5 Best Mandolins: A Complete Guide
By Mason Hoberg
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 the best mandolin for your needs 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 5 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.
Top 5 Mandolins
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.
Rogue RM-100A Mandolin
Something that most people don’t know about mandolins is that they’re significantly more expensive than guitars for a similar amount of quality. This is doubly confusing because mandolins are so much smaller than guitars, so you wouldn’t be remiss in believing that because there are less materials involved the end instrument would be cheaper.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Mandolins require a more involved process, because they have to be arched. Arching an instrument means that it requires more work, and if its hand carved it can balloon the prices. This is why most American made mandolins are at least $1,500. There’s just so many work hours involved to craft a good mandolin that they just can’t be sold as cheaply as guitars.
By now, you’re probably wondering why we’re reviewing the Rogue RM-100A. You might be asking yourself, “If mandolins are so expensive that must mean that cheap ones are awful, right?” Well, while they’re obviously not going to compare to a more expensive instrument inexpensive mandolins certainly do have their perks.
The thing about cheap mandolins is that they’re really a great way to decide whether or not you like the instrument. Bottom of the barrel mandolins lack the fundamental tonal characteristics of a custom mandolin, though they can be set up to play reasonably well. There’s also not a huge difference between this mandolin and one that costs twice as much. So if you’re not willing to move into a significantly higher price range this Rogue actually might be one of the better options available.
That being said the features on the Rogue are fine for the price. It’s all laminated wood. It’s made with no-name generic tuners, that while of a lesser quality than a better instrument will perform reasonably well provided you string the instrument properly, and the bridge is compensated (which helps to ensure better intonation than a non-compensated bridge).
The only thing to note about this mandolin is that it does not come with a case or any extra goodies, like a tuner or any picks. This is to be expected at this price, and getting yourself a gig bag and a few picks should cost you more than $20.
The sound of the Rogue is not outstanding, but to the untrained ear it will sound pretty good considering the price. It lacks the glassy highs and a throaty mid-range of expensive options, but it will still sound like an great student instrument. One word of advice we have for cheaper mandolins is that using a heavier gauge of string can help to make it sound more full, though it will make the mandolin a bit more challenging to play.
As far as quality is concerned, the mandolin comes with a surprisingly high level of quality control. For the price the Rogue RM-100A is a great mandolin. However, if you’re a more experienced musician with a developed ear you may be happier with a higher-end instrument.
Ibanez is arguably the company that changed the reputation of Asian made instruments. Though they’ve become known for their pointy metal guitars, they’ve actually been influential manufacturers of a variety of different instruments. A little-known fact about that company is that for a period of time they were producing electric archtops that were easily on par with the equivalent Gibson models being produced at the time, some of which were actually endorsed by some of the most famous jazz musicians in the world.
Just as surprising given their reputation, the company has also produced its fair share of great mandolins. For a period of time they were even endorsed by Bill Monroe, who is considered to be the father of Bluegrass.
While the company may have changed the direction of its line of folk instruments to cater more towards beginners it is still producing quality instruments for the price range. The only question is: how does this mandolin stack up to other beginner mandolins?
This mandolin is made completely from laminated woods, which unfortunately does limit the total resonance and frequency response of the instrument. However, it is made from mahogany and spruce (with the spruce being the top wood and the mahogany being used on the back and sides). While this isn’t as ideal as the more traditional combination of spruce and maple, it is better than cheaper tonewoods (like NATO or white wood).
The main thing to note about Ibanez mandolins when compared to cheaper mandolins is that Ibanez uses a better quality of hardware. The tuners will hold the strings better, and the quality control is more likely to catch defects. You’re not necessarily paying for a better tone (more on this later, but the difference between the Ibanez mandolin and others is going to be pretty minimal in this price range), you’re paying for a better made instrument.
This mandolin also features a compensated bridge, which is an incredibly important feature because it helps to ensure that the instrument is well intonated. You can buy after-market bridges, but fitting a bridge to an arched instrument requires a bit of elbow grease. The bridge has to be in perfect contact with the top, which requires a lot of careful sanding. If it’s not the resulting tone will be weak and quiet, which obviously isn’t going to be ideal.
On its own merits this mandolin has the potential to sound competent. It will stand sound musical so long as you utilize proper technique, it just won’t have the characteristic response of a more expensive custom mandolin. To get a mandolin with a more developed tone you actually don’t have to break the bank, because they can easily be picked up in the $500 range. Which is still a substantial expense, but is still relatively feasible for most musicians.
