Category Archives: Articles

Clarinet Mouthpieces

“Thanks for providing such a good forum on the Web with your sax and clarinet forums. I check in on them from time to time.

I was wondering if I could be so forward as to ask you for your opinion. I am an intermediate level tenor saxophone player and clarinet player. I have a good equipment set up on my primary instrument (the saxophone, an old Mark VI that I have owned since 1978), but alas, I am still playing on an old student model Bundy. I am one of these players who played in high school and college, but then quit for some years. However, now for the past six months or so, I have been getting back into playing. When I played clarinet in college it was really just for doubling on parts in the jazz band.

Some day soon, when I have some additional money, I would like to buy a
Buffet or Selmer clarinet. My question for you in the interim though, is that I now need to buy a new clarinet mouthpiece, and I noticed your
recommendation for the Vandoren B45, which my local music store here in
Phoenix carries. However, I was just curious. I know that you like your
Ronald Caravan mouthpiece very much, and I saw that you have an
address/phone link for his mouthpieces. Are these pieces generally
custom-made-type pieces that are higher-end and expensive? I was just
curious, and thought I would ask you. Also, do you feel that the Caravan pieces are far superior to the Vandoren product?

I’d understand if you don’t know much about the Caravan current prices, but I just wanted to see if you REALLY liked it a lot better than the B45? My understanding is that the B45 is a very good student-type mouthpiece.
Mouthpieces are such a personal thing. I believe I bought the clarinet mouthpiece from Caravan on a whim. It was because I was going to get one of his saxophone mouthpieces, and saw that he had a clarinet mouthpiece, and I had money and……what the hell. It’s actually the only caravan mouthpiece I use, the other two are in a box somewhere in my studio.

The B45 is a good general purpose mouthpiece. I think I was looking for something a little darker and fuller. I just happened that the Caravan fit the bill and I’ve really never wanted to try anything else. Though, I did play a Selmer clarinet with the Caravan and it sounded Bad.

I’d recommend trying a bunch of mouthpieces, and have someone else listen or record yourself playing them. Some others that I hear are good are Clark Fobes and Borbeck mouthpieces.

How I Learned To Play Clarinet

I tell this story to all my students when they start taking lessons. It is a story about me and how I got introduced to the clarinet. It is all true, and it might be slightly embellished but…..hey, it’s a good story.I started my musical career in the 4th grade when the band teacher, Mr. Alfono (spelling?), came to my class and gave use the 20 minute “lets go band” talk. I wanted to try it. What instrument though….? As I remember it, I wanted to do either saxophone or clarinet. He said something like “well, if you start on Clarinet then don’t like it, you can switch to saxophone”. Cool. I got a clarinet then. Don’t remember anything about band after that. It was something to get out of class for. When I went to junior high school (7-8 grade), I switched to bass clarinet. Not sure why. Perhaps I didn’t like all the competition? I played bass clarinet until my freshmen year of highschool, then the junior high wanted the bass clarinet back. I switched to Tenor saxophone then, and my clarinet days seemed to be behind me….

That was, until I reached college. Funny thing is that playing in big bands, all of a sudden parts start saying “Tenor Saxophone/Clarinet” or “Alto Saxophone/Clarinet/Flute”. Well, when started dabbling in clarinet at DVC, but was bad at it. When I started at CSUH , I somehow got placed as lead alto in the second big band. Thats cool, but we had to do this arrangement of “American” (something, can’t remember the name) by Toshiko Akiyoshi. It was a trombone feature, and the lead alto part had a nasty clarinet line. Spent a lot of time working on that. We played it for the winter concert, and I thought that the clarinet would end up in the back of my school locker again…..never to be taken out.

Enter Tim Smith. He was the wind ensemble director at that time. I had done an audition for him in the fall, but I got the impression that he didn’t need or want me in the band. Well, he did now for some reason. He wanted me to play in his band. I said, well, ok, next quarter. During finals he stalked me and finally dragged me into his office.

“So, you are playing in my next quarter”. Not a question, a statement of fact. I was doomed.

“Um, yeah. But it seems you have a lot of saxophones already in the band.” Please please find me a way out of this!

“Yeah, what else do you play?”

“Well, I play a little flute.”

“Good good, what else?”

