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.

Triangle Music

Christine Balfa playing the triangleWhile driving home from work today, I listened with interest to a review of a solo triangle album on NPR. Great, I thought.

You see, the triangle is an oft-maligned instrument. It is frequently the butt of jokes. For example, it’s not hard to find lark “how to play the triangle” videos on YouTube where the punchline is some variation of just hit it with the little stick, stupid.

I can sort of understand the intent of the humor. The “instructor” whacks the triangle willy-nilly with no thought to technique. It’s supposed to be funny in the same way how to boil water lessons are, but I know better. It’s a lot harder to play the triangle well than it is to boil water.

As an undergrad I took a one-credit percussion class and, believe it or not, the triangle was the instrument I had the most trouble with. You must hold it so it rings out pure when stuck, but also so you can dampen it when the time is right. And you mustn’t dampen it too quickly (unless you’re going for this effect) or it will make an ugly choking sound; you must dampen it gently. Also, the coordination between the striking hand and the dampening hand can be nontrivial for rhythmic passages. In short, the YouTube jokesters have underestimated the level of skill the triangle demands.

Some jazz tunes start with a nice triangle into. I intended to link to one here, but I wasn’t able to find one on YouTube or elsewhere. (If you know of one, please leave a comment.) However I did find a couple of legit YouTube clips demonstrating triangle technique.

But back to the NPR review. The album is Christine Balfa Plays the Triangle. It’s 55 minutes of unaccompanied Cajun triangle, which sounds good in theory but in practice it is ostinato triangle. Evidently each five-minute track consists of the same measure repeated over and over with essentially zero variation. And as the review (the audio, not the text) points out, the tracks themselves don’t really vary from each other either. Also, the triangle itself seems to be of the larger/darker variety for this recording and is never allowed to ring out with the glorious unmuted triangle sound, except possibly at the end of a track.

Had this review aired thirteen days earlier it would have been taken as an April Fools’ Day joke, and a decent one at that. The disc’s label itself calls it “the perfect gag gift,” which I guess explains its low $6 list price. I call it a wasted opportunity.

Heterogeneous Clarinet Quartets

Most clarinet quartets consist of either four sopranos or three sopranos and a bass. Don’t get me wrong. They sound great, especially the ones with basses. But I have sometimes wondered why there aren’t quartets with four different sizes of clarinets, in the manner of most saxophone quartets.

Quartetto Italiano di Clarinetti

Well, I just found one. The Quartetto Italiano di Clarinetti consists of Maurizio Morganti on E♭ soprano clarinet, Carlo Franceschi on soprano clarinet, Giovanni Lanzini on alto clarinet, and Augusto Lanzini on bass clarinet.

There are three sample MP3s on the group’s web site, so you can listen to them for free. One of those tracks, Gershwin’s Lady Be Good, sounds to me like clarinets playing the exact same saxophone quartet arrangement I’m familiar with. Not that that’s a bad thing—it’s a fine arrangement.

I do have a trouble hearing four different timbres in the sample tracks, which is seldom the case when I listen to saxophone quartets. Perhaps that’s why heterogeneous clarinet quartets are rare. Each member of Quartetto Italiano di Clarinetti does also play some soprano clarinet, so some of them may be doing so in the sample tracks. What do you think? (Please leave a comment, especially if you can think of a better term than heterogeneous.)

Plateau Clarinets

I don’t play much B♭ soprano clarinet, but when I do I use a plateau (closed-hole) model. Plateau B♭clarinets are oddballs, but not exactly rare. Several turn up on eBay each year. That’s where I bought the Noblet plateau B♭ clarinet I play.

Plateau clarinets in A, however, are rare. Until recently I had never heard of one. That has changed, though, because I just picked up a matched set of B♭and A plateau full-Boehm Selmer Paris clarinets made in 1937. They are in pretty rough shape and I probably overpaid for them, but now I’m one step closer to world domination my goal having a nice set of “soprano bass clarinets” to play.

plateau clarinets

The horn on the left is my Noblet B♭plateau clarinet. In the middle is the Selmer Bb plateau clarinet. It’s as long as a standard A clarinet because of the extended range to low Eb (notice the fifth RH pinky key). On the right is the Selmer A plateau clarinet, which also goes down to low E♭ and is even longer.

Interestingly, the LH thumb hole is not plateau on the Selmers. (It is on the Noblet.) This is the reverse of a Mazzeo System clarinet, in which the thumb key is plateau but the other holes are open.

The first thing I have to do is find a case for these guys. (The case in which they came is falling apart and is beyond repair.) A standard Bb/A clarinet case won’t do because these horns are too long. If anyone out there has suggestions, please leave a comment.

After that I’m going to see about getting them overhauled. Just about every pad and spring needs to be replaced, and several keys need to be bent back into position. A large crack on one of the bells needs to be repaired (or probably I’ll just obtain a replacement bell) and what would seem to be an old repair of a substantial crack on the top joint of the B♭ should be scrutinized. After that, we’ll see if these things can even play in tune.

