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Clarinet Roadshow => All about Clarinets => Topic started by: windydankoff on July 22, 2020, 05:47:05 AM

Title: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: windydankoff on July 22, 2020, 05:47:05 AM
The User-Friendly Clarinet
Free-blowing, in-tune, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Bb and C

By Windy Dankoff      Black • Hole Clarinets      September 2020

I attended a performance of Eastern European music, in 2016. I was hooked by the fluid and soulful sound of the clarinet. I had switched from clarinet to sax in 1964. But now, to my amazement, I simply had to have a clarinet. But I have a weak jaw joint. Playing a reed hurts my head, unless it’s extra-easy to blow. So, I bought a new clarinet, and asked for the easiest-blowing mouthpiece. It wasn’t. I asked distributors, makers, famous technicians, Google past midnight … I couldn’t get a straight answer about an easy-blowing mouthpiece, until I discovered it for myself: It’s not just the mouthpiece. The instrument is a synergistic system in which EVERYTHING matters. I didn’t want this joke to be my reality:

Sax player 1    Somebody stole my clarinet
Sax player 2    I wish somebody would steal MY clarinet

Over a four-year period, I found ways to make the clarinet more free-blowing and less fatiguing, while maintaining or even improving its sound. I also enabled a few sax-like fingerings.

Let’s start with the blowing pressure aspect, often called resistance. If you blow the mouthpiece without the clarinet, you feel resistance. If you blow into the clarinet without the mouthpiece, you feel no resistance. You may conclude that the resistance is all in the mouthpiece. But if you try your mouthpiece on a variety of clarinets, you’ll find that some clarinets blow easier than others. The clarinet has resistance to vibrating air. This is called impedance. Furthermore, as pulsating energy flows through the instrument, it encounters junctures where the impedance changes – like bumps in the road. If we have a low-impedance sound path with the bumps minimized, we have a free-blowing clarinet.

Soft reed, large bore, and low-impedance
To blow easily, I started with a soft reed, like a beginner. It played flat and lacked focus and control. The soft reed did not “feed” the horn gracefully. It wanted to pass abundant air at low pressure. But a typical clarinet wants to receive less air at greater pressure. This is called an impedance mismatch – the proper term for a bump in the road. For the horn to accept the action of a soft, low-impedance reed, the entire horn must have a lower impedance that is relatively constant. Such clarinets do exist.

Some clarinets have a bore (the long black hole) that is larger than average. That is one step in reducing impedance. Some tone holes must also be larger and/or undercut, and some pads need to open wider. Large-bore clarinets were common before the 1960s. Then Buffet introduced a smaller bore that gained favor for classical music. Most makers (and educators) followed their lead. The older designs became largely passé except for a few that tend to be expensive. Even then, not all have low-impedance tone holes. The famous vintage ones are made of wood, and old wood can be a risky investment.

Four years of research
I found a non-wood large-bore clarinet from the 1940’s that was fairly easy to blow, and sounded amazing. I wanted to know if I could make it better, so I started collecting and studying them. They are ebonite (hard rubber) clarinets. I also collected mouthpieces and barrels, calipers, reamers and other tools. I draw on my experience designing and making flutes and repairing woodwinds. After two years, 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 hole-by-hole, and as a whole, so I can repeat my results.

Harmonic integrity = simpler intonation AND easier blowing
Accuracy of pitch is called intonation. 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 necessary. The overtones are well tuned naturally. Tuned overtones reinforce the sound, so less energy is lost. So, it is easier to blow and easier to play in tune (with beauty). Your embouchure can stay nearly constant throughout the range. It is a blessing for players without much formal training, sax players doubling on clarinet, folks with physical limitations, and anyone who wants to ease the journey.

More sax-like
The large bore helps strengthen and beautify the throat tones (top of the low register). I expand on that capacity in several ways. I refine the “trill keys” B and C to work as primary notes, like the left palm keys on a sax. They sound beautiful because they extend the delicate expressive quality of throat range. They often liberate you from jumping to the 2nd register (over the break) where you lose tonal flexibility. I enable another alternate fingering that’s familiar to sax and flute players – the Eb/Bb using the right forefinger. On most clarinets, that fingering is very sharp. I correct it so you can use it routinely.

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 that’s great for traditional and modern jazz, Balkan, gypsy, klezmer, you name it. If modern clarinets sound like a Hersey bar, these are more like artisanal 85% cocoa. Again, user-friendly qualities and great sound require more than just a large bore. The whole instrument needs to be optimized, as detailed below.

Hard rubber (ebonite) instead of wood
I’m lazy, so I 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 favorite 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
A clarinet in key of C (concert pitch) is user-friendly because you can read C music. And, it’s easier in many keys that are common in string music. The modern C clarinet is designed to use a standard Bb mouthpiece. For a good impedance match, the bore is sized to the mouthpiece. It is, therefore, a truly large-bore instrument. It matches the proportions and behavior of the vintage large-bore Bb. C clarinets made of ebonite are produced only in China. Some of them are very well made, but they need a lot of finish work to fine-tune them. I play a Chinese C that I improved and refined to concert quality. I enjoy its bright bouncy sound, and play it more than my Bb. My clients and I enjoy accompanying other instruments, with no need to transpose.

