Which Bass Clarinet Mouthpiece is Right for Me?

This morning I went to a local music store here in New York City and I had the opportunity to try some mouthpieces that I’ve wanted to try for a few years now. I’m kind of busy these days as I am still traveling so I thought I would wait until I wrote this, but maybe I should write it while it’s fresh. I can always update. Here we go!

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Tried:

Clark Fobes San Francisco Bass Clarinet Mouthpieces ($295 USD)

RR x 2 (t.o. 1.8)

AP x 1 (t.o. 1.9) 

HB x 1 (t.o. 2.0)

Richard Hawkins Bass Clarinet Mouthpiece ($295 USD)

Robert Borbeck Bass Clarinet Mouthpiece ($185 USD)

on my 2014 Buffet Prestige 1193 Bass Clarinet, with 3 1/2 Vandoren BB Traditional reed.

My personal mouthpiece (Vandoren B50) was valued at $136 USD when I bought it new.

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Clark Fobes San Francisco Bass Clarinet Mouthpieces

“RR”- San Francisco-based Clark Fobes is one of the most well-known mouthpiece makers today. I have personally seen more people using his B-flat clarinet barrels and e-flat clarinet extensions than his mouthpieces, but I have definitely seen them and have played on his b-flat clarinet mouthpieces before. They seem to embody nice old school overtones and unique sounds, with excellent intonation and impeccable response. But let’s stop there and go back to the bass clarinet mouthpieces.

I am assuming the RR is named after a person whose personal facing became the model standard. I will go ahead and guess Ron Reuben, assuming Ronald Reagan didn’t play the clarinet in a significant way.

Okay so before I talk about all this I should mention, I come from a Vandoren B50 (t.o. 2.15) mouthpiece with a V12 3 reed set up. And no, surprisingly I am not sponsored by Vandoren.  Today I used a 3.5 Traditional reed, because I knew some of these mouthpieces are more closed in tip opening.

I tried two RR’s today, because RR mouthpiece was the main reason I was there at the store- I thought I might buy one (after a recommendation from a friend). I did not really feel comfortable on the first RR, so I went right away to the second RR, which was much more playable for me. I played the Grand Canyon Suite (Grofe), cold and boom, the notes came out loud and proud. I was very impressed, because this is one excerpt that B50 seems to always lose on, especially in auditions, when you might be asked to play it as the first bass clarinet excerpt after playing Brahms 3 on the Bb or something. I know, really mean. Ok so I might as well just tell you now, I went and tried all these mouthpieces today basically to be able to play Grofe really well, all the time, especially switching right away from B-flat/ A. Seems silly? Well, maybe.

Whether it’s E-flat, B-flat, A, or Bass clarinet, I seem to lean toward med-open to open tip  mouthpieces with a long(ish) lay, and when I go to mouthpieces with smaller tip opening, I often find myself lose control and kind of sqwonk (kind of like squeaking but more comical like I don’t actually play the clarinet) when I try to use more air. So you can bet I did not sound very good today.

As successful the RR was with the Grofe (which goes from the clarion to the chalumeau), it did not yield me the same success with the Shostakovich Violin Concerto excerpt, which is pretty fast and a mix of sixteenth runs and articulated eighth notes in the low register. I wanted to feel more in control, perhaps it would have helped if I used a V12 3.5 reed, which I think actually plays harder than Blue Box 3.5, or should I say seems to have a stronger spine which allows it to take more beating/ air. That’s just how I feel.

“AP”- AP was not successful at all for me, it played worse than the first RR. When something doesn’t work right away, I tend to move on pretty quickly to the next in line. There are few reasons why I do it that way, one being today that I was given 1 hour (and ONE HOUR ONLY) to try all six mouthpieces. Sorry AP! Maybe next time (but probably not because these mouthpieces are pretty expensive).

“HB”- I wonder who this HB person is. Anyway, I think HB was pretty good. Once again, very good Grofe, and pretty good Shostakovich also. But again, not easy for me to control, and that is just hard to debate when you’re talking $295 per mouthpiece. That’s cost of a domestic flight, or 10 boxes of reeds, or 295 dollar menu meals from a certain fast food restaurant. Sorry, I’m hungry and getting distracted easily today.

If I were to choose a SF mouthpiece today, probably I would go with the second RR, and try to get used to it. Some players seem to really like the reediness in their sound on the bass clarinet. Maybe more like contrabassoon than a clarinet. But also, I play a lot more contemporary music on the bass clarinet than pretty much anything else, and I think closed facing mouthpieces might give you a specific sound, but maybe you will have also a hard time playing Rite of Spring on it. This was the case for me.

Richard Hawkins

This was pretty good. Honestly I don’t remember too much, but I think it was easier for me to play than the SF ones. Really can’t remember (I’m so sorry I was feeling a lot of pressure from the time limit).

Robert Borbeck

This mouthpiece was such a pleasure to play. It was very close in feel to my B50 in its openness and articulation, with perhaps even better intonation. I LOVE it when a mouthpiece allows me to blow a lot of air into it. The Borbeck “reedier” sounding, which was nice. Maybe perhaps I will return someday to buy this. I don’t know if you have ever tried a Borbeck product, but clearly this man is some serious artist because I have tried also his vintage B-flat clarinet mouthpiece before, and it was literally the best mouthpiece I had ever tried. Again very accepting of my air but also not stingy in its emission of nice overtoney (haha) and velvety gold of a sound. I didn’t buy this B-flat clarinet mouthpiece at the time, and when I decided hey, maybe I actually should, it had already been sold to some lucky person.

Okay, before I make any conclusions today, I want to mention one more very important thing (or at least I find it’s important). In my training years in university I have had the privilege (lol) to try both the Selmers and the Buffet bass clarinets. I find the Selmers are beefier in sound and perhaps in wood density (also slightly more resistant). If Selmers had the key work and the price of a Buffet, I would’ve probably chosen one for my own (the agonizing honesty). Buffets on the other hand I find are much more free-blowing. Perhaps this is why B50 works so well for me, and the rest not so well. Conversely, I would not be surprised if the more closed/ reedier-sounding mouthpieces I tried today work better on the Selmers.

Maybe you already guessed my final feelings for the mouthpieces I tried today- Borbeck was very good but I decided to stay with my B50, because while my B50 doesn’t have a very reedy sound to my ears (which can be added with lighter reeds, though), it projects with lots of sound..ball…of cannon?.., articulates without cracking and is very even in most registers. The B50 is a bit more resistant than the Borbeck, and that’s one issue I can see people having to have to deal with on it, as I do. But I mean, Selmers are already more resistant in my experience so using a B50 on Selmers would take some serious chops or super light reeds… or both, since using light reeds for really difficult music (especially when you have to be actually in tune for the most of the time and articulate a lot in various degrees of violence/ nuance ) is not easy. But for jazz/ pop stuff the open mouth piece with light reed combo can be very (dirty and) fun.

As for the Grofe… I don’t know. I should probably just practice more.

Alright, that’s it. Goodnight and please leave a comment!

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