All About the A-Flat Clarinet
Most clarinetists are familiar with the core members of the clarinet family, from the unwieldy contrabass clarinet to the tiny E-flat clarinet, but there is one “black sheep” of the clarinet family – the A-flat clarinet.
If you think the E-flat is small and shrill, you’re in for a rude awakening when you hear the A-flat clarinet. Not only have I have performed and recorded on the A-flat clarinet with a clarinet choir, but I have lived to tell the tale! Many people share my fascination and curiosity of this unusual instrument, so I’d like to share some information and my personal experience with this beast.
Let’s start with the basics: the A-flat clarinet is the absolute smallest instrument in the clarinet family (unless we include decorative Christmas tree ornaments), measuring just over a foot in length. The mouthpiece is about the size of a medium thimble, and the reeds are similar to large paperclips. The mechanics of the instrument are the same as soprano clarinets, but the upper and lower joints are combined into one piece (like the E-flat clarinet). The instrument is so tiny that it can easily fit inside the bell of a contra clarinet. The first time I tried to play a scale, my right pinky hit the bell instead of the pinky keys.
So why did I choose to play this oversized toy? Much like the wand chooses the wizard, the A-flat clarinet chooses the musician, except its choice is based mostly on hand size.
The A-flat piccolo clarinet was most commonly used in Italian military bands during the first few decades of the 20th century. A few famous composers used this instrument in their music, most notably Verdi and Bartok. Bartok includes A-flat clarinet in his rarely-performed “Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 2,” with many passages in unison with the soprano clarinet. Verdi used this instrument in a few of his operas, and John Tavener used it in his “Celtic Requiem.”
Although very rare and seldom produced, there are a few companies which manufacture A-flat clarinets today. Buffet Crampon has produced a small number of A-flat clarinets throughout the years and still makes them for special orders today. Leblanc produced A-flat clarinets during their production years, and these instruments can occasionally still be found today. Ripamonti, Orsi, and Schwenk & Seggelke also manufacture A-flat clarinets. Vandoren produces reeds and mouthpieces for the A-flat clarinet. The A-flat clarinet that I used for my performances was a Leblanc, and I used a Vandoren mouthpiece and reeds.
The range of an A-flat clarinet is from low E to altissimo G or higher, depending on your ability level. The fingerings are the same as other clarinets, but I had to invent and use special fingerings in the altissimo register for tuning and timbral purposes. Because the instrument is so small, the overall tuning is erratic, and the timbre can be thin and nasal. My advice to anyone playing this instrument is to sit down with a tuner and get creative with your fingerings to find what works best on your particular instrument. To achieve the upper altissimo register, use fast air and support the sound so it doesn’t crack or squeak (although to be honest, the altissimo register all sounds like squeaks on this instrument).
To get used to the tiny fingerboard of the A-flat clarinet, I practiced Baermann scales and Rose etudes very slowly. This also helped to listen to the tuning tendencies of the instrument. Most people will have to have a more rounded hand position when playing this instrument, using the fingertips instead of the pads of your fingers. I highly recommend getting an expert clarinet repair technician to check for any problems which prevent the instrument from playing at its optimal level – it’s difficult enough already, so it’s important to get your A-flat clarinet in pristine working condition.
I performed the A-flat clarinet on several of Lucien Cailliet’s clarinet choir arrangements, and I recorded the A-flat clarinet variation of Paul Harvey’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Clarinet Choir (which you can listen to here). During the recording session for this CD, the recording engineers would give comments and feedback after each take. After the first take of the A-flat clarinet variation, there was only laughter (hopefully at the instrument, and not my playing!).
I hope I’ve given enough information to quell your curiosity and help any potential A-flatters out there!
Here are some pictures from my A-flat clarinet journey:
The smallest and largest members of the clarinet family.
A box of Vandoren A-flat clarinet reeds (notice how the B-flat and E-flat clarinets are crossed out)
An old Leblanc photo with the entire clarinet family, with the A-flat is front and center
Where can you get an Ab clarinet?
(do not publish)
I recently contacted Orsi, and got the following quote:
Prof. ROMEO ORSI Srl
Jun 18, 2020, 10:21 AM
Thanks for your contact, following as requested:
– Ab Clarinet mod. 21FB 17/6 keys + Eb lever
Ebony body – silver plating keys
Complete with case and Vandoren Mtp
– Price: €/Euros 5.380,00 transport included
VAT escluded at your charge
– The delivery time is about september
– Payment in advance at order by transfer order to our bank
Awaiting your evidence, best regards
Prof. Romeo Orsi Srl
Phone +39 (0)331 823119
(The Euro is kind of high now, so that’s about US$6050)
Where can I buy an a flat clarinet?
Kenton M Scott
How much different in size is the Ab mouthpiece from the Eb mouthpiece?