The Pruefer Silver Throat, 1940-55
My favorite large-bore Bb is the vintage Pruefer Silver Throat (PST). It’s ebonite, and the upper joint is lined with metal. It has a very large bottom bore with extra-large, 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 resurrected one, and I was hooked. I have a stock of PSTs, some of which were embalmed “in the closet” for 50 or 60 years.

Search the internet, and you’ll find opinions of the PST ranging from useless to the best jazz horn ever. I studied 9 PSTs made between 1940 and 1960, and found reasons for the mixed reputation: (1) The PST needs extra-wide valve openings (pad height) at the bottom. Repair technicians are unlikely to know this, so most overhauled ones are not optimum. (2) Versions made after 1955 have a smaller bottom bore. They play less in tune, except with hard reeds. (3) Only those late versions carry the Silver Throat inscription, and most are inferior. (4) Many barrels were not bored optimally. Knowing all this, I have learned how to bring out the best in a PST. The vintage PST and the Chinese C seem like strange bedfellows, but they make a well-matched pair.

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:
    Bore expansion in the barrel and at top of upper joint
    Some modified tone holes, pads, or action, especially to tune top and bottom
    Trill keys B and C optimized to use as primary notes
    Optimized thumb-key Bb
    Improved Eb/Bb when using right forefinger
    Fine synthetic and/or leather pads, resilient and reliable

Ergonomic improvements
    Keys may be adjusted to small or large hands
    Springs adjusted for light and balanced action
    Luxury thumb rest option
    Custom requests

Barrel modifications and tuning
Most barrels are bored to match the upper joint. On the large-bore Bb and C clarinets, I discovered that a further enlargement of the bore is transformational.  I use reamers to remove less than a hair’s width of material. I continue the cut tapered into the upper joint. The horn goes a bit flat, but when I make corrections, it breathes easier and comes fully to life. Throat tones and thumb-Bb are greatly improved. The tone is richer and more consistent throughout the horn.

A player will often pull out the barrel for tuning corrections. This produces an internal gap that can dull certain notes. But in large bore clarinets, the pull-out gap does not have such side effects. Most players won’t need a second, longer barrel for a large-bore. Mine are relatively short, for easy pitch flexibility when playing, and to allow some adjustment. Tell me if you play outdoors in high/low temperatures, and I may include a second 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.) So your favorite mouthpiece will work fine, but best not to use a modern barrel.

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 also have a select stock of my favorite vintage mouthpiece, for easy blowing and amazing tone.

A review of my Black • Hole 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 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

User-friendly reeds
If easy blowing is a priority, you can try a #2 or “S” reed like I use. It produces wonderful tone in the large bore. Many serious players use synthetic reeds – some for practice, some exclusively. They hold constant under all conditions. Some last for more than a year of regular use. I get exactly the sound I love with a Fibracell #1.5 (equivalent to typical #2) or a Fiberreed Carbon Classic S (they are more consistent). Others love the Legere European Signature Cut.

Mouthpieces, and MATCHING to the reed
When switching to a new synthetic reed (Fiberreed), I tried a mouthpiece that was a previous favorite, and it was better than ever! So we don't just pick a favorite MP and then a favorite reed. We pick the best PAIR. The curve of the MP facing must work optimally with the curve of the reed as it flexes. How do you know? If you have a collection of MPs, I suggest trying various ones, especially previous favorites, if you are trying a new type of synth reed. I have also seen MPs offered that are specifically designed for specific synth reeds. That makes complete sense to me ... HOWEVER, it's unlikely that they are focused on matching soft reeds to large-bore horns. That's why I collect vintage MPs and select which work best with specific soft reeds. So now, my clarinet sales usually include a sample reed a select MP to match. That's one reason I have had no returns in the last two years.

References and acknowledgements

Thanks to Phil Pedler (The, Jared De Leon (Wind Instrument Repairs) and Clark Fobes, and others on The Clarinet Board and Sax-on-the-Web, for sharing their experience. For a historic comparison of bore sizes: and
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: GrumpyMiddleAgedMan on July 22, 2020, 06:15:45 PM
Definitely interesting and something I am going to have to follow up on. Looks like I am going to have to learn tone hole manipulation. I don't think I am going to be attending any trade school for this but are there any good books that can recommend for this sort of thing?  I don't know if basic repair books cover and I'm sure there is a super thick complete tomb on everything you ever wanted to know and then some. Maybe a website, I don't think I have seen anything about advanced clarinet repair on the net.
Thanks that was an excellent background bit , much appreciated. 

