Selecting an Oboe to Buy:
Considerations when Choosing an Oboe
The material from which
the oboe is made, the age of the
instrument, its mechanical condition,
your playing environment, frequency of
use, price, resale value, your level of
accomplishment, .... these are
just some of the many factors to
consider when choosing the oboe that is
right for you. Our intent is not to
tell you which oboe we think
you should buy, but rather to
address some of these topics with facts,
pros-and-cons, specific information,
“food-for-thought”, and occasionally our
Whether you are a
professional oboist, a student choosing
their first “serious” new oboe, or the
resourceful parent of a middle school
aspiring oboist, we hope you will find
this page helpful as you make decisions
about what kind of oboe is right for
you. Remember, there is no “right” or
“wrong” choice. If you like the oboe,
if it plays well, if you can afford it,
if you sound good on it, these
are reasons enough... Gather the best
advice you can, and then have faith in
your own judgment!
Level of Instrument:
Beginner, Intermediate, or Professional Oboe
Beginner oboes are designed as a
temporary, basic oboe, and are often
used as rental instruments. They are
typically very simplified, stripped-down
oboes, usually without left F, low Bb,
and other key work. They can be plastic
or wood. Their costs range from
$1,000-$1,500 new (plus or minus
$200-300), and $300-500 as a used
instrument. Most young players will
outgrow these oboes very quickly,
usually within their first year.
Intermediate oboes are designed for
the serious student and developing
player. They are often what we would
call modified conservatory, which is to
say that they have all essential key
work , i.e. left F, low Bb, B natural-C#
articulation, and F resonance, but may
be missing less essential key work, such
as the split E and 3rd
octave. Costs range from $2,500-$4,000
new and $1,800-$3,000 recently used.
These oboes may be plastic or wood.
They will usually serve the oboist very
well until they need a professional
instrument, i.e. until they’re at top
All-State level, one of the ranking
young players in their state/region,
auditioning for conservatory-level
college music positions, etc.
Designed to meet requirements
professional oboist, professional oboes are
usually wood (but not always), have full
conservatory key work (but 3rd octave
and Bb resonance are optional), and have
excellent acoustics. Current prices
for these oboes range from $5,000-$7,000
for a standard grenadilla wood oboe with
Key Work System:
"Full Conservatory" — what does that mean?
“conservatory”, as is widely applied to
the oboe, simply means the mechanism is
based on the standard set of fingerings
in current use, nothing more. Let us
point out that "full conservatory" is
not a well defined term, and can be used
in a sales environment misleadingly.
For young players, we recommend that you
be sure to find an oboe that has
left F and low Bb, as these are
essential. However, split-E, 3rd
octaves, and low Bb resonance keys, which might be part of the
definition of “full
conservatory”, really have a very
minimal role. With this said, we will
remark on the following loosely defined
Conservatory Key work – very basic,
beginner oboes, though they employ
technically “conservatory” fingerings,
are often lacking some very basic keys.
These oboes often do not even have low
Bb or left F, both of which will be
missed by even the very elementary
Conservatory – full conservatory but
missing one or more of the optional and
not necessarily essential key work
refinements, like split E ring for the
Eb-E trill, Bb (bell) resonance, 3rd
octave, F resonance. These should,
however, have left F, low Bb (key on
bell), C# and D trills to be useful.
Conservatory System – full key
work; please note that what constitutes
a full set of keys is a matter of
opinion, manufacturer, model, and age of
oboe. Some of the keys that may or may
not be on a full conservatory oboe are,
for example, 3rd octave, Bb
bell resonance, and F resonance. For
example, the famous older "Tabuteau"
model Loreé oboes did not have the F
resonance key. We at Covey oboes, for
another example, do not put 3rd octave
keys on our newest model oboe, the
Classic, for acoustical reasons; the
extra tone hole in the top joint changes
the acoustics of the instrument, and our
performance goals for this model we feel
are compromised by including the 3rd
octave. By no means does that imply
that this model oboe does not have
"full-conservatory" key work, but rather
that a trade-off choice was made to the
instrument's (and therefore oboist's)
Wood Oboe vs. Plastic Oboe:
Pros and Cons
The wood vs.
plastic decision, in times past, implied
quality level, but that is really no
longer true. There exist fine oboes
made from plastic as well as nearly
uselessly bad oboes made from wood.
Whereas top professional oboes are
usually wood, the fact that an oboe is
made from wood does not ensure that the
quality is high, nor can one assume that
any given plastic oboe is in any way
inferior to any given wooden oboe. Your
best bet is to inform yourself to the
pros-and-cons, and then base your
comparison of any given instruments on
all considerations, including the
In evaluating the
wood vs. plastic aspect of an oboe, be
advised that some “wooden” oboes have
plastic liners in the top joint, i.e.
the sound is made within the plastic
liner, even though the outside of the
oboe is wood, like a very thick veneer.
