If you’re reading this, your clarinet is probably smelling funky and you’re wondering why it smells bad and what you can do about it. Nothing is worse than playing on a stinky instrument!
A bad clarinet smell typically comes from bacteria or mold growing inside the instrument. After playing, if the clarinet is not swabbed out and the mouthpiece wiped, it creates the perfect environment for bacteria and mold to thrive in. You can also get a funky smell from the reed, case, or keys. A good cleaning and sanitation of your clarinet, especially the mouthpiece, will usually get rid of bad odors.
You probably want to jump right into how to get rid of the smell. But first, we’ll need to figure out what kind of odor you have and where it’s coming from exactly. Then we’ll go into the best ways to get your clarinet smelling normal again and how to keep it that way. Hygiene is important for your instrument.
What causes your clarinet to stink?
Depending on where the smell is coming from, it could be from a couple of different sources. One high school student described it as smelling like vomit:
“I didn’t know that I had to swab the inside often… Anyway, now it smells like someone threw up in it.”
Most of the time, that bad smell will come from the inside of the clarinet, usually the mouthpiece. If you think about it, that makes sense: the inside of a clarinet is dark, warm, and wet – the perfect breeding ground for all sort of gross stuff to grow and thrive, stuff like bacteria and mold. In this case of the “puke” smell, the culprit would be bacteria feeding off the buildup of saliva and most likely food particles, especially if something was eaten right before playing the instrument.
If it’s more of a musty smell, it’s likely that you have some mold growing inside your clarinet. Depending on what kind of mold, this could actually be quite harmful to you.
If the smell is mainly coming from your clarinet reed and not the rest of your clarinet, you probably have been swabbing out your instrument but not drying off your reed before putting it back in its case. It could have a bacterial growth or mold.
If it’s more of a general smell, it may be coming from your case. If you haven’t washed your cleaning cloth or swab in a while, it could have something growing on it, or in your clarinet case.
Lastly, if your keys smell bad, kind of musty and metallic, it could be the pads or corking rotting from years of exposure to moisture or being stored in dirty case. You generally won’t get stinky keys with a new instrument, so if your clarinet is newer, you can rule out this as a possible source.
Getting rid of that bad clarinet stank
Now that we’ve narrowed down where the smell is coming from and what’s likely causing it, let’s take some steps to remedy the situation.
Stinky clarinet mouthpiece
As you play, saliva (yes spit) gets all over inside your mouthpiece. If you just ate, there’s probably small food particles that are also getting inside the chamber of your mouthpiece. If this isn’t wiped out after each time you play, it’ll build up and you’ll get some stinky funk growing in there. Even with wiping it out after each play, you should still clean your clarinet mouthpiece weekly.
You can find the full guide on cleaning it in this article: Cleaning Your Clarinet Mouthpiece: Full Cleaning in Under 20 Minutes. However, if you’re looking for the quick steps, read on:
- Soak the mouthpiece in a solution of half vinegar and half water for 5-10 minutes.
- Then using either a mouthpiece brush or a soft-bristle toothbrush, remove all gunk and limescale.
- Next, rinse out the mouthpiece water.
- Saturate the mouthpiece in mouthwash or Sterisol.
- Lastly, wipe dry with a paper towel or soft cloth.
Gross clarinet reed
In similar fashion, your reed can have bacteria or mold growing on it. In the same article mentioned above for cleaning your mouthpiece, you can read about cleaning and sanitizing your clarinet reed. Those steps, summarized here, should do the trick.
- Soak your reed in a solution of either mouthwash, hydrogen peroxide, or Sterisol with water, half and half. Let it soak for 10 minutes.
- Wipe and dry your reed. Allow to air dry further.
- If your reed still stinks, it’s probably time to throw them out and buy a new one.
Foul clarinet body
The clarinet body, and bell, could also have a buildup of bacteria that causes some foul odor issues. Your mouthpiece will get most of the saliva but your spit will still drip inside your clarinet, especially if you’re playing for extended periods of time. Follow these quick steps to clean your clarinet body.
- Make sure you have a clean swab. A clarinet swab is a specialized cloth with a string and sometimes a weight that allows you to drop in the string and the pull the cloth through. If you don’t have one, you can buy a cleaning swab online or at your local musical instrument store. If already have one, make sure it’s clean. You can run it through your washing machine but make sure to wrap up the string so it doesn’t wrap around other clothes.
- Dissemble your clarinet at each joint.
- The smell may originate in your joint corks or in the joints. Using a soft cleaning cloth, wipe off any buildup. Grease your joint corks with cork grease (or lanolin) and then use a cotton swab (think Q-tip) to wipe down any dirty areas. You can dip the cotton swab in mouthwash, hydrogen peroxide, or Sterisol as well.
- Swab each clarinet joint several times. Swabbing simply means to clean the inside of your instrument with the clean swab.
- For regular cleanings, this is usually enough but with a smell, you’ll want to dip the swab in Sterisol and run it through a few times.
- Lastly, keeping each joint apart, allow your clarinet to air dry for 10-15 minutes.
If these steps don’t do the trick, you may need a deep cleaning.
Clarinet keys with a bad odor
It’ll usually be the pads that are actually causing the odor rather than the keys. If the clarinet is older, the pads may be rotting, or if they’ve been exposed to extended moisture, it could be mold. Some clarinet pads are made from leather or other skin so bacteria may eat the material, causing a smell. What can you do about it? If the pads are relatively new, you can spray them with Sterisol and let them dry out. If they’re old however, it’s best if you just replace them.
If you have a bad smell on the keys themselves, or in the metalwork, you may have gotten something on your clarinet, perhaps you spilled a soda on it? Bacteria is the usual culprit for bad smells and it needs something to feed on. Wipe down the keys with a soft cloth. Then use a cotton swab dipped in hydrogen peroxide to clear any visible grunge.
Smelly instrument case
Things gets thrown in your case and often times forgotten as you get done with a long playing session. Uncleaned swabs or wiping cloths, food, or bad reeds can all cause your case to stink. It’s time to clean your case!
- Clear everything out of your case.
- Throw away any garbage.
- Inspect any old reeds that you may have sitting in there. If they’re cracked or chipped, toss them. Why hold onto them if they’re not really playable? If you find stinky reeds, clean and sanitize them (see above).
- Vacuum out the inside of your case thoroughly.
- If you see any stains or spills on the inside, lightly use hot soapy water to scrub them out.
- Leave your empty instrument case out in the sun for an hour. The sun will dry everything out and the UV rays will sterilize.
That should get rid of the bad case smell. Make sure that as you put your clarinet and supplies back into the case that they’re not stinky.
If the case is really old and just needs to be replaced, you can find a new case online for under $55 that also look a lot more modern than traditional clarinet cases. The older style is usually cheaper though.
Keeping your clarinet clean!
The above steps should take care of any of the ungodly smells that you were experiencing but if not, you may need to perform either an exorcism, or take your clarinet to a professional for a deep cleaning.
To avoid getting a stinky clarinet in the first place, follow these simple steps:
- Swab your clarinet each and every time you play!
- Similarly, wipe out the mouthpiece each time you play.
- Always remove and wipe off your reed after playing, and put it in its case.
- Clean your mouthpiece thoroughly each week (read full mouthpiece cleaning article).
- Clean your whole clarinet monthly as well.
- Every 12-18 months, take your clarinet to a professional for a deep cleaning.
If you keep your clarinet clean and maintained, I guarantee you won’t have any more odor issues. That’ll let you focus on your music. Happy playing!
You can find all the clarinet supplies and gear mentioned here on our Clarinet Supplies page.