“And a little clarinet..”

“Ah! Clarinet! Excellent, you can play clarinet in my band.”

Great. Not. He proceeded to give me music, and later I think it was all planned. Tim Smith plans things out WAY in advance, and that especially goes for his assigning of parts in band. So, now I was trapped. I was able to convince him that I needed a better clarinet, the Noblet (No play) wasn’t doing it for me. I was able to get a Buffet clarinet out of the instrument checkout guy, and proceeded to go on winter break, not even considering practicing my music.

First day of classes. Wind Ensemble. At that time, there was only ONE Wind Ensemble (or symphonic band, or whatever you want to call it). I was clarinettist number 6. Tim Smith has a policy of rotating the parts, so, everyone plays different parts (IE: 1st, 2nd, 3rd) on different songs. He also likes to sightread for the first 10-15 minutes in the period. That first day of band was sheer terror. I knew how to play the notes on the page……on saxophone. My brain proceeded to freeze at all the little black dots on the page. I was doomed. My ego! My fragile ego! With like less than 5 minutes to in the class, this other clarinetist, real cocky and real good, turns to me and says “Sounds good man! But play louder, I can’t hear ya!” Da! I wasn’t playing.

I endured the class for about 2 weeks like this. I was in panic mode, trying to figure out fingerings, playing in tune. I was hopelessly in over my head.

I decided after like the 2nd week to talk to Tim.

“I don’t think this is working out” I said. I wanted out of clarinet. Badly.

“Why don’t you talk to Bill, he might give you some pointers on clarinet.” Bill Wolhmacher, clarinet teacher and department head. Ok, what the hell, I’d go talk with Bill.

That was actually the turning point there. Bill was very helpful in showing me clarinet, and I later learned he played saxophone in the US Marine band (the President’s Band) because there were no open clarinet seats, just a saxophone one. So, my talking with Bill began concurrent saxophone/clarinet lessons for the next few years. It was actually a good thing since the saxophone teacher there at the time, Bill Trimble, was rarely attended his scheduled lessons and generally didn’t give a shit about CSUH, but thats another story. I went to saxophone lessons. I LEARNED at my clarinet lessons.

Now, as I look back nearly 10 years later, I’m glad I stuck with clarinet. I really enjoy playing it!

New Biography of Buddy DeFranco

Malcolm Harris, Parkside Publications writes “Dear Jazz Clarinet Fans:

Parkside Publications of Seattle is pleased to announce that a new Biography of jazz clarinetist Buddy DeFranco is now in final editing and will be published in early 2002. The book (the title is yet to be chosen) is written by French clarinetist and author Fabrice Zammarchi and his wife Sylvie, who have been interviewing Buddy at length for more than six years. The book will be approximately 280 pages, with more than 200 photos from Buddy’s extensive career.”
“A special announcement will be mailed to Buddy’s fans when the book is released, offering the book by mail at a discounted price. If you would like to receive a copy of the announcement (with no obligation), please send your name and address to: or mail to:

Parkside Publications
Suite 3210
999 Third Ave.
Seattle, WA 98104

Best Wishes,

Malcolm Harris

Parkside Publications”


“Most people will not have knowingly seen blackwood but almost everyone will have heard it, for it is the premier wood of choice for fine concert-quality woodwind instruments such as clarinets, oboes and flutes, as well as being used in the manufacture of bagpipes. Blackwood is also the finest material available today for producing ornamental turning. In its African homeland, it is used to make intricate and highly detailed carvings, and plays a vital role in the ecology of the East African savannah.”

The Blackwood Conservation website has lots of information about where your favorite came from.

Fobes on Clarinet Pads

I found this email off the Sneezy Clarinet List. It’s from clarinet master Clark Fobes and details his experiences with various pads on the clarinet.Subject: [kl] Pads, cork, skin, whatever

Date: Sat, 14 Apr 2001 09:46:01 -0700



Pad installation is the ultimate challenge to the craftsman’s skill and sensitivity. I have seen work from repair people that are excellent mechanics, but never developed the skill of installing a pad.

