How to Find the Best Contra Alto Clarinet

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The bass clarinet is a fine instrument, but sometimes you want to go just a little bit deeper. The contra alto clarinet gives you an extra fifth on the bottom, with an even smoother and more velvety lower register. But where do you find the best contra alto clarinet?

I’m a longtime music fan and critic. After a few years of tormenting people with my clarinet playing (sorry, Mom!) I was told that those who can’t do can teach. And I’m here to teach you about how to find the best contra alto clarinet.

Bottom line up front: The Leblanc L7181 EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet will be the best choice for somebody looking to play contra alto clarinet as a second instrument, but be advised that contra altos are very expensive and at present the repertoire for contra alto clarinet is quite limited.

Shopping for the Best Contra Alto Clarinet

Though the contra alto has a few loyal fans today, the lowest clarinets never achieved a critical mass of popularity. Today there are only three contra alto clarinets currently available on the market. And because they are large, complex instruments with a limited market, none of them come cheap.

Because contra alto clarinets are so rare, chances are your local music store doesn’t have one lying around for you to try out. And because new contra alto clarinets cost around $6,000 and up, you probably don’t want to buy one without playing it first.

You can occasionally find used contra alto clarinets on the market for less than you’ll pay for a new one. But for all their size (or, rather, because of their size) contra alto clarinets are fragile giants.

Those keys and levers are easily bent, and what looks like a simple fix may turn into a four-figure instrument repair bill. If you find a used contra alto in your area, be sure to have it checked by a competent repair specialist and get a written price estimate for what service, if any, is required.

(This is especially true if you find a vintagre Leblanc 350 contra alto, affectionately called a “paperclip” due to its space-saving design. Introduced in 1964, the Leblanc 350 is the first contra alto clarinet ever built for the mass market.

It is still warmly regarded for its sound, but its tight wrap and intricate key structure make the Leblanc 350 liable to damage if you look at it too hard).

Leblanc 350 Contra Alto Clarinet, 1960s

Clarinet forums are an excellent place to learn more about contra alto and other non-standard clarinets. Many professionals are happy to share their experiences with different instruments and provide recommendations for brands and musical repertoire.

They may even be able to recommend dealers who have a demo contra alto clarinet available. (Flying long distances to try out a contra alto clarinet may seem silly. Buying a $20,000 instrument without trying it out first is sillier).

I have assumed that anybody interested in purchasing a contra alto clarinet has experience with at least the B♭ soprano clarinet and ideally the B♭ bass clarinet as well. The contra alto clarinet is not a good first clarinet because of its size, price tag, and its breath requirements.

The fingerings you learn on a B♭ soprano clarinet will be the same on the E♭ contra alto, and you can get a dozen decent student B♭ clarinets for the price of the cheapest contra alto.

The Best Contra Alto Clarinets

Leblanc L7181 EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet

Leblanc L7181 EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet

While Leblanc no longer makes its well-regarded paperclip low clarinets, it offers a very good student/intermediate contra alto clarinet, the L7181. At around $6,000, this is an instrument for serious students. But if you have the spare funds and the dedication, the L7181 will likely be the last contra alto clarinet you ever need.

The L7181 is a perfectly serviceable contra alto clarinet that will be a fantastic addition to a clarinet choir, a wind band, or an orchestra. But it lacks some of the features you see on the more expensive contra alto clarinets. There are no trill keys and the body is made of a composite plastic material rather than wood.

In most situations, a contra alto clarinetist would hardly notice these shortfalls. The contra alto clarinet most often provides pedal notes, low long notes like an organ pedal that give the ensemble’s sound a greater depth. (The ensemble returns the favors, as the higher harmonies make the contra alto’s low tones stand out as well).

And while the L7181’s can certainly hold its own on most solos, its composite body lacks that last little 1% of resonance and complexity that makes a good instrument great.

  • Key: E♭
  • Bore diameter: 30.02 mm (1.182 in)
  • Pitch:  442 Hz
  • Range: down to low E♭
  • System:  Boehm (18 keys, 7 rings)
  • Articulated G#, E♭ level, automatic octave key
  • Body:  Composite
  • Bell: silver-plated brass
  • Keywork: nickel-plated
  • Pads: leather pads fitted with metal resonators
  • Mouthpiece: included
  • Case: one-section

Selmer Paris 40 EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet

Selmer Paris 40 EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet

The Selmer Paris 40 has a considerably smaller bore than the Leblanc contra alto clarinet. This gives it a darker and more focused sound but increases the wind requirements and resistance. (Blowing through a smaller tube requires more air pressure than through a wider one.  Ask an oboist about this sometime…).

