By Andrew Hadro
This article will outline why baritone saxophonists often play bass clarinet and what you should know about the instrument. I will also provide some options, recommendations, and useful information for adding the instrument to your life.
A lot of saxophonists want a working knowledge of and comfortability with both flute and clarinet. These are not saxophones, but saxophonists often play them because they are related and can be more easily picked up than other instruments. From a business perspective playing these extra ‘doubles’ can increase a saxophonist’s ability to get work and can increase the types of music they can play. In terms of artistry, they offer the musician more colors and sounds with which to make music and be creative. Baritone saxophonists don’t get as much call for flute (unfortunate for us who started on flute!), but you can expect someone to ask you about bass clarinet sooner or later.
Bass clarinet is the most common double for a baritone saxophonist – it is the secondary instrument a baritone saxophonist is most likely to be called upon to play. This comes up most in big band and large ensemble settings, and is increasingly common in modern composition though Harry Carney was known to play some bass clarinet with Duke Ellington in the early 20th century!). Because bass clarinet is the lowest of the common clarinets it is assumed that the baritone saxophonist who plays the lowest saxophone will play that clarinet. It’s a shame that we don’t ask the musicians bringing the smallest saxophone to then bring the largest clarinet to even out the weight load, but alas baritonists often carry more than double the weight of instruments (often then to be rewarded with few or no chances to improvise and less interesting written parts, but I digress!).
When is Bass Clarinet Best?
Many modern big band writers add bass clarinet to the palette of sounds they use. In my opinion the best writers use bass clarinet when they truly want the sound and timbre of the instrument, not merely as a way of forcing a baritonist to play quieter. Baritone saxophones can play plenty soft, and bass clarinets can be played loud. A great example of writing for bass clarinet can be found with Maria Schneider. Often considered one of the most influential modern big band composers, she writes almost more for bass clarinet than baritone saxophone, especially in her mid- to late-career. Of course, it helps that her baritone saxophonist, Scott Robinson, is a wonderful clarinetist and bass clarinetist (and incredible alto clarinetist too!). But other mainstream writers have used it historically as well. Duke Ellington wrote for it; Thad Jones wrote for it. And one of the most classic Frank Sinatra recordings, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” arranged by Nelson Riddle starts out prominently with bass clarinet.
Low C versus Low Eb
There are essentially two types of bass clarinet: those that have a range down to low Eb (concert Db) and those that have a range even lower, down to low C (concert Bb). The addition of the 3 extra notes adds to the length of the instrument, adds a bit of weight, and adds keys to operate those notes – often keys used by the right thumb, which is very unusual to both baritone saxophonists and Bb clarinetists!
For many, many years low C bass clarinets were reserved only for high-end professional instruments. There were some very nice low Eb professional instruments, but most low Eb instruments produced were student or intermediate quality. There have been exciting developments in the last five years, however, and low C bass clarinets are now offered in the student/intermediate range now – more on this later. But that said, if the instrument is vintage and goes to low C it is likely to be (though not definitely) higher quality than a low Eb of the same period. It is possible to have an extension of sorts made to transform a low Eb instrument into a low C, but that is rare.
Professional baritone saxophonists often bisect their instruments’ makes into two categories: baritones with a low A and those that only go to low Bb. (See my Brands and Horns article for more on that!) Despite the difference being only a single note, they sound, feel, and play differently because the whole instrument ends up shaped uniquely.
This is only slightly true with low Eb and Low C bass clarinets. The bore shapes and overall sound isn’t much different between a low Eb and low C instrument. A jazz soloist might prefer a low Eb horn because it feels more lightweight and is easier to use with a neck strap, and they may not need the lower register for improvisation. Some musicians feel that the low Eb horns are more free-blowing but this probably very much depends on the individual horn. However, in general baritonists seeking a great instrument will want a Low C if possible, especially if playing written parts – particularly now that there are more affordable options for players whose main instrument is not bass clarinet.
