Mysteries of contrabass clarinet (and contra-alto) mouthpieces and reeds

Contrabass clarinets come in two sizes. The larger is the Bb contrabass clarinet, also known as the BBb contra. The smaller is the Eb contrabass clarinet, also known as EEb contra, contra-alto, or (incorrectly) “contralto.” The Bb contra sounds an octave below a Bb bass clarinet, while the Eb contra sounds in the middle between a Bb bass and a BBb contra.

Contrabass clarinet mouthpieces also come in two sizes. The larger ones have an outer tenon diameter of approximately 36mm. The smaller ones measure approximately 32mm. (I hear that some oddball Eb contras are designed to take bass clarinet mouthpieces, which measure approximately 30mm, but I’m going to ignore those.)

Contrabass clarinet reeds come in two sizes as well. The larger ones are about 20mm wide at the tip, while the smaller ones are about 19mm wide at the tip. (Also, I have heard that some contra clarinet mouthpieces call for baritone saxophone reeds, which are about 18mm at the tip, so that’s something to watch out for.)

Now you might think that a larger contra would take a larger mouthpiece and a larger reed, while a smaller contra would take a smaller mouthpiece and a smaller reed. I think we can agree that that’s how it works if we’re talking about bass clarinets and alto clarinets. But with contrabass clarinets it just not this simple.

Here’s a counter example. Some Eb contra clarinets (primarily the metal Leblanc ones) take the larger-diameter mouthpiece, and some of these larger-diameter mouthpieces call for the wider reeds.

Let’s suppose you have a contrabass clarinet you want to play, and you’re trying to figure out which size mouthpiece and reed to use. Which mouthpiece should be self-evident. The mouthpiece receiver will be sized to accept either a 32mm or a 36mm mouthpiece. If you have the wrong size mouthpiece then it will not physically fit. Otherwise you’re probably good to go. (That said, I have found that the larger mouthpieces can vary by 1mm or so in diameter between brands. So sometimes it’s a tighter or looser fit than you would like. Usually this can be addressed by messing with the tenon cork.)

But which size reed to use is trickier. The larger and smaller contra reeds only differ by about 1mm in width, which isn’t much. It’s possible to play a wider reed on a mouthpiece that was designed for a narrower reed, and it’s also possible to play a narrower reed on a mouthpiece that was designed for a wider reed. I’ve done it both ways, and I can manage to produce notes. Sound quality suffers, though, so it’s worth the effort to make sure you’re using a reed with the correct width. Some people are playing the wrong reeds and don’t even know it.


In the picture above, the orange-box Rico reeds are the narrower 19mm ones. The Marca reeds and the ancient purple-box Vandoren reeds are both the wider 20mm ones. (I believe the newer blue-box Vandoren contra reeds are still 20mm, but I’m not positive.) It’s hard to tell how wide they will be without opening the box.

The Rico box is labelled “contra alto clarinet,” which is a hint that they might be the narrower ones. The Vandoren box is labelled “clarinette contre-basse,” which is a hint they might be the wider ones. The Marca box is labelled “CA/CB,” neutral.

If you’re squeaking a lot, or chirping when attacking notes, then maybe your reed is too wide or too narrow for your mouthpiece. (Or possibly your instrument has leaks that need to be repaired.) If your tone is too breathy then maybe your reed is too narrow for your mouthpiece. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Eb contra or a Bb contra; all that matters is what your mouthpiece was designed to work with.

Leblanc contra mouthpieces (which can be used on most Bb contras and on Leblanc metal Eb contras) once took the wider reeds. Sometime around 1980 they changed, and Leblanc contra mouthpieces made since then take the narrower reeds. Some players with newer mouthpieces wish they had the older ones, claiming that they should perform better on the lower notes, but the only way to fix that is to obtain one of those older mouthpieces. Trying a wider reed on one of the newer mouthpieces will sound worse than using the narrower reed it was designed for.

Virtually all of the smaller (32mm tenon diameter) contra mouthpieces call for the narrower reeds. Some mouthpieces are even designed to take baritone saxophone reeds, and for those even the narrower contra reeds could be too wide, so beware. If your mouthpiece calls for narrow contra reeds, some players report that Vandoren bass saxophone reeds play better than orange-box Rico contra-alto reeds. (I have yet to try them.)

I play a Bundy Eb contra with a 32mm Selmer C* mouthpiece and a Vito Bb contra with a 36mm Selmer C* mouthpiece. Both of these play best with the narrower contra reeds. However the 36mm mouthpiece does also work somewhat with the wider contra reeds. Just looking at how the reed lays on the 36mm mouthpiece, the wider ones look like they should play better, but in my experience they don’t.

I also have a no-name 32mm contra mouthpiece that can use a baritone saxophone reed in a pinch, though it plays best with the narrower contra reeds. But when I try baritone saxophone reeds on the 32mm Selmer C* it doesn’t work very well.