One of the fortunate aspects of my career as a repairman was that I learned to repair all woodwinds (and brass and strings and percussion!). Before I
turned to the clarinet as a specialty I spent many years repairing other
woodwinds, especially top end flutes. Flute pad installation may be the most
difficult skill to learn with piccolo repair at the apex. Because of so many
hours leveling flute pads I developed a heightened sensitivity to the fine
art of making a pad to seal properly.

Over the 23 years that I worked as a repairman I encountered just about
every pad available and even experimented with some pad making of my own.
Here are a few thoughts.

Cork pads.

Cork pads are an excellent choice for the upper joint of clarinets. They
must be made from high quality, optical cut cork. Pre cut cork pads are
available from several of the repair supply houses. Select the best side and
gently sand it against a flat suface. I do this by placing a small square of
600 sandpaper on my jewelers anvil and then place the cork pad on the paper.
With index finger of my right hand I hold the pad down as I gently rotate
the sandpaper.

For proper installation on Buffet clarinets I buy 9.5mm pads and hand
cut a “ledge”and bevel away the excess so that the cicumference of the pad
lines up with the edge of the pad cup. This similar in shape to a standard
French style or “beveled” skin pad. This prevents the pad edges from
shrinking or retreating into the cup over time. I also use a glue similar to
hot gun glue. This remains some what resilient over time and has better
adhesion than shellac. Finally, I almost never see cork pads properly shaped
once they are installed. After leveling, the key must be removed and the pad
edges should be rounded with 400 sandpaper. This reduces turbulence around
the edge of the pad and consequently noise. I never use cork pads on any
keys that are sprung open.

Skin Pads

Skin or “bladder” pads are made from the stomach lining or intestines of
cows or sheep. This material has been used for about 150 years and is still
the best agent for covering wool or wool-like substances in the use of small
woodwind pads. The best bladder pads I have ever seen are those made by Bill
Brannen of Chicago. His pads are very “round” and emulate the feel and sound
of a finger closing a tone hole. I think part of Brannens success with those
pads is the particular felt he uses. I have no idea where it comes from and
it is probably one of those close guarded secrets that he may never reveal.
In fact, it is highly possible that his felt is no longer available. This
happens a lot in the music manufacturing business.

As I said earlier, the bulk of my overhauls in the past years were done
with a mix of cork pads and Straubinger pads. Thge Straubeinger pads are
rather firm so I developed a special technique to allow a bit of “give” when
the “E?B” pad an “F/C” pad of the lower joint work together. Remove any cork
from the “crow’s foot” and put a small dot of felt on the key surfaces where
the “crow’s foot” meets the key. This adds a bit of give and reduces the
feel of the pads hitting the tone hole.

If I have a customer that wants skin pads in the upper joint I use a
very firm, flat pad. However, I prefer a softer pad in the lower joint. This
produces a better legato.

Leather pads

Leather pads are most often used in the larger clarinets because they
will retain their shape better than a large skin pad. I don’t use “tan” pads
any longer. I prefer the white kid leather used for bassoons. J.L Smitth
1-800-659-6073 carries an excellent called “Lucien”. My only complaint is
that the pad is a bit too thick and the leather on the back must be trimmed
for some areas of the bass clarinet or basset horn.

Leather pads are much more porous than skin pads and fro the best seal
the area inside the seat ring should be sealed. Melted bees wax or parafin
works well.

Tim Clark of Columbus has developed a hand made pad that uses fine
leather covered with skin. These pads hold up well and feel great.

Valentino Pads and synthetic pads

Curiously, I worked for Pete Valentino at the old “MV: Music store in
Fresno when I was a very young man. Pete owned the store, but had been an
excellent repariman in his day. He began experimenting with synthetics in
the 60s. The best pad he ever made was a black pad that has not been
available for many years. I repadded the upper joint of my bass clarinet
with those pads in 1985 and I have not replaced them! The upper joint seals
like a bottle. I tried them for awhile on soprano clarinets, but I found
that over a year the larger pads compressed and “popped”. I agree woth
Gordon Palmer that the adhesive that Pete uses does cause the synthetic cork
to migrate.

I use the valentino synthestic cork extensively for key corks, but i buy
it without the adhesive backing and just use contact cement.

For a short period Pete also sold his “black” material as a key cork
material. When it was available I made pads that were cork covered with a
layer of the material. These pads worked very well in some problem areas of
bass clarinets and basset horns.


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