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THE GRENADILLA MYTH
by Tom Ridenour
Ask clarinetists why Grenadilla wood was chosen for clarinet making and ninty-nine out of a hundred (perhaps more) would say, "Because of the sound."
They would, in point of fact, be wrong. The sound was not why Grenadilla was chosen––and it was not clarinetists but clarinet makers who made the choice.
That may sound absurd to the many end users who believe uncritically that manufacturing decisions are made according to the criteria they themselves regard as important. Those of us who have been in manufacturing know better. We know that manufacturers often make products a particular way, with certain materials, not because it then gives the best result for the end-user, but because doing so gives them fewer manufacturing problems.
Clarinet manufacturing is no exception to this upspoken but widely practiced manufacturing rule. The fact is there are many other woods that have better musical qualities than Grenadilla wood; woods that have a better, more stable tone; woods that have a better response. Honduran Rosewood immediately comes to mind in this regard, but there are others. It produces a darker, more coloristically stable tone of greater beauty than Grenadilla and the response is quite superior throughout the dynamic and pitch range of the clarinet.
So why was it not used rather than Grenadilla?
Very simple: making Honduran Rosewood clarinets is a manufacturing nightmare. First, it does not machine nearly as well as Grenadilla. There is much more waste involved in processing it, and waste is lost money and time. The tone holes of the natural wood are so pitted that pads leak terribly. In order to provide a leak proof surface for Rosewood clarinet requires tone hole inserts. Rosewood cracks more frequently than does Grenadilla. Finally, because the wood is so porous, it absorbs great amounts of moisture, causing bore dimensions of the barrel and upper joint to be very unstable. Such instability causes tuning to go "wacko" and the clarinet can feel "blown out" after only a short time of playing. The only solution is to line a large amount of the upper joint bore in hard rubber to stabilize dimensions and reduce cracking. Honduran Rosewood barrels are also usually lined in hard rubber for the same reasons.
Each one of these problems is frustrating to manufacturers, each is difficult, time consuming and costly to solve, and any one of them would label Honduran Rosewood as unviable for large scale production from the manufacturer's point of view––but not from the player's!
In the end, Grenadilla was chosen above other woods because of practical concerns: it was comparitively stable, machined like metal, did not crack as often as other woods and generated less waste in the manufacturing process (this saved money).
Because of these qualities, Grenadilla wood made it possible for manufacturers to economically produce wood clarinets on a large scale.
There is no doubt these features inherent in Grenadilla wood are practical concerns for clarinetists as well as manufacturers. No one wants a clarinet that cracks, leaks or is dimensionally unstable. But as important and practical as these issues are, none has anything to do with the artistic concerns of the clarinetist; beauty of tone, responsiveness and stability of tone in dynamic changes, etc.
Hard Rubber vs Grenadilla
In my own clarinet design experience I have had the rare opportunity to design clarinets in Grenadilla wood, Rosewood and Hard Rubber. It has been an eye opening, almost shocking experience. What I have found to be consistently true is when a well-made hard rubber clarinet is compared to a Grenadilla wood clarinet sharing the same acoustical design, the hard rubber turns out to be the unequivocal better in every respect: tone, tuning, response, sweeter high tones, stability and consistency in manufacture.
Hard Rubber is Natural
The fact is, too many people operate on the unexamined assumption that hard rubber us just like plastic. But the truth is that hard rubber is not at all like the plastics used for clarinet building. It is not accurate to equate high grade, natural hard rubber clarinets with synthetic, plastic clarinets.
For one thing, hard rubber is not synthetic at all, but just as natural as any piece of wood in any forest. Hard rubber comes from the very essence of the tree, being its' life blood. Besides being natural, it is superior to plastics in every possible respect. Musically speaking, pure, natural hard rubber clarinets possess many critical playing and tonal qualities that are almost identical to those of Honduran Rosewood; more so than any other material presently used for clarinet making, including Grenadilla wood!
Comparing Grenadilla and hard rubber clarinets from a pragmatic, logistical standpoint, hard rubber clarinets are consistently more stable, more uniform from clarinet to clarinet, take and hold much more precise and uniform bore dimensions, and are virtually crack-free. On the acoustical/aesthetic/performance side, well-made, well-designed, high quality hard rubber clarinets have quicker response, more even blowing resistance, better, more stable tuning, a darker, sweeter tone and are coloristically much more stable throughout the full pitch and dynamic range of the clarinet. In short, hard rubber clarinets give you the best of both worlds, satisfying the logistical needs of the manufacturer and the artistic needs of the clarinetist.
Me Thinks Thou doest Protest too Much
Many players will be resistive, perhaps even outraged and scandalized at these conclusions. Many will reject them out of hand, without sincere inquiry.