Improvising and soloing
The bass clarinet has a permanent home in orchestras and is often added to large ensemble written parts, but it is also a wonderful instrument to improvise on. Below I’ve listed some recommended examples to check out. Learning to improvise freely on the bass clarinet will require the saxophonist to adapt to the different fingering system and a 12th key of the clarinet (as compared to saxophones that have an octave key). Where the saxophone has a single fingering system that more or less repeats in each octave, the clarinet and bass clarinet essentially have two different systems – or more accurately the same fingering produces two different notes a fifth/12th apart. To really improvise well on the clarinet and bass clarinet you must become comfortable thinking in this new world. All clarinets also have what is called ‘the break’ – a somewhat foreign feeling change of just a few keys played with the side of a finger for Bb to all fingers down to play a ‘long B’ just a half step up. A much more difficult gap to master than ‘the break’ on saxophone that occurs between open C# and middle D.
Joe Temperley – Single Petal of a Rose
Eric Dolphy – Take the A Train
Michael Lowenstern playing, ‘Summertime’
Harry Carney – I Can’t Begin to Tell You
Stefano Doglioni – You
James Davis’ group Beveled that features two bass clarinets
Mark Dover, I am , Here Now
Another major hurdle for baritonists moving to bass clarinet (and Bb clarinet, though somewhat less so) is ledger lines. Specifically lower ones below the staff. While saxophonists should already be comfortable reading down to low Bb and low A on bass clarinet they will need to read down to low C, several ledger lines below the staff. This is confusing to the eye if you’re not used to it. All baritonists will need practice reading down there, and even if you have a low Eb bass clarinet you will encounter parts with written low D, Db/C# and C that you need to recognize and transpose up an octave as needed.
Many clarinet etudes exist that will help a saxophonist begin to read ledger lines fluidly down to low E (the standard range of the more common Bb clarinet) but I would urge bass clarinetists to find examples that go down to low C to get used to reading those. Baritone Saxophonist Kenny Berger has written an etude book with this in mind:
Ten Contemporary Etudes for Bass Clarinet with Extended Range
Instruments & Brands to consider / Plastic vs Wood (& Metal?)
Plastic vs Wood (Metal?)
Bass clarinets are made out of two main materials: wood and everything else. Everything else includes different types of plastic, hard rubber, metal (rare, but they exist), or even new formulations that are ground up wood dust in a sort of epoxy (this is essentially a nicer sounding plastic). Wood is always more expensive and generally considered to be a superior option in terms of sound. However wooden instruments have many practical drawbacks I’ll discuss in the next section. For a doubler, or baritone saxophonist that wants to cut down on cost and worry less about an instrument’s care, a non-wood instrument may be ideal. While there is definitely a difference in sound between wooden instruments and the others, you will need to be fairly advanced and have a good sound before the instrument will really make a sound difference for you. So starting with a non-wooden instrument is a great option. I would probably steer clear of metal ones, though. They are fascinating historical instruments, but most of them are not great (though Scott Robinson uses one regularly and sounds phenomenal).
One thing to keep in mind in the clarinet world is that unlike some saxophones, clarinetists generally prefer brand new instruments. Older instruments are almost always less expensive. Some jazz players do like older instruments as they may be more flexible and good for improvisation. But unlike saxophones, clarinets can sort of wear out after some years, or get what is known as ‘blown out’ – they tend to play sharp and have response issues. This is often attributed to changes in the bore, either from repeated wet/dry cycles on the wood or constant swabbing needed to dry the wood.
Some Common Brands
- Bundy – Cheap. but. good. Bundy’s are one piece (the body doesn’t disassemble into to parts, making them a slight pain to transport), they are made out of plastic or hard rubber and they sound very bright, but they sure do make a loud sound easily. If a Bundy is in good working order it can be very easy to play, VERY cheap, and very loud. The sound won’t win you friends or influence people, but this can be a great entry option as your first instrument.
- Buffet – Considered top of the line for most professional clarinets. Very expensive, but incredible sounding instruments. Not much to say about these. If money were no object and you wanted the absolute best and richest sounding bass clarinet you’d fork over $14,000 and get one of their top of the line.
- Selmer Paris – The only real competitor currently and historically to Buffet. Perhaps slightly less desired these days among professional bass clarinetists, but potentially more sought after by jazz players for their slightly freer blowing response and brighter tone. Vintage Selmer basses, notably the Series 9, are excellent for improvisation. The new top of the line Selmers will also run you well over $10,000 but will be phenomenal instruments.
