The clarinet is a fantastic woodwind instrument to learn if you’re interested in jazz.

It was one of the most important instruments in the early development of traditional New Orleans jazz in the early 20th century and it’s a lot of fun to play, especially when you’re playing with others. If you’re new to the instrument, read on to learn the basics of how to play clarinet.

During the early development of jazz in New Orleans, the clarinet was featured in almost every frontline horn section. Its popularity extended into the Big Band era with players and bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Woody Herman gaining huge popularity during the 1940s.

Although its popularity has been overtaken by the saxophone, the clarinet is still an incredibly versatile and fun instrument to play if you want to learn jazz. To help you get started, we’ve put together a handy beginners guide on how to play clarinet.

We recommend seeking out a good teacher to help you learn the basics of clarinet fingering, good technique and clarinet embouchure. Follow the steps below and enjoy your new instrument!

Purchase, Borrow or Rent a Suitable Clarinet

If you’re a beginner clarinet player, we suggest purchasing a plastic Bb clarinet because wood clarinets are generally more expensive and can be trickier to keep in tune. You can find plastic clarinets in music stores or online.

The majority of beginners will start on the B flat clarinet but if you’d prefer something a bit different, take a look at a few alternatives like the bass clarinet, alto clarinet and the C clarinet.

Selecting a soft reed (2 to 2 and a half) will be most beneficial when you’re a beginner, and you can swap to stronger reeds once you’ve got more experience. For jazz, many players choose to stick with a soft-medium strength reed as it gives the instrument a brighter tone.

There are two main types of reed – French and American. French clarinet reeds are best suited to classical but if you’re wanting to learn jazz, an American reed is the way to go as it offers a brighter sound.

If you’re looking for more detail on this topic, you can find our guide to the best clarinet reeds here.

Ensure You Are Holding The Clarinet Properly

Once you have assembled your new clarinet, it’s time to practice playing. When you are holding your clarinet, it should be held away from you at roughly a 45-degree angle.

Make sure to keep your head raised and your back straight.

You should move the clarinet towards your mouth rather than lean your mouth into the clarinet. Hold the lower stack with your right hand, with your thumb placed on the thumb rest.

Three fingers should rest on the three keys.

Use your left hand to hold the clarinet, and place your thumb on the octave key at the back.

Three fingers should on the three keys at the bottom of the top stack. When you start to play the clarinet for the first time, you need to make sure the keyholes are completely covered by your fingers while playing notes, otherwise, no sound will come out.

Make Sure To Wet The Reed

Before you start playing, use a small amount of saliva to wet the reed. This is an important step as it will prevent the clarinet from sounding squeaky.

Place The Clarinet In Your Mouth Properly

Don’t put too much of your bottom lip on the reed and make sure to open your throat. Place your bottom lip against your teeth, chin flat, and put the clarinet mouthpiece on your bottom lip, with your teeth placed on top of the mouthpiece, opposite the reed side.

This will allow you to make the perfect clarinet embouchure, which is the shape your lips make when you play.

A good embouchure means your clarinet will make the best sounds possible because of an adequate amount of pressure on the reed rather than too much or too little.

Practising your embouchure without playing is a good way to start.

Place Your Mouth Firmly Around The Mouthpiece

Try to keep your mouth tight around the mouthpiece to prevent air from escaping. If air does escape, the clarinet won’t make any sound. You need to make sure there is a firm seal between your mouth and the clarinet.

While you have the clarinet in your mouth ready to play, point your tongue towards the reed, but don’t touch it.

Blow Into The Mouthpiece

With your mouth placed tightly around the mouthpiece, you can try to make some sounds. The first thing to do is simply blow into the mouthpiece and try to play an even tone. If you blow an even tone with no keys pressed, this is called an open G.

A clarinet takes quite a lot of air to produce a good sound. Taking some time to practice getting a large quantity of air into your lungs will help you to blow stronger notes on your clarinet.

If you sit with your shoulders back and a straight back, you open up your diaphragm and lungs, which allows you to take more air into them. It’s important to incorporate breathing techniques into playing the clarinet, too.

When you breathe in, fill your lungs with air from the bottom to the top and support the airflow with your diaphragm.

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t master blowing an even tone at first, it takes some time to get used to the technique. Experiment with different amounts of breath and different paces to better understand what you need to do to produce strong, even tones.

A teacher will help you achieve a good sound, so be sure to book a lesson.

Keep Your Cheeks Tight

Beginner clarinet players sometimes struggle to not puff their cheeks out while playing. Keeping your cheeks as tight as possible can help you blow a more even tone.

Check Your Mouth And Reed Positions

If you are struggling to play or the clarinet is producing squeaking sounds, it may help to check that the reed is lined up properly and that your mouth is positioned correctly on the mouthpiece.

Practice Playing A Few Notes

Press some of the keys with your fingers to try out the different notes on the clarinet. You will notice that the strength of your blow needs to change with the notes. You will also be able to tell how to make high notes and low notes by experimenting with them.

When you first start to learn the clarinet, experimentation is a big part of your practice, especially if you want to learn how to improvise.

Once you feel comfortable with the instrument, be sure to join a band or orchestra in your area to practice your new skills. A big band is a great place to start for learning the tradition of jazz.

Looking for inspiration for your next practice ? Check out some clarinet solos from the greats of jazz clarinet, such as Artie Shaw, Sidney Bechett and Benny Goodman.

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!