Mandolin Buyer's Guide

Dix Bruce

This article is an update to an article by Dix Bruce, in the May, 1987 issue of Frets. Although prices, and models have changed, the basic criteria for selecting a new or used mandolin remains the same. I have surveyed the most popular online instrument dealers, and have used their pricing as a frame of reference for this article. Obviously, prices are subject to change, and available new models may be discontinued. The following links will direct you to a wealth of information on basic terminology, new and vintage instruments descriptions, online resources and prices, and instrument specifications.

Vintage Gibson A-Style Mandolins
Mandolin Cafe Builder List

You'll have a hard time calling yourself a mandolin player if you don't own a mandolin. Maybe you've been lucky enough to get a worthwhile instrument on loan, or as a gift; but sooner or later you'll probably want to buy your own-- and it's a jungle out there.

First of all, ask yourself, "What type of mandolin do I want to own?" Experienced players know that's not a simple question. Mandolins come in many varieties: bowl-backs, flat-backs, A-style, F-style, flat-tops, electrics, 8-string, 4-string, 5-string, resonator, and so on, not to mention mandola's, mandocello's, and other mandolin-family cousins. Your choice, most likely, will be dictated by the kind of music you expect to play on your instrument.

Most mandolinists play bluegrass or acoustic folk mandolin styles, so we'll concentrate on mandolins associated with those genres. However, if your tastes run more to classical mandolin, jazz mandolin, or some other style, you'll still find information here to help you.

A majority of (though by no means all) bluegrass players favor the F- (or "Florentine-") style mandolin, with violin-type f-shaped sound holes and a scroll-and-points body silhouette. The archetype is the 1923 Gibson F-5 used by Bill Monroe, who wrote bluegrass history with it. Musicians partial to the F-5 variety say it gives a solid punch on rhythm chords, and also has a strong, clear tone for single-string lead work.

Mandolin-orchestra players seem to prefer F-style and A- ("teardrop-") style instruments with oval sound holes. Those types have a sound that blends well in ensemble work.

Old-time and Celtic mandolinists use a wide range of mandolin varieties, from vintage Gibson A-styles to Lyon & Healy B-styles to inexpensive Japanese copies. Neither old-time nor Celtic players have well-defined rhythm roles, and in both styles mandolinists tend to play in unison with other instruments. They generally like brighter-sounding mandolins that can cut through the sound of a group which may include accordion and bodhran (Irish drum).

For a beginner, the best advice is to choose an instrument that plays easily, sounds good to you, and is affordable. That's it in a nutshell.

Let your ears and fingers--rather than styles, model numbers, or brand names--be your guide. If you don't feel equipped to make an intelligent choice, go shopping with a teacher or a trusted mandolin-playing friend who can coach you. (Be aware that many teachers in music stores get a percentage on any instruments they help sell to their students, and so may not give perfectly objective advice. If in doubt--ask. It never hurts to know the ground rules.)

It's best to play as many different mandolins as you can before you set out for a music store, your checkbook cocked and the safety-catch off. First you should have some hands-on experience. You don't need to be an expert at this stage; the idea is just to get a basic sense of what different mandolins feel and sound like. That way, you'll have a personal frame of reference when you try to judge an instrument in a store, even if you're relying on a friend to help you make your decision.

Mandolin Types

Let's take a closer look at the varieties of mandolins in circulation today, and why you might--or might not--want certain kinds.

Bowl-back, "Neapolitan," or "taterbug" mandolins are the stereotype of the breed--the kind of mandolin most often seen in movies, on TV, or on Italian postcards when a mandolin icon is needed. The centuries-old design is a hybrid of violin and lute construction; these days, bowl-backs are more often found on tavern walls than in the hands of working musicians.

Serious classical mandolin artists, such as Australian virtuoso Keith Harris, still favor top-grade round backs. You'll also see them in mandolin orchestras. This style doesn't have an enviable reputation for quality construction, only because there are so many poorly built examples sold inexpensively in pawn shops and music stores. Good ones are excellent, with a darker, rounder tone than that of flat-back instruments; but they are few and far between.