The Paris 40’s Rio rosewood body adds beautiful tonal colors and depth to the music and the two-piece design makes it a bit easier to put away after you’re done playing. The silver-plated brass bell has great projection, so you can stand out in the clarinet choir and be heard in the back row when you throw out a solo.

At over $20,000, the Selmer Paris 40 will take a big bite out of your bank account. But many contra alto clarinetists swear by its quick action, solid intonation across registers, and powerful dynamic range. Selmer Paris has been making instruments for over a century, and the Selmer Paris 40 is a fine addition to their lineup of legends.

  • Key: E♭
  • Bore diameter: 24.3 mm
  • Pitch:  442 Hz
  • Range: down to low E♭
  • System:  Boehm (18 keys, 7 rings)
  • Articulated G#, E♭ level, automatic octave key
  • Body:  rosewood from Rio
  • Bell: silver-plated brass
  • Keywork: silver-plated nickel silver
  • Pads: leather pads fitted with metal resonators
  • Mouthpiece:  E♭ contralto clarinet standard C mouthpiece with ligature and cap
  • Case: Light Contralto

Buffet Crampon 1553 Prestige EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet

Buffet Crampon 1553 Prestige EE♭ Contra Alto Clarinet

Buffet Crampon is one of the world’s leading producers of professional clarinets, and its 1553 Prestige E♭ Contra Alto Clarinet is the finest contra alto clarinet available on the market today. At nearly $25,000, the Prestige is an enormous investment but one that will reward serious contra alto clarinetists with a lifetime of beautiful music.

The Prestige uses a standard bass clarinet mouthpiece, so you won’t have a learning curve mastering a new embouchure. The blue-steel springs and double-plated keys give the Prestige buttery smooth action, while the silver-plated copper bell adds extra depth to its already chocolaty-warm sound.

The Buffet Crampon Prestige also has a half-hole speaker vent that helps enormously when you are blowing into the altissimo register. Playing altissimo on a contra alto clarinet is very difficult and most contra alto clarinet players stick to the lower registers.

With the  Prestige you’ll find that most of the fingerings you use on your bass clarinet will work for contra alto overblowing. And the low C key gives the 1553 Prestige an extra fourth at the bottom vs the other contra alto clarinets.

  • Key: E♭
  • Pitch:  442 Hz
  • Range: down to low C
  • System:  Boehm (19 keys)
  • Special: Double octave key with high B♭, Half-hole speaker vent
  • Body:  natural African blackwood
  • Neck: 2-piece, adjustable
  • Bell: silver-plated copper
  • Keywork: forged keys, copper plated then silver plated
  • Springs: blue steel
  • Pads: leather and cork
  • Mouthpiece: bass clarinet

Contra Alto Clarinet Alternatives

While the contra alto clarinet has a lovely sound, it has not found a great deal of popularity outside of clarinet choirs. Here are two alternative instruments that have a bigger repertoire

Baritone Saxophone

If you take up contra alto clarinet, you are frequently going to find yourself playing baritone saxophone parts. The baritone sax’s range is very close to the contra alto, both are pitched in E♭, and both are transposing instruments that play an octave and a sixth below the written note.

Baritone saxophones are better-known than contra alto clarinets and are especially popular in jazz.

The baritone sax is the most expensive of the commonly used saxophones. But after you’ve been shopping for a contra alto clarinet, baritone saxophones look like a bargain!

Wessex Baritone Saxophone SAX110

Wessex Baritone Saxophone SAX110

While they got their start in brass instruments, British/Chinese company Wessex has expanded their line and now provides a range of solid and reliable instruments at very reasonable prices. Their SAX110 comes in at a bit over $2,000 yet holds its own with baritone saxes costing three or even four times as much.

If you’re new to the baritone sax, the SAX110 is a fantastic learning tool that will help you master your saxophone technique. Wessex quality control ensures that you will get an instrument that plays in tune and has no hidden leaks or defects that could hurt intonation.

It also means that even after you move on to professional saxophone, you will have a solid rehearsal and travel saxophone also.

