What Is a Contrabass Clarinet?

The contrabass clarinet, also known as the pedal clarinet, is the clarinet’s largest member. It’s a single-reed woodwind instrument that produces a note that’s two octaves lower than a soprano clarinet. Despite the fact that larger and thus lower clarinets have been built, the contrabass clarinet is the largest that has ever been used regularly.

Contrabass clarinets come in two shapes: “looped” contrabass clarinets have a tube that curves twice around itself, and “straight” contrabass clarinets don’t. The instrument’s bell may protrude above or below the mouthpiece. Because of their distinctive shape, these clarinets are also known as “paperclip” clarinets. The tube of a “straight” clarinet curves only once, resulting in a long, straight instrument with the bell at the bottom. This contrabass clarinet looks like a large saxophone on the outside.

The note produced a typical contrabass clarinet is pitched in BBb, which is two octaves and a major second lower than the note written. For the sake of convenience, musicians refer to this instrument as a “Bb contrabass clarinet.” The contra-alto or contralto clarinet, on the other hand, is pitched in EEb, which means that its note is two octaves and a major sixth below the written note. Because of their physical similarities, musicians sometimes refer to the EEb contralto clarinet as an EEb or Eb contrabass clarinet.

Several instruments that foreshadowed the contrabass clarinet were created in the nineteenth century, but none of them became widely popular until acoustician Charles Houvenaghel created the version on which all modern examples are based. Houvenaghel collaborated with Georges Leblanc, a French instrument maker, and his son Léon. Houvenaghel’s goal was to create a full clarinet choir with the same musical range as a string section in an orchestra. He accomplished this inventing a wide range of clarinets, including the tiny sopranino and contrabass.

Contrabass clarinets aren’t as common as soprano clarinets, but they’re still popular. Although there is little solo music for the contrabass, it does appear in orchestral works composers such as Richard Strauss, Olivier Messiaen, and jazz legend Charles Mingus. It was also used Frank Zappa in his experimental music. Anthony Braxton, a jazz musician and academic, is one of the instrument’s most ardent supporters, employing it alongside the contrabass saxophone in a number of his avant-garde compositions.