BTW, all measurements mentioned above are approximate. I couldn’t find any official specs to quote, so I simply borrowed calipers (which I may or may not have used precisely) and measured my own equipment.

relevant links:

cases for full-Boehm clarinets

a Bb full-Boehm clarinet in a (slightly modified) SKB320 clarinet case
full-Boehm clarinet in B♭ fits in modified case

About five years ago I purchased a pair of full-Boehm clarinets in B♭ and A. At the time I wrote, “the first thing I have to do is find a case for these guys,” but only now have I gotten around to doing something about it.

Actually, about a year ago I purchased a cheap WWBW-branded double clarinet case because I had read a forum post that it could be modified for full-Boehm instruments. But when it arrived the case itself was narrower than the lower joints of the A clarinet, so it obviously wasn’t going to work.

Later I read that an SKB model 320 single clarinet case could be modified with a hammer to hold a full-Boehm instrument. I ordered two of them. They arrived last week. Modification by hammer was relatively straightforward.

After modification, the Bb full-Boehm clarinet does fit in the case reasonably well. (See top image.) Unfortunately, the A full-Boehm clarinet is simply too long for the case. (See bottom image.) Fortunately, I only hammered one of the two cases. I can return the pristine one for a refund.

For the moment I’m storing the A clarinet in an old Conn case that is similar to the one linked here except it’s in much rougher shape. The lower joint doesn’t fit in any of the slots but it does fit in the large compartment at the bottom. I have encased the lower joint in bubble wrap so it won’t bounce around. The upper joint, barrel, and bell fit in the slots. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

an A full-Boehm clarinet not quite fitting into an SKB320 clarinet case
full-Boehm clarinet in A does not fit

The search for a better case (singe or double but preferably a double) continues.


  • Amati still makes full-Boehm clarinets in the Czech Republic. An Amati rep in Europe told me I could purchase two separate full-Boehm clarinet cases through their American distributor, though he couldn’t guarantee that my Selmers would fit. I might have been willing to take the risk but the American rep was unwilling to help me. That was in 2009. I could try again, or attempt to import one from Europe.
  • It looks like a Yamaha case like this one can be modified to work.
  • I could make my own case, starting from a briefcase or something. This option is growing on me.
  • I could go high-end. For instance Wiseman tells me that they can accommodate my full-Boehm instruments at no extra charge, but their regular prices are quite high.
  • Perhaps I could pay someone to modify a suitable existing case.

Whence Biscos?

Since childhood I have admired Biscos, Nabisco’s version of the sugar wafer. I have eaten them only rarely because (a) they are expensive at $4 or $5 for 8 oz. and (b) they never seem to go on sale.

It may have been more than a decade since I have last tried them. This is what they looked like then…

Biscos Sugar Wafers by Nabisco, old box

…not the box, which in this image looks older than I remember, but the wafers themselves. Notice that the oval-with-rabit-ears logo featured inside the red triangle also appears on the wafers. The logo didn’t make them taste any better, I presume, but nonetheless the cookie part of the wafers was thick, crisp, and delicious.

Here is the box I bought today:

Biscos Sugar Wafers by Nabisco, new box

When I purchased them I did notice that the gold foil around the edge of the box (which I always thought was classy) was missing, but not until later did I notice that the appearance of the wafers had changed also. The oval-with-rabit-ears logo is gone and they look pretty much like any other sugar wafer out there, such as the no-name brands you can find in the dollar store. And that’s what they taste like, too. They don’t taste bad, but I no longer find them compelling. Next time I’ll save some money and buy a no-name brand. (But I won’t buy one of those brands that dyes the wafers bright orange—what’s the deal with that?)

It may actually be impossible to buy the Biscos brand next time, because there are some reports that they are being removed from store shelves. I don’t put much stock in them—after all I was able to buy some today—but if so perhaps it has something to do with Kraft’s acquisition of Nabisco in 2000. I can’t find any mention of Biscos at or but they are still for sale at and other online retailers.

[edit: I did finally find a Bisco’s (sic) reference at Choose “cookies/crackers/cones/bars” from the upper pulldown. I’m not sure why they felt the need to interpose an apostrophe.]

By the way, the cookies aren’t quite as pictured on the box. For one, they are fairly small at 6cm by 2cm (2.5in by 0.75in) which means either they found a tiny red napkin and coffee cup for the photo shoot, or photoshop was involved. (The box does say “enlarged to show texture” in small blue lettering just above the plate’s rim.) But more than that, if you count how many diagonal stripes span a wafer, corner to corner, it’s 13 on the box image but 18 on the actual wafers in the box. The waffling is simply less substantial than pictured, in both diameter and in ridge height, which seems odd to me.