Perhaps they have had bad experiences playing older hard rubber clarinets of antiquated acoustical design; perhaps they have had the bad experience of playing many of the hard rubber clarinets coming from the orient that are to clarinet acoustics what the Titanic was to sailing. Or perhaps they would simply rather operate on unexamined bias rather than take the time and energy to test out these claims in a fair-minded way––I believe that is commonly called prejudice.
However, those who are open-minded enough to investigate acoustically well-designed clarinets in hard rubber may well find themselves as amazed as I was at how well they both sound and play.
The Test of Time
Over the past 14 years I have played nothing but hard rubber clarinets of my own design. Because I have grown so used to the dependable response and sweet tone of hard rubber, whenever I test Grenadilla clarinets they sound harsh to me and feel, by comparison, uneven in resistance, bright in the high register, reticent in response and more unstable.
Over the years I have both serendipitously and systematically conducted blindfold tests with other clarinetists, musicians and even non-musicians regarding the comparison between Grenadilla and hard rubber clarinets. I conducted a lot of these when I first began designing clarinets in hard rubber as a kind of "reality check." My tests consistently revealed one plain fact: If I am out of touch with reality in any part of my life, it's not in regard to my views on the playing qualities of fine, well-made, well-designed hard rubber clarinets. There reason, sanity and objectivity prevail
I try to avoid anecdotes but sometimes it is the quickest and clearest way to make an important point. Of the many I could relate on this subject I will take only two.
I play in a clarinet quartet here in Dallas with several very fine players, one of whom teaches at a top notch music school here in one of the Dallas/Denton area universities. He is a very fine, artistic clarinetist and we share the first parts in the quartet.
Our quartet plays to very appreciative audiences in hospitals and nursing homes (the best audiences anywhere!) mostly in Fort Worth. One Monday we had two performances and I invited my wife, Gay, a former band director, to come and hear the group. She had never heard us before and I was curious what she would think, because she has a very critical ear for woodwind tone. I had also done several arrangements for the group (some of which are available on this web site) and I wanted to know what she thought of them.
We played the morning performance went to lunch, then played the second performance and headed home.
On the way home I asked my wife lots of questions about the group and the music. She had never heard the clarinetist I mentioned above so I asked her what she thought of his playing. I'll never forget her response.
She said, "He's a very fine player. Very artistic. But this morning his sound was too bright for my taste. This afternoon I thought his tone was much nicer and his phrasing was also much smoother with a better legato."
"Really?", I asked.
"Yes," She responded, "was he doing anything different this afternoon?"
I answered, "This morning he was playing his R-13 and this afternoon he was playing one of my clarinets. He asked me to bring it along. He wanted to try one because he liked a lot of the qualities I was getting out of my own clarinet."
Another story involves a clarinetist from New Jersey who had a top-line professional clarinet, costing in the $5000.00 range. He called me and asked to try my clarinets, saying if he liked it he would think about selling his top line instrument. I sent the clarinet, he bought it and that was that. About three months later he called me, saying he loved playing the Lyrique, had still not sold his top line clarinet, but was now considering keeping it. He then asked, "If I sent it to you could you make it play as well as your clarinet?"
So much for the myth of having to pay a lot to own a great clarinet.
The bottom line is simply this: there is no magic in Grenadilla, especially from the artistic, aesthetic points of view so critical to the performer. It was a material that was chosen at a time when technology did not afford us the whole range of options we presently have. Of the ones we had then in Europe, Grenadilla was the most practical for large scale, comparatively trouble-free and economical clarinet manufacturing. Over the years clarinetists became conditioned to its feel and sound, and this conditioning has for some decades become fossilized into a wide-spread, full blown bias.
Many of the players who have bought my hard-rubber, Ivorolon barrels to use on their wood clarinets tell me they experience an increased darkness and stability of tone and an improvement of response with these barrels. Often I am tempted to (and sometimes do) say to them, "If you think a hard rubber barrel is better than your wood barrel, you should try a whole clarinet made from it."
Some do and are amazed. Some buy them and others subsequently sell their wood clarinets.
Many nowadays are worried about both the availability and quality of Grenadilla wood for the future. They wonder, "What will we do when there is no more Grenadilla wood fit for clarinet building?"
I not only know the answer to that question, I am doing the answer to the coming wood crisis right now!
There are many things I am worried about regarding the future, but first class, natural materials for clarinet building is not one of them.
It is a plain fact for those who honestly inquire: a well-made, acoustically well-designed and finished hard rubber clarinet is, quality for quality, a peerless instrument, providing the player with a fully satisfying, effortless artistic experience, second to none.
As far as I'm concerned, the future is now.
Only a few days after first posting this article I received an email from a professional clarinetist who had bought one of my Lyrique Bb clarinets about eight months ago. He wrote these words to me:
Your article "The grenadilla myth" is very interesting.
I can verify the features of your Lyrique clarinet.
Since I have the Lyrique I don't play my Grenadilla clarinet,
because I love the sound, the evenness and the responsiveness of my Ridenour Clarinet.