What Is a Bass Clarinet?

The bass clarinet is the largest clarinet in the woodwind family, with a single reed. It’s made of wood or plastic resin and has a four-octave standard range. Since the early 1900s, the bass clarinet, which was invented in the late eighteenth century, has been a regular member of symphonic orchestras and concert bands.

Grenadilla, African Blackwood, or plastic resin are common materials for bass clarinets. Two straight black sections with metal keys make up the body. A metal bell curves up at the bottom, and a metal neck curves the mouthpiece toward the player at the other end. To distribute the weight, most bass clarinetists use a short stand at the base or a neck strap.

A bass clarinet’s typical range is four octaves. It is a concert B-flat clarinet that is one octave lower than the more common soprano clarinet. Professional bass clarinets can reach a concert B-flat just over two octaves below middle C, or B-flat1 in scientific pitch notation, using an extension key. A note higher than B-flat5 is rarely used in music, but an expert player can play much higher on a high-quality instrument.

The majority of bass clarinets, like the rest of the clarinet family, use the Boehm fingering system. The only differences between the keys of a bass clarinet and those of a soprano clarinet are an extension key and an extra register key. Only intermediate and professional instruments have these keys.

Experts in music history are unsure when the bass clarinet was invented, but in 1772 in Paris, France, a man named G. Lott invented a “basse-tube.” Heinrich Grenser invented the “klarinetten-bass” in Dresden, Germany, in 1793, to replace the bassoon in marching bands. By 1838, Adolphe Sax, a Belgian manufacturer, had created an instrument that quickly became the industry standard.

Saverio Mercadante’s opera Emma d’Antiochia, which premiered in 1834, was one of the first to use the bass clarinet. Through his many operas, composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner began popularizing the instrument in 1845 with Tannhauser. Other composers, including Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giacamo Puccini, soon began to use it in their works.

The bass clarinet became a standard member of every symphony orchestra and concert band in the twentieth century. Marching bands and jazz combos use the instrument as well. Despite the fact that bass clarinets are uncommon in popular music, the Beatles used them in their song “When I’m Sixty-Four.”