Clarinet Breeds and Behaviors

Tom Blodgett wrote a concise and perceptive categorization of the tone and other characteristics of the "big three" clarinet makers: Buffet, Selmer and Yamaha. The context was a discussion of the rise of custom clarinet makers, with particular mention of Luis Rossi. He also cites Backun, and the rise of custom parts and the use of different woods. Tom did not mention Leblanc, so I'll wait for readers to fill in that gap. I tried a Leblanc or two briefly, and found their tone mellow and appealing, but not as interesting as Buffet.

An important point about tone: the player brings their own tone to whatever clarinet they play. The key is to find an instrument which is comfortable and allows you to sound like you.

Here is Tom's note-

Being a clarinetist, I feel I have insight to this specific line of questioning.

It is a swing of the pendulum, where in the early 1900s independent makers started getting bought up and the musical instrument industry began to standardize, centralize and mass produce, now there is another swing thanks to the void left by that conglomeration which is being filled by artisans such as Rossi who focus on quality rather than "other things".

There is also the effect of customization that most larger brands can't offer. Yes, the large companies offer several different product lines based on beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, and even several models in each category. But with the movement in customization, you can now get custom mouthpieces, ligatures, barrels, bells, reeds, and even custom boring and undercutting of tone holes, not to mention gold, silver, nickel, or even platinum plating on the keys. These all do effect the overall tone quality of an instrument, as well as tailor the setup to the individual in order to maximize a players capabilities (too bad many people alter their equipment instead of fixing their problems first).

As far as the difference in tones, I firmly believe that (unfortunately) there is no standard tone for the clarinet. Everyone is happy that the clarinet player just doesn't squeak. I personally think the big 3 makers - Buffet, Selmer, and Yamaha cater to different needs - Buffets have the best (sweetest) tone with the best key work (if you don't get a lemon) and are more for solo work. Selmers are the darkest and heaviest, their key work is different than the Buffet, but in no way negative. They are good for large orchestras. Yamaha has the best consistency instrument - if you've played one, you've played them all. In my mind, these make the best military and band applications, where there is much more uniformity in tone and intonation.

All that goes out the window once you start changing the stock pieces, and it started with mouthpieces and ligatures, then moved to barrels, then bells and bores, The final straw was Bakun who started (or re started...) using different types of wood other than grenadilla, such as rosewood, which has a much warmer, but less vibrant tone. That's also when makers like Rossi threw their hat in the ring, and we have come full circle to the 1700s when makers made individual instruments for individuals. The only diference is that the availability and variety of materials and the accuracy and speed of the machinery used.

In the end, the big 3 will most likely always be the top choice for factory instruments. There is room for custom makers, but the players and the public have to be able to accept them in order for them to survive.

Just my $.02

Tom Blodgett

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10 comments for “Clarinet Breeds and Behaviors

  1. February 23, 2010 at

    An excellent article, I have only been playing larinet for about a year and a half and i'm fascinated to read the thoughts of experienced players like this. Consider me subscribed! Thanks.

    • February 23, 2010 at

      Thanks for your comment and subscription!!

  2. December 21, 2009 at

    Sorry not to post this sooner. Tom wrote back to me a few days ago and sent me this background of himself:

    My name is Tom Blodgett, and I was Principal Clarinet of the Kaohsiung City Symphony Orchestra in Kaohsiung, Taiwan from 1999 – 2006. My main Teachers were Roger McKinney, Ben Armato, and Julie Vaverka. I use silver plated R13 with Moening barrels, M13 with a regular Bonade ligature, and Vandoren 5's (blue box). I am also the proprietor of Jende Industries, LLC, makers of the Jende Reed Knife.

  3. December 21, 2009 at

    The link to Tom looks to be incomplete. Does Tom have a site at which we could read more of his work?

  4. EdW
    December 15, 2009 at

    I always find it interesting that there is such a debate of these issues. These days we are fortunate that there are so many fine makers and so many choices- all good things. There are many players out there on a great variety of clarinets. I can think of prominent players on all of the "big 4" as well as Rossi, Chadash and some others. If one listens to recordings of these players, I doubt that one can identify (with no previous info) which of these instruments is being played. Riccardo Morales, Eddie Daniels and a few others have played most of the clarinets out there. Do we identify the sound as Riccardo, or a Selmer, Leblanc/Backun, etc sound?

