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How to Buy a: Mandolin

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This is a recovered version from the original website. All credit goes to Bob Moses. Bob,if you are reading this and would like me to remove this awesome resource you've written, just get in touch with me). This article has been linked to by some great sites(i.e Wikipedia), so we had to restore it on the old site.

How to Buy a Mandolin

by: Bob Moses

Not long ago, when you took your guitar down to the local jam or open mic, you joined the other 25 guitarists somewhere at the edge of the crowd and hoped you could pick out your playing over the six-string din. I’ll bet you’ve noticed recently that the first half-dozen folks in the door are toting little cases that hold shiny new mandolins.

Mandolins are turning up on national stages as well as your local watering hole. Especially outside trad bluegrass and country settings, younger players such as Chris Thile are expanding the mandolin’s visibility and repertoire. Hell, The Clark Brothers, featuring camera-friendly Adam Clark on mandolin, even won the Fox tv reality show, The Next Great American Band, beating out the pop-rockers. Mandolins are turning up everywhere from rock arenas to honkytonks because their characteristic sharp attack packs a rhythmic punch, yet they can be hauntingly melodic. They find expression in many styles of music, and you can spend a lifetime mastering them — once you find the right instrument for you.

Doing our part to convert the rest of the world’s guitarists into mando players, we brought Brad Einhorn, a local fixture on the Brooklyn bluegrass scene, to Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, a world-famous repository of mandolins — and a repository of wisdom in the form of owner Stan Jay. Stan has counseled players from the world famous to the just-starting on mandolin purchases, and, as you’ll see in our video interview, no one has more enthusiasm for the instrument. Brad has also recently launched Kings County Strings, an online emporium featuring custom-made guitars and mandolin-family instruments from noted luthiers. We also corralled our friend Jimmy Ryan, leader of The Blood Oranges and Beacon Hillbillies, and tireless sideman for many on mandolin (see him this summer with Laura Cantrell), and Fred Skellenger, mando player and singer in New York’s Copper Kettle, for their advice.

Here’s a quick summary of what we learned:

1. Be clear about what kind of music you’ll be playing. Do you need a loud chop to cut through the strumming at your local jam? Or do you aim for the sweeter, woodier sounds of Celtic or folk? As Stan points out, the mandolin was originally a classical instrument (and is tuned like a violin), and there is a significant jazz repertory. There are instruments suitable for every style. In general, models with f-holes are going to be louder than oval holes, which may offer more sustain and overtones — and either can be fitted with a pick-up for those who rock. But be clear about what you need; I’ve made the mistake in the past of falling for a warm-sounding oval-hole mando that ended up nearly inaudible in a crowd. And don’t fall for a pretty finish: mandolins are some of the most beautiful instruments made, and the hand-carving they require makes them relatively expensive. Make the sound you need your first priority.

2. There are two basic styles, derived from Gibson models of the early 20th century. The F models are the ones with the intricate scrolls at the neck, with the shape and pointing of a violin; the As are teardrop-shaped. Either can have f-holes or oval holes. (Check Stan’s clear explanation of Lloyd Loar’s innovations and body shapes in our video.) There’s a lot of handwork in those scrolls, and you’ll pay for it. You can find A models that sound every bit as fine — and loud — as F models. But the Fs sure are beautiful objects.

3. Explore some makers you may not be familiar with — there are some great young luthiers exploring the mandolin now, and their work may be a relative bargain. Gibson, of course, is the iconic mandolin and is most often seen in the hands of the bluegrass pantheon. But there are smaller makers who produce superb instruments: Stan mentions the Collings instruments in our piece, and finds their A-shaped MT series a real value. He also applauds the one-man show of the Phoenix mandolins at a slightly higher price point.

4. Let how the instrument plays help guide you to the right choice. Does it stay in tune, and do the tuners work easily? Are the strings set up too high or down too low? Do the frets buzz? Does the neck feel right in your hand, and is it straight? Do you prefer a flat fretboard, or a radiused fretboard; wider or narrower? You will only know by playing the instrument, and giving yourself plenty of time to try lots of different models. A store that specializes in mandolins will have a full range of possibilities, as you’ll see in our tour of Mandolin Brothers. You’ll see us play and compare lots of mandos in the video so you’ll get a sense of Collings, Phoenix, and Gibson instruments.

5. Pay for what you really need (assuming you’re not buying a mando for investment value – and given the huge run-up in prices over the last 10 years, that wouldn’t be a great idea). Unsurprisingly, prices vary with the workmanship and materials involved. A custom F-5 style with spruce top and solid maple back and sides from a noted luthier will be a pricey proposition. In general, a reliably playable mando can be had for just under $1,000. There are some Chinese makers such as Eastman that have won fans for their accessible instruments, and Gibson has revived the Flatiron brand with Chinese-made mandos. At around $2,000, you can find perfectly playable, professional instruments, the Collings MT being among them. You’ll need to find $4-5,000 to enter the big leagues, and plan to pay in the $15-20,000 range for a world-class professional instrument.

6. Don’t be afraid to buy used, or to peruse the online listings on sites such as Mandolin Café. Many reputable dealers will have listings there and most have approval policies so that you can try the instrument. Mandolins can take years to settle in and warm up. A used instrument may sound better to you right away than one right out of the box. And you’ll save some money, too. I have a 1995 Flatiron that my friend Martin found on MandoCafe, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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