When looking for a good used oboe, consider the materials used in its construction, as well as the keywork, bore, and overall playability. The price of a used oboe can give you an idea of its quality, as better instruments are generally more expensive to buy.
Oboes come in both plastic and wood, and the sound quality of wood oboes used to be far superior to that of plastic oboes. Plastic oboe production has improved in recent years, so unless you need to play professionally, plastic is often a good choice for a used oboe. The primary consideration when choosing between a used plastic or wood oboe is maintenance. Wood is much more sensitive to moisture, humidity, and temperature, and thus requires more care, which is inconvenient if the used instrument being purchased is for a beginner or if the oboe will be played in harsher environments, such as outdoors. Wood is the better option if the musician intends for the purchased used oboe to be “the” oboe he plays as his technique improves.
On a used oboe, keywork is the next major consideration. The cheapest oboes, whether new or used, don’t have a full conservatory key system, which means they don’t have the mechanisms to use all note and trill fingerings, which usually means the low Bb and left F keys are sacrificed. Salespeople frequently sell these oboes on the basis that a better oboe can be purchased later when the player’s technique has improved, but even the most basic student will struggle without the low Bb and left F. The material from which the keywork is made should also be considered, as some less expensive oboes have keywork made of metal that is easily bent and broken.
Although the oboe’s material has an effect on its sound, it is the bore, the interior chamber of the instrument through which air passes, that is responsible for the overall tone. The shape of the bore in a wood oboe changes slightly over time as the wood expands and contracts with use. This eventually causes the oboe to become “blown out” or fatigued, which can take anywhere from three to six years depending on how much it is played. As a result, if you want to buy a used wood oboe, you should try to figure out how old the instrument is and how it was used previously. A plastic oboe’s bore does not change as much as a wood oboe’s bore does over time.
Another factor to consider when purchasing a used oboe is its overall playability. Used oboes are frequently stored in less-than-ideal locations such as garages and attics, and they frequently require professional keywork adjustments in order to respond properly. A used oboe should not be purchased until these adjustments have been made, as there is no way of knowing how well the oboe will play until it has been restored to its original condition. These adjustments should only be made a professional oboe maker or seller, as music store technicians typically only have rudimentary knowledge of all instruments and are therefore insensitive to the fine-tunings that can transform the oboe into something truly usable.
Aside from professional oboe makers and sellers, oboe instructors at local colleges may be the best source of advice on buying a used or new oboe. These musicians have a lot of experience choosing oboes for students and have a lot of connections with dealers. They’re also frequently members of semi-professional or professional orchestras and chamber ensembles, so they understand the practical demands that a new or used instrument must meet in a variety of situations.
The final factor to consider when purchasing a used oboe is the price. The general rule is that price reflects quality, so a musician shouldn’t expect to find a high-quality used oboe for less than a few hundred dollars. Indeed, many high-quality used oboes will cost more than new ones that are poorly made.