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  #1  
Old 09-17-2018, 08:24 PM
rschultz rschultz is offline
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Default Mandolin buying advice

Ive been playing guitar for 20+ years. Im probably an above average guitarist, but no where near pro level. I lead music at my church. Id like to get a mandolin and start learning, for an occasional song here and there. And Id like to get one with a pickup in it. I saw one on guitatcenter.com for $200, had what looked like a single coil with tone and volume knobs built in.

So what am I looking for in terms of construction? And also what are the different pickup options?
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Old 09-17-2018, 10:31 PM
frankmcr frankmcr is offline
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There's a bunch of options, nowhere near as many as for guitars but enough that anybody's "the mandolin you should get is ..." would be a meaningless comment at this point.

What model guitar(s) do you play? What pickups? What mandolin recordings have you heard that you like? What kind of sound do you want?

You might check out emando.com for info on electric/acoustic-electric mandolins.
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Old 09-18-2018, 06:06 AM
Tenzin Tenzin is offline
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One piece of advice is unless you want the look of an f-style (that's the one with the scroll) go with an A-style. There is no difference in sound and you'll get more 'bang for your buck' with an A-style mandolin.

Another thing many would recommend is to be sure to purchase it from a place that really knows how to do a proper setup. This is quite important on a mandolin.

If you're on a budget, who isn't?, Kentucky & Eastman both have mandolins around $500 or less that are reportedly very good starters.

Good luck
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Old 09-18-2018, 06:39 AM
rmp rmp is offline
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I've been down your road. I'd been wanting to pick up a mandolin for sometime, and for my 60th bday my family gifted me this:

https://www.sweetwater.com/store/det...-pack-sunburst

it needed a setup, but once that was done, it played really good it sounds great. I've been able to use it for some mando based tunes in my band. I am running it through a fender acoustasonic JR. it works great.

I bought a gator mando F case for it as well.
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Old 09-18-2018, 09:16 PM
gabriel_bc gabriel_bc is offline
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I'd recommend not getting an electric mandolin. Rather, get a decent A-style one with a solid top, and install a K&K or JJB 220 in it. That's the route I went, and it will sound better than a cheap e-mando with a electric guitar -style pickup on it.

Kentucky mandolins are a good place to start - anything with a solid top. Another good option (though a bit plain looking) are the Mid-Missouri / Big Muddy mandolins.

I have an Ibanez 511 (a 70s lower/mid end mandolin but with a solid top) and it sounds great with a JJB 220. I picked up mandolin because most worship teams already have an abundance of guitar players. One nice thing about the mandolin is that you're automatically in a different sonic space than anything else in the mix.
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Old 09-18-2018, 09:19 PM
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Erithon Erithon is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tenzin View Post
One piece of advice is unless you want the look of an f-style (that's the one with the scroll) go with an A-style. There is no difference in sound and you'll get more 'bang for your buck' with an A-style mandolin.
This is excellent advice.

What sort of music do you want to play? Bluegrass, old time, Irish, folk, classical, South American, etc.? Different mandolins excel at different things. I used to have a carved F-style and a flat-back A-style, but now I just have a bowlback because I mostly play classical and some Irish music.

If you're a Bluegrass kind of fellow, there's a J. Bovier F-5 in the classified right now. You get a great deal for your money with one of those (that's what my F-style was-I played it happily for 8 years before I got the classical bug). Also look into Kentucky and Eastman as mentioned by others.
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Old 09-18-2018, 10:00 PM
Gordon Currie Gordon Currie is offline
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I am a pro-level guitar player, and play acoustic, electric and bass. I figured, how hard can it be to play mandolin?

