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Finding a good used oboe means looking at the materials from which the oboe is made, and checking the keywork, bore and overall playability. Cost can give some indication of the quality of a used oboe, with better instruments generally being more expensive to purchase.
Oboes are made in both plastic and wood, and in the past, the sound quality of wood oboes far surpassed that of plastic oboes. Production of plastic oboes has become more refined, however, so unless one needs to play at the professional level, plastic is often a good choice for a used oboe. In choosing between a used oboe of either plastic or wood, the primary consideration is maintenance. Wood is much more sensitive to moisture, humidity and temperature and therefore requires more care, which is a hassle if the used instrument one wants to buy is for a beginner, or if one will play the oboe in harsher environments such as the out of doors. If the musician intends for the purchased used oboe to be "the" oboe one plays as he advances in technique, wood is the better option.
Keywork is the next big consideration on a used oboe. The cheapest oboes, new or used, do not have a full conservatory key system, meaning the oboes don't have the mechanisms to use all note and trill fingerings available, most commonly at the expense of the low Bb and left F keys. Salespeople often sell these oboes under the premise that one can purchase a better oboe later when the player's technique has advanced, but the reality is that even the most basic student will have difficulty without the low Bb and left F. One should also pay attention to the material from which the keywork is made, as some cheaper oboes have keywork made from metal that is easily bent and broken.
Although the material from which the oboe is made does have an impact on its sound, it is the bore, the interior chamber of the instrument through which air passes, that truly provides the overall tone. In a wood oboe, the shape of the bore changes slightly over time as the wood expands and contracts from regular use. Eventually, this causes the oboe to be "blown out" or fatigued, usually after three to six years, depending on how much one plays. For this reason, if one wants to buy a used wood oboe, one should try to determine the age of the instrument and how it was used in the past. The bore of a plastic oboe does not change as much over time as the bore of a wood oboe.
Another consideration when buying a used oboe is overall playability. People often store used oboes in less-than-optimal places like garages and attics, and they typically are badly in need of professional adjustments to the keywork in order to respond well. A used oboe should not be purchased before having these adjustments made, as there is no way to gauge how well the oboe works until it is put back in proper condition. These adjustments should only be made by a professional oboe maker or seller, as music store technicians usually have basic skills with all instruments and therefore are not as sensitive to the fine-tunings that can turn the oboe into something truly workable.
Aside from professional oboe makers and sellers, perhaps the best source of advice on buying a used or new oboe are oboe instructors at local colleges. These musicians have extensive experience selecting oboes for students and often have good relationships with dealers. They also often are members of semi-professional or professional orchestras and chamber ensembles, so they're familiar with the practical demands a new or used instrument must meet in various settings.
The last consideration in buying a used oboe is cost. The general guide is that price reflects quality, and a musician shouldn't expect to find a used oboe worth much for just a few hundred dollars. In fact, many high-quality used oboes will cost more than poorly made new ones.
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