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Are vintage instruments practical for everyday use?

I have a question I would like to ask the smart people here on WF.
I'm buying a new clarinet- upgrading from a plastic Buescher model I've had since 6th grade to a Buffet R13, and while shopping around I've noticed that many Buffet clarinets labelled as 'vintage' or 'pre-R13' are much cheaper. Is there any downsides to buying a vintage clarinet? Also, since I'm planning to use this instrument through high school and college, would it be good enough for playing at that level, or in a band? Thanks in advance.​
 

SOTSDO

Old King Log
Staff member
CE/Moderator
Push comes to shove, the quality of a decent student or intermediate instrument is good enough to carry you a long, long way. Ultimately, it's the quality of the player that will matter the most.

The closer you get to the top of a horn, the more influence the money you spend will have. So, iffen you buy a $3,000 horn, that's not as good of an investment as a $150 barrel, which in turn is not as good as a $120 mouthpiece, or as good as a $60 ligature, or a $6.00 reed, or a set of ten lessons (for the ultimate end of the musical chain, the player).

I know pros who play entry level Yamaha saxes, intermediate level soprano clarinets, and entry level bass clarinets. They sound just fine. And, there are many on here who play entry level bass clarinets (much, Much, MUCH, MUCH less expensive than a "pro" horn) who can get by just fine.

Plus, it's less expensive to start with an intermediate clarinet, then "switch up" when and if you decide to go on.
 

SOTSDO

Old King Log
Staff member
CE/Moderator
That was more or less the point of the analogy. The dollar amounts are not set hard and fast, but are relative to each other in the general way that horn and accessory pricing is set up.

Here in the United States there is a tendency that goes by the acronym of GAS, for gear acquisition syndrome. Musicians of all skill levels fall into the habits of thinking that there is a substitute for hard work on the part of the player, and that this substitute only requires the expenditure of money, usually in increasingly greater amounts as time goes on, to achieve some new level of tone quality, articulation, range or whatever.

Taken at the most basic level (either the purchase of clarinet reeds, or the trial of new ligature substitutes, but certainly not through succession of baritone sax reeds, each of which costs the equivalent of a quality fast food luncheon), it is relatively harmless. Move up to item like goofy Backun barrels and bells, mouthpieces or (shudder) successions of instruments, and you find that the player is spending a hell of a lot of dosh for little or no return in musical value.

I've bought a succession of ligatures for the clarinet, but I did my buying as part of the patent development process for my patented approach to the problem. All of the ligature "junk", for that's what it is from my experience, resides in a freight container somewhere, as we prepare for our big move over to Florida, but it matters not a whit for I moved back to a basic many a year ago. And, mine is extraordinarily similar to what our Germanic brethren have been using for two and a third centuries.

My approach is inexpensive, removes a couple of the problems with the string ligature that it so cleverly emulates, and is incredibly "plastic" in its approach to all styles and shapes of mouthpieces. Indeed, you can even use a ligature designed for the contra-bass clarinet on your Eb soprano if conditions require a quick replacement.

But, as flexible (pun intended) as the Reedwrap approach (US Patent 4,796,507) is, it's only one of many solutions. An inexpensive one, to be sure, but everyone's feelings differ on such matters (as some of the replies to the YouTube video point out in excruciating detail). And, just as the maker of the video pointed out in reply, I'd agree that everyone's experience does actually differ in these matters.

If you feel that the silver-plated, computer-machined jazz mouthpieces are the key for your unique sound, and if you can afford the freight, by all means take that approach. On the other hand, you could take the more practical approach, save your money (or invest it into something less costly and more practical), basing that approach on those who have gone before.

GAS in its most extreme form manifests itself in the purchase of numerous instruments, always seeking that indefinable something that will take a player to the next level. However, it's quite possible to purchase instruments at a very reasonable price that, with the proper practice on the part of the operator, will (assuming basic instrument integrity and maintenance) render a much more acceptable result.

It's all summed up in the old musician's joke, the reply to the musicians seeking directions on how do you get to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, man - practice." An extra half hour a day learning how to operate the tools of your trade is far more valuable than spending many hundreds chasing the mouthpiece chimera.

