How d'you tell if an instrument is good?
I expect many of you are thinking "You play it, of course"
- and indeed that's true - but would you be brave enough to assign
a quality and a price to an instrument that bore markings you were
unfamiliar with or even none at all?
Brand names and model numbers are very persuasive when it comes
to making a choice, as are prices, and every buyer studies these
in an effort to decide which instrument will give the best performance
for the price. It's only when the field has been narrowed down that
the playing commences, I doubt that any of us who're looking for
a posh clarinet would consider playing the entire range (student
instruments included) from a particular manufacturer if we had our
heart set on a professional quality instrument.
We have expectations, and those expectations are massaged by a
variety of factors. The more you pay for an instrument, the better
you expect it to be. The bigger the brand, the better it should
be - the higher the model number, the better...and so on. But what
happens when you remove one or all of those markers? It's a tricky
one, and it's a conundrum I come up against quite regularly when
clients bring in 'no-name' instruments for appraisal and repair.
More often that not such instruments have been passed down from
parents or grandparents, and typically they're clarinets. I suspect
this is because the manufacturing process of a clarinet is slightly
easier than that of a saxophone or a flute, and the instrument lends
itself rather well to small-scale single craftsman production.
Such instruments can be very hard to place on a scale of quality,
and this is often made even more difficult by the fact that in years
gone by it was relatively common to find clarinets that had been
made by one of the major manufacturers and rebranded by the seller
(otherwise known as a 'stencil'). Stencils saxes are quite common,
but identification is much easier due to specific design features
that can be traced back to the original manufacturer - such as hefty
soldered-on toneholes for Martin horns, or easily identifiable keywork
and bracing as found on Vito saxes.
Stencil clarinets (and flutes, though considerably rarer) aren't
as showy as saxes, and positive identification can be down to something
as arcane as the design of the joint rings...and as these all tend
to be much the same it can often be all but impossible to say for
certain where such an instrument came from originally.
There are resources, naturally - a quick search on the internet
might throw up some information, and there are a number of books
and catalogues that can tell you whether a brand is handmade or
merely a stencil - but every now and then you're going to come across
a complete unknown.
When this happens you have nothing else to go on but experience,
and that can be quite daunting if you're looking at an instrument
that could well require several hundred pounds worth of work to
bring it back to playing condition. I wouldn't advise a client to
spend that much money on, say, an old wooden Corton clarinet (Czech
built, nasty wood, not a very nice instrument), but how do I know
that the no-name clarinet they've just handed me isn't simply an
old version of a student instrument?
"Build quality!" I hear you cry. Well, maybe. Build quality
can be a good benchmark, but only when it's particularly poor. There's
many a student instrument out there with good build quality, and
this was even more so in years gone by.
You might think the quality of the wood is a giveaway, but you'd
be quite hard put to find a rough bit of wood on a clarinet built
before the 1960s. Indeed, some of the early wooden Boosey student
clarinets were built with outstanding (by today's standards, at
least) pieces of wood.
That leaves the keywork, and this too can be problematical. It's
not uncommon for small makers to produce their own bodies and yet
buy in the fittings from a major manufacturer. The heart of a clarinet
(or any wind instrument) is the body - and many a maker considers
the fittings to be of only secondary artistic importance to the
overall product, and won't waste their time making something as
tedious as keys and pillars.
The answer to this thorny problem is that it's a collection of
impressions formed by how the instrument comes together as a whole
- and that's something you can really only rely on when you've spent
quite a few years taking instruments apart and putting them back
together again - and then playing them.
And so it was with this in mind as I entered the small but cosy
pub in a nearby town with a view to seeing a prospective client
play, and to give a professional opinion on a no-name clarinet he'd
brought along to the gig.
I was rather looking forward to the gig given that it was outside
my usual 'remit'. I tend to find myself attending jazz, soul, blues
and rock gigs mostly - with the odd classical gig (ahem, I mean
'recital') thrown in for good measure - but this was more akin to
a folk gig. I use the term cautiously because 'folk' is rather a
large umbrella and can mean anything from a two dodgy geezers playing
Bob Dylan covers, to a twenty-strong choir of female singers whose
close ethnic harmonies can make your sinuses implode. More often
than not it usually means 'Not jazz, soul, rock and pop or blues'.
In fact the band was a duo, two chaps (Francis MacNamara and Daffydd
Tavinor) who call themselves The
Hanging Tree Band and I doubt you'd be surprised if I said the
band had a sort of Irish/Celtic feel about it.
I'd spoken to Francis a few day earlier, and had rather foolishly
mentioned that I possessed a 'low
whistle' - which prompted a very quick and generous offer to
bring it along and sit in with the band. I'm bloody glad I didn't
take the offer up - the word 'floundering' springs to mind...as
does the phrase "a right pig's ear". It's not so much
that I'm rubbish on the low whistle (and I am, let's be honest),
rather it was that the band was so good. I'm all for sitting in,
but only where it adds to the overall spectacle - in my case I would
have sunk it as surely as the iceberg that did for the Titanic (and
I'd have probably sounded slightly worse).
I noticed Francis made a number of references to the bow he was
OK, when I say 'a number of references' I mean that he started off
the show by telling the punters what a wonderful bow it was.
After the first number he told us all what a really wonderful bow
it was....and by the middle of the first set he'd got all the way
up to "What a *$?*^!@% wonderful bow this is!" (and he
wasn't even drunk). I was beginning to think his bow might be something
really rather special.
