Oboe Buyers Guide

Makes to look out for: Howarth, Marigaux, Lorée, Yamaha, Buffet

Priority Features: The variety of keys found on different oboes is huge and overwhelming at first encounter. The standard oboe will possess one of the two key systems: the conservatoire or the thumb plate (three if you include dual systems that combine the two). Thumb plate is the standard system found in the UK, and this is the system you will be expected to learn on. It is therefore most advisable that any oboe you acquire uses this system, recognisable by the oval key, just under the octave key on the underside of the top joint.

Covered hole keys or plateau keys are preferable and are found as standard on almost all newer oboes. Some intermediate and professional models will have small holes in the key to improve the tone. Open hole keys or ring keys are usually only found on much older instruments, from student to professional models. There is a considerable difference in price between old open hole oboes and plateau oboes. Although it may be tempting to purchase an open hole oboe due to their lower price, there are careful considerations to be made. Old oboes may not play at the standard pitch of 440Hz. Additionally, the ease of playing is marked between plateaus and open holes. Plateau keys allow for error in finger position, whereas open holes are very unforgiving, and any leakage of air caused by a misplaced finger will cause the note to not sound. This problem rings especially true for younger players and those with smaller hands; the preciseness required can be very discouraging for beginners. On the other hand, the preciseness of finger position does teach good form, and proper hand positioning is a fundamental technique that should be focused on when starting out.

At least in the UK, the general consensus among oboe tutors is that additional keys are no replacement for practice. Even on professional model oboes, a semi-automatic octave mechanism is preferred over fully automatic. While it may be tempting to purchase an oboe with all the professional keys fitted from a lesser-known manufacturer at a relatively cheap price, this is strongly advised against. The level of the instrument should match the standard of the player to avoid picking up bad habits and should be upgraded in line with the player’s capability. It is vital that any significant investment is put towards an oboe made by a reputable manufacturer to avoid the pitfalls of lesser quality oboes. Cheaply made oboes will feature poor quality control and cheaper materials, leading to less reliable mechanisms, and the instruments will not hold their value.

Student oboes
Student level oboes will contain a minimal amount of key work, this enables the instrument to remain lighter in weight, which will be easier for younger students to hold. Oboes of this type are unlikely to feature trill keys (other than a C-D); they are also likely to lack a vent/ resonance key for the forked F, and some beginner models will lack a low Bb. They will feature all the necessary keys for an absolute beginner to get a feel for the instrument. They should feature independent octave mechanisms, as this arrangement enables students to learn correct hand positioning. Students will quickly outgrow these instruments; for the more basic reduced key-work models, this is likely to be within a year of playing. It is important to note that the lack of a low Bb will make the oboe unsuitable for playing above a grade 3 level. However, an oboe equipped with plateau keys, a low Bb, and a forked F vent, such as a Howarth Model B, should see a student to at least a grade 5 standard.

Intermediate oboes
As the name implies, these oboes are a step up from a student level instrument in terms of keys featured but will not have all the additional keys found on a professional model. Intermediate oboes should be padded with cork pads throughout the instrument, with the exception of the largest three. Oboes at this level should have: plateau keys, a semi-automatic octave mechanism, a B-C# trill key, and a low C-B linkage (allowing the B and Bb keys to close the C key). The choice of additional keys featured varies greatly among manufacturers. Additional keys may include: Ab-Bb lever, right hand G#, left hand F key, split E/D ring, auxiliary or banana C lever, low B-C# linkage, and Bb vent. An intermediate level oboe would be suitable for playing up to a grade 8 standard. Although named intermediate, this level of oboe could be used by a beginner to save them from having to upgrade instruments and may be a good choice for those who know for certain that the oboe is the instrument for them.

Professional oboes
These oboes will likely possess all of the additional keys mentioned in the above section and also a third octave key to assist with the playing of the highest register. It is worth mentioning that the term ‘full professional set’ of keys will vary by matter of opinion between manufacturers, along with the time period of when the oboe was made. A professional level oboe would be suitable for players of a grade 8/ graduate standard and above.

Nice to have features: Wooden body, Silver plated keywork (rather than Nickel plated, Keywork – Professional instruments have several additional keys to make playing certain note combinations easier. 

Play test:   Play every note with an even embouchure and listen for any which sound very different to others around it.  Listen for any notes that are out of tune.  If you are new to playing then ask an experienced player to play it for you.

Common problems – things to look out for:

Worn or damaged pads.  Repads on oboe cost more than most woodwinds.  Cracks – inspect the top joint carefully for cracks.  Most commonly these appear as hairline cracks that run near or between the octave and trill key tone holes (the smallest tone holes on the top joint).  Check for damage to the bore as damage to the bore (especially on the top joint) can make an oboe unplayable.  Hold each joint up to the light and look through the larger end and check for any scratches or gouges (often caused by removal of stuck swabs).  Check the tenons and the sockets into which they fit for cracks/ chips or signs of repair.  Bent or cracked keys – inspect the longer, more vulnerable keys for signs of damage or repair. 

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