Post addendum
What would you use to fix cracking, meaning glue. I was thinking CA but am kind of leary of using it as it may be to hard/brittle. Gorilla contact cement is rattling around in my it is more flexible but not sure if it will bond well.
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: windydankoff on July 23, 2020, 06:12:50 AM
The Pruefer clarinets already have large undercut tone holes as part of the overall large bore / low impedance design AND they are well-tuned. You don't need to manipulate them, in general. I was referring primarily to the Chinese C as needing numerous tonehole adjustments.

I got the feel for woodwind tuning by making bamboo flutes and Native American flutes. There are books on that. Clarinet techs warn against overly undercutting tone holes and "ruining" the instrument. I believe that advice is based on modern small-bore horns. Perhaps the large-bore cl. is less fussy. I have not had such a problem. On the Pruefer, the only holes I am likely to work on are the C#/G# L4, and the top 2 trills.

Hard rubber (HR) repair:  I use CA "superglue" to bond hard rubber IF the parts fit tightly together. I've tested on scrap, and only a heavy hammer blow would separate the joint. The Locktite gel CA is excellent and has the best applicator bottle. CA is good for filling gaps ONLY if you apply a powdered filler, then saturate it with thin CA. Never use CA alone to fill gaps. It's brittle. Epoxy also adheres very well to HR, whether it's clear liquid or putty type.

My PREFERRED way to fill gaps and replace chipped off  is epoxy putty. I use standard JB Weld with great success. Once that's set, I may use the Quick version to attain final shape. Black nail polish makes a good final finish.
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: Airflyte on July 23, 2020, 06:39:46 PM
Windy, are you equating to the acoustical standing wave to alternating electrical current?

So impedance equals resistance?

It's natural to think that a large bore instrument will be free-blowing ( the B&H Imperial 1010 may an exception to that logic).

The mouth piece / reed combo probably has the most effect to the player on how the clarinet takes the air.

Do you know if the "pre-R13's" have a larger non poly bore? I think it's referred to as the "Master bore".
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: LarryS on August 06, 2020, 08:52:24 AM
Very interesting post Windy! I had no idea you had a weak jaw, a wide bore would certainly help there. It would help me too. If I play clarinet, then switch over to recorder, as I like to do, I find I automatically over blow and it sounds awful till I readjust my air stream.
Interesting that you can use a Bb mp on a C horn. I would quite like a C clarinet. Would make it a lot easier when playing from sheet!
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: windydankoff on August 09, 2020, 11:06:02 AM
Airflyte, in response to your questions, I am comparing oscillating air motion to electrical alternating current ... or rather, I'm making an analogy on an intuitive basis. Impedance is resistance to oscillating energy, in whatever form it may take.

I again emphasize that "large bore" alone is a minor factor in reducing impedance. We're only talking about a diameter differences of a few percent. Impedance creates resistance (more or less) at EVERY boundary or change in the medium -- from mouth to reed to facing to chamber to barrel to main bore through tone holes, undercuts AND pad openings. So one cannot characterize an instrument from a few simple measurements.

The bore of any clarinet has near-zero resistance to "direct current". Observe by breathing through it without a reed. Add the dynamic element of oscillating (vibrating) air, and THEN impedance appears.

A mechanical example of impedance MATCHING is being in the correct gear on a vehicle. The gears alter the ratio of speed to torque using leverage. In the wrong gear, with mismatch, some energy is blocked. In a wind instrument, the ratio is air pressure to flow rate. In electric power, audio and radio circuits, it's voltage to current. Impedance is everywhere.

It's fascinating to ponder. I struggled to understand it as a radio ham in the 60's, and I'm still discovering its relevance. I was surprised at first, to see how it relates to the energy-efficiency of a clarinet. Now it makes complete sense.
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: windydankoff on August 09, 2020, 11:09:51 AM
I posted a Summertime demonstration of my "user-friendly" Pruefer Silver Throat and C clarinets at

I hope it demonstrates that a #2 reed can perform delightfully on instruments of low-impedance.
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: Windsong on August 22, 2020, 07:32:21 PM
Nice, Windy.  I enjoyed that.

Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: LarryS on August 25, 2020, 06:23:17 PM
A player I know, Adrian Cox, just got a wide bore Luis Rossi clari complete with Vandoren wide bore mouthpiece. I just assumed a wider bore = more volume, as it does with recorders.
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: windydankoff on September 10, 2020, 09:02:30 PM
Larry, again I have to stress that tone hole sizes, undercutting, and pad heights are also critical determinants of impedance.

Airflyte gives an example above, saying that the B&H Imperial 1010 has a large bore but is NOT free-blowing.

The difference of inside diameter between a typical normal modern (medium) bore and a "large bore" is only 2-3 percent! And incidentally, the entire horn is shorter by a few percent, because a larger bore lowers the pitch.
Title: Re: The User-Friendly Clarinet: Free-blowing, wood-free, and sax-player friendly
Post by: windydankoff on September 11, 2020, 09:33:43 AM
For those who are following this topic, I revised the initial post, so it explains things more clearly. Please go back to the top if you wish to read the new version. Thanks!