The term "A-style mandolin" is a catch-all phrase that loosely describes instruments which don't fall into either the bowl-back or the F-style categories. The term itself comes from the Gibson model-A mandolins first produced in the early l900s. Historically, this group includes Gibson A-models, Martins, Lyon & Healys, Regals, Harmonys, and others with a similar oval-body or teardrop shape.

Typically, they have carved tops and carved backs. (The back may actually be arched, violin-fashion, rather than "flat"; but the term "flat-back" is accepted usage to distinguish these and other mandolins from bowl-back models.) They may have either a single oval sound hole, or twin f-holes. Other variations include cutaways and body points.

You'll find A-model mandolins in bluegrass, old-time, and Irish bands, and even on stage with rock stars. As a group, A-styles are fine-sounding mandolins with a great reputation. Gibson alone made thousands of them earlier in this century, and other companies rode the same bandwagon.

Vintage A-models still are widely available, most well made enough to have survived the test of time and improved with age. Some domestic and overseas luthiers are building excellent modern versions of the style. As a rule, both new and vintage A-style mandolins are less expensive than their fancier F-style cousins.

F-style mandolins were pioneered by Orville Gibson in the early 1900s. (Orville also is credited with inventing the first flat-back mandolins.) With their fancy body shape and appointments, these models were always at the top of the Gibson line. The basic design of the F-style instruments varies less than does that of the A-styles, though you'll find both oval-sound hole and f-hole versions, and a variety of finishes and materials used.

Most top bluegrass mandolinists use F-style instruments. These models command premium prices, the most sought-after being Gibson F-5s made between 1923 and 1924 under the supervision of renowned acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar, and bearing Loar's signature on their labels. The market for these models has generated quite a few contemporary F-styles, from outright replicas of vintage classics to stylized third-generation versions. A number of companies and private luthiers make fine F-models today.

Smart Shopping

Whether you're checking out mandolins at a music store, pawn shop, flea market, or garage sale, be prepared to walk out the door. Take your time, no matter how eager you--or the salesperson may be, and get some perspective on any instrument you're considering.

Look the instrument over inside and out, top to bottom, whether it's new or used. Does it feel solid and well-built? What about workmanship--are all the joints, bindings, and inside glue seams neat and tight? Are there any parts broken or missing? Do you see cracks anywhere in the wood? Existing cracks are a problem; repaired cracks may indicate future problems.

Does the instrument look appealing to you? Some players don't worry about appearance; others just wouldn't be comfortable with a scratched or cosmetically unattractive mandolin.

Inspect the hardware. Do all the tuning machines work easily? Are there visible signs of wear? Worn or broken gears can be a big headache to fix or replace, especially on older instruments whose parts have long since passed out of production.

Are there loose braces or tone bars inside the soundbox? Loose braces aren't terribly hard to reglue, but they may be a symptom of other troubles. What about the bridge? If it's a movable or adjustable bridge (like most mandolin bridges), do the bridge feet mate well with the contours of the soundboard? You shouldn't be able to see daylight under the feet.

Neck straightness is another important issue. A neck that isn't straight makes for difficult playing, and it can cause problems with buzzes and poor intonation. Many mandolins have adjustable truss rods, which can aid in correcting warped or bowed necks. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with mandolins that lack truss rods; most American mandolins built before 1922 or so didn't have them, and a lot of those instruments are still in service. However, if such a mandolin has a bent neck, then purchasing it is a gamble. Maybe it can be fixed; maybe not.

If you're buying a bowl-back instrument, pay special attention to the neck. "If the neck joint is cracked or loose, if it moves at all, forget it," says Tony Marcus, a mandolinist/repairman in the San Francisco Bay area. "Only the finest bowl-back instruments are worth fixing, since the shape of the back makes special tools and procedures necessary." This is especially important advice for beginners, since there are many inexpensive bowl-backs available, and beginners are likely to consider them.

