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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 opinions!


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

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

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.

Professional Oboes

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 silver-plated keys.

Key Work System:
"Full Conservatory" — what does that mean?

The term “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 terms:


Simplified 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  oboist.


Modified Full 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.


Full 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) advantage!

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 listening test!


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.


Wood – 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 moisture/humidity,

 peaks at about 3-6 years of age and can/will become “blown-out” after that.


Plastic – 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 wood.

Plastic: Pros

  • durability

  • does not crack

  • longer life

  • no break-in period

  • can better withstand occasional playing

  • can better withstand harsher playing environments

  • i.e. cold air-conditioning down-drafts in well ventilated band room, for example, or a spring outdoor park concert!

  • reacts less to moisture and temperature changes

Plastic: Cons – not as complex a sound as wood, given all other parameters are

          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 condition.    


 New or Used:  consider

  •  price

  •  price of the same instrument new

  •  age of instrument (see paragraph above...)

  •  wood still must be broken in if not played recently

  •  repairs which may be necessary... this is not inexpensive if done by oboe experts

  •  how good the instrument was when new


Usually new oboes will have a warranty period;  usually used oboes will not.

Resale Value:

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:

The primary 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 established teacher-student 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!
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