There is no simple "best way" for everybody
Nobody goes and buys a clarinet just like that. And in deciding which clarinet to buy there is no "right" or "wrong" or one perfect instrument that fits everyone - even if everyone was rich (but then again money matters to most of us). I am afraid there is no simple decision table which helps you to chose the optimal instrument to buy. Your choice can depend on many factors: How seriously do you want to play, how much time do you want to spend rehearsing, how much money you can spend, what styles do you want to play? All these factors have to be considered for your choice - because you will spend a lot of time with the clarinet: I - for example - have spent about 15 years with my first instrument. A rough calculations tells me that were about 5000 hours. That is a lot - and it justifies thinking about the choice carefully.
Willing to spend 5000 hours with a cheap instrument?
There is a wide range on how much you can spend on quality, but you may get a simple, good working, used instrument that is fully sufficient for the amateur orchestra player for 500 - 1000 Euro (all prices for B flat clarinets, Boehm system). The upper top are professional instruments (custom built for you) that may have hand forged keys and adaptations for you - here you could pay up to 10.000,00 Euros, but even excellent instruments like Wurlitzer, the professional lines of Buffet or Yamaha won't cost you that much. Alto and bass clarinets are more expensive, because they are larger and - more importantly - are produced in smaller numbers.
The main point is: Yes, you can buy better quality for more money! But the question is: will it pay off, if you don't play and rehearse more than an hour or two per week? How do you find a good balance between what you can pay for and what you would like to have?
Absolute prices vary from country to country and change over time, so you better use a price search engine to find out what you pay today. Just make sure you really compare the same product: YCL457/20/6 and YCL457/22/6 are by far not the same - the latter costs a third more on the list.
You can buy clarinets through various channels:
- new from a music shop
- new as a lent instrument that may be payed for fully a year later if you want to keep it
- used from a music shop
- used from a private person
- via eBay or other mail ordering systems
- new in a supermarket or department store as no-name/Chinese product for less than 100 Euro
We will discuss all these channels in the next paragraphs:
When buying an instrument, experience is what you need most
As we have seen, there is no simple answer and no "best buy" in this situation. If you are a beginner or want to buy an instrument for your child as first instrument, you lack all experience and need help. Without experience you have no chance to find out whether an instrument is worth its price or not. As a beginner - and later, if possible, too - your best choice is to get in contact with a serious clarinet teacher or a friend who plays the instrument. Instead of buying a first instrument you should check whether it is possible (in Germany it is) to lend a used instrument by the music school and buy later or to lease a new instrument from the music shop which can be bought later on.
If you want to buy an instrument now, a teacher or experienced player will help you, too. By the way, many of them will get considerable rebates. Even if you already have some experience - you never should go to buy an instrument on your own; whenever possible, bring a fellow clarinettist - two people will hear and see more than one (see also: sound experience is subjective).
Take your time - take the instrument home for a try
Selecting an instrument needs time. That is why many dealers I know allow you to take new instruments home for one day, and when I bought a used instrument, I agreed on the same with the seller. In shops there is usually not much space, there are many customers around, it will take some time for the instrument to become warm, mouthpiece and reeds may not fit etc., the lighting may not be optimal (to see cracks etc.). Asking whether ou can take an instrument home for try out should be cleared in a phone call before coming to the shop. They won't love you for that, but you still have got the money in your hand and that is what they are after. Especially when you show up with a well known local clarinet teacher every reasonable salesman will become as co-operative as possible.
Brand new instrument bought via dealer: Ask for choice and try out several instruments!
The dealer makes a living by selling instruments, the more expensive, the more he earns (in general). The dealer should have - or should be able to offer you - a choice of brands and models. Even if he hasn't got them in stock he can ask e.g. Yamaha or Buffet to supply him with three different models for you to try out. That gives him the chance to sell the most expensive, too. Sometimes he can even offer you a choice of two individual instruments of the same type (and they still may be quite different!). This is one of the advantages over buying a used instrument: You have a choice.
Dealer or craftsman?
You will find a music shop even in small towns. Here you will find at least clarinett reads, and sometimes standard instruments.
In order to buy a clarinet, you should try to find a dealer who is at the same time offering craftsman service - that is a workshop. Internationally there are huge differences, so it is hard to generalise, but it is a good idea to buy an instrument in a place where they can maintain and fix it, too, the better, the better. A master craftsman will be easier convinced to quickly repair an instrument that he has sold himself - the moment you really need that kind of help will come one day!
The optimal craftsman is an experienced wood wind instrument builder who at least knows a little how to play the clarinet. This becomes important once he has to work on tuning the instrument. Wood wind instrument builders usually have one or two instruments they know well - if it's flute and oboe, that is not so good for us. Sometimes bigger shops have experts for the different types of instruments. When you have to travel some way to get there, it is a good idea to call the shop in advance and find out, whether your man or woman is there or maybe very busy... At least in Western Europe Saturdays are bad days to try to buy an instrument without an appointment, since the shop might be crowded.
