We live in a day in age where we have a lot of choice when it comes to high quality instruments on the market. Unfortunately we also live in a time where there are a LOT of Terrible instruments at terrific prices. In this guide, I will walk you through the questions to ask and the brands and models I recommend enough to carry in our shop, as well as the brands and models we don’t.
1: choose your budget
The first thing to decide on is a budget. Bassoons are rather expensive compared to other instruments, requiring more of an upfront investment. The flip side of this is that bassoons also have a good resale value, especially if you stick to the well known brands. The lack of quality rental instruments generally means that you are either going to be borrowing a bassoon from a teacher/school or buying one. Bassoons range in Price from under $2,000 for a used student model to $50,000+ USD for a brand new customized Heckel. Thankfully, A new player doesn’t need to start on a professional level instrument. Great quality instruments can be had for less than $9,000. If you see a price higher than that, move on to something else. It is probably not going to be the best fit for a new bassoonist.
I have heard some sellers and teachers give the advice “Buy the best instrument you can afford”. While I find this is good advice for a serious player looking to invest in a quality instrument they can play for a long time, this isn’t terribly helpful for newer players. New players haven’t developed the ability to tell the subtle difference in response between instruments or figured out what they prefer in an instrument. New players won’t develop that ability for at least 2 years of playing the bassoon. Choosing a starter instrument that is too expensive can lock the player into an instrument that isn’t the right fit for them as they develop as a player.
2: What does a new player need from a bassoon?
This Part comes down to being honest with yourself and your needs. I find that any music instrument needs to meet a few expectations. A new player needs an instrument that is
- 1) fun to play (So they don’t quit)
- 2) helps train their muscle memory (helping them become better players as they learn)
- 3) rugged enough to withstand the student’s treatment of the instrument.
The last thing you want to do is spend your money on a low quality instrument that frustrates the student into quitting music. I have purchased good quality instruments made by decent manufacturers that were completely unplayable before our overhaul process thanks to terrible non-maintenance. The truth is that a new player won’t be able to tell whether the instrument is broken or if they are doing something wrong. Bad instruments lead to bad experiences. Bad experiences lead to someone not enjoying music and they will probably quit because they think they aren’t good enough or the instrument is too hard. So, rule #1, you need an instrument that works!
A good first instrument will be forgiving enough to get a sound on most notes even if the embouchure isn’t exact, but it will also be unforgiving enough to let you know when your fingers aren’t covering the holes perfectly. A good instrument will be easy to play correctly. Thankfully, most instruments meet this criteria. Only a few very low end instruments are hard to play even when operated properly (I’ll get more into specific brands later).
Lastly, you have to know how hard the player and climate is going to be on the instrument. Is the bassoon heading into the hands of a 4th grader? Is the player going to be responsible enough to swab the instrument after every use? Are you ever going to be playing this instrument outside in the rain/snow? The answers to these questions will mostly help you decide the first decision: wood or plastic?
3: Plastic or Wood?
The big choice that will help narrow down your search is whether you want a plastic or a wood bassoon. There are a lot of opinions that people have in this regard, and at the risk of offending some players I will say that I feel plastic gets a worse reputation than it deserves as a material. Most plastic instruments are designed and marketed as budget instruments. As such, many of the finer adjustments and features that are made to higher end instruments never make it to plastic instruments, thus contributing to the idea that plastic is less than wood. However, plastic instruments do have a few distinct advantages that make them attractive for new players.
- 1: Plastic is completely air-tight and seals slightly better than maple wood
- 2: Plastic is Waterproof and will not rot like wood
- 3: Plastic is more Weather resistant
Are you playing a bassoon outside, possibly in cold rain or *gasp* snow? Don’t do that with a wood bassoon. If you don’t trust the player to swab out the instrument every time they play, then the wood will over time succumb to the dreaded “boot-rot”. This is especially true for the lower end wooden bassoons, which omit some of the liners that protect tone holes and the interior of the bassoon from moisture. The moisture damage in these cases can be particularly pernicious because it acts as a slow leak that makes the instruments difficult to play. In this regard, having a plastic instrument allows you to have peace of mind that you can’t get in a wood instrument. Plastic is also a stronger material than wood, but it isn’t indestructible. If a break does happen in a tenon, plastic instruments are much more difficult to repair because the polypropylene used in their production doesn’t have good glues that bind to it permanently.
