Invented in the late 1600s by Johann Denner, the clarinet is one of the most recognizable and beloved of all woodwinds. However, it might surprise you to find out that there are actually numerous types of clarinet, most of which look nearly identical.
Unlike a lot of other instruments, clarinets are usually classified by the pitch or key they’re tuned to. Most clarinets are made of wood, but some of the larger ones are made of metal for stability.
A large number of clarinets have existed since their inception, but many are now extinct. In total, 11 different types are available today for musicians, with another two existing only as prototypes.
So without further ado, here are all 13 types of clarinet that exist today.
See Also: 13 Types of Harps
Types of Clarinets
1. A Clarinet
Slightly larger than the B♭, an A clarinet can be difficult to play. It boasts a soprano range and rich sound that makes it popular in orchestras.
It is sometimes used as a substitute for the B♭ in classical performances, and many professional clarinet players will actually carry both in a double case.
2. A♭ Piccolo Clarinet
One of the few surviving piccolo clarinets, the A♭ has a tonal range from low E to high G. It’s difficult to play due to the small size and was originally made popular through its use in Austrian military bands.
3. Alto Clarinet
As the name implies, this clarinet follows an alto vocal range. It’s pitched to E♭, but has a range from Concert G2 to E♭6. Unlike the soprano clarinets, the alto features a bent neck and a curved bell that make it look more like a saxophone.
While popular for concerts, many fans of the basset horn argue the alto should be phased out, despite the latter being more popular as a concert instrument.
4. B♭ (Harmony) Clarinet
This is the go-to clarinet. It’s easy for beginners to learn on, yet is used widely in all sorts of performance. As a type of soprano clarinet, it’s a staple of swing and Big Band, and is one of the most popular types found in orchestras.
Another distinction of the B♭ is that it was the original clarinet developed by Denner and is a modification of an older woodwind called the chalumeau.
5. Bass Clarinet
Originally called the bass-tube and invented in 1772, the instrument didn’t reach its official form until an adaptation was patented by Adolphe Sax in 1838. It has a curved neck and bell similar to the alto clarinet and is keyed to B♭.
Two versions exist, one extending toa written low E♭, and the other to a written C. The large size makes it harder to use than most, requiring more air and physical strength. However, it’s a popular choice in jazz, orchestras, and wind bands due to its extended range.
Read Also: 24 Types of Drums
6. Basset Clarinet
Inspired by the basset horn, the basset clarinet is a variation of the alto with an extended lower range down to low C. While specifically incorporated into some of Mozart’s work, this instrument isn’t very popular and a rather uncommon sight today.
7. Basset Horn
This type of clarinet was a personal favorite of both Mozart and Mendelssohn and its current incarnation has the same shape as an alto.
The origin for its name is unknown but may relate to visual similarities to the hornpipe, as the original version was C-shaped. Keyed to F, it has special keys for A♭, E♭, and high B♭.
8. C Clarinet
While still produced, it’s pretty rare to hear a C clarinet. They’re constructed using the Boehm system and mainly used for teaching in concert pitch and in orchestras.
Few musical competitions are written with this clarinet in mind, hence it’s lack of usage. However, its original form had a different number of keys and was used more extensively by the likes of Vivaldi.
See Also: 13 Different Trombone Types
9. Contra-Alto Clarinet
The second largest commercial clarinet, this instrument is pitched EE♭ at one octave lower than the alto clarinet. It looks like a skinny, elongated saxophone and is actually often used to substitute for baritone saxophone.
Its early incarnations were originally pitched to F. Due to its size, most musicians must sit on a stool to play it.
10. Contrabass Clarinet
King of commercial clarinets in terms of size and pitch depth, the contrabass (also a large type of saxophone) is keyed to BB♭ and is even larger than its twin, the contra-alto.
While originally invented in 1808, the contrabass went through several modifications before reaching its present form. Modern contrabass clarinets are pitched one octave lower than the bass clarinet and two octaves lower than the alto.
Another aspect of the modern contrabass is the variation of shapes, as different manufacturers have struggled to find ways to compact these massive instruments.
One variation is coiled and nicknamed the paperclip contrabass due to its shape. The other popular variant was designed by Benedikt Eppelsheim in 2006 that resembles a baritone saxophone in shape.
See Also: 11 Different Tuba Types
11. E♭ (Sopranino) Clarinet
This 19-inch clarinet could be considered part of the piccolo subgroup, but is easier to play than its A♭ and D♭-keyed siblings. As a piccolo, it produces a higher pitch than the B♭ but shares its layout and fingering.
12. Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet
Also known as the octocontralto, this clarinet is actually larger than the contrabass but is not commercially available. In fact, only one was ever made by the G. Leblanc Corporation. It has a pitch one octave lower than the contra-alto.
Interestingly, three compositions have been written for this instrument (De Profundis, Op. 139; Mirrors in Ebony for clarinet choir, Op. 144; and Trisonata, Op. 28 – all by Terje Lerstad), but were never recorded, leaving the sounds of the octocontralto and its sibling, the subcontrabass up to the imaginations for all but a lucky few.
13. Octo-Contrabass (Subcontrabass) Clarinet
It doesn’t get bigger or heavier than this in the world of clarinets. The octo-contrabass is keyed one octave lower than the contrabass and stands at an imposing 8’2”.
Only one is known to exist, designed and built by the G. Leblanc Corporation and is on display with the octo-contra-alto in La Couture-Boussey, France.