The Different Types of Recorder Instruments

Different types of recorders all have their own systems and for and against their use.

The five main types of recorder instruments are the Sopranino, Soprano or Descant, Alto (treble), Tenor, and the Bass. Other recorders include the Garklein, Comroft Tenor, Great Bass, and Contra Bass.

You can see from the list that recorders are not as straightforward as you might at first think. There are lots of different types and variations and each one plays a different role when playing. Most people know the soprano (descant) recorder from childhood but there’s a whole range of recorders to explore. I have discussed these below.

The 5 Types of Recorder Instruments

The main recorders that most people are interested in are the sopranino, soprano, the alto, the tenor and the bass. Each instrument is longer than the last and as they get longer the sound gets lower.

The Garklein

The garklein is tiny and 1/2 the size of a soprano recorder about 6 inches (15cm) and it is a full octave higher than the soprano as well. It has the key of C. The Garlkein isn’t often used in an orchestra.

The garkeins lowest note is C6

The Sopranino Recorder

The sopranino is 120cm (7.9 inches) – 24cm (9.44inches) long and is the first of the main instruments used in an orchestra. The sopranino key is F and the same fingering as the alto recorder.

The Soprano or Descant Recorder 

The soprano is the most popular recorder. You will see this recorder everywhere especially in schools. The soprano is also known as the descant recorder.

Typically the soprano has 7 finger holes on the front and one thumb hole on the back. Two of the end hole spaces actually have two not one hole but are still classed as the same hole number (Ie total holes 8). It usually comes in three parts. Sometimes they can come in either two or one part but it is best to get them in the full three parts for ease of use.

Most sopranos consist only of holes and do not have keys at the end of the recorder. Although you can buy some wooden ones that do.

Sopranos are in the key of c2.

Sopranos are the recorder that will play the main tune if you are playing with other people. They are the popular choice for children due to their size, that they are cheap to buy even for a good one and if you get plastic they have fantastic durability.

Alto or Treble Recorders

Alto recorders are the next size up and the next sound down from the soprano. They look the same as soprano recorders and have the same quantity of holes. Like the soprano, the alto doesn’t usually have any keys. However, sometimes you will see altos with keys at the bottom of the recorder.

alto recorder

My Alto recorder. As you can see it looks just like the soprano (apart from the color).

The alto is in the key of F.

This is usually the next recorder that is taught to students. Those that take lessons that are graded will be expected to play the soprano and alto recorders once they get to the higher level. It’s not actually that difficult to switch even with different fingering.

Because altos are in an F key and not a C key the fingering is different than that of the soprano. For instance, to play C on the alto is the left hand 3 fingers and the back hole while on the soprano it is the back hold and middle finger of your left hand.

The Tenor Recorder

The tenor recorder is twice as long as the soprano recorder and is in the key of C. Tenors are more likely to have keys than the smaller recorders as it’s getting to the point where it is difficult to reach the holes as the recorder is too large.

The tenor recorder is great because unlike the alto you don’t have to learn any new fingering as it is the same as for the soprano.

The Comfort Tenor Recorder

The comfort tenor is the same as a normal tenor only it has two different keys at the end to make holding and playing the instrument more comfortable as you don’t have to stretch as far. It also reduces any tension on your arms.

Bass Recorders

Bass recorders are huge they have a key of  F3. Bass recorders are usually bent for ease of use. This raises them up to make playing easier. Either that or they the straight and have bocals which is a curved metal tube. (some makers do make them in wood). Having a bocal means you can adapt the recorder to suit your body size.

The bass isn’t typically a recorder a newbie would start learning on. By the time you get to the bass you are starting to get more keys as the holes are getting further apart due to the size of the instrument.

The bass is an octave lower than the alto/treble recorder.

Great Bass or Contrabass (Sub Bass)

Like the bass, the great bass can either be straight or bent with a bocal. In the key of C same fingering as the soprano (Source).

These recorders are not nearly as popular as the other types and played very seldom. At between 5 and 6 feet long they are huge.

Square recorders PAETZOLD

These recorders look like long rectangular boxes as they have square not round bodies. They are made by Paetzold.

You Can Get Baroque or German Recorders

german or baroque holes on recorder

Recorders also some in baroque or German fingering.

Baroque recorders have different hole sizes and the German.

A quick way to tell is to look at fingering positions 4 & 5.

For German recorders, the 4 hole is bigger and the 5th hole is smaller.

Although both are good recorders it is best to get the Baroque recorder (English) as the tuning is better and its more widely used.

What Is The Most Common Recorder Type?

The most common recorder used for children is the soprano recorder. It is popular worldwide and is the main recorder used in schools as a beginner instrument. Often adults prefer the alto recorder to the soprano due to its sound and size.

How To Know What Type of Recorder You Have by Size

I have gone through all the types of recorders above but below is a table that will give you a quick method to find out what recorder type you have.

The length of the recorder is a good indication of the type of recorder you have. There are variations in length between the same type of recorders depending on brand but overall there is not much in it only a cm or so (about an inch).

Recorder Lengths Compared

Garklein16.5cm (6.5 inches)
Sopanino20cm (7.9 inches) – 24cm (9.44inches)
Soprano (Descant)About 30cm-33cm or 11.8 -13 inches long
Alto (Treble)48.7cm (19.17 inches)
TenorThe tenor is twice as long as the soprano recorder
BassIs about 3 feet long (91cm)
Great BassIs about 4 feet long (1.21m)
Contra BassIs about 5 to 6 feet long depending on style (1.52-1.82m)

If you want to know which type you have baroque or the German-style, The German-style has a larger hole on the 4th hole and the smaller hole on the 5th. Apologies for writing it twice but it’s relevant to two different sections. For the image check the section above.

Different Tuning For Recorders

You can get descant and treble (soprano and alto) recorders in different tuning A=415Hz as well. If you decide to buy second-hand or a more expensive brand keep this in mind. Most recorders that you will buy have the same tuning of A=440 Hz or 442Hz and they will say if it is different.

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