Most of the clarinets you’ve come across are probably categorized as Bb clarinets, but did you know that this isn’t the only type of clarinet?
There are many clarinets you could choose from besides the Bb or bass clarinets, and this guide breaks down the details of all the 11 types of clarinets. The wind instruments in these 11 categories boast a unique range, style, and sound.
Granted, knowing what features to expect from each clarinet will help you to make the right decision and choose your ideal clarinet.
In this guide, we’ll introduce you to all 11 types of clarinets that you could choose from.
Types Of Clarinets
The B♭ Clarinet is the standard model of clarinets in the world of clarinets today. But what you may not know about this type of clarinet is that it has its origins in the chalumeau, a single-reed musical instrument dating back to the 1600s.
The development of the B♭ Clarinet from the chalumeau is credited to Joseph Dunner, who invented the modern clarinet as we know it – he put the keys on the chalumeau, specifically the register and the A keys. And these keys would then be built on to broaden the range of the instrument, enhancing its versatility.
Over the years, keys were added to it, and ultimately, the modern clarinet design would be standardized. Today, the B♭ Clarinet is known for the 17-19 key build and a length of 23.6”. This clarinet has been popular since the 18th century, and most composers prefer it because of the distinctive tone, which is believed to be the closest thing to the actual human voice. It’s also popular because it is easy to play, and you can use it for a broad style of music, including jazz, swing, Dixieland, klezmer, orchestra, wind bands, clarinet choirs, and chamber music.
The most famous pieces made using this clarinet include Mozart’s 1791 Clarinet Concerto in A Major. Benny Goodman, Sabine Meyer, and Martin Fröst also used the B♭ Clarinet.
This clarinet is common with orchestra musicians. It’s played just like the B♭ clarinet. It was invented mid in the 18th century, and it was meant to make the lives of the players easier by lowering the number of flats or sharps they needed to play. This clarinet is also easy to tune.
Today, orchestral performances are split in half between the A and B♭ clarinets, and most players need both instruments at hand.
A♭ Piccolo clarinet
First is the A♭ piccolo clarinet. It’s quite rare today, and its primary identifying feature is its size – it is smaller than the E♭ clarinet, standing tall at just a little over a foot long. Its reeds are the size of paperclips, and its construction features one joint with a bell and the barrel attached separately.
Its range starts from the low E, below the staff, extending up to the F and G, and just an octave above the clarinet’s staff. The clarinet is in the middle C-up to E♭in its concert pitch, just 2 octaves over the treble staff.
This rare clarinet first gained popularity when the Austrian quartets and military bands played it. And today, parts of the A♭ piccolo clarinet are very rare, although it still gets some attention from the clarinet choirs.
Famous music pieces written for this A♭ piccolo clarinet include operas by John Tavener and Verdi in the 1969 Celtic Requiem.
One of the reasons for its rarity today has got to be its build – it has a rather small mouthpiece that is challenging. However, clarinetists with a strong embouchure and small hands can play this clarinet beautifully.
But this isn’t the only clarinet that’s very rare today. Other rare clarinets include the D, F, and G clarinets.
This clarinet is not as rare as the piccolo clarinet above, and it’s quite common. It dates back to the 1830s. It is 19” long, and it’s not only easier to play but bigger than the A♭ piccolo clarinet. It’s also easier to play than the D♭ piccolo clarinet because the E♭ clarinet comes with a larger mouthpiece and reed. Think of it this way – the E♭ clarinet is a clarinet as the piccolo is to a flute. It is also called the transposing instrument.
This clarinet is known for its high-pitched passages that make it very easy to play, which is why it is popular in wind bands, clarinet choirs, and orchestras today. Suppose you have some experience playing the clarinet and played with the B♭ clarinet, the most common beginner-level clarinet. In that case, you should know that the E♭ clarinet has a similar fingering system to that of the B♭ clarinet. However, the written range of the E♭ clarinet will extend from the E level below the staff and up to G-level, 2 octaves above its staff. These settings translate to the concert pitches at G, below the staff, and above the staff, up to the B♭.