    To add to that, one hears a lot about the Buffet sound. Is a stock R13 the same as an R13 with a Backun barrel and bell? If one has their clarinet "tweaked" with some undercutting, modifications, register tube. thumb tube and other "aftermarket parts", is it still the same animal? Does it have all of the same characteristics as an stock horn?

    It is a tool to do a job. Hopefully, the player and music comes across with the greatest ease. If I see a nice piece of carpentry work I never wonder about what kind of hammer was used. (Maybe they are discussing that over on a woodworkers blog!)

    • December 15, 2009 at

      Hi Ed. Thanks for your comment. Indeed, the identity of someone's sound is only partly identified by their equipment's particular tone characteristics. The player then shapes that potential toward what they seek and wish to hear. I like your carpentry analogy! Good one.

  5. David Niethamer
    December 15, 2009 at

    from the Yamaha web site re: Hamilton plating:

    "Hamilton plating consists of gold with some nickel and copper added. Many players find it darkens the sound while at the same time giving tonal clarity and projection. They feel it also helps create a creamy smooth texture to both the sound and the response."

    Also, please pardon the typos – David Thomas, and "I can only repeat what scientist(s) I know have said"

    • December 15, 2009 at

      David, my apologies for the late response. Thank you for both your comments. You add many interesting perspective and points to the discussions I am having over the course of several posts in the past few days. (be sure to check John Peacock's comments and my responses in the previous post on breaking up with my Selmers.)

      Though some of Tom's statements could be argued, I think the general descriptions are not far off. But if you read my post from today, Home Sweet Buffet Tone, I argue that the instrument is only a small part of the individual tone created by the player. Whether it's Yamaha, Leblanc, Selmer or Buffet, the player creates the final product, not the instrument.

  6. David Niethamer
    December 14, 2009 at

    I tried to find out more about Tom Blodgett, but the link in this blog posting is dead. I'd like to know more about where he plays, where he studied, etc., to be able to put the above post in some sort of context.

    Let me first clear my biases – I'm a Yamaha Performing Artist on clarinet. I've played on professional Yamaha clarinets of various flavors for going on 25 years, and 17 of those were as the Principal Clarinet of the Richmond (Virginia, USA) Symphony Orchestra.

    I agree that "Yamaha has the best consistency instrument" – in fact, that is what drew me to them in 1985. I was tired of Buffet's sloppy keywork where the plating wore out very quickly (often within a year) and the mechanical adjustments from fine repair techs "came unglued" within a month. That sort of workmanship isn't helpful to the working clarinetist.

    But I certainly don't agree that "if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all." Just recently, I had the opportunity to try about a dozen Yamaha CSG Bb clarinets, and while they were all very consistent, there were clear differences from clarinet to clarinet. Changing barrels and bells (all stock Yamaha) in the end influenced my choice of clarinet, and would for anyone, I imagine. My mouthpiece (Grabner K11) influenced my choice, I'm sure.

    Mr. Blodgett list many equipment choices that affect the sound of a particular clarinet, among them wood and key plating. I am not a scientist, so I can only repeat what scientist I know have said, but according to the scientists, the wall thickness of clarinets is too great for them to impart any vibrational sound characteristics to a clarinet. Bore configuration and finish are more likely influences. As to key plating affecting the sound of an instrument – this seems to me to be just utterly ridiculous!!

    BUT – among the Yamaha clarinets I tried, 6 were silver plated keys and 6 were "Hamilton Plating" – an alloy of gold and nickel. Somewhere on the Yamaha web site – and I can't find it quickly – Yamaha gives us the marketing hype that the Hamilton Plating imparts an warmer sound to the clarinet. I tried some Hamilton and some silver keys, and all of the Hamilton Plating clarinets played better (for me) than any of the silver plated. I still don't believe it was the key work, but there you have it.

    Yamaha definitely has a different sound than the standard Buffet that many clarinetists seem to like. But I was able to adapt pretty quickly to get the sound I wanted in the RSO from my Yamahas way back in 1985. I actually think David thomas sums it up well at the top of the original post –

    "… the player brings their own tone to whatever clarinet they play. The key is to find an instrument which is comfortable and allows you to sound like you."


    • December 15, 2009 at

      David- BTW, I did ask Tom for more information about himself and did not hear back from him, though he responded to my asking permission to post his comments.

      I liked one other comment Tom makes in this post, and that is how clarinet sound is not standardized, and that "Everyone is happy that the clarinet player just doesn’t squeak. " I hear more mediocre clarinet tones in more orchestras than I should. It seems to be accepted that most clarinet tones are not so much beautiful as functional.

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