The Ab mouthpiece is considerably smaller, and the reeds are about the size of a large paper clip.
I’m arranging a song for a clarinet choir and was hoping to add the Ab Pic Cl to the choir. My only problem is that I’m not 100% sure what its tuning note is. Thank you
I would tune the same “good tuning” notes you would use for soprano clarinets (I like low C, middle C, and top line F), but each A-flat clarinet has its own tuning difficulties. It’s best to consult with the A-flat clarinetist you expect to perform your work and see how that particular instrument tunes. Good luck!
Steven H. Norton
It looks like ‘Ripa’ is the same as Ripamonti, perhaps ? Here is an Ab (>$4K) on their Web site:
Perhaps it is the same. Regardless, this is a great deal for the rare Ab clarinet – I wonder how they play!
I’ve been interested in scoring for the A-flat clarinet for a while now, but none of the recordings I could find gave me confidence that it could be tamed enough to be usable in a serious context. The sound you get out of it in the example you link, though, is perfectly serviceable. A valuable reference to have.
Thank you so much! Let me know if you have any questions if you decide to score for A-flat clarinet. Good luck!
I have a ab clarinet orsi. This is in new condition. No used. I would like sell.
hi is this still for sale-how uch is it and where are you please?
Where can I get an A flat clarinet that is not a fortune. I want to know if I can get one that is cheap. Thank You!
Since they’re so rare, they are usually quite expensive. I would keep an eye out on eBay and clarinet groups on social media for anyone selling one. Good luck!
Thank you so much for such a great article. I had the honor of playing an A-flat clarinet back in All County Band in high school. I was sitting first chair and the conductor brought one for me to play on a certain piece of music. I was in awe of it! I’ve never seen one since but have often thought about it over the years. That was back in 1978. How fun it would be to have one now to play in our community band. Thanks for bringing back fond memories!
Thank you so much for your kind words, Barb! I’m glad you have such fond memories of this unusual instrument!
Where can I get a piccolo clarinet? I’m a student who plays clarinet. I’ve been trying to purchase one for some time now.
Hi Alexa, Are you looking for a piccolo clarinet in E-flat or A-flat? E-flats are more readily available and can be purchased through many clarinet companies (online and in person). A-flats are harder to come by and quite expensive, as only a few companies regularly produce them. Regularly check for used instruments online (eBay, social media, clarinet forums like the bboard, etc). If you are looking for a new one, I would contact Ripamonti, Orsi, or Schwenk & Seggelke to see what they have available. Good luck!
im doing an essay on clarinets can you give me a history segmen on the Ab clarinet please i would really appriciate it.
Salut, je viens d’Italie, je suis spécialisé dans la clarinette A flat, je visite certaines de mes vidéos Youtube, je cherche d’autres instrumentistes qui le jouent ou qui me connaissent à ce sujet….contact
Where can I buy A flat clarinet (piccolo)? Can you help me ? Is little confusing to searching for it? And find it?
Hi Val, I listed the companies which still produce A-flat clarinets in the article, so I would contact them to see if they have any available. If not, you can always keep an eye out on eBay or other second-hand dealers. Good luck!
Martin Foag in Germany also makes Ab clarinets — both in wood and in metal: http://www.musik-foag.de/index.php/en/clarinet-manufacturing
Yeah these are quite unique little things I’ve always wanted a leblanc one, but they’re quite hard to find, and most of the people you have them or not willing to get rid of them even if they don’t play them/play them well. :( we have a few pieces that call for it, but cant play without the instrumen can we?
They are quite hard to track down, but I’ve seen them occasionally on eBay. Our only option until you get one is to transpose for E-flat, but it doesn’t have the same ear-splitting effect ;)
Yes. They sure do. But, that is half the fun! I personally still feel that they can sound evey bit as wonderful with practice, but in my experience very few people can play them well. The only time I’ve ever been able to play one was when someone lend me one and I ironically played it better than he did. But he refused to sell it to me because it was part of his collection. I keep waiting for that lucky day I can find one on eBay. And actually win it.
Maybe we would have a better assortment of A-flat players if we had a better assortment of A-flat clarinets available to practice! I agree that any instrument can sound great with enough practice. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you to find your very own A-flat to add to your collection!
Do you have suggestions for concert band works with Ab sopranino clarinet? I conduct the Indiana Wind Symphony and one of our clarinet players just got one, and I’d like to put on a work for it.
I’m only aware of the A-flat clarinet used in clarinet choirs and military bands in Europe during the early to mid 1900s, although I don’t know any specific pieces. Perhaps you can transpose the E-flat clarinet part if your student wants to use her A-flat. Might I ask where your student got her A-flat clarinet and what model it is?
I was given a simple system A flat clarinet but finding a mouthpiece is something else
Any ideas Jenny
That’s awesome about your A flat clarinet! I use the Vandoren A-flat mouthpiece (there is only one model), which is a great mouthpiece and is available upon request.