I've heard a few fiddle players in my time, from the truly masterful
(OK, granted, he's not really a fiddler as such - but you know what
I mean) right through to any number of anonymous but nonetheless
very talented buskers in the town squares of Britain, and although
I'm not a strings expert I still have a decent pair of ears and
a sense of what's out of the ordinary.
Folk music can be quite taxing on the violin - it's very often fast
and furious, and when it's not it can be extremely sparse and revealing.
There's not a great deal of money floating about in the genre, so
you're not likely to see an instrument of the quality of a Stradivarius
- which means it relies very heavily on the quality of the player,
and that's where a decent bow really makes all the difference.
Without knowing the quality of the bow (or the violin) I had only
my ears to guide me, and the first thing I noted was its extraordinary
attack. When I review horns I always make a note about the response
- the speed at which a horn can play a rapid passage of notes without
them becoming blurred and indistinct. This is a killer feature for
me - the best-sounding horn in the world is pretty much useless
if it doesn't have enough definition to allow the listener, and
the player, to pick out the individual notes.
I noted its range of expression too. It's all good and well to have
plenty of definition, but if you have a limited range of expression
you essentially have a 'one trick pony'. Once you push to the limits
the whole sound goes to pot - a bit like the old Buffet saxes that
sound great played quiet, but really struggle when you push them
hard. There's also many a horn out there that sounds great played
loud but rather loses it when played quietly - and when Francis
played quietly I listened hard for that worrying tremble that plagues
many a cheap bow as it struggles to maintain the quality of a note
as it diminishes in volume. I didn't find it.
In fact it rather felt like the bow was taking it all in its stride,
combining a beguiling clarity and purity of tone with speed, precision
and soul in a very relaxed fashion - and all the while its strange
iridescent matt-black finish seemed to flash and glint in the light.
I would liked to have said that the fiddler whipped through the
jigs with a pint in his hand - but that would be pushing it. He
at least had one eye on his pint, which is about as relaxed a fiddler
can be when playing at 240bpm (beats per minute - otherwise known
as "How bloody fast??").
The guitarist, Daffydd, was no slouch either, and more than kept
pace with the fiddler whilst managing to keep an eye on both his
pint and the fiddler's, as well as pounding a rhythm at breakneck
speed on a tambourine at his feet.
I asked to look at the bow at the end of the gig and held the thing
a little nervously in my hands. The strange finish was due to the
material the bow was made of - carbon fibre, made by a company called
Who'd have thought it? You don't get much more traditional than
your average folk player - many of them still bemoan the dawn of
decimalisation - so it came as big surprise to find such a modern
material being used in this particular context.
Without knowing much at all about bows (OK, nothing at all really)
I was still able to feel how light and balanced it felt, and noted
the workmanship that had gone into it. I guessed the price of it
would be somewhere around the £1000 mark, and was quite chuffed
when I was told that it cost a little over £1200 a few years
Mind you, it wasn't the most expensive and esoteric bit of kit at
the gig - there was a very futuristic-looking electric Jordan electric
5 string violin which although wasn't played looked as though it
would have sounding amazing. I was told it cost 'several' thousand
pounds. I didn't touch it, just in case.
All of which leads me back to the reason I was at the gig in the
first place - to pick up a no-name clarinet and assess it with a
view to deciding if it was worth fixing up.
It didn't initially look all that special in its case - the keys
were unplated and somewhat tarnished nickel silver and the wood
looked dry and dull - but these are merely cosmetic issues. Rubbing
the wood with a thumb revealed a close-grained wood that was probably
Ebony but could just have easily been Cocobolo had it been a touch
redder in colour - so certainly not a cheap lump of wood then. The
toneholes were well cut and the joints felt very balanced in the
hand - clearly quite some care had gone into making the body.
The keywork was quite delicate and unusual, with well-defined and
neat arms, and the body fittings were tidy and well-proportioned.
On the strength of the build quality then it looked like it ought
to be quite a decent clarinet, so I put the thing together and gave
it a blow.
And what a sound.
It had a few leaks and rattles, but it still blew effortlessly
and produced the sort of tone that's sadly lacking in most modern
clarinets. Deep and woody at the lower end, resonant in the midrange
and sweet at the top - and all without that sort of hollow brightness
that seems to be the standard these days. Not that that's unattractive,
mind you, it's just nice to hear and play something different.
Without knowing its history or identity there was nothing else to
judge the instrument on than its build and playing qualities - and
while I might know a few things about woodwind instruments I was
still pretty much left with forming my impressions about it in the
same way as I'd done with the fiddler's bow. I did have one advantage
though, I'd played a clarinet of similar quality a little while
back - a Couesnon - and knew full well that in its day the Couesnon
would have been quite a pricey bit of kit.
And so it was that I put my cards on the table and suggested that
the body was probably hand-built by a craftsman, or at the very
least a very high quality stencil, and because of their unusual
design the keys were likely to have been handmade too rather than
The tone and feel probably dated it to around the 1940s and the
value would have been in the professional range - and as such was
well worth spending a few quid having it restored.
It came up beautifully, and turned out to be one of those rare
instruments that I find hard to put down after the post-repair play-testing
session. All of which goes to show just how much you can tell about
an instrument if you have nothing more to go on than its looks,
its feel and its sound. Thirty or so years of experience in the
trade helps too (there's always a catch).