(Odder still, the waffling on the bottom of the wafer is different from the waffling on the top. The bottom waffling has a larger diameter and thicker ridges, so it’s actually more like the box image, except it can’t be. The squares on the bottom of the wafer aren’t aligned diagonally, but are parallel to the sides of the wafer.)

Ford hybrid micro-van

Ford C-MAX side viewFord has announced a hybrid micro-van to be available in North America in 2012. The C-MAX will have three rows of seats and sliding side doors. A non-hybrid C-MAX has been available in Europe since 2003 and is somewhat similar to the Mazda5.

There will be two hybrid models, plus ones with conventional drivetrains. The C-MAX Hybrid sounds like a traditional hybrid, while the C-MAX Energi will be a Volt-like plug-in hybrid which aims to deplete its large battery before burning much gas. I’m looking forward to seeing more details.

update: Automobile Magazine’s first look has some images. So does

thoughts on the new Big Ten logo

the BigTen stacked logo, announced 13 December 2010The Big Ten Conference announced its new logo on Monday. Fan response has been almost universally negative. Commissioner Delany says, “Any time you have something new … it takes some time to get used to.” That’s true enough, but so far the best that can be said about the logo’s reception is that people seem to dislike it less strongly than they do the new division names (“Leaders” and “Legends”) for football.

I don’t know how long the retiring logo, with its iconic “11” in the negative space, took to get used to after its introduction in 1990, but it qualifies as beloved now. It was designed by Al Grivetti, who also provided designs incorporating 12, 13 and 14 in case the league decided expand beyond Penn State. I’m curious about these designs and would love to see them.

The new logo was created by Michael Bierut and Michael Gericke of design firm Pentagram. Delany says that “pretty much everybody in the design world” advised against a 12 in the negative space of the new logo, and evidently Bierut and Gericke concurred. “Its contemporary collegiate lettering includes an embedded numeral ‘10’ in the word ‘Big,’ which allows fans to see ‘Big’ and ‘10’ in a single word.” They say the new logo is memorable and distinctive. Critics say it looks like a 2-year-old put it togetherwould be forgettable if it weren’t so ugly, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen, and rivals Gap as worst logo change ever‎.

I seriously can’t find anybody on the net who claims to like it, though some are ambivalent. I guess I would have to put myself in the ambivalent camp. I was hoping for better. It’s not attractive or clever or even memorable, but it is serviceable.

specific thoughts:

  • The letters I and G are supposed to look like the digits 1 and 0. The I definitely looks like a 1, albeit in a somewhat jarringly, but I don’t think the G looks much like a 0. Some think the G looks more like a 6. “Not at all,” says Delany, “we were thinking 10, not 16.”

  • This shade of baby-blue is a color which none the twelve member schools claim. Perhaps that was a goal. I find it unpleasant, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.

  • I do think the logo will work quite well as a “bug” on TV. Check out these (poorly) simulated screenshots for the league’s top two revenue sports and see what you think. Perhaps this was also a goal, but I doubt it because broadcasts will be branded by the Big Ten Network (or ESPN, etc.) and not by the conference itself.

simulated BigTen tv bug, football

simulated BigTen tv bug, basketbal

hybrid Toyota minivan more than rumor?

Prius MPV behind standard PriusAutomobile magazine reports that Toyota will be unveiling a Prius minivan early next year. Others expect an announcement as soon as the Los Angeles auto show, which begins this weekend.

If the blue silhouette image from last month is any indication it won’t be much bigger than a standard Prius, though Car News Break claims it should seat seven.

(Earlier in the month Toyota officially mentioned the newest member of the Toyota Prius family without identifying it as a van.)

Nebraska officially to join the Big Ten

Big Ten conference logo showing '12' in the negative space. I have terrible photoshop skills, but image may be used with attribution.

The Big Ten Conference just admitted the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, starting with the 2011-12 academic year. The Big Ten is not necessarily planning to stop at 12 teams, but that’s where it is for now. Here are my thoughts:

  • The Big Ten already has too many red teams, and Nebraska exacerbates this. I’m not even counting Minnesota here, with its yellow (ostensibly maroon and gold), but only the red-and-hueless teams:
    • Indiana – cream and crimson
    • Nebraska – scarlet and cream
    • Ohio State – scarlet and grey
    • Wisconsin – cardinal and white

    That’s fully a third of the conference. (Perhaps this is reason enough to disqualify Rutgers from any expansion talk?)

  • Nebraska is a reasonably good academic and geographic fit. It has been an AAU member since 1909 and is 300 miles from the Iowa campus, 425 from the Minnesota campus.
  • Many have pointed out that Omaha and Lincoln are not big TV markets, but Nebraska has rabid alums sprinkled over the country. Believe that many of these will pressure their local cable systems to cary BTN, or will switch to DirecTV or FiOS for it.
  • It is widely presumed that the conference will create two six-team divisions, but I have yet to see a preposed alignment that makes sense to me. It will be difficult to do this and keep everyone happy.