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Old 12-21-2020, 11:15 PM
kudama kudama is offline
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Default Pono Octave Mandolin and Mandocello Review

tl:dr - Kilin Reese and the fine people of Pono guitars have made something truly special. The Pono MND-20 and MND-20H are wonderful instruments and if you get a chance to try one of these things, do it.

(Links to Videos and Pics at the bottom of the post)

To preface this with some background:
I am not a mandolin player. I’m a guitar player who can fake their way through other fretted instruments. I’ve tried mandolin and I’m not particularly good at them. BUT I love the way they sound and want to be better at them. Also I am a huge fan of Pono guitars.

One day while on vacation in Seattle,WA over a year ago, I spent the day just exploring guitar shops. Seattle has quite a few nice ones: Mike and Mike’s Guitar Bar, Emerald City Guitars, Thunder Road Guitars, and of course Dusty Strings. Right off the Fremont Bridge and within walking distance of Mike and Mike's, Dusty Strings is one of the nicest guitar shops I’ve been too. So is Mike and Mike’s for that matter. It’s not fair having two amazing guitar shops so close to each other while the rest of us have maybe one really nice shop at most in our hometowns, if we’re lucky.(Although nothing beats the sheer volume of guitar shops on Denmark Street in London).

Dusty Strings is a lovely spot to play instruments that I definitely can’t afford. But what caught my eye this trip was on their wall of mandolins. There they had a wide selection of the Pono Octave Mandolins. (I later found out that they’re one of the only dealers who carry them). And I proceeded to spend the next hour just trying them all out.

They come in 3 different sizes: a Terz guitar sized one with a 21” scale, a tenor guitar sized one with the 21” scale and another tenor body but with a 23” scale. All great in their own right, but the one that I really connected with was the tenor with 21” scale, the MND-20H.

I actually didn’t buy it on the spot. Dusty Strings was the second shop on my guitar day, so I didn’t want to spoil other unknown opportunities at the other shops. BUT something about that MND-20H tickled my brain and my fingers, so I asked if they’d put it on hold for the day. Which they kindly obliged. I went to the other shops, all great with their own mojo. But nothing was calling my name like that MND-20H. So I went back to Dusty Strings late in the afternoon and made it mine. (Plus it’s compact enough to fit in the overhead of airplanes! So that was an added bonus too.)

MND-20H octave mandolin:
With solid Engelmann spruce top, solid mahogany back and sides. It has a lovely sweet and woody tone. The sound is pretty well balanced between highs and lows. And I particularly liked how full it sounds compared to the smaller Terz guitar bodies. But the real magic of these, at least for me, is that I can play with a pick or use my fingers and it responds to both wonderfully. Unlike regular mandolins which are not fingerstyle friendly... So I get the best of both worlds here, I can play with a heavy pick and still get the mandolin-esque sound (minus the chop chords…it’s a bit of a stretch. But again, I'm not a mandolin player) AND play with my fingers and get a lovely new tonal experience for fingerpicking. And unlike other octaves, these have a guitar body shape so it doesn’t want to neck dive out of my lap or demand to be played in a different position like the teardrop/A style shapes of other octaves.

Having the shorter scale length also make mandolin style chords a bit more doable for me. And overall it's just a more comfortable package.

This octave mandolin makes me play things differently and try new things. It makes me think about different aspects of music. And just makes me want to play more. Which is exactly what I want in an instrument.

MND-20 Mandocello Conversion:
Fast forward a year, it’s September, we’ve been dealing with COVID since March, and I’ve been playing my instruments more and more to keep me sane. And then I remember the little notes on the Pono Octave website that talk about different tunings you can do on these instruments, and one option is “MANDOCELLO.”

So I cobbled together some extra strings to try out the mandocello tuning on the MND-20H, strung them up, excited to get a new tonal palette to play with and...it’s a dud. The bigger gauges tuned that low are just too floppy on the 21” scale. Especially the 0.59s for the low C strings, they just kind of fret out and don’t project. I was kind of bummed. But then I remembered, there’s another MND model with a 23” scale… So I emailed Kilin Reece, the mastermind behind these instruments and asked if the 23” scale was the better fit for cello tuning. He confirmed it and so my search began. (For reference most mandocellos seem to have 24-25” scales)

And that search was really quick, because lo and behold, Dusty Strings had them in stock. So I sent them an email asking if they’d be kind enough to convert one to a mandocello for me. And they kindly did at no extra charge. A few days later, I had me my mandocello! (Thank you, Adam)

Just like the octave mando, it has Engelmann spruce and mahogany. But this one has a lovely sunburst finish and maple binding instead. Chords are a bit harder to finger on mandocello and forget 4 finger chop chords. But BIG open chords and single note lines just sing on it. That tone…the tone... it’s like playing a tiny bass mixed with a piano. I love it.

With it’s low tuning it makes me play very differently, even more so than when I play the octave mandolin. A little slower, gentler, just letting those low notes rumble and ring. I sometimes just sit back and enjoy the overtones…It's not as punchy as the octave mandolin, but that may just be a perception thing since it's tuned so low.

The Wrap Up:
The only other company making something like these regularly, to my knowledge is Northfield? Which, Dusty Strings did have the Northfield archtop octave mandolin, and it’s AMAZING. But it’s also about 4x or 5x the price… They didn’t have the Northfield flattop octave to compare it to at the time. But in terms of dimensions they’re pretty similar. I would love to a side by side comparison some day.

Kilin Reese and the fine people of Pono guitars have made something truly special. They open up a whole world of new sounds and tones to explore. And merge some of the best aspects of guitars and mandolins to create something amazing. So if you’re in the market for an octave mandolin and mandocello, or maybe you’re in need of some new musical inspiration. Give these a try.

Website for more details: https://www.ponooctave.com/

Links to photos:
https://photos.app.goo.gl/QftfyqBeRZQC3XB99
https://photos.app.goo.gl/Zcm926JBfaUtz7zW8

Two different videos playing basically the same piece:
Phone video of the MND-20H:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6sG...l=MorganKomure

4k video using an actual camera and Zoom H5 for the MND-20SB (Mandocello)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq4N...l=MorganKomure


***Kilin has another instrument coming down the pipe soon...keep an eye out for it***
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