the unique and passionate effort behind BLACK • HOLE user-friendly clarinets.
User-friendly reeds Many serious players use synthetic reeds – some for practice, some exclusively. Synthetic reeds hold constant under all conditions, for months. I get exactly the sound I want with Fibracell #1.5 (equivalent to typical #2). Others love the Legere European Signature Cut. The D’Addario Venn is a new one that I’ll try soon as I can get one.