A music dealer earns his living by sales, and especially by instrument sales. Add-ons are just peanuts. In a workshop they, too, know that they can earn on maintenance and service, too. Good advice will help a long lasting customer-dealer-relationship, but he might earn more selling the expensive instrument. Anyway the salesman must sell or he will go to bed hungry. The problem with the instrument market is, that one customer will hardly come back within the next few years and buy a second instrument, so the temptation is big to sell something that doesn't fit fully just to sell something... So what you need is an expert to come with you (there we are again - bring you clarinet teacher!).
Compare with the best!
Even if the dealer hasn't only got one instrument of the type you favour, you should ask him to show you the best or most expensive that you still can afford. Try this ones out and you will easily feel the difference, that is, all the little problems a simpler model might have. Even with little experience this will help you in finding a good compromise. But when comparing a professional soloist's instrument with a student's clarinet, don't forget that the better quality is usually connected with a significantly higher price.
Number of keys, rings, material
In general you can say that the number of keys and rings increase for better models of the same brand, the simpler ones have fewer. You see it in the name and it reflects in the price, too: YCL457/20/6 and YCL457/22/6 are German-type clarinets by Yamaha, having 20 respectively 22 keys and 6 ringkeys each. Otherwise the models are identical, but one came at 750 Euro and one at 1150 Euro (in 2007). Some better models do have automatic mechanisms and trills, or go down to low E flat (will usually not be needed). More keys make some things simpler, so called "student" models won't have that. But then again these keys may be unnecessary for you.
In general forged keys are better than cast and welded keys (with the latter the metal is melted and poured into a form and then soldered together), because the forged keys can be bent and rebent more often with less danger of breaking.
Generally you can say that wooden instruments (Grenadill) are better than those of plastic, resin or composite materials (often called resonite, a rubber product, which is again a bit better than ABS - the cheapest). Generally you can say that better instruments are made from wood, but it is usually because the cheaper production will use the cheaper material and wood is expensive. An exception is the new composite material that Buffet Crampon calls "Green Line", here they use grenadilla powder with inlet carbon fibre being glued together with a resin - they have recreated grenadill as far as possible and say, that it comes with the advantages of grenadill but without the risk of cracks (and the ability to create virtually any form). We have some of those instruments in our orchestra, I play a green line bass clarinet while my wife plays the same model in wood, and you can't tell the difference accoustically. And - of course - the prices was exactly the same, too.
Plating of the keys should not be an issue, they should be made of silver, white or golden gold is ok, too (more a question of taste) - but nickel is definitely not acceptable, since it is the one metal with the strongest tendency to create allergies, you don't want that in contact with your (or your kid's) hands!
How to find potential problems - both with new and used instruments
Anything broken, scratched, cracked? Systematically you look at key by key, tone hole by tone hole, from one end to the other. Do you find any cracks in the wood (this needs strong lamps)? Do any screws shake? Is the mechanique working smoothly? Are all springs looking good and do they close all keys they should without to much noise? Are all pads glued in properly? Then you hold the upper and lower joint agains a strong light and look into the bore: Do you see cracks or scratches? Look at the joints, feel with your finger: any cracks in the joint? That is a sensitive element.
Tightness test: Put the instrument together except for the mouthpiece and the bell, close all keys and blow into the bore, while a second person closes the bore with his hand (when you are alone, you can use an easily fitting wine cork (!!! DON'T force this in - it might break the joint!!) for that. No air must come out of any key now, and you should not have to press the keys too hard. If you can hear air break out somewhere, that key must be adjusted.
Tuning: You play on the instrument for some time until it is warm and then you use a chromatic tuner to find out how well the instrument is in tune. The deviations should be small, especially on critical tones where you can't do much with fingering. Tuning should be done according to the calibration of the orchestra you play in most, it is very likely to be somewhat between 440 and 444 Hertz (though standard is 440, many orchestras have the tendency to tune higher, since it sounds a little more brillant. Strings have no problem to adapt, but bass clarinets for example just can't).
Attack/Responsiveness: On the warm instrument you play - in piano - the deepest and highest tones, they should come easy, as well as full covered (like the b sharp and E with all fingers on the keys). If you can, you should use a known mouth piece with a good known reed - otherwise it is difficult to compare instruments.
Then you play one of the typical studies (like Uhl), that have the usual jumps, legato challenges etc. - this tells you, whether the keys are in good places and react like you are used to.
You repeat the procedure at home a couple of times (given the dealer has agreed with you you may try out the instrument).
Buying used - private vs. dealer, what is different?
A private seller will usually sell because he doesn't play any more or he has bought a new and better instrument. In the latter case the instrument should be playable, you should ask for reasons why the new instrument is better, but usually that is a clear situation. In the other case the instrument has probably not been played for a longer time, maybe for years. The pads have dried out completely and the instrument is difficult to assess. Maybe - if you don't have sufficient experience - this might mean a general inspection and overhaul by a wood wind workshop. That could include: Completely checking / redoing the pads, cleaning and correcting the mechanics. Before you buy a cheap used instrument, check how much a workshop would ask for these very basic activities.
An instrument dealer who has a workshop might have already done this all when offering a used instrument or might offer a free re-check after half a year up to a year. You have to consider this when comparing the prices.
Under all circumstances you should insist on a written contract that you bought the instrument including the name of the producer and the serial number.
How to calculate the value of a used instrument (theoretically)
This gives you some idea, how I would theoretically calculate a price for a used instrument. In reality it doesn't work like that, and this approach ignores critical issues (how does the instrument sound?) but it gives you some simple ideas on how to, and that should be valuable.
- You start with the approximate price for the instrument when it was new
- The instrument is neither new nor unused, so you discount 10% right away.
- You discount 2 per cent for every year since production, until the instrument is 5 years, for further years you discount 1 per cent, until you have reached 50%. There is no further discounting for age.
- Check the mouthpiece: Any scratches on lay or flanks? Then it is worthless, discount 20 Euros.
- If you can see and feel traces of teeth on the top of the mouthpiece, discount 10 Euros.
- Then you check the instrument for scratches and cracks:
For each flat scratch in the wood you discount 20 Euros.
For every fixed crack that has never reached a tone hole (surface only): discount 10% of original price
For every fixed crack that has reached a tone hole: discount 20% of original price
For every key that needs a new silver coating: discount 2 Euro
For every key, that was broken and was soldered: discount 15 Euro
For every key or axis that is whagging and causes clattering: discount 10 Euro
The instrument needs new pads: discount 5 Euro per pad to be renewed
Is the mechanique as such ready for a full inspection and maintenance then discount 150 Euro.
- If the box is in bad shape, discount another 25 to 50 Euro.
Did you end somewhat near to the price the seller has offered you?
Did you check the internet for similar instruments of similar age and their prices - and are they similar?
Then the seller seems to be reasonable. Usually we find a seller offering psychological prices (500 or 1000 Euro or half the price he once paid. If you find in your calculation that it is worth more, if you have examined the instrument like described above, if the instrument sounds good and you were able to play on it right away - then go and buy it! Otherwise - rethink, renegotiate, go on...
eBay or other mail ordering systems:
Can you buy instruments via eBay at all? Off course you can, there is a huge market with low prices and there are many satisfied buyers. But here you must differenciate: Depending on the country in which the deal is made, the conditions under which you can return the instrument when unsatisfied are very different. In the European Union a dealer (that is somebody who frequently deals) must take back the instrument from the buyer within 14 days at no cost for the buyer without the buyer having to prove that anything was wrong with the instrument. But that is different for private sellers. Here you must be aware that you might buy absolutely worthless crab and you can't easily give it back. Return-conditions should be clear and legally enforceable, which requires working legal systems which are not given in all states on earth. It is extremely difficult to go to court in Russia, for example. If you had contact with the seller, all things appear OK, then you still can't really see, feel and hear what you buy, so there still is an immense risk.
Buy new in a supermarket or department store as noName/Chinese product (e.g. "Roy Robson") for less than 100 Euro:
Yes, this happens a lot the last years, at least in Europe. Production in China is extremely competitive, and you might really get a good instrument for about 100 Euros there, there are specialised workshops who produce world standard products with the necessary experience and precision, but the instruments that are offered in hundreds in Supermarkets are usually not that good.
You have to know that production in China is extremely task-oriented and price-competitive; that means, a small family business that produces ABS plastic tubes for furniture might the next two days produce upper and lower joints of the clarinets on the same machine if they gave the company the best (lowest) offer. The precision of their machines is suitable for furniture, but will fall a little short for instruments. And their neighbour, who usually produces cuttlery, will cut out keys that week on his machine (at the lowest possible price). Another neighbour will solder the keys together, and a third will plate them with nickel in the galvanic bath next to his house and his kids will polish them by hand. The pads are cut from simple silicon and be glued into the keys with melting glue by another family business. Some motorcycle driver will carry the parts from house to house. Whatever they do, they will lack the experience for making musical instruments and there will be hardly the type of quality control you may expect, one that might notice whether the product is acceptable. But again: That does not mean that south east Asia can't produce great instruments - it is just somewhat like a lottery if you buy them really cheap.
This subject again will be different from country to country, but at least for the EU the following is valid: You should go and insure the instrument as soon as possible. The price you bought it at can be a base for the insurance. In Germany the insurance (paying back the value of the new instrument) is considerably low, and it covers a lot of situations (theft from a car, destruction by fire, dropping by others, etc.). Often musical ensembles and clubs do have very favorable group insurance conditions and low membership fees, so it might be interesting to join such a musical assiciation for this reason, even if you don't actively play there. Just give it a thought whether you want to have covered the time value or the new price and whether you want it covered after 22:00 hours (which is what you want when your kid goes on that band trip over the weekend one day!)