Vintage Metal

What is the general consensus on metal clarinets?

I play clarinet, and I just bought a vintage metal one for cheap at an antique store. It seems like they're more obscure than the dreaded curved soprano, and I was just wondering, do people not like the tone? Is there some other issue with them?

My Grandmother has one of these- they're so cool! :)

Actually, the issue isn't the tone... it's the "fad" mentality, to be honest!

In the mid 1800's, the Russian and Austrian military bands began using metal clarinets because they could withstand the weather better than wood clarinets- but they were made of brass, like the sax... European manufacturers tried to market the same clarinets to America, but found that the tone was too harsh and nobody bought them.

Then, around the 1920's, Harry Bettoney (Boston, Mass.) decided to change the metal... he remade the clarinet out of German silver, but kept all yellow metals and brass out. The result was the "Silva-bet". This was an amazing metal clarinet that not only retained the sound of the wooden ones, but also had better clarity, resonance, and played the higher notes in tune! This became a VERY popular clarinet... schools, military bands, pro musicians- everybody wanted one. European clarinet makers- including giants like Buffet and Selmer- even began making metal clarinets, even to the exclusion of wooden ones for a few years!

Manufacturers found that unlike wood, they could manipulate the metal to exact specifications. Metal also was not subject to the harsh conditions of weather in terms of moisture and cracking. Jazz musicians loved them because of their clarity. Classical musicians loved them for the same reason... they were HUGE in the 30's and early 40's. Of course, there were still brands that were of a better quality than others, but the high end ones, made with more silver than anything, sounded beautiful and were in high demand. So what happened?...

ABS plastic was invented, and America went to war. The plastic clarinet was just as durable as the metal one- for a fraction of the cost. With the need to save on metals and money for the war effort, manufacturers switched to plastic and the metal ones fell out of favor. Later, the pros said "Hey... this plastic doesn't give us what we need" and went back to wood. The metal clarinet had been forgotten, or worse- turned into lamps in obscure studios across the globe.

Now, to be taken seriously as a clarinet player, you have to play a Buffet R13 or Selmer Signature. If you show up with one of those old metal guys, you will be laughed off the stage before you ever play a note... sad. "Grenadilla is the new German Silver."

ORSI is the only manufacturer that still makes metal clarinets, but they are not well known. I think the metal clarinet may have never made a comeback just because the recording equipment at their height of fame was fairly poor, and we associate bad tone with them. Think about Lester Young- he was a GREAT sax player, but in his recording of "Pagin' the Devil", he sounds like an 8 year old (talented 8 year old! lol)... and he's playing a metal clarinet. Also, some of the big name jazz clarinetists traded their metals in for wood around WWII, and I think we now see it as they were "upgrading". It's amazing how history becomes skewed, huh? Anyone who's actually TRIED to play a metal clarinet will tell you that it feels different, but its sound is very cool (most of the time anyways... there are still some lemons out there!).

Anyways, I hope you have a great time with your new horn! Hopefully someday you'll be able to play it in public again! :)

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