On any mandolin, take a careful look at the soundboard--the top. Most mandolins you will see have carved tops. There is inherent structural strength in that arched shape. The top must be strong enough to counter the considerable pressure that the strings bring to bear on the bridge. It's a delicate balance. If the top appears caved-in, or warped, that's a sign of a top which may be too thin to stand up under string pressure. Get suspicious any time you see the soundboard contour deviating from the natural lines of the carving. If you're in doubt, consult a mandolin expert who has repair experience. A mandolin sold "as-is" may be a bargain that's worth fixing, or may be a waste of money.

After you've checked out the physical condition of the mandolin, put it through its paces. The most important consideration in buying a mandolin is payability. And payability, of course, has a lot to do with the physical state of the instrument--which is why your inspection comes first. Some people might say that tone is more important; but if a mandolin is difficult to play, you won't really enjoy working with it no matter how good it sounds. For beginners, especially, a great-playing instrument is far more important than a great-sounding instrument.

Novice mandolinists will need help from a friend or a coach here. Is the action high or low? How does the neck feel? Check each string at every fret, looking for buzzes, intonation problems (notes that sound flat or sharp of where the pitch ought to be), and individual frets that are set too high or too low, or are unevenly worn. You may need to put on a new set of strings to make an accurate diagnosis; with dead strings, no fretted instrument is at its best.

If you turn up problems in any of these areas, be aware that some are easy to fix: Raising or lowering an adjustable bridge may remedy action problems and buzzing; repositioning the bridge may cure poor intonation. On the other hand, if something like a bad fretboard is at fault, then you've got to weigh your options. Investing a $100.00 fret job in a valuable $2,500.00 vintage mandolin makes economic sense; putting the same kind of money into a $50.00 "noname" plywood mandolin is impractical. It's up to you to determine whether you're buying a diamond in the rough, or a pig in a poke.

Once you're satisfied with the way the mandolin plays, then ask yourself how it sounds. This is a highly subjective point; ask five mandolinists to describe good tone, and you'll probably get five very different answers. Again, "tone" is a sensibility that you'll develop over time. Just go with what sounds pleasing to you now, and with the best (i.e., most trustworthy) advice you can get.

Be Wood-Wise

Tone is a function of many factors, an important one being the builder's choice of materials in making a mandolin. The player's touch is at least as important: David Grisman's million-dollar right hand tremolo can coax warmth and depth out of even the chilliest, most shallow-sounding mandolin. However, if you're going to get the best mandolin value for your dollar, you should learn what woods are considered best for quality mandolin construction.

Most mandolin tops, or soundboards, are carved from spruce--a light yet very strong wood that is widely used for instrument soundboards (from guitars to grand pianos). The best luthiers carefully select soundboard wood according to its look, feel, cut, and sound--going so far as to tap-test each soundboard blank to judge its inherent resonance. I've often heard it said that close-grained spruce is preferable to wide-grained spruce, but in my own experience, neither seems to offer a big tone advantage. More important is the distinction between solid tops and laminated tops.

Laminated--or "plywood"--tops look like spruce, but aren't. Typically, a thin veneer of spruce forms the outer surface of a layered-wood "sandwich," with the core being a less-expensive wood, like certain grades of mahogany. The laminations, which usually have grain lines running at right angles to one another, make for a strong piece of composite wood, but not one that performs in the same way as does a solid piece of wood.

To tell whether a soundboard is solid or laminated, look carefully at the lip of an unbound sound hole. If the material is a laminate, you usually can spot the layers of the sandwich there.

You shouldn't pay a premium price for a mandolin with a laminated top. Laminated stock is cheaper than solid stock, and it's machine-pressed--rather than hand-carved--into shape. I've heard some very good-sounding mandolins that had laminated tops, but solid tops generally are considered to sound "better." If you're on a tight budget, though, there's no reason to avoid a laminated-top mandolin.

Some mandolins have solid tops that have been machine-pressed into shape. If made ell, they work fine; if not, they may fold up like a lawn chair. Pressed top mandolins of this kind include vintage instruments made by the Stradolin (out of business) company. You'll find a number of present-day Japanese and Korean laminated-top imports built with the same technique. Here again, a mandolin with a machine-pressed top commands a lower price than a mandolin with a hand-carved top.