Gerry Mulligan

The other day I wrote that the baritone saxophone can be a lyrical instrument. No one has proffered more evidence for this than Gerry Mulligan. I mention this because I just fortuitously ran across some interesting program notes from a 1963 Mulligan concert in England.

I’m not sure who besides me would make a good audience for it, but it does a good job setting up the history of jazz baritone sax and explaining Mulligan’s innovations. (Though I’m not sure everyone would agree with his Lester Young hypothesis.) The anonymous author also touches on what made Mulligan’s improvised solos stand out in a post-Charlie Parker world. This is hard to put in words, but I award his attempt a tie for first prize. Continue reading

Disney World Sax Quartet

When I’m at the Magic Kingdom I usually try to catch the saxophone quartet. It’s not necessarily easy, because their schedule isn’t published. If you ask Guest Relations they will usually tell you some times, but

  1. If you ask when the saxophone quartet plays, they probably won’t be able to tell you. You need the ensemble name, which seems to be Fantasyland Woodwind Society but has also been Toontown Tuners or Cinderella’s Royal Saxophonists. Even so, they probably won’t tell you about the joint performances with the barbershop quartet.
  2. The schedule must be subject to change, as sometimes they don’t show at a quoted time. (Various online schedules are often even less accurate.)
  3. They traipse around the park, so even if you have the correct time they can be hard to find.

bass saxophoneWhat’s unusual about this quartet is that instead of the usual soprano/alto/tenor/baritone they employ soprano/alto/tenor/bass. The bass saxophone can descend a half-octave lower than the baritone, which I suppose is handy for the bass lines of the short arrangements of Disney tunes they tend to play, but it may be that they were going for the eccentric visual appearance.

There’s also a bass saxophone on display in the balcony overlooking the lobby of the Grand Floridian hotel. (See photo, right.) You can almost get close enough to touch it. Note that the band that sets up around it probably won’t play it unless you make a request.

I’m a fan of the bass saxophone, but I’ve always thought it was a shame that the Disney World saxophone quartet didn’t have a baritone as well. The baritone saxophone can be quite a lyrical instrument, but in a typical quartet it’s usually tied to the bass line. A bass sax in the ensemble would free the baritone from the bass line. Plus the bari sax could occasionally take the bass line so the bass sax could be featured.

Well, as it turns out, when I saw them last week the quartet had been augmented to a quintet with baritone. Continue reading

Don Ellis – Invincible

In the mid-80s I made a couple mix tapes of my favorite songs. I still occasionally listen to them today. One of my selections was Invincible, by Don Ellis. The album containing it, “Soaring” from 1973, has never been released on CD. I own a copy on vinyl, but a guy named Lionel Ballet has made it available as part of his Don Ellis site.

The tune is basically a solo vehicle for Vince Denham on alto saxophone, who I otherwise don’t know anything about. The ensemble is a big band augmented with a string quartet, french horn, tuba, and extra rhythm.

[edit: Hmm, the embedded mp3 widget thing doesn’t seem to be working. Listen to the tune by clicking here, if your browser is set up for it. Or save the file and listen to it from outside your browser.]

Here are my thoughts as you listen along via the embedded mp3 widget thing.

Soloist plays the theme at ballad tempo, accompanied by string quartet.
Soloist restates theme, but the string accompaniment is more complex. The tempo is steadier, but still rubato.
String quartet plays the theme pizzicato at a brisk tempo while the soloist noodles subtone sixteenths. It’s almost flight-of-the-bumblebee-esque. It’s not until here that it becomes apparent that the tune is in 7.
Sax section soli. It lasts only 20 seconds, but it’s glorious. The bari is really honking along with the lead alto. This is my favorite part of the piece.
Brass section takes the theme, softly, with some nice organ fills. This is the only time the brass get to do anything besides section hits and whole notes. Sometimes the clam in the trumpet bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t.
This section builds tension by diatonically ascending the F minor scale, one step every two measures. It’s asking a lot of the soloist to keep our attention here while nothing else happens for an entire minute, and he doesn’t completely succeed. I wonder if it might have been better to run through the scale only once instead of twice.
Reaching the top of the scale, the accompaniment now plays the same two-bar figure over and over. To continue building tension through to the cadenza, the soloist delves into the altissimo and expels wild growling lines. I’m not a huge fan of these techniques, but they are effective here.
This is the climax of the piece and the beginning of the unaccompanied cadenza. I like how the soloist uses the entire range of the horn. He does a good job making the transition from wild ferment to calm restraint.
Reprise of the beginning, with only soloist and strings, but with more of an 8+7 feel.
The strings have been laying down a heavy F minor feel, so it’s a delightful surprise when the soloist ends the tune with an embellished F major 7th arpeggio. The final note in the bass is a nice touch.

It’s a nice tune, eh?