Who doesn’t love the mandolin? From Jack White to Bill Monroe, the mandolin has always been a great way to add that old time flavor to your song. But unfortunately, choosing the right mandolin for your needs can be a bit of a challenge. There are dozens of different brands at a staggering amount of different price points, all of which have their associated pros and cons.
Well, if you’re on the hunt for a great mandolin you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you the rundown at some of the best mandolins available, as well as explaining some of the terminology associated with the instrument.
- Mandolin Terminology
- What Mandolin Is Right For Me? And How Much Should I Spend?
- Top Mandolins
A-Style: An A-style mandolin sports a tear drop shape, and it lacks the scroll (definition below) of an F-style mandolin.
F-Style: An F-style mandolin sports a scroll. Aside from that there isn’t a huge difference in construction.
Carved Top: When a mandolin advertises itself as having a carved top, it means that the top was carved into the instrument’s trademark arched shaped as opposed to being pressed.
Pressed Top: A pressed top instrument on the other hand, is pressed into form by a machine using heat and pressure in a similar process to how the sides of an acoustic guitar are manipulated. While this is cheaper, it generally leads to an instrument that it sonically inferior to its carved top equivalent.
Arched Back: The term “arched back” is exactly what it sounds like. It means that your mandolin isn’t going to have a level back (the part that rests against your stomach), it’s going to have an arch. This arch generally acts as a way to make the mandolin louder, focusing the energy from the strings outward as opposed to letting them bounce around the body of the instrument.
Scroll: On a mandolin, the scroll is the bit of wood that wraps around itself on the top of the mandolin. It doesn’t serve much of a purpose besides looking pretty however, it can add quite a bit of cost to an instrument.
What Mandolin Is Right For Me? And How Much Should I Spend?
So if you’re primarily a guitar or bass player, you’re in for a bit of rude awakening. You see, both guitars and basses benefit from something called economy of scale. Because so many guitars are sold, guitar and bass manufacturers can make a substantial profit on slim margins. Mandolins, like many other folk instruments, don’t have this luxury. So for a mandolin that’s of equal quality to a $500 dollar guitar you could easily spend $1500 if not more. Similar to violins, mandolins also take a higher level of workmanship than the average guitar. I’m not disparaging guitar makers by any stretch of the imagination, but due to the mandolins small size constructing a quality piece is a bit more difficult.
However, I wouldn’t recommend shelling out a lot of cash until you’re sure you want to invest in a quality instrument. Like many other mandolin players, I started on a sub-$200 mandolin and I had a great time. If you can take a cheap mandolin to a luthier and get it set up, it’ll play well enough that you’ll be able to learn on it just fine. But there are a few things you should keep in mind. For one, a solid top mandolin (meaning that the top of the mandolin is made from solid wood) can easily be had for $100 to $200 dollars. A solid wood instrument will sound substantially better than one made from laminate. Also, in the $100 to $600 range literally every dollar counts. So before making a purchase, weigh your options carefully. If you can afford a $200 instrument, don’t skimp and get a cheaper one if you can help it.
Lastly, don’t bother getting a F-style mandolin until you’re ready to invest in a nicer instrument. The scroll on a mandolin only serves an aesthetic purpose while adding a pretty substantial amount of extra cost to the instrument.
So for this piece I’m going to do something a bit different than normal. Rather than recommending a large list, I’m going to recommend two different mandolins per quality tier. So two beginner instruments, two intermediate ones, and two high-end ones. And of course, the high-end section is relative. Top quality mandolins can easily cost anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000. And no, I didn’t accidentally put any extra zeroes in there.
And remember, though every dollar counts at the lower end of the spectrum you don’t have to shell out a ton of cash to get a workable instrument. If you want something you can get a good gigging sound with, expect to shell out $600 to $700. If you plan on heading to the studio with your mandolin, you will probably want to find something similar to what I’ve put in the “high-end tier” section.
Though these instruments may not sound as good as more expensive models, for what they are they’re great. Not everyone can shell out a grand for an instrument that they’re not sure they’ll like. If that sounds like you, the two instruments below will be right up your alley.
Rover RM-50 Deluxe Student A-model Mandolin
Though the company may not have the presence it deserves, everyone who’s ever played a Rover instrument knows that the company turns out solid instruments. Sporting a solid carved spruce top, solid maple back and sides, and a one piece maple neck, the Rover RM-50 is definitely no exception to this trend.
Epiphone MM-30 Mandolin
If you’re on the hunt for a beginner mandolin, the Epiphone MM-30 is truly a great option. Sporting a mahogany body, a solid spruce top, and a rosewood fretboard, the MM-30 will sport a solid enough tone to satisfy any beginning mandolin player.
While it may not be a necessity for the beginning player, great tone has its perks. While the two instruments below won’t blow many professional mandolin players, they’ll wow crowds and your friends alike.
The Loar LM-600-VS Professional Style Mandolin
If you’re on the hunt for a great mid-range mandolin, you definitely can’t go wrong with the Loar LM-600-VS. The instrument features completely solid construction, with a hand-carved spruce top and hand-carved maple back and sides. This mandolin also sports Gotoh tuning machines, ensuring that you’re mandolin’s tuning will always be stable.
Gretsch G9350 Park Avenue F-Style Mandolin
If you need a stage worthy intermediate mandolin, the Gretsch G9350 Park Avenue is a great option. Like the Loar, the Gretsch sports a solid spruce top with solid maple back and sides, along with an arched back.
Also, this mandolin comes stock with a Fishman M-300 pickup. According to general consensus, the pickup does a remarkably good job of conjuring up lifelike mandolin tones.
You know, if we wanted a cheap hobby we wouldn’t be musicians, would we? If you’re the type of person who won’t settle for anything but the best, these mandolins pose a great value.
Collings MT A-Model Mandolin
If you were to describe the Collings MT A-model mandolin in one word, you would be hard pressed to say anything except “stunning”. Everything from the finish to the design of this instrument is wonderfully done, and it’s breath taking to behold.
According to general consensus, the Collings MT A-model mandolin is a great choice for the musician who wants a professional tone out of their instrument.
Kentucky KM-1500 Master F-Model Mandolin
If you’re looking for a great professional quality mandolin, the Kentuck KM-1500 might be the instrument for you. Sporting a solid hand-carved Adirondack spruce top, solid carved flamed maple back and sides, and a solid maple neck topped with a premium ebony fretboard, the Kentucky has more than enough quality components to satisfy even the most discerning musician.
When you’re looking for a mandolin, or any instrument for that matter, it’s important that you remember what you’re after. Whether that’s a great tone or a cool aesthetic, make sure you get the instrument that will work the best for you. And hopefully with the information in this article, you’ll have everything you’ll need to make an informed decision on the matter.