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Yamaha YCL650 clarinet

Yamaha YCL650Origin: Japan (uk.yamaha.com)
Guide price: £1000
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 2005
Date reviewed: March 2006

Yamaha's new version of the YCL64, bridging the gap between the high end amateur models and the low end pro range

It's not really noticeable from the picture, but the first thing that strikes you about this clarinet is the glorious colour of the wood. Ever since clarinet makers started using exotic hardwoods (as opposed to European Boxwood) to make clarinets there seems to have been an unwritten law that all clarinets must be black - save for those made from obviously different woods, such as Rosewood and Cocobola.
This has led to the regrettable practice of staining 'blackwoods', given that so few blackwoods are actually all that black naturally.
I've always felt this to be a shame - and a real pain in some cases, as the dye can sometimes come off when the body is oiled - because it disguises the natural beauty of the wood's grain.
Top marks and drinks on the house then to Yamaha for using an unstained Grenadilla for this range of clarinets.
No two examples will look the same, and when you open the case you get this immediate sense of the instrument being organic, alive, individual. I warmed to it straightaway.

But looks aren't everything, so I was keen to see if the clarinet was really as good as it looks.
Build quality is of the usual legendary Yamaha standard, everything is neat and tidy. There are no rough edges on the body, and the pillars and fittings are well made and fitted.
About the only distinguishable feature is the profile of the barrel, its slightly dumpy look makes the clarinet look...dare I say it...cute?

The clarinet shares some of the handfinishing techniques as applied to Yamaha's CS-V range of clarinets, and this includes some undercutting of the tone holes (a process of shaping the tone holes to give more stability and precision to the note) and a few other tweaks with regard to the bore.

The keywork is well made, and finished with silver plate. I was pleased to see locked pillars for the low E/F cluster - these are particularly prone to working loose down the years - but a bit disappointed that they didn't go up as far as the lower ring key, where they're often needed as well.
The point screws are proper points, which ensures that the action that uses these screws can be adjusted to take up any wear over time.
The whole thing is topped off with an adjustable thumb rest, which is always a handy addition.

Yamaha YCL650 spatula key pinsYamaha have chosen to use a pin and socket arrangement for the left hand spatula keys (E/F#). I'm not a fan of this arrangement as it requires the use of some padding material in the socket to keep the action from rattling, and it never seem as precise in feel as the standard stepped key design.
On the flip side, you don't get that key bounce that you can get with the stepped design if it's not set up properly
I'm at least pleased to report that the pins are metal, and not the frankly absurd nylon affairs seen on the Buffets and other makes. These keys might get rattly if you don't replace the padding regularly, but at least the pins are unlikely to break halfway through a gig.

The setup was average, the action being slightly on the hard side. This was easy enough to tweak, and brought the action a nicer, more coherent feel.
The padding was reasonably good. I often find that new clarinets have problems with the low E/F key pads, ranging from slight inaccuracies in the regulation between the two keys through to outright leaks due to bad pad seating. All that was needed here was a slight adjustment to the F key cup angle. It's always worth having a professional setup done on a new clarinet, it can make such a difference.

Yamaha YCL650 bellI mentioned earlier that this clarinet has some extra tweaks to the bore to aid tone production and tuning.
The only one that's really visible is inside the bell.
Looking down the bell you can see a distinct rounded groove cut into the upper end. Given that the bell really only comes into play on the lowest notes (and the lowest of the upper register) it's a fair bet to assume this modification is to help the tone and tuning of the low E/mid B notes.

In playing I found the low E to sound slightly strange in comparison with the other notes. I think I'd describe the tone as slightly boxy. Having said that it was quite hard to determine whether this was a good or a bad thing, as many clarinets get quite boomy on the lower notes.
I actually quite like that boominess, and I suppose over the years I've learned how to anticipate it and adjust my embouchure depending on whether I want to accentuate it or back it off.
Perhaps this groove takes the choice away, and leaves you with a more evenly matched set of low notes. As with all matters tonal it's entirely down to personal choice, but I'd recommend a careful assessment to see whether it matters to you or not.

Other than that I felt the clarinet was nicely balanced between dark and bright tonewise. Yamaha clarinets have always felt to me to be quite sprightly in terms of tone, with oodles of clarity - and the 650 seems to retain that punch but doesn't run into excessive brightness. I was quite pleased with the response over the throat A - it seemed very clear and open, so much so that it took me a while to get used to it. Yamaha describe the tone as warm, and I suppose in terms of their previous models it could be called that, but overall it doesn't quite have the 'gravitas' of more expensive clarinets...but then it doesn't have the price tag that accompanies that complexity of tone.
The tuning is as you'd expect, nicely balanced throughout. The clarinet works well with the standard mouthpiece supplied, but it really does deserve something a little more advanced.

The action feels nice under the fingers, the tweaks to the springing really helped to speed up what was already quite a fast and responsive action, and I can't see many players having any real problems with the ergonomics.

The case as supplied is tiny. Really tiny.
I think it has to be about as small as I've ever seen for a Bb clarinet - and there's precious little room for anything other than the instrument and a few reeds, plus a tub of cork grease. There's very little padding either, so I wouldn't say this is a case that's designed for a life on the road. That said, it's small enough to fit into the average overnight bag or backpack.

The very best thing about this clarinet is the price. It's a superb instrument for the money, ideally suited for the dedicated amateur or the casual pro - and many experienced players will find it has all they need without having to break too far into the four-figure bracket. Pricewise it competes directly with the equally good Buffet E13 and the Leblanc Esprit. I wouldn't like to have to choose between the three in terms of quality, but you'd be foolish if you tried the other two and missed out the YCL650.

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