Five years later

Five years later

Back in April 2012 Jean MacLeod’s Greater Syracuse School of Music organized a ukulele sing-in:

So they’ll be running a series of “Ukulele and Ice Cream Therapy” sessions on Wednesday nights this summer, meeting at various ice cream stands and playing together. Which strikes me as a great concept. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

Five years later, Jean’s retired and the GSSoM is no more, but Salt City Ukulele is here in its place — organized by Lisa Gaffaney, Kristine Marane, and me. Tonight was the last of six weekly beginners’ ukulele lessons. And Jean was there visiting and guest-teaching. Next week begins rehearsals in earnest for the fifth Ukulele and Ice Cream Therapy tour (we skipped 2014).

Where this goes is forward, looks like.


Ukulele accessories

Ukulele accessories

Along with your first ukulele, you will probably want a few other things. None of them is particularly necessary; you can play your uke without any of them, but some accessories will make it easier and better for you.


Item one, a case or gig bag. Even if you never take your ukulele anywhere (and why wouldn’t you?), your household might contain kids or pets an instrument should be protected against.

There are hard shell cases, which provide the best protection but are heavy and expensive. There are rigid foam cases, less protective, lighter, cheaper. There are gig bags or soft cases, minimally protective, lightest, cheapest.

I wouldn’t check a uke on an airplane without a hard shell case. Not that I’ve ever checked a uke on an airplane. They do fit in overhead racks pretty well. For not too stressful travels and home environments a good padded gig bag works well enough. But my two best ukes do have rigid foam cases, brand name Uke Crazy (from Kala, I’m pretty sure). They each have an internal compartment, an external compartment, and a strap for carrying. They’re both basic black. So are the gig bags for my concert (which came with it) and sopranino (from Caramel). You can get cases and gig bags in fun colors and prints… for a price. (My Phitz baritone soft case is blue.) Or you can make a gig bag, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you have a tenor ukulele you need a tenor ukulele size case or bag, of course, and likewise for other sizes. But even among tenor ukuleles there’s some variation in size, and what that means is, if you’re buying online, you need to either check with someone who knows whether a xxx case will fit your yyy ukulele, or be prepared to find out it doesn’t and you need to return it. Gig bags are probably less likely to suffer this problem, being non rigid, but there are no guarantees.


This time I mean the electronic device to assist in putting your ukulele in tune. You can get away without one. If you’re not playing with anyone else you can just put one string at what sounds like a reasonable pitch — obviously requiring a certain amount of experience — and tune the other three strings to that. No one will get upset at you for playing solo in D quarter flat tuning. Or, if you want to be at a specific absolute pitch, you can compare against an instrument known to be in tune, if you have one; there also are tuner smartphone apps available. But a clip on tuner is inexpensive, easy to use, and very handy. Because it hears vibrations through contact rather than through the air, you can use one to tune up while all around you are playing and talking. Of the two I have I like one better because of its clear and bright display; the one down side is it has only ukulele and chromatic modes so is harder to use for tuning a baritone ukulele. For that I prefer my other tuner, which has a guitar mode — baritones are tuned like the first four strings of a guitar, so that works. I haven’t named names here because the tuners I have aren’t on the market any more and my comments don’t really apply to their successors, but some good brand names are Kala, Lanikai, Fishman, Snark, Korg, and Planet Waves.

The batteries on these wear out eventually, so toss some spares in that case pocket, and for heaven’s sake don’t buy them at a drugstore or a mall watch repair booth that’ll soak you for five dollars each. Look around online for battery packs of 5 or so for a similar price or even less. (And look around for advice on avoiding counterfeit batteries, because there’s a lot of them.)