This seems like an interesting instrument indeed! :) I’m an amateur arranger and I have had plans of including the A-flat clarinet in my varition series for wind orchestra from the very beginning. But the problem might be that there are not many people out there who play the E-flat clarinet well to begin with so … when the A-flat clarinet is so rare … it won’t be easy.
… okay .. So what I am curious about is of course the differences in character and tone quality, how soft it is possible to play etc. in comparison to the E-flat clarinet. eb2 to bb2 sounds really nice and beautiful on an E-flat clarinet, but an eb3 (or db3 for that matter) already sounds a bit squeaky – so where does the A-flat clarinet start to sound unruly and is it possible to play pianissimo above c3?
Thanks for your comment – it’s always great to have arrangers utilize the lesser-known members of the clarinet family! There is a noticeable difference in tone quality and character between the Eb and Ab clarinet. Imagine the difference between the Bb and A clarinets, then multiply that several times. Because the Ab clarinet is so small, it can sound nasal, brittle, and sometimes plain obnoxious. Because Ab clarinets are so rarely used, manufacturers don’t spend the time and effort improving them as much as the more common members of the clarinet family. The Ab begins to sound unruly above high C, so I would avoid writing anything in this register at a softer volume. Also, try to avoid writing for Eb and Ab clarinets together, especially in unison. I’ve performed the Lucien Cailliet “Marriage of Figaro Overture” on Ab doubling the Eb part, and it wasn’t an experience I would care to repeat. I hope this helps!
Why Ab and not Bb.
I don’t have a primary source handy, but I’ve read somewhere that this was a compromise so that it would playable by more people. The Ab is already small enough to prevent some from playing it.
To go from Ab to Bb, the clarinet would have to be smaller and make it virtually impossible to play with the keywork
So do you also have a G clarinet (just slightly larger than the Ab) which is used in Viennese Schrammelmusik?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a G clarinet, although I’d love one in my collection!
I have a LeBlanc A Flat, too. But low notes of this horn are quite high (Ex. the C sounds like C sharp), is this a design problem?
I never had tuning issues with the lower register of the Ab clarinet that I was using, but I think tuning varies from instrument to instrument. Try adding some right hand fingers to lower the pitch and see if that lowers it.
Hope this helps!
Thanks for your advice, I’ll try it. :)
Hi, I just bought a Leblanc Ab clarinet, but have found it to be nightmarishly out of tune with itself. The chalumeau is about a seventh higher than the corresponding notes in their upper octaves. I have a lot of experience on Eb clarinets (including a Leblanc), so I expected an Ab to be more manageable for me that this one is turning out to be.
I tried pulling out the barrel at least 1/8″, but that brought the clarion down in pitch just as much as it did the chalumeau. I tried compensating by using a looser embouchure for the chalumeau, but even if I did that as much as I would for Greek folkloric playing (opa!), it wasn’t quite enough to bridge the tuning gap — and the timbral difference between the chalumeau played loose and the clarion played as tightly as possible was ludicrous (upper register: marching in tight formation in full military dress uniform; lower register, smoke-filled taverna, ouzo flowing freely…!).
It has an unmarked mouthpiece. I see that you used a Vandoren. Do you think just getting a Vandoren mouthpiece will help solve these problems?
For any member of the clarinet family, I would try as many different equipment options as possible to find what produces your best sound and makes playing the easiest for you. I would recommend starting with the Vandoren Ab mouthpiece to see if this fixes any issues you’re having.
Thanks! Still waiting for the Vandoren mo to show up… meanwhile, I found that carefully tuning chalumeau c# to A440 means pulling out the barrel 4mm, which then puts the rest of the instrument better in tune with itself.
This clarinet has probably no poly-cilindrical boring, and in this case the design will cause you playing sharp in the chalumeau register between g and c. I am not a real expert on small clarinets, but I suppose that the bore will be relatively large, which would worsen the effect. As Jenny has pointed out elsewere, the instrument is so rare that builders don’t care to finetune the acoustical properties. There would go too much work and costs into the devellopement and design to produce it at a reasonable prize. In general I am not very happy with the acoustical properties of E-flat clarinets either. As players we are sentenced to deal with it, I am afraid.
Hello would you maybe be interested in selling your Leblanc Ab?
Good work! Interesting and informative. That’s the first picture I’ve seen of all the clarinet family instruments in one place.
Thank you – it’s quite a large family, isn’t it?
How much would an Ab Clarinet be?
LA Ripamonti sells them for about 3800 euros. I bought one about 7 years ago for about $3500
Hi Connor, this is weird because I have a friend named Connor but I saw that they range from $400-$750.
How much did you pay for your Ab sopranino clarinet, and where did you find it?