In the way of qualifications, I offer the following:
I've been playing bass clarinet since I started instrumental music in the late 1950's. I own a number of basses, and play them as a professional musician. I started with AFM and professional music back in the 1960's. Plus, I have a full box (one of those copying paper ones) of bass clarinet "stuff" like mouthpieces, extra pegs, ligatures, swabs and the like. Five decades of bass clarinet time should equate to a little knowledge on the topic.
Having said that:
Used bass clarinets of whatever price point almost always have spent some institutional time. (Few individuals buy them for themselves, and those horns are almost always guarded treasures.) Schools and colleges are notorious for beating the crap out of harmony instruments. Keep that in mind when you are looking, and don't let a good price convince you to buy an instrument that may be cracked or otherwise damaged.
Used and good and still affordable usually means an older Selmer horn, to low Eb rather than C, and the price of an overhaul on top of the purchase price. This approach would give you a horn comparable with your rather unique soprano clarinet.
(I would not buy a Kohler, as I have found the key work on them to have been "worn out" with no room for adjustment. In any event, most of them have passed from the realm (they were popular horns in the 1950's), so the chances of you running into one are way down these days.)
(Although I own a couple of them, I do not recommend extended range bass clarinets to casual users. You are paying a lot of extra money for very limited utility. If you can get a good one cheap, this advice goes out the window. But, you won't find one (except the Chinese abomination) at a cheap price point unless it has been flayed to within an inch of its life.)
(I would also avoid any bass clarinet that has a peg support physically attached to the wood of the lower joint. (This usually means two hollow posts with thumbscrews that bear on the peg rod.) The combination of poor installation with careless handling and bashing the peg rod into chairs and such makes this a bad thing.)
By no stretch of the imagination is a used Leblanc pro horn the equivalent. Up until the last few years, all Leblanc horns, whatever the price range, used the "register key on body" setup without a linkage to the lower joint. (The easiest way to determine if you are looking at one of these older Leblancs is to look for a second bridge key with a long rod running up the right side of the upper joint when viewed from the rear.)
A Leblanc instrument will play well enough except for when making jumps from the lower register to B, C, C# and D in the staff - this interval does not articulate as smoothly as notes on the rest of the instrument. Some will disagree, but they usually are those who only have access to a Leblanc instrument and are making the best of it.
Other than for that (and the horrid fork Eb mechanism that some of their horns had on the lower joint, and some minor ergonomic issues with the key work), Leblanc horns are just fine. If you are looking at playing "oomph-pa" parts (concert band stuff) in the lower register, one will work just fine as long as the fork Eb mechanism is maintained. But, for anything approaching regular clarinet facility, Leblancs are a no go.
(I leave out Buffet horns here. If you can find a used one for a reasonable price, I'd buy it. But, they just aren't there to be had. Also omitted are Yamaha bass clarinets. A good enough instrument, but I haven't seen any on the secondary market.)
(Others, of course, may disagree...)
If you want to step down from "good" to "good enough":
Once you drop below the level of the "professional" (meaning wooden, Paris built) instruments, your choices are much less varied. There is the "Chinese" bass clarinet being imported under a variety of brand names (Kessler is one). I have fiddled around with these and would not buy one on a bet. Poorly made, poorly aligned, and very likely a repairman's nightmare.
Other than things Chinois, there are the various "student" level basses. On these, you automatically will get the register key on body setup. The old Bundy horns (Selmer's student brand) were notoriously hard to keep in tune, not something that I have found with the Vito brand (Leblanc's student brand). Yamaha also makes student basses, but I have never been able to play one of these.
In any event, you are going to get a horn that is a lot more rugged (particularly for the big keys on the lower joint) and impervious to weather. It will also be a lot less expensive.
In the student end of things, I would opt for either a Yamaha (based upon reputation) or a Vito. In the pro end, I would purchase a used Selmer (after first making sure that it was crack free).
If you could buy new, my recommendations would run Buffet (pro) instead of the current Selmer. Student would be Vito or Yamaha. (There haven't been any intermediate horns (Selmer's Signet, and Leblanc's Normandy) in a long, long time.)
One more piece of advice:
When you buy a bass, also invest in a proper instrument stand. You'll need one in any event if you play in musical pits, and keeping it in a stand instead of setting it down on its side will ensure that those keys on the lower joint stay in alignment. About the only one that's available today is the K & G "bassoon/harmony clarinet stand". It's a bit cumbersome, but that's all there is.
Incidentally, there's a whole book out on bass clarinets (and other harmony instruments, including the musical abomination that is the alto clarinet. It's titled From the Clarinet D'Amour to the Contra Bass: A History of Large Size Clarinets, 1740-1860, and thoroughly covers how Sax saved the bass clarinet from being an ungainly monster.