For me, pretty hard. I was able to get a decent starter mandolin that plays in tune and sounds acceptable (Breedlove). I found that my fat finger pads were just too big to fit cleanly on the fingerboard. I'll have to go for a mandocello or even octave mandolin in order to apply my years of fingerboard skills. YMMV.
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Last edited by Kerbie; 10-02-2018 at 05:50 PM. Reason: Edited
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Old 09-18-2018, 11:55 PM
gabriel_bc gabriel_bc is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Gordon Currie View Post
I found that my fat finger pads were just too big to fit cleanly on the fingerboard. I'll have to go for a mandocello or even octave mandolin in order to apply my years of fingerboard skills. YMMV.
I agree that the mandolin fretboard feels TINY compared to a guitar. One thing that really helped me was getting into the habit of fretting like one would fret a violin - fingers arched such that you're fretting with the tips and not the pads.

On the plus side, if you figure out how to play a mandolin, even a 1 5/8 nut feels positively spacious afterwards (yes, I'm looking at you, Michael Gurian).
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Last edited by Kerbie; 10-02-2018 at 05:50 PM. Reason: Edited quote
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Old 09-19-2018, 01:34 AM
Bunnyf Bunnyf is offline
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Not only should you check out Mandolin Cafes forum marketplace, but search previous threads there for lots of suggestions. If you are open to used instruments, then just like guitars, there are very good values in the used market. If you are not fixed on an F style, then an A style or flat top will certainly be your best value. I picked up a nice 10 year old A style, f hole, built by a well-known luthier for under 1k (no pickup).
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Old 09-19-2018, 04:09 AM
Silly Moustache Silly Moustache is offline
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generally speaking - for budget mandolins I'd suggest Eastman.
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Old 09-19-2018, 07:51 AM
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I have been primarily a mandolin player for the past couple of years. Here are a few things that I have learned.

1) Slow down. I know you want a mandolin immediately, but mandolins and guitars are very different, and you need to educate yourself about mandolins or you are likely to make a mistake with your first purchase. Educate yourself here and on Mandolin Cafe.

2) Don't buy that mandolin at Guitar Center.

3) Adjust your expectations regarding budget. Mandolins, in general, cost about twice as much as guitars for comparable quality. There is no $200 Yamaha of mandolins. That is to say, you can get a decent, playable guitar from a company like Yamaha for $200. There is no analog to that in the mandolin world.

4) The least expensive mandolin I would play would be a Kentucky KM 150 or an Eastman 305. Both are around $350-$400.

5) The reason for this is that mandolins are constructed differently from guitars (in most cases). Mandolins should have carved solid wood tops, backs and sides, making them more like arch top guitars or violins. This additional workmanship is reflected in the cost. You can buy a plywood mandolin with a steam pressed top, but it won't be a very good instrument.

6) You can get a flat top, pancake mandolin. Mid Missouri/Big Muddy Mandolins are made by Mike Dulak in Missouri. The tops aren't carved; the construction process is more akin to building a guitar. As a result, he can offer an American made mandolin built from all solid woods for under $1k. Several other companies and small builders have offered similar mandolins, beginning with Gibson "Army Navy" pancake models that were apparently sold in military commissaries almost 100 years ago. But both the Mid Mo/Big Muddy and other flat tops of its ilk still run north of $500, in most cases.

7) For under $500, your best bet is a new KM 150 or Eastman 305, or possibly a used Mid Mo/Big Muddy if you watch the Mandolin Cafe classifieds.
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Old 09-19-2018, 11:23 AM
gabriel_bc gabriel_bc is offline
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Another thing to keep in mind is the local used market, and individual variation among instruments (just like with guitars). You might find a gem for a decent price used if you shop around.

I played a bunch of mandolins at our local brick & mortar store when I was on my search. I had a Fender FM-62SCE at the time, and it was decent enough. That one I bought used without knowing what I was doing. It served me well for many years as I was getting started.

I played everything they had (up to instruments in the $1500 range) including oft-recommended Eastmans. None of them did it for me. The old Fender was better. For lack of a better explanation, they just felt dead - like they wouldn't resonate. I was surprised, given that Eastmans generally get very good reviews.