Not all mandolins have arched soundboards. Some models, notably those made by the Flatiron Company, have flat soundboards, similar to the soundboards on flat-top guitars. They have a tone all their own, and many sound very good indeed. If you're considering a flat-top, look for soundboard wood that is quarter-sawn, rather than slab-sawn; in other words, the grain lines should be pretty much like neat, even pin-stripes, rather than the wide, wavy bands you'd probably find on a plank at your local lumber yard.

Luthiers sometimes use woods other than spruce in mandolin tops. Cedar is popular now with certain European builders, since good spruce is getting increasingly expensive and hard to find. Mahogany-top mandolins have been around for years.

While softer woods have been traditional for soundboards, certain hardwoods have long been the materials of choice for sides ("rims") and backs. Following the lead of classic violin design, the best mandolins usually have sides and backs of solid maple. That violin design was a good model: Many of the creations of early mandolin builders have survived seventy years or more of playing, attic storage, or both, to become the most sought-after mandolins around. Other woods sometimes used in place of maple include mahogany and koa.

In mandolins priced below $500.00 or so, you're more likely to find laminated sides and backs than you are to find solid wood. Likewise, the reasons are economic. Choice solid woods are less plentiful, and require more handwork. Because the top is the main resonating component of a mandolin, laminated backs and sides seem to have a less critical impact on an instrument's tone.

Necks may be made of mahogany or maple--usually two or more pieces laminated together, for extra rigidity. Here the lamination process is considered a hallmark of good construction, rather than a liability. By carefully opposing the grain lines of the neck pieces, a luthier produces a neck that is more warp- or twist-resistant than solid wood.

Most fretboards are either rosewood or ebony. Ebony is the harder and denser of the two materials, and usually is found on more expensive instruments. Sometimes rosewood is dyed black to resemble ebony (often a characteristic of less-expensive mandolins). Regardless, good rosewood is a perfectly acceptable fretboard material. It's been said by some players that the greater density of ebony makes for better overall tone in a mandolin. That may be a valid point. Remember, though, that the total package is what counts; you're not just buying a fretboard.

Hunting Grounds

Before you go shopping, get as much background on the mandolin market as you can. Look at display ads in music magazines to research major brands and prices. Explore and compare classified ads, especially if you're after a used or vintage instrument. Invest a few dollars in phone calls, because "list" or "suggested retail" prices may differ from point-of-sale prices for new instruments. Check with several different sources.

Obviously, you'll find your most knowledgeable salespeople, and best selection, at a shop that specializes in acoustic string instruments. A rock oriented, full-line music store may be a bad place to look for a mandolin. (On the other hand, they may have one that's been hanging on the wall for years, that they're dying to unload. The more time you can spend shopping around, the better your chances of getting a good deal.)

There are plenty of legends about $40,000.00 Lloyd Loar F-5s picked up at pawn shops for $50.00, but those stories are more myth than reality. In any case, these corner loan offices now have a pretty good idea of what's valuable in the instrument world, and they also know how to make a fast buck. Still, if you're patient, stopping in at several pawn shops at regular intervals to check new arrivals, you might score a bargain.

Pass the word to friends and fellow players that you're in the market for a mandolin; you can get good leads that way. A musician will get a better price from you than from a music store (which must buy at wholesale, so it can make a profit at retail), so he or she will be more "motivated." Also check want ads, estate sales, even yard sales.

One drawback of dealing with private parties is that the instrument you buy may have been stolen. In many states, retailers are required to hold instruments for 30 days before offering them for sale; theoretically, this allows theft victims a better chance to identify and recover their property. Nonetheless, stolen instruments still show up in retail stores, sometimes, and the same risk is ever-present in private-party transactions. Be as prudent as possible; we owe it to one another not to encourage traffic in "hot" instruments.

Mail-order purchasing may save you a few dollars; but buying an instrument that you haven't heard and played is a bit of a crap shoot. Check out guarantees, return privileges, sellers' reputations, and the way liabilities for shipping damages are handled. Remember that many music stores offer returns within a specified time period, and guarantee instruments--new or used--against defects for several months. Local music stores also are likely to back their sales with follow-up service. If you live in an area where music stores are scarce, or have poor selections of mandolins, then mail order could be a worthwhile alterative.