A wood, acoustic, soprano uke is a lot smaller and lighter than a guitar. Traditionally it’s played more or less hugged to the chest with the right forearm, and if that works for you, do it. Some people find this awkward, especially with larger and heavier ukuleles, more so with ones that have geared tuners and a correspondingly greater tendency for the head to sag if the left hand isn’t constantly supporting it. I prefer a lower playing position, with the right arm more relaxed and neither hand trying to support the instrument and play at the same time. So I usually use a strap.

Few ukes come with strap buttons installed. They’re cheap to buy, though, and easy to put on. Your music store will do it for you, or you can do it yourself if you have the nerve to take a drill to your uke. You can put one button on the tail and one on or near the heel of the neck, and use a guitar strap with button holes on both ends. Or you can just put one on the tail and use a strap with laces on one end which tie around the headstock. (My preference, for support at the head.) Then there are straps made for ukuleles that don’t require buttons. Some fasten around the waist of the uke body and others hook into the sound hole.

Music stand

Propping your song sheets up on a chair gets old quickly, and a folding music stand can be yours for under ten bucks. These are lightweight and compact, which is good for carrying, but not so good if you’re dealing with large heavy music books under which they tend to fall over easily. The groups I play with make use of the Daily Ukulele book and a locally produced book of songs both of which are a couple hundred pages, so I’ve moved beyond these stands. For transport I have a stand made by Hamilton and rebranded Stage Rocker. The legs fold up and the rigid desk detaches, and I got a bag to transport it in. It’s kind of a pain to carry around, but it’s way more sturdy and stable than a lightweight folding stand. Also you can get accessories like a drink holder that’ll mount on the post, which in our more beer-oriented group prevents a lot of spills. For home I have a Manhasset stand, not very portable but very sturdy. Manhassets are the standard stands, if you will; if you ever were in the band in school, you probably used Manhassets. They’re also not cheap. Unless you get them used from someone moving to Mexico.


If your uke came with decent strings, they shouldn’t need changing for… well, a while. Some people like to change strings every few months. Some let them stay on for years. It depends on how sensitive your ears and fingers are to their rate of degradation. Or, of course, on how much you want to try different strings to find some you like. I’m not much of a string changer myself; I have an extra set or two around in case of emergency but emergency string changes are pretty rare.


Particularly if you have a solid wood (not laminate) uke, you should take care it doesn’t get dried out in low humidity conditions. The number I’ve heard to stay above is 45%, though I don’t think there’s anything especially hard and fast about that. If you live in a warm and humid environment, or if you have an effective whole-house or room humidifier, that may not be a problem. In the winter in Syracuse, outside the basement, it is. If there’s a question, invest in a good hygrometer to be sure. Emphasis on “good”. I’ve found a lot of low cost hygrometers, including ones specifically marketed to owners of reptiles and wood clarinets (both of which can suffer expensive and heartbreaking deaths if subjected to the wrong humidity), are completely unreliable. If you can’t keep your ukes’ environment above 45%, you can build or adapt a cabinet to be a higher humidity storage area. Or you can keep your ukes in their cases and get a low cost case humidifier to keep the inside the case humidified — or you can make one.

Another uke

A ukulele gets bored and lonely if left on its own. You may want to get another to keep it company. Maybe several more.


How to buy your first ukulele

How to buy your first ukulele

There’s lots of advice out there on the web about how to buy a ukulele — and some of it, naturally is contradictory — which means, of course, you need to read several opinions and decide which you feel is best for you. So, here’s another set of opinions. Ready?


The first thing, or one of the first things, people wonder about is cost. How much do ukuleles cost? How much should you spend? With instruments generally, very often when people decide to take one up, they think “well, I’ll buy a cheap one and see if I really want to play before spending the money on a really good one”. Here’s the problem with that approach: the less you spend on an instrument, the less you’ll want to play it. Buy a cheap enough instrument and you can practically guarantee you won’t enjoy playing.

