Choosing A Mandolin
A decent mandolin may be a fairly big ticket item for many people. Finding a mandolin that meets your needs can enhance your music and your life. This guide briefly covers key aspects of mandolins we handle at Gianna’s. Visit www.mandovoodoo.com for a more in depth look at mandolin evaluation, mandolin history, and our acoustic optimization process.
Mandolins come in a wide range of styles, from ornate F hole models with hand carved arches to simple cigar-box flat tops. First, figure out what type of music you want to play. I’ll divide the spectrum into bluegrass, old-time and Celtic, classical and orchestral, and jazz. Mandolins fall into three very general categories: bowl back, flat, and carved arch top and back. Arched mandolins further divide into the fancy curly bluegrass F style, the teardrop A style, and the two point based on the old Lyon & Healy design.
The archtop mandolin is the most popular. These mandolins have bent ribs or sides reinforced at their
junction with the top and back. The top and back are hand carved in an arch, at least in the best models.
The less expensive ones may simply be stamped out and bent from laminated wood. Archtop mandolins
generally come in the teardrop “A” style and the fancy Florentine “F” model. The F model is heavier and
takes more work to make, making them more expensive than equivalent A models. Two point models also
exist, but in much lesser numbers. I think the F models tend to have a chunky sound, while the A models
have a more robust midrange. Two point mandolins are somewhere in between, with a jazzy tone.
Gibson first described their teardrop mandolins as A models in the early 20th Century. A style mandolins
usually have arched carved tops and backs. They may host either twin F holes or an oval hole. I’ve seen A
style mandolins in bluegrass, old time, Celtic, and everywhere else.
Two point mandolins have some of the decorate points of the F style, giving a bit more mass at the neck
joint and impacting the tone somewhat. Mandolin accumulators and jazz players like the different look and
intermediate sound of these instruments.
Neapolitan bowl back mandolins often show up in movies and on TV. Or as a prop. This early design
evolved from the lute. They are rarely used by working musicians today, although top-level classical players
often prefer them. They also appear in mandolin orchestras. Good examples have a dark, round, lush tone,
but are difficult to find.
Most, but not all, bluegrass players prefer the “Florentine” F style mandolin with its sort of violin f-shaped sound holes, scroll and points body outline, with arched top and back. This type is likely popular because of Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5. Players who like the F-5 variety claim it has a great popping “chop” for rhythm chords and supports strong, clear single-string lead lines. Generally the A style mandolin with its simple teardrop shape costs less and gives excellent performance, perhaps with less percussive “chop” but with a richer midrange. Classical and orchestra players like either F or A style instruments with oval sound holes. Oval hole instruments have less energy in the high overtones and more in the fundamental and lower overtones. This gives a sweet, singing tone that blends well. Old time and Celtic players are less fixed in their ideas, but often use A type oval hole mandolins, or even flat mandolins. Neither genre calls for strong rhythm support and the the players usually track other instruments in unison. Some projection is required to cut through the group, often including guitar, concertina, and bodhran (Irish drum). Jazz and blues players like a fat but projecting tone, crisp response, and a wide dynamic range. They seem particularly attracted to 2 point F and oval hole models, although this attraction may be more a function of the look than the performance. Many of these players prefer flat top FT74 or LaBella MJ11 jazz strings For a different, lower, mellower tone, more mandolinists are moving to mandolas. These are tuned like a viola, a fifth lower than the mandolin (CDGA) and with a longer scale (16" usually). The mandola isn’t just a big mandolin; it really has a different tone and style
F hole archtop mandolins tend to have a focused, strongly projecting punch. Oval hole mandolins often sustain more and have a lush character. The F holes give a crisp, clear tone while the oval hole gives a warm, supple tone. The difference comes from the concentration of energy in higher overtones from the F hole mandolin’s top. The oval hole gives more of the rich, lush lower overtones, but tends to sacrifice some projection and presence. At the ends of the spectrum, a poor quality or very stiff and new F hole mandolin may sound thin, while a weak oval hole may sound muddy or soggy.
Ideally a mandolin sound play easily and securely, giving a complex, open, and immediate response. These qualities come from design, construction quality, and materials. In practice, materials can vary greatly in acoustic quality without correlation to appearance. Afficionados tend to grade quality on wood selection, adherence to traditional designs and materials, and execution. Most point to hard carving to accommodate the individual pieces of wood, light weight for easy resonance, and traditional construction. Traditional construction includes a neck fitted with a dovetail joint, a single action bent truss rod (strengthening and allowing adjustment of the neck), and hand applied varnish, rather than sprayed on urethane. Another point is the glue used. Many glues act as a barrier to vibration, forming a relatively thick “gasket” between the pieces and often allowing creep over time. In contrast, traditional hide glue is hard and vanishingly thin in properly fitted joints, creating an acoustically transparent joint. Our Eastman mandolins use hide glue. Finishes are especially important. Many low end mandolins have sprayed on finishes with excessive stiffness and thickness. Any finish will tend to take out some of the richness of the bass and thin out the treble range. On the other hand, raw wood picks up dirt and oils from playing, becoming soggy sounding. The best finishes are thin, relatively soft, and highly flexible. These finishes don’t come out of a spray can. All Eastman mandolins have thin, hand brushed varnish. Some are topped with nitrocellulose lacquer for a more durable surface layer. Quality relates directly to the kind of production environment. At the top is the individually made instrument, where one pair of hands does everything. These mandolins are expensive, have individual character, and generally very good to superlative. You’re counting on one person to do everything well enough. At the next level, highly trained specialists work under the direction of a master maker. These mandolins are generally very consistent and often use just as much or more handwork than individual makers. Our Eastman mandolins are at this level. At the bottom level are mandolins made in a general purpose instrument factory by factory workers to a standard specification. These are often tarted up by fancy inlays and components to attract buyers with “flash.” We stock the well-known Kentucky brand of factory mandolins.