The old Ibanez I settled on was a craigslist find. Even with the ancient strings on it (and one broke as I tried to tune to pitch) it felt alive when strummed. It had (and has) a resonance to it that gives it a great voice and good punch. It was $80. I put a JJB Prestige 220 in it and for less than $125 I was done. So, shop around. If you know what a good guitar sounds like you'll know well enough if a mandolin has it or doesn't.
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Old 09-19-2018, 02:05 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gabriel_bc View Post
Another thing to keep in mind is the local used market, and individual variation among instruments (just like with guitars). You might find a gem for a decent price used if you shop around.

I played a bunch of mandolins at our local brick & mortar store when I was on my search. I had a Fender FM-62SCE at the time, and it was decent enough. That one I bought used without knowing what I was doing. It served me well for many years as I was getting started.

I played everything they had (up to instruments in the $1500 range) including oft-recommended Eastmans. None of them did it for me. The old Fender was better. For lack of a better explanation, they just felt dead - like they wouldn't resonate. I was surprised, given that Eastmans generally get very good reviews.

The old Ibanez I settled on was a craigslist find. Even with the ancient strings on it (and one broke as I tried to tune to pitch) it felt alive when strummed. It had (and has) a resonance to it that gives it a great voice and good punch. It was $80. I put a JJB Prestige 220 in it and for less than $125 I was done. So, shop around. If you know what a good guitar sounds like you'll know well enough if a mandolin has it or doesn't.
I don't want to dispute what you say here, but I will comment by saying that your results are not typical.

The thing is, $1500 doesn't really buy you much of a mandolin, especially new. You can get a very good pro level flat top mandolin for $1k-$1.5k, but if you are looking at fully carved instruments, $1500 will buy you an upper level Kentucky or Eastman, and the thing about Eastman in particular is that, in my experience, the upper level Eastman mandolins don't sound that much better than the lower end models. They have prettier woods and better hardware, but often, the upper level models just don't sound much better than the entry level mandolins... not sure why that is.

Also, my experience with Eastman mandolins is that they really need heavier strings to come alive. With factory strings, most Eastman that I have played (10-12 or so, total, over the years) sound bright, trebly, some say glassy... but put a set of J75s on it and all of a sudden the wood starts to speak. I don't want to say they are overbuilt, but my experience has been that heavier gauge strings really improve the tone of an Eastman.

And again, $1500 is not a lot to spend on a mandolin. By comparison, $1500 will get you a 3xx Taylor or a Martin D18, or almost. Again, $1500 for a mandolin will get you a nice import mandolin, a good Kentucky or Eastman.

There is a huge step up from a sub $2k mandolin to a $2k-$4k mandolin. Now you are looking at really nice used instruments including Gibsons, Flatirons, Collings, Northfields and (older) Webers, and even some luthier built A5s, both new and used. It is a big step up in price, no doubt, but you get a much better instrument.

One thing I didn't touch on in my first post, pickups. Having played a lot of mandolin on stage and having been flanked by flathead Gibson banjos rolling hard and fiddles sawing away, I still would never resort to a pickup in my mandolin. I have some nice clip on mics, but pickups just destroy the beauty of the mandolin tone, IMO. You lose so much... what's the point of being heard when what is being heard barely sounds like a mandolin? I have played plenty of acoustic guitars with blended pickup systems that sound pretty transparent, not quite "My guitar, just louder", but still true to the sound of the unplugged instrument. I have never heard a mandolin pickup that retains the clarity, brilliance and woody tone of the acoustic instrument.
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Old 09-19-2018, 03:08 PM
gabriel_bc gabriel_bc is offline
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I don't want to dispute what you say here, but I will comment by saying that your results are not typical.