But I’m a beginner, a good instrument would be wasted on me! Nope. A beginner needs a good instrument more than a pro does. Give Chuck Berry the cheapest, crappiest guitar Wal-Mart carries and he can sound amazing on it, because he has the chops to deal with its shortcomings. A beginner is struggling with lack of knowledge and experience; why also struggle with a lousy instrument? I’ve been there. As a two-weeks-in beginner once I had a chance to play a really nice instrument (a concertina) and was blown away by how much better I could do with it than with my cheap one. Couldn’t afford it unfortunately…

But what if I decide it’s not the instrument for me? Sell it. A quality instrument’s resale value, if you buy it new and keep it in good condition, will approach what you paid for it. A cheap crappy instrument? Might as well just throw it away rather than try to resell it.

So how much should you spend? How much are you willing to spend? Spend that much. If you have $2000 in your pocket and you don’t have anything better to do with it than spend it on a ukulele, buy a $2000 ukulele. You can get yourself a beautiful, hand made instrument, one that sounds great and plays like a dream. You’ll love it. I’ll be mad jealous.

You probably aren’t willing to spend $2000. You don’t have to. If you have $200 to spend? Buy a $200 ukulele. You’ll get a mass produced instrument, not as beautiful, not as great sounding, but still fine.

If you have $75 to spend? Buy a $75 ukulele. You can get a perfectly serviceable, decent playing, fun instrument. You’re likely to want to upgrade later (not when you’re good enough — you’re good enough right now — but when you have the money) but it’ll do just fine until then.

If you have $20 to spend? Buy a pizza and rent a movie. Trust me, you’ll get more enjoyment out of them. Yes, there are ukulele-shaped objects out there available for $20 or $30. Generally they should stay out there. Probably they won’t play well, they won’t sound good, they won’t stay in tune, they’ll fall apart before you know it. Yes, you can get a good ukulele cheap, but usually not that cheap (unless you’re lucky enough to find a good used one and the seller isn’t trying to get as much as possible for it). You can do surprisingly well for under $50 (street price) but much lower than that is probably a bad idea.

Shapes and sizes

Ukes come in a lot of shapes and sizes, with various design features; some of these choices are really just matters of taste, others are things you might want to try out someday but probably should skip for your first instrument.

The most common sizes are known as soprano (small), concert (larger), and tenor (larger yet). Pick one of them. There also are sopranino (really small) and baritone (even larger) ukuleles, which a beginner probably should stay away from, and bass ukuleles which really are a whole different instrument, more short scale bass guitars than ukuleles. (You could start with a baritone uke, if you’re studying on your own with a teacher who knows baritone or a baritone uke book, but if you’re taking group lessons, forget it. The tuning is different.)

Left to right: Three soprano ukes, a tenor, a baritone, and a concert

Despite the names, soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles, as conventionally tuned, play at exactly the same pitch. In fact tenors usually can play higher notes than sopranos. The terminology is stupid, let’s face it. The difference in size has pretty much four implications, one aesthetic and three practical. The aesthetic: the different body sizes produce different tone qualities. The tenor resonates at lower frequencies, producing a sound with more (relative) bottom to it. Some people prefer the tenor sound, some prefer the soprano or the concert. Pick which one you like. (Of course other aspects of the instrument, like the material of the top, will also affect the tone quality.)

The practical: First, the larger instruments will have longer necks, with more space between frets. This may be a good thing, if you have fat fingers. (Less crowding when making certain chords.) It may be a bad thing, if you have short fingers! (More stretching when making certain chords.) If you don’t have unusually fat or short fingers, you can probably deal with any of the three. Second, concert and tenor necks usually are disproportionately long compared to soprano necks, with more frets — which is why they can play higher notes than sopranos. That’s pretty much irrelevant for a beginner; you won’t be playing above the twelfth fret any time soon. And third, soprano ukuleles tend to be more readily available at lower prices than concerts and tenors. That might be your deciding factor: for $150 you can get a better soprano than a tenor, and for $60 you aren’t likely to find a tenor worth buying. But if a concert or tenor appeals to you more and you are willing to pay the extra, by all means get one. And if it doesn’t, don’t. Simple!

