There are many various types of clarinets, many in various keys. But the big difference many have is whether they are made of wood or plastic. Depending on who you ask many will swear up and down on one or the other. My teacher in college had the view that intermediate players and above should use wool only types while beginners and (middle and high school) band students should get the cheaper plastic types as they are more damage and weather resistant.
But in researching the topic, the same conclusion comes forth: choose which one suits you. Like a mouthpiece or reed the type of sound and ease a player gets from one instrument could differ from another. But before you go hunting, one must know the difference between the two.
Wood instruments are normally made from exotic woods such as African Blackwood (Grenadilla), Honduran Rosewood, boxwood and Cocobolo (with Lignum Vitae and Ebony being popular in the past). Many wood materials are sparse and not as environmental sound as making the plastic types so many wood instruments tend to cost more. Since they are made of wood, they are susceptible to water damage, and so many clarinetists do not use these for outside play, keeping them for orchestra concert and recording studio play.
Most Plastic instruments have been erroneously been described as ‘synthetic’ instruments. But not all plastic clarinets are created equal. Now they do contain synthetic plastic, but most popular types are made out of Hard Rubber - ABS (sometimes called "resonite” coined by the Selmer Company for their specific resin types). Resin clarinets, the cheaply made clarinets one might find in a pawn shop, are the truest to a synthetic clarinet as they fully use plastic and not alternatives like the Hard Rubber kinds. Plastic clarinets tend to weigh less than their wood counter parts. These types tend to do the best outdoors during festivals and outdoor events. Hard Rubber is usually today for intermediate or better horns as an alternative to wood. Plastic/resin is used almost solely for student instruments.
Now there are camps both for and against each type.
The ones for wood boast that a wood clarinet has better sound; sounding fuller bodied, mellower, and lusher than a plastic clarinet. The feel of a wood clarinet is easier on the hands as they are less slippery bigger in diameter, and slightly heavier making keeping grip on it easier. Many also say that wood clarinets allow for better intonation and control and do not tire the player out as much as plastic due to differences in resistance of the two. The plastic types tend to let air blow out easier requiring the player to work their embouchure (the position of the mouth on the mouthpiece) harder causing player fatigue over time.
The other camp places these issues on the player, as many things like sound and control can be directly controlled by the player purchasing a good mouthpiece, reed, and wood barrel. The sound difference to say an audience or those without an acoustically trained ear will hear little to no difference in player tone.
The best way for a beginner or even a professional to see if a clarinet of any type is best for them is to play it before purchase. This is easier in say a brick and mortar store, but for an online store it’s a bit harder. But many online clarinet stores allow returns on a clarinet (just not the mouthpiece).
So say you order a new instrument from playmusic123.com. Take it out, and (using a mouthpiece and reed combo you trust) play it. Feel how it holds while fingering. Blow through – can you blow lightly and still get a deep rich sound, or do you need to blow gusts of wind to get the same result? Play for a normal practice session. If you feel comfort and like the sound keep it. If not, package it nicely and send it back before the return period is up. Play testing your purchase will give you the piece of mind that you have made the best investment for your Clarinet playing future.
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