I played bass clarinet for a little while in high school, before moving to baritone sax, then tenor sax, then baritone again, then contrabass clarinet. I played three different models of bass clarinet: a VERY old wooden Buffet, a (now) about 30 year old Vito plastic horn and a (now) 25ish year old wooden Selmer. All range to low Eb.
The Buffet did have the peg support attached to the wood of the lower joint. This was the same for the one-piece body plastic Vito (although the peg, itself, departed years ago). The Selmer had it on the bell, but the peg had departed for parts unknown.
Of the three basses, the Vito was the best because it would get fixed and STAY fixed. The Buffet always had problems with the octave key. The Selmer had the very low profile curve to the neck and combined with the fact that I had to play it with a neckstrap, that made it more difficult to play than it needed to be.
Here's the bad: a cheap new student bass clarinet is in the $1200 to $1700 range. However, unless you're looking at a junker, eBay prices for well-used horns are approaching the same range. That brings up the question of, "Should I get a used horn that's $900 and needs $600 in repairs should I buy new for $100 more?" To me, it'd depend a lot on the used horn and what condition it's in. I would also want to playtest it for a long while. You can't do that with eBay.
The stupidly designed, tenor sax angled, necks of some bass clarinets make for cumbersome posture when playing them. I purchased a "clarinet" angled neck from Charles Bay many eons ago, and use the bottom half of his neck with the top half of the one that came with the horn.
The resultant mouthpiece angle is just like the classic clarinet playing angle, and it has worked very well for me over the years. However, these don't come cheap.
Replacement pegs can be had from Selmer without too much trouble. I have both the short one for my extended range horn, and a long one (from an low Eb horn) that can be used while standing.
The long and short of it is that you have to expect to pay money when playing the bass. Mouthpieces are more expensive, reeds are much more expensive and so forth. It's not for the shallow of pocket...
I took a gamble on a damaged Barrington (Chinese made) low C bass from Woodwind and Brasswind. It had a broken low D lever and some various other issues.
It is now in the shop for the 3rd time, but each time it gets better. The instrument is in tune with itself, but very flat. My tech noticed the tenon in the neck had a large gap, which might be the cause for the tuning issues.
Hopefully it will be as close to 100% as possible when I get it back, so I can finally determine if the cheaper price was worth it for doubling and pit work.
One thing to look for, if you are considering the Chinese made low C basses, is to make sure you get one that has adjustable key heights on the lower notes. Mine does not and required bending the keys to get the opening correct. It does sound pretty decent, although my old Vito low Eb is much easier to play
Ahhhhh yes Terry I have been considering the idea of what I might get used, being from a school, etc. I have just started looking and really in no hurry. I appreciate all of the information from everyone.
I have a couple of old conns that are in need of an overhaul but are really good playing horns. If you want to go that route. Depends on the overhaul costs in your area, but I'll let one of em go for like $200 or something
For what it's worth, some comments, some specifically on Bundy basses:
- replacement pegs (or complete assemblies to be soldered onto the bell) can cheaply be had from Ferree's, for less than $40 for the whole shebang.
- the ProTec PB319 case is in all aspects a superior case for one-piece basses. For about $120 a recommended accessory.
- I found the keywork of my Bundy very sturdy and rather immune to bending. Having a one-piece bodied bass will spare you a lot of grief with out-of regulation keywork.
- The tenor-style neck requires you to tilt the instrument forward when playing. On the other hand, a neck with a sharper angle allows for a more relaxed head position, but will virtually shorten your right arm by about 2 inches, as the head is further "up" on the instrument. As I don't have gorilla-length arms, playing caused some uncomfortable right hand fatigue. So I'm back at the old style neck, the lesser of two evils.
- In-tuneness, especially with the throat tones, could dramatically be improved by filling the A and Ab holes with crescent-shaped bits of cork in these toneholes. My A and Ab were *very* sharp, even at A=442.
- Adjustment screws should be fastened with loctite (or, in a pinch, nail varnish)
- Bass requires as much individual practicing as every other instrument. It's not very forgiving re bad breathing technique or embouchure issues.
You can turn it any way you want, but the cost of even a student bass is around the $1000 mark, be it bought refurbished at that price, or for $400 plus $600 repairs. I paid $300 for mine, but invested many hours repadding (Pisoni leather pads) and adjusting it myself.
All in all I'm very happy with it.
If I had the opportunity I'd try one of the newer Jupiters, just to see where they stand. (Merlin, aren't you a Jupiter artist? Any comments on their latest basses?)
I would also recommend the Vito. A quick look on EBay shows that these in good condition are selling for around $600 - $800. In our shop a "play condition" service that fixes leaks, adjusts regulation, replaces corks, straightens bent keys, adjusts key height and play tests runs about $60 - $80 depending on how many pads need replacing.