Tenor uke (left) has larger body than soprano (right), more frets, more spacing between frets, and is upside down

As for shape, most of what’s out there is your basic guitar-shape uke, but there are pineapple-shape ones, pear-shape ones, round (grapefruit-shape?) ones, and others too. And they’re all fine, whatever feels and sounds good to you. There also are banjo ukuleles, which are built like small banjos with a skin head over a frame instead of a wood body. They tend to cost more, they sound different, they may require more TLC, and they are likely to be something you’ll be better off saving for later. But if you fall in love with a banjo uke, go ahead and get it. It’ll work.


There are some plastic ukuleles out there, and some that are partly plastic (plastic back and sides on the body, with a wood body top and neck). Some are even pretty good. Mostly, though, ukes are made of wood.

If you go by what the manufacturer or seller tells you, there’s “wood” and then there’s “solid wood”. As opposed to liquid or gaseous wood? No. “Wood” means “laminate” and “solid wood” means “not laminate”, and “laminate” means, essentially, “plywood”. Not quite the same plywood Home Depot sells in 3/4″ thicknesses, but the same idea: cheaper wood, sliced thin and glued together in layers.

As you might imagine, laminate tends to be used on cheaper instruments, solid wood on more expensive ones. But ignore anyone who tries to tell you laminate instruments are trash and you should never consider anything but solid wood. There are some very decent laminate instruments available. Does solid wood sound enough better to justify paying the higher price? You decide; it’s your money. If a laminate uke sounds good enough to you, don’t be afraid to buy it.

Laminates do have one advantage: They’re more resistant to cracking. Cracking can be a problem with any wood instrument, especially if it’s stored in low humidity conditions. Your home might have a humidifier, or you can buy or make an inexpensive humidifier (pretty much just a sponge in a container with little holes) to go with your instrument inside its case, to get you through the dry winter months if that’s what your local climate is. But if humidification is a problem and dry air is a concern, a laminate instrument is less likely to be damaged by it.

Again, sometimes you find a mix: laminate back and sides, solid top.

Which wood? You can find ukes made of traditional Hawaiian koa, or mahogany, acacia, spruce, maple, or lots of other woods. If it’s laminate it doesn’t much matter: the acacia or whatever is just a veneer. If it’s solid wood, it still matters relatively little what the back and sides of the body are made of. The top is where the sound is produced, and there, the wood makes the most difference. Mahogany makes for a warmer tone than spruce, for example. But it comes down to what sound and what visual appearance you prefer. And your budget, of course. Koa costs a lot more than spruce. And again again, often you’ll find different woods on the top than on the back and sides.

Other features

There are a few different kinds of tuners — the things you turn to tune up the strings, I mean, as opposed to the electronic devices you use to see if you’re in tune, which confusingly are also called tuners. The most traditional type is friction tuners, which you can find in some of the highest quality ukuleles available. And some not so highest. They’re like violin pegs, pressed tightly into a hole, turned directly and relying on friction to stay in place. Aside from presenting a traditional appearance they have the advantage of light weight. On a little soprano uke the weight of the tuners can be a significant fraction of the whole, and friction tuners throw off the balance of the instrument less. On the other hand they can be very finicky to use.

Geared tuners are heavier, and lack the traditional look, but are easier to use. If you play with a strap, the weight and balance issue is pretty much moot. Most lower cost ukes will have geared tuners. They can be sealed or open. Open tuners generally have an screw lacking (or at least inaccessible) on sealed tuners, allowing you to adjust the tightness, but that’s not a big issue most of the time. It’s possible to swap between open and sealed tuners. Changing between geared and friction is usually impractical, though there are planetary geared tuners that look like friction and can be more readily substituted for them.