What about going straight to a private luthier, and having a mandolin built to order? For a beginner, that might be a pretty extravagant step--like getting a Cadillac as a first car. A player with experience--and ample cash--might want to go this route; but here, too, a builder's reputation is very important. Most private mandolin makers are one-man operations. They require a deposit with your order, then proceed to build your instrument. Some of the better makers have backlogs that are reckoned in years. Make sure you have guarantees of when and how the work will be completed.

Unless custom mandolins are built by the most prestigious modem luthiers, their resale value won't compare with those of mandolins from one of the larger companies, or with those of sought-after vintage instruments. However, if you're ordering your dream mandolin of a lifetime, resale won't be a big consideration.

What will You Pay?

Mandolin prices--whether for used or new instruments--usually are negotiable. With used and vintage instruments, the market varies so much depending on makes, models, trends, and geographic location, that any guidelines I give you might be impractical. Your best bet is to do your homework, check out as many instruments as you can, and carefully compare prices so that you're in a position to drive a good bargain. A good reference point is to check the

Related Links

in this article. They list both new and used instruments, and may have just what you are looking for. Of course, buying over the Internet is another story in itself. As noted above, it is somewhat of a gamble to buy an instrument unplayed and unheard. But, online instrument buying is gaining in popularity, with over-night delivery, and return policies. My experience has been a good one. I bought a Kentucky electric mando from Elderly Instruments at a reasonable price with no problems. I had 48 hours after receiving the instrument to notify them if I wanted to return it, and a week after notification to ship it back. Of course I would have been out the shipping charges, but in my case I thought it was worth the gamble. Reputable dealers do a good job of describing the instruments, and will give you an honest opinion on the phone. They may want to sell an instrument, but they also don't want it to come back, so it's in their best interest to assist you as best they can in assessing the suitability of the purchase. Just be sure you can return it if it's not what you had hoped for.

For retail shopping, the least-expensive models you're likely to see will list at about $200-$300. Beginning at the $300 range, you'll find some fairly decent A-style laminated-wood imports. According to one retailer, I consulted, brand names mean little in this category: Almost all these instruments come from the same large Japanese factory, which is under contract to various companies. Generally--considering the price tags--these mandolins play and sound fine.

As you move into the $500-$700 bracket, you'll start seeing solid tops, solid sides and backs, fancier woods, and other nice cosmetic touches. Better known brand names include Kentucky, Ibanez, Washburn, and Aria. The next range is between $700.00 and $1,000.00 --with better grades of wood and a higher degree of handwork. Some surprisingly good instruments are available in this price range. Flatiron makes some excellent A-styles that fall in this price range. Moving up to the $1,000-$2,500 bracket, you will find many excellent models, including custom-built A-styles, and some F-styles.

At the $2,500-$3,500 range, we step into the upper echelons of today's production mandolins. The craftsmanship is a significant cut above what you'll find in the $1,000-and-under ranks. Woods and ornamentation are fancier, handwork is more detailed. The majority of instruments at this level come from larger companies, although some private makers--such as Stefan Sobell of Britain, and Celtic-style builder Rich Westerman of Illinois, make fine instruments in this bracket.

Above $4,000, you'll find that most new mandolins come from private builders, such as Steven Andersen and John Monteleone. It's not unusual to see price tags of $8,000 or more. (Bear in mind that vintage Loar-signed F-5s today command figures in the $40,000 range.) Gibson's F-5L, a replica of the original F-5, is currently discounted at $3,680. Flatiron offers some premium-grade F-style mandolins at prices over $2,500.

Here as elsewhere, the best doesn't come cheap. But don't let the big-ticket figures scare you. If you're a beginner, buy what you can comfortably afford, learn first-hand what you like and dislike in a mandolin, then move on to something better. The bottom line is that if an instrument plays well, sounds good to your ear, and gives you a quiet thrill every time you open the case, it's probably worth the price. Take your time, make your selection carefully, and you won't regret your choice.