The thing is, $1500 doesn't really buy you much of a mandolin, especially new. You can get a very good pro level flat top mandolin for $1k-$1.5k, but if you are looking at fully carved instruments, $1500 will buy you an upper level Kentucky or Eastman, and the thing about Eastman in particular is that, in my experience, the upper level Eastman mandolins don't sound that much better than the lower end models. They have prettier woods and better hardware, but often, the upper level models just don't sound much better than the entry level mandolins... not sure why that is.

Also, my experience with Eastman mandolins is that they really need heavier strings to come alive. With factory strings, most Eastman that I have played (10-12 or so, total, over the years) sound bright, trebly, some say glassy... but put a set of J75s on it and all of a sudden the wood starts to speak. I don't want to say they are overbuilt, but my experience has been that heavier gauge strings really improve the tone of an Eastman.

And again, $1500 is not a lot to spend on a mandolin. By comparison, $1500 will get you a 3xx Taylor or a Martin D18, or almost. Again, $1500 for a mandolin will get you a nice import mandolin, a good Kentucky or Eastman.

There is a huge step up from a sub $2k mandolin to a $2k-$4k mandolin. Now you are looking at really nice used instruments including Gibsons, Flatirons, Collings, Northfields and (older) Webers, and even some luthier built A5s, both new and used. It is a big step up in price, no doubt, but you get a much better instrument.

One thing I didn't touch on in my first post, pickups. Having played a lot of mandolin on stage and having been flanked by flathead Gibson banjos rolling hard and fiddles sawing away, I still would never resort to a pickup in my mandolin. I have some nice clip on mics, but pickups just destroy the beauty of the mandolin tone, IMO. You lose so much... what's the point of being heard when what is being heard barely sounds like a mandolin? I have played plenty of acoustic guitars with blended pickup systems that sound pretty transparent, not quite "My guitar, just louder", but still true to the sound of the unplugged instrument. I have never heard a mandolin pickup that retains the clarity, brilliance and woody tone of the acoustic instrument.
I don't dispute that $2-4K mandolins are a significant step up from lesser ones, but the OP doesn't want (or need) one for what he wants to do with it. He also specifically wants one with a pickup in it.

Unless his worship setting is atypical, he won't be fighting with banjos or fiddles onstage. He doesn't need a $2K banjo-killer. At most he'll be playing with other acoustic guitars, electric guitars, keyboards and drums, with perhaps the odd string instrument like violin. The "odd" instruments in a worship setting (violin, mandolin, whatever) tend to be featured, not fighting for space.

His audience also will not (generally) be knowledgeable about mandolins and tone. They probably won't know much about bluegrass unless the OP is in the southern states where there is a culture around that music. What a mandolin delivers in a worship setting is different - a different sound that can accentuate the other instruments and add to the overall feel. Occasionally it can be featured - rolling alone through a chorus while the rest of the band drops out, and so on. It can add a lot. But it's not bluegrass. It's a different genre.

What the OP needs is the mandolin equivalent of a Yamaha FG800 to get started. That's something like a KM-150 or a Big Muddy (as you and I and others have suggested). Later he can upgrade if he wants to. If a pickup is important, then something like a K&K or JJB is a good option. And if he can find an older used Pac-Rim instrument with a solid top locally, that's just as good for what he needs at present (IMO). But it's good to know what the future might hold, and your advice is spot on for that. I just don't think that's where the OP is at right now.
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Old 09-19-2018, 03:51 PM
Gordon Currie Gordon Currie is offline
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Some great information here, but I feel the thread has drifted from the OP original intent.

They said:

"Id like to get a mandolin and start learning, for an occasional song here and there."

This indicates they have no plans to play mandolin an entire set. So talk of 2K+ instruments seems misguided. Even if that is the equivalent of a 1K guitar.

If a mandolinist asked me for a first guitar that they would use "for an occasional song here and there" I sure wouldn't recommend a 1K guitar. I'd recommend a Yamaha or other low price good value starter instrument, sub-500 level. If they decide later on that they want more, great. If not, their investment is relatively low.
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