- Leblanc – Before being gobbled up by what is now the Conn-Selmer corporation (no relation really to Selmer France or the original Conn company other than name) Leblanc made very nice professional instruments. If you can find an old Leblanc in good working order it’s probably an affordable option for a good instrument. Conn-Selmer owns the brand name and has recently been resurrecting that name and putting it on new beginner and intermediate level instruments. Just like Selmer France there was a Leblanc USA corporation that was only loosely affiliated with the French company but also produced instruments.
- Yamaha – While they’ve made clarinets for quite some time, Yamaha has really upped their game in the last decade or so. They also offer different price points and models of bass clarinet, from Student to Professional. Very sturdy, respected, and reliable instruments. Worth trying, and probably worth their asking price, but also perhaps a bit bland for some.
- Uebel – A fairly new game in town at least popularity wise since they have been making instruments for some time. Uebel has been making waves recently as a wanna-be competitor to Buffet. They offer a bass clarinet that plays well, though probably not as well as a high end Selmer or Buffet, but with a lower price tag.
- Kessler – This is part of a recent trend in bass clarinets and instruments in general that is really a game-changing disruption. Kessler is actually a store in Las Vegas, but they have become well known for commissioning factories in Asia (Taiwan I believe) to manufacture very affordable instruments for them. They also do a bit of setup and repair after the instruments arrive. These are not amazing instruments, the key work is terrible, metal is really soft, intonation is sketchy and overall quality is not great. But they are also dirt cheap. And you can get a low C without needing to buy a professional level horn. They are absolutely worth their price, though you will probably outgrow it eventually.
- Royal Global – Another recent and exciting addition. These are also Asian-made Instruments, but they are generally a step up from Kessler and some other of the Taiwanese made instruments. The keywork is much more solid and the quality in general is much higher. They offer several models, with the top model being advertised as a competitor to Buffet and Selmer, though the price point is still lower. More exciting to me is their new MAX model. It is supposedly sort of a green-line. Green-line is actually a product Buffet developed where they take ground up Grenadilla (the very expensive and rare wood clarinets are traditionally made with) and mix that with an epoxy to form a material that should be closer to wood but with the benefits of plastic and its resistance to water, temperature, and humidity changes. The price of the MAX puts it well below Selmer and Buffet but above Kessler, and that seems to match its value. It plays great – not quite like a Selmer or Buffet, but it’s a much better sounding and made instrument than the Kessler.
Saxophones are very forgiving in terms of care. Clarinets are less so, especially if they are made of wood. Saxophones benefit from occasional swabbing, but all wooden clarinets should be swabbed out after each playing session to remove moisture that can stick around and damage the wood. Wooden instruments can also crack – often a very expensive problem to remedy. Older instruments that are ‘seasoned’ are less prone to cracking, though it’s still a danger. Making sure the instrument does not go through a sudden change in either temperature or humidity is a good way to protect wooden instruments. If they are out in the cold, allow them to come to room temperature and adjust to the humidity before blowing extremely warm, humid air through them that can cause thermal shock and eventually open a crack. When putting them in the case make sure there is no water or moisture inside them. And if you live in a very cold/dry climate, consider using a form of humidification inside the case to protect the instruments.
One overlooked but incredibly simple tip for keeping bass clarinets (and all instruments) in good working order without needing extra adjustments is to make sure they fit properly in the case! Each piece and joint should be snug in its place, meaning there is no ‘slop’ or room for the instrument to jiggle or slide back and forth.
Mouthpiece and reed considerations
Unlike saxophone, if you want to play jazz, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend getting a ‘jazz’ bass clarinet mouthpiece. You just want the mouthpiece that works the best for you and can shape the sound as you practice. Vandoren is by far and away the leader of the clarinet and bass clarinet market. (Yes, I work for Vandoren as a product specialist, but I don’t think this is particularly disputed or controversial information). Thus, my recommendations are in the Vandoren world. Here’s a few options in order of tip opening from small to large.
- BD5 – a very closed mouthpiece, produces a nice, even dark sound without too much effort. Allows for somewhat stiffer reeds. Maybe a good choice for someone starting completely from scratch on the bass clarinet.
