Buying woodwind instruments

January 1, 2005

General advice

The information on this page is intended for beginning and intermediate players, including woodwind doublers who already play another instrument. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Get the advice of a good teacher, preferably one that doesn’t get a sales commission from a music store. It’s okay to ask advice before starting lessons. A good teacher wants you to have a good, working instrument.
  • In fact, be very skeptical of anything you are told by music store salespeople. My students frequently begin lessons with poor, non-working woodwind instruments that were highly recommended by the guitar player working behind the counter. Ask the salesperson to demonstrate the instrument. If they can’t do it, there’s little reason to take their recommendations.
  • The most important consideration for a beginner’s instrument is its condition. Woodwind instruments use pads made of leather, skin, or cork that MUST seal properly. Poorly adjusted instruments are one of the top causes of frustration in beginning players. Don’t waste your time fighting with a leaking instrument. Cosmetic flaws like worn or scratched finish or small dents (except in vital spots such as a flute’s headjoint or saxophone’s neck) do not necessarily affect an instrument’s playability, but may be warning signs of larger problems. It is possible to buy a non-working instrument and have a good technician restore it to playable condition, but it would be a good idea to get their appraisal of the instrument before you buy it.
  • Don’t buy musical instruments from department stores, megastores, or warehouse stores. These temptingly cheap instruments are made from inferior materials and are almost always in poor adjustment. Good repair shops won’t even work on them because they tend to break under the normal strains of routine maintenance.

Flute

  • Materials: The most inexpensive flutes are made of nickel. Don’t be fooled if the salesperson says “nickel silver,” it’s still just nickel. Nicer flutes are at least plated with silver, or, even better, made of solid silver. Sometimes the headjoint will be solid silver and the body silver plated. Generally, it is thought that the more silver, the more “ring” there will be in the sound (though acoustical studies have failed to verify this). Professional instruments are sometimes made from other materials (platinum, “rose” gold, etc.), but the nuances of these metals are lost on all but the finest flutists. Some flutists experience irritation where the lower lip contacts the instrument; a gold-plated embouchure plate may help (for some extra money).
  • Keywork options: The only significant options for flutists buying less than a custom instrument are inline versus offset G, and the split E mechanism. Some flutists find the inline G key more ergonomic, and some prefer offset. Hand size is one factor, but try both to see which is a more comfortable, less tense reach. Offset G flutes are much more likely to have the split E mechanism, which makes the difficult high E respond more easily.
  • Keys with open holes are popular with American flutists, but realistically make little difference in the instrument’s sound. Still, many flutists insist that open holes improve tone and/or pitch, and facilitate some extended techniques like microtones and pitch slides. Closed holes are a little easier for beginning flutists to cover with their fingers. Removable plugs for open-holed flutes are commercially available, but if you have an open-holed flute you might as well learn to play it “unplugged.”
  • Student instruments usually have a footjoint that is keyed down to a low C. More expensive instruments often (but don’t necessarily) have a low B footjoint, which stabilizes and adds resonance to some notes. The low B itself is occasionally used in flute solo music, but the beginner or casual doubler won’t miss it and might like the lighter weight of a C footjoint.
  • For more information, see my flute page.

Oboe

  • Materials: Generally, cheaper oboes are made of plastic, and more expensive ones are made of grenadilla wood. All else being equal, the tonal advantages of wood are minimal at best, but oboes of superior design and workmanship are almost always made of wood. (This doesn’t mean that just because an oboe is made of wood, it’s a good one!) Wood instruments require careful maintenance to avoid cracking. Previously cracked oboes, if expertly repaired, are perfectly playable but drop significantly in resale value. Keywork on cheaper instruments is nickel plated, more expensive instruments may have shinier silver-plated keys.
  • Keywork options: Oboe keywork options are staggering. Pay for the most complete keywork you can afford. I would prioritize the “extra” keys in roughly this order: F resonance, left F, low B-flat, split-ring D, low B-flat resonance, third octave key. American oboists should avoid ring-key models, fully-automatic octave mechanisms, and thumbplate oboes.
  • For more information, see my oboe page.

Clarinet

  • Materials: The wood vs. plastic discussion in the oboe section applies here.
  • Keywork options: Clarinets, thankfully, have little variation in their keywork. Beware “full-Boehm” instruments, which are favored by a few professionals but rarely used in the United States.
  • For more information, see my clarinet page.

Bassoon

  • Materials: The wood vs. plastic discussion in the oboe section applies here. Wooden bassoons are made of maple.
  • Keywork options: Above the most basic student instruments, bassoon keywork options are perhaps as complicated as with the oboe. Advancing players will find use for a high D key, Ab/Bb trill, and whisper lock, and may find optional rollers to be handy.
  • For more information, see my bassoon page.

Saxophone

  • Materials: Saxophones are made of brass. Sometimes professional instruments are made with special alloys or plated with silver or even gold, but the differences, if they really exist, are too subtle to matter much to most players. The color of the lacquered finish has no effect on the instrument’s sound—don’t be concerned about a lighter or darker gold color. Cheaper instruments sometimes have nickel-plated keys, but this doesn’t affect playability in any way.
  • Keywork options: A high F-sharp key is present on most newer high-quality instruments (but also some of lower quality), but is not a high priority for a beginner. Some professional saxophonists don’t use the high F-sharp key anyway, preferring alternate fingerings. An articulated low C-sharp key is usually present on higher-end instruments and eases navigation of the low register.
  • For more information, see my saxophone page.

Comments

  1. R W Bosworth

    This is a very good article. I wish my kids had read this when I was a band director!

    I’m looking to buy several non-playing clarinets and saxophones for a fund-raiser for my son’s high school band, The Franklin County High School Flyer Band, Frankfort, Kentucky. Can you direct me to someone/somewhere who/that might be able to help me?

    Thanks in advance . . . Bob Bosworth

    Reply

  2. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    Thanks Bob—

    For non-playing instruments, try local garage sales and pawnshops, as well as eBay and Craigslist.

    Reply

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