One common problem at this price range is an improper setup at the nut. However, it can be fixed for under $40 from any reasonable luthier. The tuners are also better than a cheaper instrument, so while this instrument is more expensive than other options you can be assured that the hardware itself will be better than a bottom of the barrel mandolin. Also, this mandolin does come with a truss rod. This ensures that you can adjust the neck to help enhance playability, which is a feature that’s sorely lacking in cheaper mandolins.
The inclusion of a truss rod in the Ibanez M510 justifies a price tag that’s a bit higher than other Asian made mandolins, but if you’re an experienced musician looking for a more traditional mandolin tone you may want to invest in a more expensive instrument.
Gretsch G9320 New Yorker Deluxe Acoustic-Electric Mandolin
Gretsch is inarguably a force to be reckoned with in the world of instruments. It’s been an influential and highly innovative manufacturer of instruments for decades, and even to this day the company’s name still carries a lot of clout with the majority of musicians.
Something that a lot of musicians may not know about Gretsch is that the company has actually produced a wide variety of instruments. Their recent Roots series is not just an attempt to cash in on the recent Americana and roots music boom, the whole series is actually a relaunch of the designs that they pioneered decades ago. The company made highly respected banjos and archtop guitars, and even mandolins.
The subject of today’s review, the Gretsch G9320 New Yorker Mandolin is a viable option for any musicians looking for an affordable mandolin. The first thing you need to know about this mandolin is that it’s made from a pairing of mahogany and spruce, with the back and sides being made from mahogany and topped with spruce. This isn’t a bad combination of tonewoods, because the spruce and mahogany combination manages to produce an instrument with a good high-end response and plenty of warmth.
The hardware on the instrument is reasonable for an instrument of this price, so there’s nothing really notable to talk about here. The tuners are reported to work just as well as any other beginner instrument in this price tear, and the bridge is also compensated. A compensated bridge is a must have feature, because without it you’re going to have a ton of intonation problems. Another great feature of the mandolin is that it doesn’t have a fingerboard extension, which allows for more flexibility in where you choose to pick the instrument. The bridge is also a clamshell configuration, making string changes less of a hassle. With a clamshell design you don’t have to remove a cover, which can be a bit of a pain depending on the instrument.
Lastly, another notable feature of this mandolin is that it features built in electronics. This makes the mandolin a significantly more viable option for gigging musicians who are looking to introduce the mandolin into their bag of tricks.
The tone of the Gretsch is warm yet bright, and while it doesn’t have the volume of a more expensive instrument, it is able to reach a reasonable loudness. The Gretsch G9320 New Yorker Mandolin has a lot of utility for gigging musicians who are looking to add the mandolin into their set without breaking the bank.
The Loar LM-520
Based on the designs pioneered by the venerable Lloyd Loar (Loar was actually the one who designed the original Gibson F-5 mandolin, as well as the company’s extraordinary archtops such as the L-5), Loar is one of the few modern companies that manages to craft an affordable mandolin that accurately represents the sound that the instrument is known for. Too many manufacturers don’t understand the factors that make a mandolin a mandolin, and the sound of the instruments they produce suffer for it. This isn’t the case for Loar, as the vintage inspired instruments produced by the company take heavy influence from famous design which is why the company has experienced the success they’ve recently enjoyed.
The Loar LM-520-VS Performer F-Style Mandolin is undoubtedly a great mandolin for the price. The most important thing to note about this mandolin is that it’s hand carved. Hand carved arched instruments offer the most superior sound available due to the nature of how wood works in an instrument. It’s incredibly important to a mandolin’s sound, so to see it at this low of a price really is pretty revolutionary. The mandolin also has a traditional tonewood combination, using maple for the back and sides and spruce for the top wood. We’ll get into the tone later, but this feature alone makes The Loar worth serious consideration.
That being said, the mandolin is an F-style. An F-Style mandolin has the scroll on the upper bout, which is really just an aesthetic choice which has little influence on the tone of the instrument. It also raises the end cost of the instrument, so unless you’re really attached to the design you can save some money by purchasing an A-model with equivalent features. Though a lot of you aren’t going to do that, because F-style mandolins look cool and are the instrument of choice for the vast majority of professional mandolinists (many of whom likely inspired your interest in the instrument to begin with).