Mandolins range widely in price. At the low end are laminated boxes produced by pressing plywood into arched plates. These are often unplayable. At the high end are exquisite artworks by recognized masters. Individually made mandolins in A style can sometimes be had for as little as $1750. These generally have style and flash that is appealing to many, so long as the tone is there. Most are much higher in cost. Small shop mandolins start quite reasonably, with low end models available from Gibson, Weber, Collings, and in the imports, from Eastman. Prices start at about $500 (Eastman MD500 A models) and go to over $10,000 (limited production Gibson mandolins). Playable factory mandolins range from perhaps $150 for some imports up to perhaps $1500. The more expensive factory instruments tend to have lots of fancy inlay, including the fretboard. This doesn’t add performance, just flash. And it interferes with future fingerboard work. In my assessment, decent mandolins with suitable response and tone start at right around $500. The Eastman MD505 A style F hole mandolin remains the ideal starter instrument. For those with less available cash, the Kentucky KM350S ($395 list) or even less expensive KM250S ($295 list) work adequately. We carry and set up the entire Kentucky line when requested.
Most mandolins shipped to dealers are partially set up. Many dealers appear to sell mandolins as they arrive, with weak strings, poorly fitted bridges, nuts very high, unlubricated tuners, and all too often with unadjusted truss rods or uneven frets. Trying to play these instruments is very frustrating. We set instruments up thoroughly.
Shoppers in the commodity age generally have a difficult time telling products at a given price level apart. Often there are few differences in performance Specification and componentry shoppers Beginners often have a difficult time determining mandolin tone quality, construction level, and playability. Too often beginners become taken with fancy decorations and inlays, gold fittings, and flowery descriptions. Buying a mandolin for the fingerboard inlay is like buying a car for its stereo. All mandolins have similar specifications: spruce top, maple or other suitable back, frets, tuners, and so on. The main determinant of quality is the manipulation of the wood in skilled hands, not the ability to place a fingerboard in a computer controlled machining unit. Look beyond the flash and find out how a mandolin you’re interested is made, how it is finished, and what others think of its performance. Keep in mind that players have widely varying taste in instrument sound and appearance. Convenience shoppers While quickly picking something inexpensive at a full range music store or clicking a button at a big online shop may be easy, it is unlikely to find you the best performance for the dollar. These kinds of shops rarely have the selection and quality of mandolins allowing careful choice. Most important, mandolins require careful setup to get them playing well. Players from all over the country send me even quite high quality mandolins to get the setup just right for them. Many of the entry level mandolins showing up are almost unplayable. A convenience purchase can soon become quite inconvenient. Discount shoppers The search for the ultimate bargain has impacted musical instrument dealers and shoppers in several ways. The “discount” is generally illusory. First, some suppliers post inflated “list” prices, allowing some makes to appear deeply and profoundly discounted, while other makes simply do not have the cushion. Second, mandolins require setup and careful tweeking. This takes skill and time. A big click-through supplier may have the same mandolin as a small specialty shop and offer it for $100 less. The mandolin is very likely to arrive with the bridge poorly fitted, the nut high and only roughly fitted, an unadjusted truss rod, and slightly uneven frets. A good shop thoroughly checks and adjusts each mandolin, ensuring it plays easily and produces optimal tone. Gianna’s goes the extra mile and performs advanced acoustic work on each mandolin. Finally, specialty shops work to ensure that the mandolins matches the player and generally offer the best service. Prestige shoppers Some players think buying a name buys performance. A star plays an X, so the player gets an X. Brand Y is famous, so the player buys a Y. Buying like this is easy, but doesn’t ensure that the specific mandolin matches the player, plays well, sounds good, or is even the same thing as the instruments that made a brand famous. The top end instruments bearing a brand may be completely different from the entry level instruments. For example, I played a Guild guitar for some time. It was made in Guild’s custom shop in Nashville, rather than on their usual production line. The only things it had in common with the typical Guild guitar were the wood and the basic design. Everything else was more than cut above the production models. But it was still a Guild guitar. A specific brand or trade name may not mark the same instruments as it used to. For example, Gibson mandolins have been made in completely separate production lines in Michigan, Montana, and now Tennessee. The products of these different shops are different. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. Many brands once made in the US are now farmed out to overseas bulk producers. Some of these instruments work adequately, some don’t. Regardless, they aren’t the same instruments as they once were.
Finally, a new mandolin has to break in before it sounds its best. At first, the mandolin still seems to consider itself a piece of lumber. The mandovoodoo(tm) process “opens up” the instrument a good deal. A couple of hours of playing get the bridge seated and the wood working as a unit. Gradually the bass becomes more rich and the treble mellows out a little. Eventually the instrument starts to sound full and hollow, resonating easily.
Body style: Hole style: Neck length (short or long): Fingerboard (radiused, extended): Tuners (quality): Tailpiece (stamped or cast): Binding: Finish: Case: