How to choose an instrument

Practical advice on this most difficult of subjects

a systematic approach
Lohff & Pfeiffer 1999


If you decide to look for an instrument, the current choices are many and varied.

Do you rent or buy? Do you choose the instrument with the best sound or intonation, keywork or lowest price, new or used?

Do you have to make a compromise or can you get it all in one?

When you think about the time and money you will spend with it in the future, it must be the right decision.

We would like to offer you some helpful advice, based on over 25 years of experience as musicians and repairmen. We hope to demystify the subject and give you a systematic method to find the right instrument for your needsand what can be done to customize it to your personal specifications.

What to look for

Here are some points to consider when you are comparing instruments, trying to find the right instrument for you.

1. What condition is the instrument in — a leaking instrument will not show its true character. The degree of air seal will change its intonation and sound in unpredictable ways.

2. How serious are the problems the instrument has – can the intonation be corrected to your liking? Can the sound be darkened and so on…,

3. How do you test intonation, sound, and projection?

4. Should I try more instruments to be certain of my choice?

Airtight seal

When comparing instruments – even of the same model – you will often notice a big difference in sound and intonation from one to the other. There are various reasons for this phenomenon. One aspect, which is often underestimated, is a lack of an air tight seal from leaking pads. The seal determines the intonation, sound, projection and playing comfort of every woodwind instrument. It is not enough to be able to play the low notes. Clarinet players can play the low E on a clarinet even when the F/C-key doesn’t close fully but the 12th (B natural) won’t speak without the help of the left hand F/C-key. A really air tight instrument plays easily and more in tune in the upper register and will project much better. This applies specially for basset horn, bass clarinets and bassoons. (You can play a really pianissimo and still be heard!)

Without going into too much detail, here is a brief explanation of acoustics. You don’t need to understand too much to see how it is relevant to the clarinet.

1. A sound is the combination of a fundamental tone and its overtones. All instruments from a cello to a trumpet have the same fundamental tone. However, the intensity and quantity of their overtones give the instruments their own distinctive sound.

2. Every air leak cuts out overtones and reduces the richness in sound and projection of an instrument.

3. Every air leak increases the response time of the instrument.

4. Every leaking spot collects water. The wood and pads will get damaged over time.

It is not that easy to determine whether or not an instrument is airtight. You can try two methods:

1. Take first the top joint, cover all holes with your fingers, wet your other hand and cover the open end. If you can produce a vacuum by sucking, as tight as on a bottle, and hold it for 10 seconds it is probably airtight. Repeat this procedure also with the lower joint. You will not feel a suction as strong as with the upper joint but it should hold for as long. The disadvantage with this method is that the vacuum pulls the pads toward the toneholes.

2. A vacuum meter. This has the same disadvantage as the first method.

The best method to use is the floating-leek meter. A specially designed tool to control how much air is leaking out of the instrument. (We use this type of meter to test all the instruments that we overhaul and sell.)

If it isn’t airtight, get it fixed. It is not enough to be told that the instrument is new or has just had an overhaul. Check it yourself! Ignore this at your peril!

If you want to test instruments, compare them under the same conditions. As soon as the air seal changes, it will change all acoustical aspects of the instrument. If you choose a leaking instrument, you won’t know where it’s leaking from, or know its true potential. On the other hand an airtight instrument will always perform reliably.


The general sound of the instrument should be your first criteria when making comparisons. As soon as the instruments you are comparing are airtight, you will have a realistic chance to judge the sound. Personal taste dictates the sound you might prefer. Often classical players prefer a dark and warm sound. Jazz players prefer a more open bright sound.
New wooden instruments will have more resistance than used ones, their sound is warmer and darker. In time, they will play more freely and open up.
One reason for this is the humidity change in the instruments during the first year. A factory new instrument is dried to about 7% humidity. A blown in instrument will have about 16% humidity. This can change the bore slightly and affect the intonation. Most instruments will get slightly higher in pitch, but the basic sound will remain the same.
The sound of an instrument is very complex. It is not possible to measure a sound that is 5 % darker. This means that we cannot change it by 5% either. Conclusion-if you don’t like the sound –don’t buy it.
If you have a problem with individual notes, perhaps with unwanted noise (for example a stuffy Bb or D/A) check what can be done to improve them. Compare the sound with the mouthpiece and reed you know and are used to. You can optimize that combination later. Compare the instruments in an environment you know. The best place is at home or in the orchestra. Use the same piece to test each instrument, remember you are testing the instrument’s ability, not your own!

Mouthpiece & reed

So far, the instrument will have been chosen using a mouthpiece that suited your old instrument. The new instrument may sound better with a different mouthpiece.
Now is a good time to experiment with other models. American mouthpieces will often tune lower than European ones, although the Vandoren 13 series are designed to play at 440HZ.
Your decision should be made on the sound quality and playing comfort. Intonation will be an issue later. Do not forget to try the new mouthpiece with different reeds.

Barrels, necks and tuning-rings

The barrel or neck is the connector between mouthpiece and clarinet. It can compensate for the worst intonation problems. There are cylindrical, conical and poly-cylindrical ones on the market today. It is quite common for an A-clarinet barrel to fit perfectly on a B flat clarinet and vice- versa. Again, judge it by the sound. When trying the barrels turn them in different positions. Many barrels, as well as instruments, are not perfectly round, which means the sound will change with the position.
A barrel or neck will always have more effect on the left-hand notes than on the right-hand. Therefore, a combination of barrel and a tuning-ring is often a better choice than a very long barrel. The tuning ring fills in the gap (when you pull out to flatten the pitch) between the top joint and the barrel or mouthpiece and barrel. If no ring is used, it effectively widens the bore, which adversely affects the tuning particularly of the notes in the left hand of the clarinet.


Musicians often use intonation as one of the major criteria’s when comparing instruments. This still applies to a certain extent with the flutes and saxophones, but it is now a problem of the past for clarinets, oboes and bassoons.
Intonation is a very personal thing as it is the sum of instrument, barrel, mouthpiece, reed and player. It is not possible to take any of these parameters in isolation. Players will have different teeth positions and embouchures; some prefer mouthpieces with short lay or big tip openings. All of these have an effect on the intonation.

All manufacturers face the problem of where they should put the intonation. This means they have to find a good compromise. They cannot predict what kind of setup a musician will prefer, and musician should not be forced to use the factory setup. Nobody expects a piano or guitar to be in tune after being moved to a new location. The same applies for woodwind instrument. If you have found a perfect match of mouthpiece and reed, which gives you the sound and playing comfort you were looking for, get the instrument adjusted to your needs.
Unfortunately, many musicians aren’t aware of this. Primarily, this is because there are very few knowledgeable and experienced experts around. Tuning and voicing are crucial part of good instrument making. Most players are astonished as to what can be done.
If you have to play on several different instruments, get them setup the same way. When playing, you should not have to worry about the intonation. In contrast to the sound, intonation can be measured, and can therefore be adjusted precisely. Choose the instrument with the best sound and get the intonation altered by an expert to suit you personal setup.


Today, instruments are made in a variety of materials. If you have to play outdoors or are worried about an instrument cracking, try a plastic one. The Greenline material offers a much better quality for the same purpose; these instruments are made to professional standards.
The best resonance is still produced by wooden clarinets. The most common ones are made of grenadilla. However, rosewood, cocabola, mpingo and other woods are available. All these wooden instruments have a very high potential to crack. Correctly repaired, a crack shouldn’t be a problem and will not influence the quality of the instrument. (Never be tempted to use pinning for cracks!)
Since good crack-repairs can be expensive, a long warranty is often worth its money.


The L&P Clarinet offers you a top quality instrument customized to your needs.
You can choose between cork, impregnated leather, Gore-Tex or impregnated fish skin-pads as well as different types of silicon and other synthetic materials.
1. All instruments are 100% tight with double secured pads. (Our pads cannot fall out!!)
2. 3 years warranty also covers servicing and repairs on cracks.
3. 3 years free intonation adjustment.
4. Customized voicing
5. Free choice of mouthpiece from our wide range of professional models.
6. Free choice of barrel, including custom models such as Moenig and Chadash.

For further details, email