Look carefully at the lower end of the
top joint, (the tenon, which is placed
into the middle joint of the oboe when
you put it together). Hold the oboe as
if to look up its bore. If, on the
blunt end, you see a concentric circle
where two materials join, you may be
looking at an oboe which is plastic on
the inside and wood on the outside.
Grenadilla is the dense, almost black,
wood traditionally used to make oboes.
Oboes are also available in rosewood and
violet wood, both of which are softer,
less dense woods, brown in color, and
generally thought to provide a lighter,
mellower tone than the grenadilla.
Until you are a seasoned oboist who has
owned several different oboes, you
should probably limit your wood
considerations to grenadilla wood.
Wood: Pros – sound quality
Wood: Cons – requires more care,
must be broken in, can /will crack,
sensitive to ambient temperature and
peaks at about 3-6 years of age and can/will become “blown-out” after that.
High quality plastic resin is used for
many oboes, ranging from the most basic
student instrument to top professional
instruments. Whether the oboe is very
fine or not depends much more on the
design and workmanship efforts applied
than on whether it is made of plastic or
Plastic: Pros –
does not crack
no break-in period
can better withstand occasional playing
can better withstand harsher playing
i.e. cold air-conditioning down-drafts
in well ventilated band room, for
example, or a spring outdoor park
Plastic: Cons – not as complex a
sound as wood, given all other
equal (which they never are!)
Where will you be playing it?
Who will be playing it?
Where will you need to play?
Environments that may provide a
significant threat to the wood of an
oboe include outside (park concerts,
band events, etc.), band rooms or
rehearsal halls with aggressive
air-conditioning down-drafts, rooms
(churches) that have cold drafts in
winter or air-conditioning drafts in the
summer, any environment that exposes
your oboe to moving hot, dry air, etc.
Students and professionals alike are
often required to play in conditions
that they know to be threatening to
their instruments. Think about the
places you plan to play your oboe, and
simply be aware of this issue when
making your instrument choice.
Age of Instrument:
New? Used? Old? – which is better?
Oboes do not grow
more valuable with age as do some string
instruments, but rather peak in
performance at about 2-6 years of age.
Wooden oboes become "blown out" with use
and age; this means that the bore
dimensions change slightly and the wood
becomes fatigued. Plastic instruments
do not blow out in the same way, but all
oboes require maintenance to stay in
good playing condition. This
maintenance can be minor, or it can be
quite expensive; if you're considering
purchasing a used oboe, be sure to have
it evaluated by an oboe repair
person first, to be sure of its playing
New or Used:
of the same instrument new
instrument (see paragraph above...)
still must be broken in if not played
repairs which may be necessary... this
is not inexpensive if done by oboe
good the instrument was when new
Usually new oboes
will have a warranty period; usually
used oboes will not.
The matter of
resale value goes hand-in-hand with
buying an oboe, whether new or used.
However, factors such as necessary
repairs and the general condition of an
instrument also contribute to its
potential resale value. A little
research around the web will tell you a
lot about resale potential of the brand
and model you are considering.
Cases and Case Covers:
consideration with cases is to protect
the oboe... with case covers, to protect
the case and carry extra goodies, like
reeds, music, reed-making tools, etc.
Both are well worth the money!
Approval/Trial Periods/Return Policies:
Oboes, whether new
or used, are typically available for a
trial or approval period to help you
with your decision. This can be an
approval period before you actually
purchase the instrument, or a generous
return policy in the first week or so
after purchase. This allows you to play them, see
if you like them, take them to your
teacher for approval, or take them to an
oboe technician for evaluation as to
condition. The policies regarding these
trial periods vary from shop to shop, so
be sure to ask.
Your Advocate, Your Teacher – Getting Good Advice:
A private teacher
who is an oboist can be very helpful in
oboe selection, can usually offer good
advice, and can act as your advocate,
independent of dealers and
salespersons! If you have an already
relationship, by all means ask the
teacher for assistance. If you do not
already have a teacher but plan to find
a teacher as soon as you have an oboe to
learn on, consider finding the teacher
first, so that he/she can
have input into your choice of oboe.
They will appreciate it.
This article was written by Ginger B. Ramsay,
and is the intellectual property of Covey Oboes.
Please credit the author and our
web-site if quoting.
Please obtain permission before reproducing it.
And please mention this web-site to your oboist friends!
Thanks for visiting!