This is the other uncommon clarinet, but it’s still produced commercially today. The clarinet dates back to the 1720s, and Vivaldi used it in concerts at the time.
It’s common in orchestras and used as a teaching aid alongside other concerts pitch musical instruments like the violin, flute, and the guitar. Most of the modern C clarinets have the same number of keys as the A and the B♭ clarinets, and they are based on the French Boehm system that is pretty much the standard today. In terms of difficulty of play, the C clarinets are like the A and B♭ clarinets.
Today, Buffet Crampon is the only brand that features and produces the C clarinets.
With a Boehm fingering system and keys requiring the use of two little fingers for the deepest notes, this clarinet is also quite uncommon today. The additional inches make it easier to play, just like the B♭ clarinet or the soprano clarinet. It has an extended low range. Sabine Meyer is a renowned basset clarinetist.
It’s known as the horn to most people, but it belongs to the clarinet family. It was invented in 1770 by Michael and Anton Mayrhofer of Bavaria.
It comes with the same number of keys as a basset clarinet but special keys for the high B♭ and the A♭/ E♭. In the F range, the basset clarinet is the closest ancestor to the alto clarinet in the E♭ range.
It’s interesting to note that this basset clarinet was the preferred instrument by Mozart (Requiem in D minor, K. 626) and Mendelssohn (Concert Piece No. 1 in F major, Op. 113). In other words, this clarinet is the best instrument for romantic and classical musical performances.
As mentioned above, this looks like the basset horn, but their main difference is seen in the pitched alto clarinet in the E♭ as the range extends to the 2nd octave above the Middle C from the 2nd octave below the middle C.
Iwan Müller, who lived between1786 and1854, and Heinrich Grenser, who was alive from 1764 to 1813, are believed to have invented the alto clarinet. But others consider this G-range flared bells clarinet from 1740 an alto clarinet. However, in the 19th century, this clarinet became the standard/ acceptable wind instrument. Many of the players and the conductors believed that the alto clarinet brightened the dull notes from the basset horns. It’s also seen in band and wind music written in the 20th century. These two types of clarinets are common in competitions.
You probably have the bass clarinet as your favorite instrument if you play the clarinet. You may not know that they were first made in 1772, and back then, they were known as the bass tubes. And over the years, there have been numerous of the bass clarinet. But it wasn’t until 1814-1894 that Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, then standardized and patented this instrument in 1838 that the bass clarinet stood out and became very popular. This clarinet is still easily identifiable by its curved neck and the upturned bell.
Today, the Bass clarinet is a pitched B♭ clarinet, just like the soprano clarinet. It comes in two main ranges: the standard range-extending low to the written E♭ below the staff and the extended range down to C, and a lower range that allows modern composers to enjoy playing it in orchestras and jazz music performances.
The contra-alto is an EE♭ clarinet, and it is one of the biggest types of clarinets. It delivers a high-pitched sound, one octave below the alto clarinet. And the best part is that you could use it to play the baritone saxophone at the same pitch, which is why some players use it as a substitute in some cases. It’s used in wind bands and clarinet choirs.
The contrabass clarinet is essentially a BB♭ contrabass clarinet. It is also large, like the contra-alto clarinet, but the modern version has a high pitch that is an octave lower than what you get from the bass clarinet. It is also 2 octaves lower than your soprano B♭ clarinet.
There are many types of clarinets in existence, because they all came to life at different times as music and musical instruments evolved. Some are almost completely obsolete, while many others have been upgraded over the years to create the best musical instruments. To choose the right one, talk to professionals. But when starting, always start with the Bb clarinet since it’s the easiest to learn.
Which are the best types of clarinets for orchestras?
Basset, Basset horn, bass clarinets, D clarinets, A, Eb, and Bb clarinets are suitable for orchestras.
Which is the ideal type of clarinet for solo performances?
Pick the Bass or the Bb clarinet for a solo.