Most hereon would end this with another acronym, but I'll spell it out completely: your mileage may vary.

Abbreviated "YMMV", it's a saying that had its origins in the practices of automobile marketing in the 1960s, when miles per gallon figures were first quoted for US automobiles - an ad would announce the miles per gallon figure for a particular car, but always hedge the statement by adding somewhere in the body of the ad: "Your mileage may vary"
 
Personally I would be reluctant to spend thousands of dollars on a new instrument when there are so many fine used instruments to be found. A good used R13 will have all the problems worked out of it and will be past the vital first year or so when cracking is most likely. Also, although I'm sure I'll collect some flack for saying so, I don't believe that the R13 of today is of the same quality as the R13 of 20+ years ago. While there may have been technical improvement along the way, some essential aspects of quality have been lost. If you're not sure about getting the right instrument for you, there are several services around that will select a horn for you, leaving you to make the final choice from several examples. Just my thoughts.
 

Helen

Content Expert Saxophones
Staff member
Administrator
The short answer to your question....
Are vintage instruments practical for everyday use?
... is they can be. It depends on a lot of factors. Disclaimer here: I'm primarily a sax player. My clarinet days are 2+ decades behind me, and when I did play clarinet, I really was a bass clarinetist, more so than anything else.

Rather than get into all the high pitch (HP) and low pitch (LP) issues, and the "blown out" stuff that we hear that might befall wooden instruments (and those are just 2 of many, many possible things to consider when thinking about vintage vs. modern), I'd like to pick up on what SOTSDO mentioned with regards to the closer to the source of the tone (the player), the more changes to gear are going to have to tone.

I wrote an article about this years ago, which although referring to saxophones, also in general applies to clarinets. It is worth a look.

FWIW, I play on all vintage saxophones. My oldest gigging horn is a 1922 Buescher True Tone bass saxophone. My everyday bari is a 1958 Martin Committee III, AKA The Martin, and my main tenor is a King Zephyr from 1950. My other favourite horns are from the 1950s, and many are from the 1920s. (Yes, I do have a lot of saxophones, and I could be accused of having GAS.) :D

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pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
TL;DR: Yes, vintage horns can be OK. Below are a few things to beware of.

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Personally I would be reluctant to spend thousands of dollars on a new instrument when there are so many fine used instruments to be found. A good used R13 will have all the problems worked out of it and will be past the vital first year or so when cracking is most likely. Also, although I'm sure I'll collect some flack for saying so, I don't believe that the R13 of today is of the same quality as the R13 of 20+ years ago. While there may have been technical improvement along the way, some essential aspects of quality have been lost. If you're not sure about getting the right instrument for you, there are several services around that will select a horn for you, leaving you to make the final choice from several examples. Just my thoughts.
I like a lot about this answer. I like a lot about Helen's too. I'll try to combine and synthesize.

Going back to saxophone for a minute, one of the reasons why some players look to vintage is because the best of those saxophones were made "back in the day." As an example, I'll use Helen's Martin Committee "III": that's the last professional model saxophone (they had one with more bells and whistles, but it was still the same horn) that Martin ever made. They stopped making them in 1971. So, there are no better Martins out there. Buffet still makes clarinets.

First, an opinion: if you're ready for a professional-quality horn, nobody can dispute your choice. You play-test some and buy the one that best suits you.

Second, "pre-R13" generally means very old. You might start running into problems with that "high pitch" thing: "high pitch" was an old intonation standard where A=457hz. The current standard is "low pitch," where A=440hz. There's also a common orchestral standard in France -- and Buffet makes some horns in this pitch -- where A=442hz. You will not be able to play any high pitch woodwind in tune with a modern horn and high pitch woodwinds cannot be made to play in tune with modern instruments. You can play A=442hz instruments in tune with A=440hz instruments (and vice-versa) if you listen and lip down a bit.

Third, I mentioned that Buffet still makes professional horns. Buffet would say that their current R13 is better than the ones made in the 1950s. Period. Full stop. However, I completely accept Tony's comment that horns made at whatever point could have been the best the company made at that time, for whatever reason: they had more money to spend on R&D, they used better materials, they had better quality control, etc. However, this doesn't necessarily mean anything. If you play a 1950s R13 or a low pitch "pre-R13" and think it's better than the new horns, go with the old one -- provided the old one's not damaged in some way that you can't get fixed.

