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Contrabass Clarinet

Welcome to the biggest, bad-ass member of the clarinet family used today. Seeing a contrabass clarinet is like sighting Sasquatch. If you are interested in the contrabass, then you are about to enter the wonderful world of deep-sea creature like sounds.

Table of Contents

This unusual contrabass clarinet, sometimes miss-spelled as “contra base clarinet” or “contra bass,” is practically double the length of the bass clarinet. This makes it simultaneously the biggest and deepest sounding instrument in the clarinet family. Contra literally means “pitched an octave below.” The deep and haunting sound that issues from the long python snake-like design of a contrabass creates a wonderfully low reverberation that sounds unlike all other acoustic instruments. 

There are actually two contrabass clarinets. The Bb contrabass clarinet (aka. the BBb contra) is the bigger brother of the two. The little brother is the Eb contrabass clarinet (aka. the contra-alto, EEb contra or sometimes spelled contralto). For the purpose of this article, we will be focused on the big brother of all clarinets, the BBb contra.

A contrabass clarinet is a single-reed wind instrument (aerophone), originating in Europe and has now spread around the world. It has never been an extremely popular instrument, but those who have played it know its power and those who have heard it never forget the experience. Like a deep Tibetan Buddhist chant, its low and haunting, powerful resonate, and rich sound impresses itself on the soul.  

In the family of modern clarinet instruments, the contrabass began in the late 1800s (more on the history of the contrabass below). Seeing that it is the lowest-register clarinet member, and its newest addition, the contrabass is still finding its place in the music world. The contrabass clarinet is used more often in modern concert bands and in military music and brass than the orchestra, although there are some fairly recent contrabass arrangements and works for clarinet ensembles finding popularity in Europe. 

How tall is a contrabass clarinet?

This giant contrabass clarinet height reaches 275 cm or a little over 9 feet in tube length. This BBb contrabass clarinet, being such an extremely large clarinet, has been relegated to near obscurity due to its size and associated cost. This long tube doubles back twice. Every manufacturer of the contrabass has its own unique design, but they all loop and some have double loops.

What key and clef is the contrabass clarinet in?

The Bb contrabass clarinet is the lowest pitched of modern clarinets, a full octave below the bass clarinet and two octaves below a “normal” clarinet. The contrabass clarinet is almost three octaves below an Ab piccolo clarinet. As with other clarinets, the contrabass is a transposing instrument (the sound or concert pitch it makes is actually different than the music staff notation is written in). 

Parts written for the contrabass clarinet are always written transposed into treble clef, as if it were a Bb soprano clarinet. The sound coming out of the instrument will be two octaves and one whole step below what is written. The reason for this is that if the actual notes were written on the bass clef staff, they would need to be written many lines below the staff, making them much more difficult to read and identify. Transposing the contrabass part into treble clef makes it much more readable and easier to play.

What is the difference between a double bass and a contrabass?

Bb contrabass clarinets are at times called a double bass clarinet. The term double bass is most commonly directed at an orchestral string bass instrument (lower than a cello). Those who play jazz have a tendency to call it a double bass more than a contrabass. 

Where does the term double bass come from? More than likely it originated from the world of pipe organs. The pipes an organ uses are categorized in doubling measurements (e.g. 16’, 32 and the awesome “feel it in your bones” 64’) A 32’ is a bass pipe, therefore a 64’ is a double bass.

Pedal clarinet

A pedal clarinet, also known as the elephant clarinet (huge clarinet), started being produced in 1889. This had nothing to do with pedals in the clarinet mechanism but was in relation to the pedals of the pipe organ. When the double bass clarinet was being invented the only comparable sound to be found was in the lowest registers of a pipe organ. Together with its complete and powerful, deep sound, the contrabass could also perform delicate sounds in the upper spectrum of its keys.

Contrabass Clarinet Description

Contrabass clarinet bodies are currently fashioned from nickel-plated brass and resin (metal or hardwoods are also used). From the bottom of the lowest joint to the top barrel the contrabass’ bore is completely cylindrical. Of course, the bell is a conical shape, outside and inside. Including the mouthpiece, they are set up in five interconnected sections fitting together with plug-and-socket juncture.