Amplification: Most ukes are purely acoustic, but some have pickups built in to allow plugging into an amp. They may have volume and equalization controls on board. Of course these add cost (and a bit of weight), but if amplification appeals to you, check them out. There also are solid body electric ukes, usually with magnetic pickups, for all your rock ukulele needs. Probably not what you’d pick for a first uke.

Ukulele strings usually are nylon or fluorocarbon or some other such synthetic. Originally gut, of course, and it’s still possible to get gut strings, if that’s your thing. Magnetic pickup electric ukes will use steel strings, but otherwise ukes generally aren’t built for the higher tension of steel strings and they should be avoided. What strings are on a ukulele when you buy it may be an unspecified factory brand (often terrible, on low cost ukes). Or not. A lot of ukes come these days with Aquila strings, a pretty well regarded brand with a reputation for being an especially good choice to bring out the best in a cheaper uke. There are lots of other brands and multiple varieties within brands, though, and you can have your music store install something else or just buy the strings and put them on yourself (it’s pretty easy). Best advice is probably to slap some Aquila Nylguts on if it comes with no-name strings.

(Note that some people like to play in linear, as opposed to re-entrant, tuning. If you don’t know what that means, just know that for your first uke, you probably want re-entrant tuning, commonly called high G, not linear or low G, strings and setup.)


Speaking of setup… A good music store can adjust the setup on a ukulele — adjusting string heights, dealing with slightly uneven frets, and so on. Some people insist a factory setup uke needs to have this done. I haven’t worried about it with mine and so far I’ve been reasonably happy. If you encounter buzzy strings, uneven tone, or intonation problems, having a setup done might be a good idea.

Where to buy

Ideally you’d walk into a brick and mortar music store with a good selection of different types and brands of ukuleles. You’d talk to a knowledgeable salesperson who would help you select some good candidates, show and explain the features, and let you try them out for as long as it takes to figure out what you like and dislike. Then you’d go to another few stores and do the same.

Lucky you. You live in Hawaii, don’t you?

If you’re like a lot of us you might have two or one or zero stores nearby with any quality ukuleles at all, and a staff whose knowledge of ukuleles ends at “smaller than a Stratocaster”. A road trip might improve the situation, but this is starting to get ridiculous if you’re just looking for a $60 basic instrument.

You can shop online instead. There are big downsides. You can’t try before you buy. You can’t compare and select — unless you buy several instruments and then take advantage of a generous return policy. You need a knowledgeable friend (who also could help with local stores with dopey staff) or you’re on your own. On the other hand the selection is huge and the prices often beat brick and mortar prices, so there’s some tradeoff.

I’ve bought most of my ukes online — all but one in fact. I’ve never had a serious problem, but I don’t recommend it if you have good brick and mortar alternatives. Look for vendors with good reputations (check reviews, check at ukulele online forums, ask knowledgeable friends) and good return policies. Shop carefully, keep your eyes open, and you’ll probably do okay.


Some ukulele brands I’ve either had experience with or heard good things about, focusing on low to mid price ranges:

  • Caramel: This looks dangerous, an online seller shipping mass produced instruments direct from China with suspiciously low prices. Yet I did make an impulse buy of one of their sopranino ukuleles and found it to be surprisingly good, very decent build quality. There are some generally quite favorable online discussions of their ukes in more traditional sizes too. I’m not sure I’d advise a beginner to shop from them, but if you have a uke-playing friend to check out what you get, it might not be a mistake to try them.

    Caramel sopranino uke
    Caramel sopranino uke
  • Islander: Kanile’a makes well respected higher end instruments by hand in Hawaii. Recently they’ve been importing mass produced, good quality ukes from Asia which they sell under their Islander brand. I have an Islander tenor I’ve been very happy with.