Lastly, the hardware on The Loar is all representative of what you’d expect on an instrument in this price range. The tuners perform just fine, the bridge is made from ebony and is compensated, and it features a rosewood fretboard. The only downside is that it has a fretboard extension, which while attractive can get in the way if you prefer to pick away from the bridge.
For the price range you would be hard pressed to find a comparable F-style instrument, because Loar really is one of the best in the business at producing instruments at this tier. The sound, while not as complex as a more expensive instrument, does accurately represent the tone of a mandolin. The highs are glassy and smooth (provided that you play with proper technique of course), and it has a very throaty mid-range response. It’s also loud, in fact the volume of this instrument really will surprise you if you’re not experienced when it comes to mandolins. It can easily hold its own with just about any flattop guitar around, and while it may not have the volume of a Collings or Weber it will perform admirably in an ensemble setting.
The quality control for Loar instruments can be a bit hit or miss. It’s the true weak point of the every instrument the company produces, and it has been for a while. With that said, it is relatively easy to set aside some money for a set-up once you receive it. After that set-up you really will be amazed at the sound this instrument can produce, because it really is an excellent value. It will just likely require some elbow work to get it set-up to the point where it can be played to its fullest potential.
The Loar LM-520 is inarguably one of the best mandolins available in this price range. With a good setup, this will serve you well for years.
Kentucky KM-150 Standard
Saga Instruments have really been knocking it out of the park lately. In addition to owning the Kentucky brand of mandolins (which has been incredibly well received by musicians of all calibers) they own some of the most notable instrument lines for musicians in niche genres. They’re one of the only manufacturers producing gypsy jazz guitars, affordable banjos, and instruments in the mandolin family (such as the mandola).
While we could spend all day patting Saga on the back, the focus of today’s review is the Kentucky KM-150 Standard A-model Mandolin. If you’re just skimming this article to compare different options, be sure to actually read the review for this product and the Loar LM-520-VS. These two mandolins are some of the best available for beginners, and while they may not be quite as cheap as a Rogue or an equivalent brand they do offer an excellent value to anyone looking for an affordable mandolin with a traditional tone.
The first thing to note about this mandolin is that it’s available in both solid-top and all-solid configurations. The solid-top model is about $100 cheaper, but in all reality it’s worth it to throw down a bit more cash for an all-solid instrument. The sound is going to be significantly better, and the more you play it the better it’s going to sound. These instruments are also more desirable overall, so should you decide you don’t like it you’ll have an easier time reselling it at a price that will recoup most of your investment. We’ll get more into the tone of the mandolin in a bit.
An important thing to recognize with this mandolin is that it has a slimmer neck than the Loar, which is its main competitor. While most players aren’t going to have too hard of a time adjusting to the difference, if you have very large hands you may end up being happier with an instrument with a wider neck. Every mandolin has a thinner neck than the guitar, and there just isn’t any getting around that.
The hardware on this mandolin is great for the price. You won’t have to worry about having a lot of tuning issues, and because it has a compensated bridge you should be able to set it up to have intonation as good as any other fretted instrument. We also like the fact that there’s no fretboard extension, though of course that’s a very subjective thing. The Kentucky KM-150 also has a truss rod, which is pretty standard for a mandolin in this price range but a nice inclusion nonetheless. The bound fretboard is also a nice, if mostly visual touch that doesn’t impact the playability of the instrument, touch.
For hand carved solid instruments in this price range you’re really not going to find one instrument that’s objectively superior to another, just mandolins that sound different from one another. With that being said, this instrument does have a competent tone for the price range. It also has more than enough volume and high-end bite to hold its own during an ensemble, likely because it’s made from the traditional pairing of spruce and maple that’s been used in mandolins for decades. It’s also as warm as you could expect from a mandolin in this price range.
We would say that The Loar edges out the Kentucky in the sound department, but it’s also our opinion that Kentucky generally has better quality control than The Loar. This is of course just our opinion, but if you don’t want to invest in a set-up following the purchase of an instrument you may find that the Kentucky is a better fit. It is important to note that the Kentucky is still a good sounding mandolin, it’s just not our opinion that it’s on the level of the Loar.
The Kentucky KM-150 is a great beginner’s mandolin. While not having quite as much volume as The Loar, or in our opinion quite as strong of a voice, the company is known to have significantly better quality control than The Loar. It’s also cheaper, which if you’re on a budget or just getting into the instrument is a pretty attractive part of this mandolin.
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.