Bass clarinet vs. Contrabass clarinet – Which one should you learn?

Are you looking for an instrument that can play very low and still be appealing to audiences? The bass and contrabass clarinets might be the ones for you. Read on to find out the difference.

The clarinet is the most common woodwind instrument in many musical genres. Since its invention in the 17th century, it has undergone changes and modifications, making it the most versatile instrument. It is used in various music styles, such as jazz ensembles and orchestral performances. The clarinet has many members in its family, from the smallest, the piccolo clarinet, commonly known as the E-flat clarinet, to the most common member of the family, which is the B-flat clarinet. All the members of the clarinet family play a wide variety of sounds with varying frequencies, from very high pitch sounds to very low pitch sounds. The lowest members of the family have to be the bass and contrabass clarinet.

In this article, I discuss the features of both these clarinets giving an in-depth view into their workings to help you decide which one you should learn. However, it should be noted that these instruments act as secondary instruments and are therefore used by professional musicians only. They make appearances in orchestral performances but are not as common as many of the other members of the clarinet family.

What are the differences between Bass and Contrabass clarinets?

Clarinet type Bass clarinet Contrabass clarinet
Dimensions 40 inches long. 120 inches long.
Body Most are made of wood

The crook and bell are made of silver or brass

Mostly made of wood.

The crook and bell are made of silver or brass.

Key material Silver-plated.




Key It has a wide variety of keys but mainly in the low range It plays the lowest keys of any instrument.
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Bass vs. contrabass clarinets – How do they compare?


The bass clarinet is among the most prominent members of the clarinet family. Its body is about 40 inches long; its size makes it impossible to play it held up resting on the thumb. They are played when the musician is seated or standing. The bass clarinet has a spike that keeps it off the floor so that the floor cannot affect the sound produced. Since it is a professional instrument, it is mainly made of wood or resin; however, this is only for the middle cylindrical section. The bass clarinet is divided into five sections; the bell, the lower joint (for the right hand), the upper joint (for the left hand), the crook or barrel, and the mouthpiece. The bell of the bass clarinet is bent; unlike the other ordinary members of the clarinet family, it is also made of silver or brass, not wood. The barrel section of a bass clarinet is S-shaped and is made of silver or brass, unlike the other members of the clarinet family.

On the other hand, the contrabass clarinet is the largest of the clarinet family. Due to its size, it is mainly played while the musician is standing. It also has five major parts; the bell, the lower joint, the crook or barrel, and the mouthpiece. The only section made of wood or resin is the middle cylindrical section and the mouthpiece. The barrel and bell are made of silver or brass. The size of the contrabass clarinet plays a significant role in how low it can go.

In this section, the bass clarinet is better as it is smaller in size, making it easier to play and learn.


The bass clarinet has a 13-key mechanism set. The keys make it possible for the musician to play various sounds on the clarinet. From low notes to very low notes. Because of its immense size, the holes are too large for the musician’s fingers to cover; hence the keys have been padded to create a good seal when the musician is playing. The keys extend along the length of the middle section, both on the upper and lower joints. These keys also help the musician easily reach tone holes that are out of reach. The keys cover 24 tonal holes, which help produce variation in sound.

Similarly, the contrabass clarinet has a 13-key mechanism that runs the entire length of the middle section of the clarinet’s body. These keys cover and uncover 25 tonal holes located on various points along the clarinet. They are padded as the holes are too large for the musician’s fingers to cover well. The keys assist the musician play tonal holes that are out of reach. The keys are mainly found on the upper joint of the middle section for the musician’s comfort. However, they have extensions to reach holes that are further.

There is no better choice between the key set on these two clarinets as both feature the same number of keys and require a lot of skill to play.


On the bass clarinet, the reed is attached to the mouthpiece. The reeds used on the bass clarinets are slightly larger than those used on the other clarinets, but the difference is not notable. Their reeds measure 19mm wide, while on other clarinets, it measures 11 mm. The strength of the reed reduces with time. Stronger reeds require more strength to play because they tend to be stiffer and vibrate less. This is because the reed has to vibrate to produce sound. For the clarinet to produce more sound, the reed has to vibrate more.

The contrabass clarinets also use reeds as they are woodwind instruments. The reed used on the contrabass clarinet varies slightly from the reeds used on the bass clarinet, only having a millimeter difference in size. The reeds used on the contrabass clarinets measure 20m. However, the reeds require frequent replacement since it requires more power to play the contrabass clarinet.

There is no clear winner in this category as both clarinets use reeds of almost similar size.


The bass clarinet produces very low tones, which make it among the lowest pitch instrument in modern music. Like most other clarinets, the bass clarinet is a transposing instrument. The tonal holes provide the variation in pitch. If more holes are covered, a lower pitch tone is produced, and if lesser holes are covered, a higher pitch tone is produced.

The contrabass clarinet produces the lowest pitched tone in modern music. Its principles of operation are similar to the bass clarinet, the only difference being how low the instrument can go and its size. However, most audiences do not find the really low notes appealing when played for long.

In this category, the contrabass clarinet wins as it can produce much lower tones.

Bass vs. Contrabass clarinets – A comparison overview

Bass clarinet overview

The bass clarinet wows many beginners and orchestral audiences both for its size and the depth of sound it produces. However, learning how to play it can be a very challenging endeavor. It requires discipline, dedication, and a lot of strength to play it. Due to this, it is used as a secondary instrument by most musicians, making it make fewer appearances in performances than the other members of the clarinet family. However, if you have the passion and drive, it can be a very satisfying instrument as not many people know how to play it and, lesser still, how to play it properly.


  • Due to its length, it has a wide variety of tones.
  • It can be used in different music genres.
  • It is made of high-quality materials since its common among professional musicians.


  • It is expensive to purchase.
  • Its range is restricted to the low notes.


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Contrabass clarinet overview

This is the largest and the lowest-pitched member of the clarinet family. Due to this, it is not often used in performances. However, its sheer size and the low pitch notes it can play leave most in awe of its power. Due to the fact that it is not used often, there aren’t any manufacturers who make them for retail; most of them are made to order according to the musician’s specifications. The contrabass can be used in various different settings, from orchestral performances to being used for movie films. Although the contrabass clarinet is hard to play, once mastered, it will be a breeze for you.


  • It can play very low notes that cannot be achieved by other instruments.
  • It has a wide variety of tones, just like all other clarinets.
  • It is made of high-quality materials.


  • It is enormous in size.
  • It is costly to buy.


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Verdict: So, which one should you learn? Bass or Contrabass clarinet?

The bass clarinet offers more opportunities compared to the contrabass clarinet. Since both are very difficult to play, the bass clarinet is the one you should learn. However, the contrabass is also rewarding on different fronts but requires a lot more to learn.


What is the main difference between bass and contrabass clarinets?

The principal, most obvious difference is the size; however, there are other differences that take a keen eye to notice, such as the number of holes on each.

Which is more common, bass clarinet vs. contrabass clarinet?

The bass clarinet is more common since it has a wide variety of uses, from jazz ensembles to orchestral performances.

Charlotte Moore is a Clarinetist by profession and has over time offered lessons on how to play the clarinet among other musical instruments. And while a majority of clarinet players are well versed with the process of settling with a good clarinet among other accompanying features. There is little information about clarinets. The reason why Charlotte prepared comprehensive experts touching on the various facets of the clarinet. The consolidated information will offer more insight on everything clarinets including the best stand to use, and the best plastic clarinet that you can invest in, among other information. Charlotte Moore is a devoted mother of two and a professional clarinet player.

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