The SAX110 is also a great choice for collectors who might need a baritone sax for one or two numbers. With an upgrade to the case and mouthpiece (both of which are serviceable but mediocre), the SAX110 can hang with pros and may well be the last baritone saxophone you ever need.


  • Key: E♭
  • Range: Low A to High F#
  • Body: Yellow brass
  • Foam body case

Basset Horn

I could tell you to get an E♭ alto clarinet, which is an octave higher than a contra alto clarinet. But there is even less music written for alto clarinet than for contra alto, so I would advise you to go with one of the most popular period instruments, the basset horn.

The basset horn is built very like an alto clarinet, but it is pitched in F, a full step higher than the alto clarinet.

The basset horn is still in demand today because one of its biggest fans, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was also a prolific composer whose scores sometimes call for two and even (in the Requiem) three basset horns!

But quite a few modern composers and performers have fallen in love with the dark, rich tone of the basset horn and its versatility in both the lower and higher registers.

Henri Selmer Paris 25 Basset Horn in F

Henri Selmer Paris 25 Basset Horn in F

Selmer Paris is one of the world’s leading makers of low clarinets and their Basset Horn in F is a particular favorite with musicians.

While other manufacturers model their basset horns on alto clarinets, the Selmer Paris basset horn has a small bore like a B♭ clarinet and uses a B♭ clarinet mouthpiece. This gives the horn’s tone a lightness and sweetness lacking in many other basset horns.

The 25 comes with two silver-plated necks for tuning and offers excellent intonation across all registers. The silver-plated nickel silver keys have a bit more texture than nickel, making it easier for you to keep control during fast passages.

nd Selmer Paris’s leather pads are firm enough to ensure a tight seal but soft enough to prevent slapping noises upon closing.

The only bad thing about the Selmer Paris 25 basset horn is its price of over $15,000. But if you want to hear Mendelsohn and Mozart at their best, this is the instrument for you.

And if you keep your instrument well-maintained, you may even find that it appreciates in price over the years like many other classic Selmer Paris instruments.


  • Key: F
  • Bore diameter: 15.8 mm
  • Pitch:  442 Hz
  • Range: down to low C
  • System:  Boehm (21 keys)
  • Body:  grenadilla wood
  • Bell: silver-plated brass
  • Keywork: silver-plated nickel silver
  • Pads: leather
  • Mouthpiece: C85 120 B♭ clarinet mouthpiece with ligature and cap
  • Case: Basset Horn Light

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is the Contra Alto Clarinet’s Range?

Answer: The contra alto clarinet has a sounding range from G1 to B♭4. That spans the first G on the piano keyboard to the B♭ below middle C. The contra alto clarinet can technically go a full fifth lower and a half step higher than a baritone saxophone (C2 to A4).
But it is far more difficult to blow into the altissimo register with a contra alto clarinet than with a baritone saxophone, so most baritone saxophonists will be able to play as much as an octave above the contra alto clarinet.

Question: What Reed does a Contra alto Clarinet Use?

Answer: Like all clarinets, the contra alto clarinet uses a single reed. But there is a good deal of inconsistency between contra alto mouthpieces. The Buffet contra alto takes bass clarinet reeds, while the Leblanc requires a full-sized contrabass clarinet reed.
Depending on which mouthpiece you choose for your Selmer contra alto, you may need either a baritone sax or a contrabass clarinet reed.

Question: Why isn’t a Contra Alto Clarinet Called a Contralto Clarinet?

Answer: The contra alto (below alto) clarinet is pitched a full octave below the E♭ alto clarinet, just as the contrabass clarinet is pitched a full octave below a bass clarinet. It is called a “contra alto” clarinet to distinguish it from “contralto,” the lowest range for a female singer.
While contraltos like Cher and Annie Lennox have a powerful low range, the contra alto clarinet can play nearly two octaves lower than they can sing.


You can occasionally find used contra alto clarinets in music stores or online for much less than you will pay for a new instrument.

If you know a good music shop that can handle maintenance and repair issues – and if you are buying an instrument this expensive, you should! – you can save yourself a great deal of money and add a very good low clarinet to your collection.

When you take up the contra alto clarinet, you are venturing into largely uncharted musical waters. On the negative side, that means you have a limited repertoire and little demand for your musical skills.

On the positive side, the contra alto clarinet sounds amazing and you have the chance to teach the world exactly what this instrument can do.

Whatever your final choice in low clarinet or any other instrument, happy playing!

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