    Islander tenor ukulele
  • Kala: This is one of the biggest names in mass produced, Asian import ukuleles. Large selection, varied prices. Their Makala line is the lower end, and lately they’ve introduced their Kala USA line of higher end instruments made in California. My first uke was a solid wood Kala soprano and it’s still one of my favorites. I also have a Makala Dolphin, a surprisingly nice instrument at a very low price. Not as pretty or as good sounding, but it plays well and is cheap and sturdy enough to take anywhere without worrying about it. (There’s at least one in Antarctica!) Makalas generally are an excellent choice if your budget is near the bottom end.

    Kala and Makala soprano ukuleles
  • Lanikai: This is Hohner’s ukulele brand, if you know Hohner. Mass produced in Asia, again (though, like Kala, it looks like they’re recently starting to make upscale instruments in America, specifically Hawaii), and also a good choice for a low cost instrument. I have a Lanikai baritone uke I like.

    Lanikai baritone ukulele
    Lanikai baritone ukulele
  • Luna: I’ve never played one for long, but Lunas tend to be very pretty looking and people I know seem to be happy with them.
  • Mainland: I’ve never even seen one in the flesh, but Mainlands have a great reputation online. Called “Mainland” because the company (really a guy named Mike) is headquartered in Indiana; the ukuleles, again, come from Asian factories.
  • Magic Fluke: So far as I know this is the only company making lower cost ukuleles in the United States. Western Massachusetts, specifically; I’ve visited their little factory/showroom. Quirky instruments, with wood tops and rounded resin backs, similar to Ovation guitars. Flat bottom oval shapes that can be stood up on end. Friction tuners and resin fretboards with molded-in frets are standard but you can order upgrades. I used to have a Flea soprano and liked it okay, but sold it because I was playing my Kala more.

    Magic Fluke Flea soprano ukulele
    Magic Fluke Flea soprano ukulele
  • Ohana: I haven’t played an Ohana, but they’re another major, well regarded importer of mass produced Asian ukes.


I want to move here:
and start up a ukulele group specializing in swing music. I’ll call it Uke Ellington.
Or something. I’ve actually got a list of 1920s–1940s songs, some I know, some I’m working on, some I’d like to learn sometime. At the moment it’s:
  • Ain’t Misbehaving
  • All of Me
  • Anything Goes
  • As Time Goes By
  • Chattanooga Choo Choo
  • Don’t Get Around Much Any More
  • Dream a Little Dream of Me
  • Goody Goody
  • I Got Rhythm
  • I’m Beginning to See the Light
  • In the Mood
  • Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby
  • It Had To Be You
  • It’s Only a Paper Moon
  • Makin’ Whoopee
  • My Walking Stick
  • A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
  • On the Sunny Side of the Street
  • Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone
  • Puttin’ On the Ritz
  • Sentimental Journey
  • Straighten Up and Fly Right
  • Swinging On a Star
  • Take the “A” Train
  • Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye

Antique (ca 2013) musical instruments

Antique (ca 2013) musical instruments

I went to look for the blog posts where I showed off the instruments I built back in summer 2013 and discovered there were no such posts. Some pictures in progress but none of the completed objects. Bad blogger! Bad!

So, okay, here they are: One diddley bow, and one fretless 3-string cigar box guitar. Nothing objectively notable about either, but I enjoyed making them. And no, I still haven’t gotten around to learning to play them, so they hang on the wall. Someday maybe.

Also someday maybe I’ll get back to the fretted cigar box guitar I started building not long thereafter, and never got very far with.

img_1931 img_1925

The ukes of now

IMG_8209The ukes I have at the moment, in seniority order:

  • Grizzly soprano (bought the kit first but finished building it third)
  • Kala lacewood soprano
  • Makala dolphin soprano
  • Islander tenor
  • Lanikai baritone
  • Epiphone Les Paul concert

That it, and that’s about all I need, other than a banjo uke, well, one each in two or three sizes, and various sizes of solid body electrics, and a sopranino. That’s probably enough. Oh, and a bass, or maybe two basses…

Instruments for nerds

Q. What’s the definition of a nerd?

A. Someone who owns his own alto clarinet.

Alto clarinets get no respect.