For me, when I decided I wanted to buy a baritone saxophone, I had a choice of Yamaha and Selmer -- all that my local store carried back in the 1980s. I didn't want as Selmer USA student horn and I didn't want to pay twice as much on a Selmer Super 80 than on a Yamaha. After play-testing, I thought the Yamaha 62 was great ... but it wasn't a couple thousand $ better than the Yamaha 52.

Finally, let me add in a bit of SOTSDO: you should spend some time looking for a nice mouthpiece and ligature. The mouthpiece is more of a concern than the ligature unless the ligature you're using is damaged. 3rd party bells and barrels? Those are out there, but they're not as much a concern as a good horn and a good mouthpiece.

PS: Do remember some schools and colleges are stupid and require you to get a specific make/model clarinet and/or mouthpiece. You might want to check on that before you buy anything.
 

SOTSDO

Old King Log
Staff member
CE/Moderator
And, like a new automobile here in the US of A (United States of America, for those challenged by acronyms), a new musical instrument depreciates about 20% when you drive it out of the showroom. Shop respectable dealers for quality horns, as well as looking at new equipment.

I have first and foremost always been a partisan of the Selmer line of clarinets and saxophones. I owned a set of the Mark VI horns and equivalents, as well as Series 9 clarinets and their bass clarinet equivalent. All have served me well over the years.

However, when my first wife argued that we needed a new car more than I needed the saxes (which at that point I was seldom using them), I sold them off and bought a Ford Granada. (A note to those reading along - never buy a Ford Granada.)

Fast forward ten years, and I no longer had the saxes, the car or the wife. When I started in playing "pop" and "jazz" again (starting in a circus band, no less), I needed to pick up my primary saxophone toute suite. Selmers of most vintages were way out of the question, so I bought a very lightly used (one season on a cruise ship, from the stuff left in the case) Yamaha YBS-62. Much better in most ways than the Selmer horns of my acquaintance, and I've since stepped away from the Selmer saxes.

I also own a wonderful Conn artist series alto from the 1920s. And, when I found a pristine Mark VI tenor for all of $400.00 (picked up by my alert wife in the local Want Ads), I couldn't turn around and sell it fast enough. (I hate everything about the tenor saxophone...sorry.)

Of late, I have become disallusioned with the newer Selmer clarinets. I have a nice Series 10S, a wonderful instrument but for the imitation of the R-13 bore. I've tried the newer horns (Saint Louis and so forth), but with the single exception of the Recital series (now discontinued, and never offered in full Boehm anyway), I prefer the old timer Series 9.

Bass clarinet wise, I have never, in some fifty five years of trying, found a bass clarinet that was the equal of my starter horn, a Buffet pitched in A from back in the Albert days. My "Series 9-ish Model 33" comes close, but that original was one in a million. Don't ever try to transpose a Bb part written in bass clef on an A horn, however.

Times change, but you don't have to change with them if you don't want to.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I actually did sell my bari sax to buy a car that is easily the equivalent of the Granada: a Pontiac Fiero. At least it was the 2.5L. (My mom owned a green Granada with a white top.)

I definitely +1 on the depreciation thing. There are very few instruments that appreciate in value or even hold their value. There are quite a few folks that sell used and/or vintage horns, like our forum sponsor (ad at the top). Also remember that Buffet isn't the only big gun out there. You've got Leblanc, Yamaha, and, as SOTSDO mentions, Selmer. SML also made a brilliant model several years ago called the "Symphonie" and there are quite a few folks here that have been catching the Couesnon Monopole bug. The only unfortunate thing is that you're probably not going to find any single place that has these horns in stock for you to try. Mouthpieces will be a LOT easier.

I did a brief Google and found that Saxquest now has a small selection of clarinets. I looked a couple other places, quickly, and really didn't see that large a selection. If you go the eBay route, first make sure that's the make/model you really want and budget at least $300 for repairs. Bonus if you can return it if there's a problem.
 
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