  • mouthpiece
  • neck
  • upper joint (left-hand)
  • lower joint (right-hand)
  • bell 

There are 25 sound holes drilled in the body of a contrabass. These holes vary in size and are, of course, placed at acoustically optimum positions. Instead of actually covering the holes with fingers like on a recorder, an intricate arrangement of spring triggered keys and pads, levers, and parallel rod-axles, made with nickel silver, form the controls operated by the musician. Usually, the keypads are fashioned from leather. Mouthpieces made of hard rubber or ebonite are conical in form, with a shaved-off side to create the “table” or flat space for the reed. The reed is placed against the flat side with the thicker base clamped to the mouthpiece with a ligature made of metal and screws. The thin side of the mouthpiece should be level with the end of the mouthpiece so that there is a small gap that will vibrate when blown through.

Paperclip Contrabass Clarinet

The addictive and intense Paperclip model extends to a low C. This correlates to a Bb at 29.27 Hz. The vibration is intense and it feels like you might lose your memory or vision temporarily.

Contrabass clarinet mouthpiece and embouchure

By far the best Contrabass clarinet mouthpiece you can get is Walter Grabner’s. They are unmatched in quality, but because of that, they are pretty pricey.

If you are just starting with a contrabass, you will find the most difficult part to get used to is the different embouchure needed. When you play to the contrabass you will need to focus on taking good breaths and relaxing your embouchure. You pretty much need to play double lip and never put your teeth on the top of your mouthpiece—your brain may not ever recover. Try the bassoonist embouchure known as the “Andy Gump.” This is where, without puffing your cheeks ala Louis Armstrong, you drop your lower jaw and pull it back, bunching your chin.

There are two basic sizes of contrabass mouthpieces. The larger has an outer diameter of about 1.4 inches or 36mm. The smaller measures about 1.26 inches or 32mm. There are some other mouthpieces out there, like the one that only works with baritone saxophone reeds, but they are rare.

For those who are used to playing bass clarinet and are having trouble with squeaking, a quick fix would be to use the adapter from Stephen Fox for bass mouthpieces to be used on the contrabass.

Contrabass Clarinet Reeds

Contrabass reeds have two sizes, a larger one, whose tip is around 0.79 inches or 20mm wide, and a smaller one about 0.75 or 19mm wide. These “larger” or “smaller” reeds are only about 1mm in width different, that isn’t much. Make sure you have the right width of reed for your mouthpiece. Although it is possible to play with the wrong reed, your sound will suffer as a result.

Contras will work best if you use the softest reed that doesn’t create a flapping sound when playing the lower notes. These are the notes your instrument was built for, and anything higher will be taken by the bass clarinet. With a softer reed, you can blow gently and create the most awesome deep sounds. 

Most contrabass players get into the art of working their own reeds to where they like them. Some buy harder reeds, which have a tendency to warp, then press them and sand them so they are soft enough at the tip but sturdy at the bottom.

Contrabass History

The history of the contrabass is a meandering river of several different instruments joining together over time, like tributaries, to create the modern mighty contrabass clarinet. The contrabass clarinet came from an odd, brief collection of instruments. The earliest attempts were in the late 1700s. The first record of a contrabass was created by the French goldsmith Dumas of Sommières in 1808. Dumas called his creation the “contre-basse guerrière.” 

In 1839 the Director-General of the Prussian military bands, W. F. Wieprecht, was trying to create a reed contrabass that would rival the bass tuba, called a batyphone (alternatively the bathyphone or batyphon). Though it had great tone, it was not loud enough to be useful for its military band intention. Through trial and error, it evolved into today’s modern contrabass clarinet.

By 1890 there were several manufacturers creating their version of the contrabass clarinet. The French manufacturers made a great contribution by matching the contrabass keywork with the already established clarinet system, created the century before by clarinetist Hyacinth Klosé in collaboration with Paris based Auguste Buffet.

Current Contrabass Clarinet Makers

The prestige company of the contrabass world is Selmer. Their contrabass may be the most expensive, but if you can get your hands on one of these, everyone will be jealous! Selmer Paris has a model (model 28) made from rosewood (insert here every worry you can imagine about a wood instrument), that looks akin to a bigger, longer bass clarinet. It descends to low C. The Selmer is a beautiful contrabass dream, but in reality, for most, it is out of reach.

Leblanc Paris has two metal contrabass models: its folded paperclip contrabass (model 340) which has a range to low C, and its traditionally shaped model 342 with range to low Eb.

The metal Leblanc coiled or paperclip contrabass has the advantage of a smaller case to haul around. On the downside, it is more expensive and requires more care putting it together and “breaking-it-down.”