A quick clarification about the use of Loctite on woodwind screws. The low strength purple is the best. The next strength up, the blue is probably ok. Do not use the red or any of the other high strength Loctite versions on woodwind pivot or adjusting screws---it works far too well.
As for adjusting the pitch of the throat A by using crescents the tone hole, it seems to me that you are exacerbating the existing problem of the Bb being under vented and therefore stuffy. A more acoustically satisfying solution is to extend the height of the A tone hole. If anyone is interested in knowing more, I'll give a more detailed description in the repair section. That way the pitch of a very sharp A can be corrected without reducing the venting.
Hi. Newb here. Does anyone still read these forums?
Having recently acquired a pristine Selmer series 9 bass -- having before THAT foolishly traded away a student Vito (that played well, but also sounded kinda "poor," I thought) many years earlier, and always pining away for another "wooden" horn...I saw this thread.
I love my Selmer, but I do wish I had that little Vito too...just to have out, you know?
Well, as far as used basses go, I really think that SOTSDO's (Terry's) post covers all the bases (puns are always intended).
I've played three or four basses, over the years, including at least one plastic Vito three piece (bell, body, neck) horn. They were all in various stages of "beat," exactly as Terry said. If I had the time, money and effort, I think I could have had all of them working great, with the possible exception of an ancient Buffet. I'll also say that I never played or needed a low C in my entire bass/contrabass playing career.
One final note is that a lot of pre-WWII instruments were high pitch instead of low pitch. This is a tuning standard. "Low pitch," which is what's used today, is where a concert A=440hz. High pitch was A=457hz. You can't compensate for this. (I should also mention that 19th century clarinets could have other tuning standards, too. Which aren't necessarily marked on the horn.)
You might find a C bass clarinet or some other interesting pitch, too. At least, if you look back far enough.
I've heard that there was a bass clarinet made out of clear plastic. I'd love to see one.
Thanks for the discourse Pete...you know how it is when you think you've found you're new favorite thing...
I clearly have been luckier concerning bass clarinets than anything--the Vito I had was in seemingly unused condition ($275, albeit 15 years ago); but I really lucked out on ths Selmer: pristine, for $450--I've been on that side of a few deals in my careeer. Just acquired a Rovner dark lig for it, which really makes it easier to blow.
...providing excellent "imfo" since the middle of the last century!
I've just gotten off a real jag of bass clarinet playing, having done a couple of musicals that were bass clarinet heavy. While I enjoy playing sax and clarinet, they still don't compare to the joy of blending and harmonizing on the bass. Thank you, Adolphe Sax.
A Selmer bass of the Series 9 vintage (I don't believe that there was actually a "Series 9 bass clarinet") can be brought to a wonderful state of repair and intonation, and without killing yourself financially in the bargain. You've already saved a lot up front, so that's half the battle.
Most damage/maladjustment on these instruments is concentrated in three locations:
Register key mechanism on the upper joint. This can get out of whack just during normal use, but a competent repair person can set it right. I get mine looked at as part of a yearly tune-up, just in case.
Bridge keys and the control rod leading to the register mechanism. Once these are in their proper location, careful handling and keeping the horn on a stand will maintain their setup.
The "saucer keys" that cover the toneholes through which low G is emitted (operated by the F key). Even with the greatest of care, these get bounced around (even when in the case) and tapped against chairs, and then they leak. I mind my bass better than any of my other horns, but I still have to have them looked periodically. All of the large keys are subject to this, but the double key for low G seems to be the worst of the batch.
The slightest leak here causes problems when moving over the break, and you can't avoid it by pressing any harder. These keys require careful attention by a technician on a regular basis. It probably wouldn't hurt if they were bound in place (by some of that horse hoof bandage) when in the case.
One other thing: if your horn is of 1960's vintage, it's very likely that the case is close to falling apart. I know that mine is. What you will find is that it is impossible to obtain a new case from Selmer. I know this because I have been trying to do so for about twenty years now. They always send out a case suited for the new horns, which have different joint sizes than the ones from the late 1960's. Bummer...
The new Selmer "Light" case fits my 1960s Selmer bass clarinet perfectly. They are a bit pricey, and they don't offer quite as much protection as the old wooden cases, but they are good enough, very light, and they have a shoulder strap.
...and was able to measure. The top and bottom joints are still slightly changed from my older (late 1960's vintage) horn. But, I didn't get to make a test fit, since I didn't have the bass along, only my mouthpiece and reeds. (It was at a Selmer showcase at Rice University back in 2007 or so.)
I guess that I'll have to order one (again) and find out.