When I was in the sixth grade, having taken clarinet lessons for about a year and a half, I was assigned to play our school’s new bass clarinet, and I liked it a lot despite my being not a whole lot larger than the instrument case. But the next year, when I went to junior high school, there were more incoming bass clarinetists than the bands had need or instruments for, so after a couple months back in the soprano clarinet section, I started on alto clarinet and played that for the rest of that year and the next.

Now, even the bass clarinet is not exactly the world’s most familiar instrument. Most people when they see one think it’s some sort of saxophone. And indeed the modern bass clarinet was developed by Adolph Sax, but whereas a saxophone is a conical bore instrument — thinnest at the top and then gradually widening toward the bell — and usually made of brass, the bass clarinet is (like the regular “soprano” clarinet) cylindrical — the same diameter all the way through, except for the bell — and aside from the neck and bell is usually made of wood or, for student instruments, plastic or hard rubber. (The shape difference isn’t merely visual aesthetics; it accounts for most of the differences in tone between clarinets and saxophones.)

Bass clarinet

The alto clarinet looks pretty much like the bass clarinet, but smaller, halfway in size between the bass and soprano; the three sizes are a family, or rather part of a family.

Alto clarinet

There also are E♭ and A♭ clarinets, shorter and higher pitched than the B♭ and A sopranos; the G clarinet; the basset horn, similar to an alto clarinet but with an extended lower range; the contra-alto and contrabass clarinets, an octave below the alto and bass, respectively; and a lot of other oddballs rarely seen.

The E♭, B♭, A, and bass clarinets are common in orchestral music. The little A♭ is, so I understand, used mostly in Italian marching bands. The basset horn enjoyed popularity in the 18th century but fell out of favor, but it was apparently one of Mozart’s favorite instruments and he wrote a few pieces for it, and a couple of later composers did too, so while it’s rare it has credentials. The contras are pretty uncommon, but do find a good deal of use in movie and TV soundtrack music.

The alto, hardly anyone likes. It’s used almost nowhere but in wind bands, and pretty rarely even there. Many music directors have no use for it. They complain about the quality of its sound, and they say it can’t do anything that could equally well be done by the sopranos and basses.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me those arguments are specious. If an alto clarinet doesn’t sound good, it presumably is either because of the instrument or the player. Sopranos, basses, and basset horns all sound fine; there’s no inherent reason an alto shouldn’t sound fine, too, provided it’s been designed, built, and maintained well. But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem; the instrument gets no respect, so no one puts enough effort into making them sound good, so they get no respect. Add to that the tendency school directors have of keeping the really talented players on soprano and putting the not-so-good ones on alto (and bass) (yes, I’m looking at me here).

And yes, the alto’s range can be covered on the high end by the soprano and on the low end by the bass. But the viola is in a similar relationship to the violin and cello, and the tenor sax to the alto and baritone. People don’t go around — well, not as many people, anyway — advocating tossing violas and tenor saxes into the trash.

At the high school music concerts I’ve been to lately, there’ve been quite a few violas, and several tenor saxes. Not an alto clarinet in sight, though.

Nor were there any when I went to high school. We’d moved to a new school district, and I told the band director I played alto clarinet. He pointed to the top level of the instrument shelves and said “Our alto clarinets are up there. We don’t use them.” Turned out the be all right with me, though, because there was a vacancy in the bass clarinet section; if I’d known that, I wouldn’t even have mentioned the alto clarinet. I happily played bass for those four years, even though a year or two later the band director changed his mind, got the alto clarinets down off the shelf again, and assigned a couple of clarinetists to play them.

