Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

The fiddler's clarinet

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 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 using.
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 Itzhak Perlman (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 Arcus. 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 ago.
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 bought in.
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).

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015