An aside from the Physics professor in me: Polypropylene has the density to resonate in a very similar manner as the maple wood used in bassoons. However, wood does have a more complicated molecular structure that has at least the potential to produce a more complex tone. That said, I feel that the design and measurements of the instrument itself probably plays a larger role than the material chosen. I will also point out that even professional bassoons are lined with a plastic bore for half of the instrument down to the bottom of the boot joint, and sometimes further. The bore is where the sound is actually produced, so if manufacturers are alright with a half-plastic bore, how bad a material could plastic really be?
High D key? High E key?
The High D and High E keys are two add on keys that were not always available on earlier student model instruments. Even professional instruments omitted these keys in the early to mid 20th century. But you say, didn’t works in the 19th and early 20th century called for High D and E? Yes! You technically do not need the High D key to play High D, nor the High E key to play High E. They are added to give you additional fingering options in the upper register, and do indeed make those notes easier to play. However, the frequency you will see High D and E in the repertoire is not high, especially for groups a new player will typically find themselves in. For new players, I say not to worry too much about these keys. They aren’t technically necessary to play those notes, and when the time comes when you find yourself playing those notes, you will probably want to upgrade to a better instrument anyway. Lastly, there are many technicians around the country that will happily add those keys on your instrument for a few hundred dollars.
Models I Recommend for New Players
Alright, now to the useful information. You set a budget and know what you are looking for, so what are the options. I was raised playing Fox instruments, so I have a natural affinity for Fox bassoons, and I still play on one today. Fox is a great brand, and to be honest, they don’t have any models that I would tell you to avoid because of quality. Which model Fox did I played on growing up, you ask?
Fox model 240 “Artist Model”
The Fox 240 is a wooden short-bore bassoon that has a beautiful singing quality in the upper register, and is wonderful for solo work. It is also the highest end instrument that I would recommend for a new player. It is the type of instrument I would recommend if the player knows they will like playing bassoon and want one that will probably last them the rest of their lives as a serious non-professional player. It is true, I feel that most players will never need a higher quality instrument than a 240, and paired with the right bocal is a great choice, even at the college level. New, they can be found for just under $9000, and you can find them used in the $7500 range. So with a Fox 240 at the very top of the list of instruments. Let’s work our way back through the Fox line.
Fox Model 220 “Artist Model”
the Fox 220 is a wooden long-bore bassoon that has a rich, powerful sound that blends very well with other instruments. Highly recommended for ensemble work and orchestral settings. Like the 240, it includes the High D and High E keys, giving it the full range. New, they have a street price around $7700, and used go for under $6400 in good condition. The 220 isn’t any lower quality in built, and it is marketed as an “Artist Model” along with the model 240. I say they are very similar in overall quality, but have a different flavor. I will say the majority of players end up preferring the 240 when comparing a 220 side by side with it. However, it is not a universal conclusion among all players.
Fox Model 222, The School Horn
The Fox Model 222 is the least expensive wood model that Fox makes. It is made from a different species of Maple than the Fox 220 and Fox 240. The Model 222 is made from “Sugar Maple”, which has a better durability than the “Mountain Maple” used in the 220 and 240. The 222 lacks the High E key, and has the High D as an option. Only about 20% of the Model 222s that I see have a high D key installed. It also has standard a Plateau C key, instead of a C hole (See our Discussion on Keywork Options) on the wing joint. This causes a few subtle intonation issues for several notes, but has the added bonus of making it easier for players with small hands to reach. Very young players are able to play a full sized bassoon much more effectively with the plateau C key. The Model 222 has a great tone, and is considered a “long bore” design, more similar to the 220. It is a great option if you want to go with a wood instrument. The Street price new
Fox Model IV,
Fox Model III
Fox Model 41
Fox Model 51
Hall of Shame: Which brands to avoid?
Recent years have seen a glut of new brands on the market, typically made in Asia. They market themselves with wood and a lot of extra keywork, like the high D and E keys. In general, these brands are to be avoided like the plague. Unfortunately, the names keep changing, so as a rule of thumb, if you see it is coming from China, and its a brand you don’t find a lot of information on when you google it, it’s probably not worth the money. These instruments are not precision made, and the manufacturers cut corners wherever they can to bring you an instrument that is usually half the price of a quality brand’s products. The only advantage they have is price. The wood is usually not aged properly, the designs are sub-standard, and they will usually come with leaks over much of the instrument. They will not hold their value either, like a quality European or US made instrument. A fox usually maintains at least half the retail value, but other brands are lucky to get 20%.