It wasn’t until some years later I learned a bit about the history of these instruments. Because of the length of its bore, it’s hard to make a viable bass clarinet without a lot of long key levers, springs, and pads, technology that wasn’t really developed until about the early 1800s. Not that people didn’t try; after all, bassoons had been around a long time before that, with a bore even longer than that of a bass clarinet. Bassoons make the long bore more tractable by folding it in half: it goes down from the gooseneck-shaped bocal to the bottom of the instrument, through a u-bend, and back up to the bell at the top. That helped early bassoons manage without long key levers; so did tricks like making the wooden walls of the tube thick and drilling the finger holes at an angle, so that they were widely spaced inside the instrument (where the spacing matters acoustically) but close together on the outside (where you need to reach them with your fingers).

But bassoons aren’t very loud or resonant, and especially for outdoor use they don’t provide a very strong bass section to a wind band. And in the 18th century valved brass instruments hadn’t been developed, either; there were no sousaphones! It turns out cylindrical instruments can get an octave lower with the same bore length than conical ones, so it must have seemed a natural idea to try to build clarinets an octave lower than the standard ones, and to make them bassoon style, with a folded bore, to make them easier to handle while marching. Heinrich Grenser gets the credit for the earliest known example in 1793. Here’s one from about 40 years later by Catterini:

Glicibarifono by Catterini

Other makers built similar instruments, and others before and after experimented with other designs, including this oddity from Nicola Papalini.

Bass clarinet by Papalini

As for alto clarinets, the closely related basset horn goes back to the mid 1700s, but the earliest reference to a more or less modern alto in Europe is one played by Iwan Müller in 1809.

Oddly enough, though, the bass and alto clarinets may have been independently invented in the United States. George Catlin was making musical instruments in Hartford, Connecticut, and by 1810 was making something he called a “clarion” which was in fact a bassoon-shaped bass clarinet, similar to but different from Grenser’s and others being made in Europe. Whether he developed it on his own or knew of the European basses isn’t known. Apparently he and his students built and sold a fair number of these.

And there’s one extant instrument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that’s cataloged as an “alto clarion”; while it has no markings, it bears a strong family resemblance to Catlin’s basses, but is smaller — an E♭ instrument, that is, a bassoon-shaped alto clarinet, dated circa 1820. It’s one of the oldest alto clarinets in existence.

Alto clarion, attributed to George Catlin

I’ve never really gotten the appeal Pinterest has for some people as a social media platform, but I do find it useful as a repository for interesting images, and one of my Pinterest boards is “Oddwinds“: unusual woodwind and brass instruments. Somewhat weirdly to me, one of the most often repinned pictures from Oddwinds is the Catlin-style alto clarion. Why? I have no idea. The bassoon-shaped bass clarinets get much less attention.

So maybe, if Selmer wants to start selling more alto clarinets, they should try making them bassoon shaped. Something in that might just appeal to people for some reason.

Then again, the most-repinned Oddwinds picture is a quarter tone clarinet.

Quarter tone clarinet

And I doubt Selmer could sell many of those.

Disclaimer: Not all photos are mine. Click through for copyright and licensing.

Other Disclaimer: I own my own alto clarinet.



Ukulele and Ice Cream Therapy: Summer 2013

Here’s the schedule for this year’s Ukulele and Ice Cream Therapy sessions. Six Wednesdays, skipping 31 July. Start time is 7:00 pm. Come listen, bring a chair, have a cone.

7/10—Carol’s Polar Parlor, 3800 W. Genesee St. Syracuse 13219

7/17—Jolime Ice Cream, Taft Road at Chuck Hafner’s Garden Store, Liverpool 13090

7/24—Gannon’s in the Valley, 1525 Valley Drive at Seneca Tpke., Syracuse 13207

8/7— Sno-Top, Rt. 92, Manlius, 13104

8/14—Plank Road Ice Cream, 449 South Main Street (Rt. 11) North Syracuse 13212

8/21—Peter’s Polar Parlor, 3345 Milton Ave., (nr. Onondaga Rd.) Syracuse 13219