Leblanc USA has a contrabass similar to the long-body of the 342 model with a plastic body.

Vito is a brand of Leblanc USA, which is a part of Conn-Selmer USA. In the past, Vito was for student instruments. Vito’s contrabass plays great but is difficult to transport. Unless you are herculean strong, you will want to use a dolly to save your back. If you are starting out, this is probably the place to begin.

Contrabass Clarinet Price

Owning one of these beautiful giant instruments is no cheap matter. It will run you between $3,000 and $30,000 dollars or more! With its other-worldly sound, it is the price of awesome. But just some friendly advice … if you can borrow or rent a contrabass, that is the way to go!

Notable Contrabass Players

The Mechanics of Playing the Contrabass

The musician can sit or stand and hold the instrument straight in front of themself in both hands. Like a regular clarinet, the left hand is on the top. Placing the mouthpiece and reed in one’s mouth the musician presses their lips together to form an airtight seal. All the fingers and left thumb of the musician operate the contrabass clarinet keys. The right thumb is used to keep the instrument steady and balanced. The adjustable bottom of the contrabass should be holding most of the instrument’s significant weight.

What should I know before I start playing the contrabass clarinet?

  • Will it fit in your car? Unless you have a “paperclip,” the case and contrabass together are the size of a grandfather clock (6 feet). So either only buy cars it can fit in, or don’t start!
  • How strong are you? It takes a lot to lug around 45 pounds of metal in a huge case up and down stairs or in and out of cars. If you have back problems, this is not for you! 
  • Reeds cost about $5 apiece. 
  • You have got to get a stand for this awesome monster.
  • You will not be able to see straight ahead while playing. You need to get good at looking left and right. The good news is people behind you will no longer be able to see either!
  • Your embouchure will have to change from the tighter approach of a regular clarinet to one that is more akin to an open saxophone embouchure. 
  • Some of the time there will be a proper contrabass or contra-alto part for you to play, but mostly you will need to transpose parts or play bass or alto clarinet parts.

Contrabass Clarinet Finger Chart

Contrabass clarinet fingerings are the same as all clarinets. If you have an Eb contrabass clarinet you will find that the fingerings are the same, only the instrument is pitched in a different key (E flat instead of B flat).

Below are some great contrabass clarinet fingering chart information and helps:

Similar Instruments to the Contrabass Clarinet

Subcontrabass clarinet 

This is a fabled experimental instrument, with only one to have ever been made by the Leblanc factory in 1971, as far as we know. Sometimes misspelled, sub contra bass clarinet, the subcontrabass is also known as the octocontrabass and is by definition the lowest sounding clarinet.

Octocontralto Clarinet

An especially rare instrument that few have ever heard of. Only three octocontralto (or sub-contralto) clarinets were made in 1971 at the Leblanc factory. With an Eb pitch an octave below the contralto clarinet, this giant clarinet stands at a height of over 8 feet tall. Although only three were created, Norwegian musician Terje Lerstad wrote three compositions exclusively for them. Now that is a super fan!

Contralto-Clarinet

The contra-alto clarinet is second only to the larger contrabass clarinet. These two are the largest actively used members in the clarinet world. The hyphen in contra-alto is important. It is, in fact, different and larger and ranges deeper than the more common contralto clarinet. In the 19th century they were called contrabasses horns.

contrabass clarinet music

Composers have traditionally reserved the contrabass for special impact effects. Its tone is similar to the deep tone of a string base and can be used in that orchestral capacity. In the late nineteenth century, orchestral works began calling for the contrabass, and that trend continued on to this day. The contrabass clarinet is mostly used as the true bass in a clarinet choir. It also works quite well as the bass for a whole woodwind section. It is not unusual to find wind band scores for the contrabass clarinet, Typically you’d find contrabass clarinet scores in wind band pieces starting at level or grade 5, though you will have a hard time finding anything for a solo.

One notable example that prominently features the contrabass clarinet is “Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Paganini” by James Barnes. He showcases every instrumental section in the contemporary wind band and highlights the contrabass.

Even in modern music the contrabass clarinet is getting its due. Rocker Frank Zappa, Dave Matthews and jazz musician Darcy James Argue have all used the contrabass clarinet in their work.

Below are some other examples of compositions with good contrabass roles:

Contrabass clarinet solo pieces:

Contrabass clarinet ensemble pieces:

Bass Clarinetist Eric Dolphy

Bass Clarinetist Eric Dolphy

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