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Buying your first mandolin

The commonest e-mail query to this site is "What sort of mandolin should I buy? Can you recommend a good beginner's mandolin?" For this reason I thought it would be best to put such comments as I can make on to a web page.

First off, I have to say that I am not a professional or even an amateur luthier. Nor am I a professional mandolin player with a number of instruments stashed away for a variety of musical situations. My experience, such as it is, of buying and playing instruments has been governed by financial constraints. Also I have a family to support ... You get the picture? It's always been tough for me to justify what might be deemed luxury expenditure!

So bearing in mind my situation, which is probably similar to that of the majority of amateur musicians, please believe me when I say that to get a starter mandolin which sounds reasonably pleasant you will probably have to pay several hundred dollars. OK, let me try to dispel a few myths!
  • A mandolin is a lot smaller than a guitar, so it should be cheaper, right? No, there is a lot of intricate workmanship in making a good mandolin. The cost of the wood is only a tiny fraction of the final price.

  • What about those cheap old mandolins in junk shops? Well, try to play one of these instruments! It's true that there were many mandolins made around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, but most of the more cheaply produced instruments are now virtually unplayable, owing to loosened neck joints, bent necks and so on. The better quality instruments, like the Gibson A models, are eagerly sought after. You might just be lucky, but your chances of finding a good instrument cheap in a junk shop or antique shop are becoming increasingly remote as more and more searchers are aware of what these instruments are worth.

  • Well I'm really a guitar/banjo/fiddle/bass/dobro player - I just want to learn a bit of mandolin on the side. How much did you pay for your number one instrument? Probably several thousand dollars. This would also be the cost of a good mandolin, so you can hardly expect much for a tiny fraction of that price.
If you are a real beginner, and you are not sure what type of mandolin playing you want to do, it is probably best to start off with a flat top (or carved top) teardrop shaped instrument. It doesn't matter whether it has a round hole or two f-holes like a violin, though there are tonal differences. Even for bluegrass music you don't have to begin with a scroll model (F style). The cheapest instruments are mostly made in the Far East, particularly Korea and China. Still you will probably be looking at a price of several hundred dollars for anything that sounds half way decent and is reasonably comfortable to play.

You may still have in your mind the image of the classical Italian bowl-back mandolin (a la Captain Corelli). In North America these are sometimes given the generic and rather pejorative name of "taterbug" mandolins. A quality bowl-back is very expensive. Cheap (usually second-hand) ones are often structurally weakened.

For much more detailed and informed comments on choosing a mandolin you are recommended to take a look at Dix Bruce's page at Mandozine. There is a lot to consider, and it is really impossible for me to recommend a particular make or model of instrument, though Mid-Missouri mandolins have a good reputation for beginners. Kentucky mandolins are also well known, though the cheaper models do not have the qualities of the better Kentuckys. It's not just a question of imported versus home-manufactured instruments. It's true that a custom mandolin from a good US (or British, Australian etc) luthier will be expensive, but there are some good imported mandolins, e.g. the Kentucky KM 1000 and 1500 carved top F models. In addition, some cheaper Far Eastern mandolins can represent good value for money as beginners' instruments.

Your local music store might have just the thing, or their instruments could be rubbish. You really need to find someone with a bit of experience to go along with you. Apart from the sound qualities of the mandolin, you are looking for an instrument with a straight neck (not warped like a banana when string tension is put on it!), so the strings are not too high off the fingerboard. Unless you are going to play hardcore bluegrass straight off it's probably better to go for a folk-type instrument with lightish gauge strings until you've decided which style to concentrate on. It helps if the bridge is adjustable (two-piece, with a couple of adjustable screw-type fittings to enable you to raise or lower the strings).

The structural condition of the mandolin is important. You are looking for a soundly constructed instrument which will not collapse! Some cheap imported mandolins have very thin tops which are liable to crack and cave in in due course. The neck should also have some kind of internal reinforcement, e.g an adjustable truss rod or an embedded bar of some kind - though some nice old Gibson A models don't have anything in the neck. "You pays your money and you takes your choice", as we say in Britain.

There is quite often discussion about beginner's instruments on the CoMando list, and you could join the list and ask advice there. You should get a lot of response! You can also search the CoMando archives for comments on beginner's instruments.

Ideally the best way to start is to borrow a mandolin. If someone will lend you an old Gibson A model you are well away. But even the loan of a poor-quality mandolin will help you learn what to avoid when you eventually make your own purchase.

I hope these comments are of some help. Take your time, listen to some mandolin players (e.g. in a place locally where you have live folk music of some kind), talk to them and get their advice. You might even run into someone who has a reasonable beginner's mandolin for sale.

Good luck to you in your search for a mandolin, and enjoy your music!


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