- B45 – the same facing and tip opening as the classic B40 mouthpiece but with thin rails. This vastly increases the responsiveness and flexibility of the sound but may have a somewhat thinner sound overall. The B40 is very common in the orchestral world, but the B45 may be more suited for saxophonists and others looking to play jazz and beyond.
- B50 – very large tip opening, but not overly resistant. Paired with a soft reed it is quick and flexible. Oddly great for both classical and jazz.
Tenor saxophone and bass clarinet reeds are almost identical in physical size and shape. The strength/size measurements and the cut of the reed are different though, and they play noticeably different. They are interchangeable to some extent. There are tenor saxophonists who use bass clarinet reeds (Lennie Pickett, Javon Jackson) and there are some people who use tenor sax reeds on bass clarinet. It makes the instrument much easier to play and get around on. Especially a ‘jazz’ cut, such as Vandoren Red Java. It may reduce squeaks and feel more ‘saxophone-like’. I do recommend this for people starting out on bass clarinet as it can make the transition easier. However, the sound of a proper bass clarinet reed is deeper and richer, and for my ears much preferred in most cases. Something to work towards.
Strength-wise in comparison to Bb clarinet I usually recommend a proportionately softer reed in general for bass clarinet. If you are just starting on bass clarinet don’t be afraid to try size 2 or 2 1/2’s. Even if you are used to using 3’s or harder on your baritone.
Practicing Bb clarinet is like eating vegetables. You might not like it, but it’s good for you. And honestly if you do enough of it you might come to love it. I generally would not recommend practicing alto saxophone as a way of improving your baritone playing, but I do think practicing Bb clarinet will help your bass clarinet playing. It’s generally considered more difficult and less saxophone-like – so really getting a handle on Bb clarinet and translating what you learn to the bass will go a long way to sounding like a clarinetist instead of a saxophonist holding a clarinet. Especially in terms of sound, the break, and navigating additional pinky keys.
Cases and Stands
As far as I know there is not a case that can hold both a bass clarinet and baritone (and if there was, I’m not sure most people would want to carry it). But fortunately, there are many more options case-wise for bass clarinet than for baritone saxophone. There are some interesting considerations for someone doubling on bass clarinet.
- Weight is a major consideration – if you’re carrying multiple cases, they must be somewhat light.
- Storage – with multiple instruments you’ll benefit from instrument stands that may require extra storage.
- Humidity control – if you have a wood instrument you want a case that will help minimize shocks from temperature.
- When you’re carrying or moving multiple cases, they are just more likely to be bumped. Hard cases are probably a good idea even with the added weight.
Stands and Quick Switches
If you’re going to play baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, you’re probably going to have to switch between them in the middle of a piece. And you’re probably going to occasionally have to do it quickly. Even the most considerate arranger may not leave enough time for a comfortable switch. A quick switch is even harder to make if you are laying one of your instruments on the ground. The instrument is also much more likely to get damaged on the ground. So, a stand that allows quick changes is a great help. And as always if you’re bringing multiple instruments and multiple stands the weight is going to add up quickly. I love and always use the Woodwind Design carbon fiber stands as they are compact and the lightest available. But they sure are expensive. Most other options for bass clarinet seem pretty heavy in comparison and are unlikely to fit inside most cases.
One technique that is not a great idea but something that I occasionally utilize, is using the same stand for bass clarinet and baritone. This only works with a low Bb baritone, I think. But the right bass clarinet stand can hold a baritone if you’re careful. Also, I recommend putting padding in the upper cup of the bass clarinet stand so that the baritone can lean against it gently without fear of bending anything. Use this information at your own risk.
Sometimes… just let it hang.
I use a harness when playing baritone and it works so well that I will often leave the baritone hanging when playing bass clarinet if it is a short passage, or a song that switches between the two frequently – cradling the bass clarinet in between my legs when playing baritone, and just letting the baritone hang when playing bass clarinet. But I would only recommend this approach if you have a good harness, a healthy back and good clearance around you to not bump into instruments.
Go forth and good luck with the bass clarinet. Crowds really seem to appreciate it, and you might come to love it.