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Mandolin Buyer's Guide

Updated on December 27, 2014

5 Tips For Buying a Mandolin

Considering buying your first mandolin? If so, the sheer number of mandolin types, brands, and price ranges may be somewhat daunting.

I have purchased two mandolins so far, and made a few mistakes in the process. In this article I will share what I learned so that you can avoid the pitfalls and buy a mandolin you will be happy with.

Below you will find 5 easy tips to help you make an informed purchase.

Image Courtesy of: plenty.r., on Flickr

Great Gift Idea:

Give the gift of music this Christmas

What Type of Mandolin Should I Buy

Mandolins come in a wide variety of types or styles including A-style, F-style, bowl- back and solid body electric types.

A-style and F-style mandolins are by far the most popular types. The A-style mandolin is a simple oval shaped instrument. The F-style is the mandolin with the fancy scroll (pictured to the right). All things being equal there is little or no difference between the two tonally. The only advantage of the F-style mandolin is that the scroll provides a convienient place to attach your strap.

With regards to sound the major consideration is the shape of the sound holes. You will find mandolins with either f holes similar to the violin, or an oval sound hole at the base of the fret board. Mandolins with f shaped sound holes offer a crisp clear sound favored by bluegrass musicians. Instruments with oval sound holes provide a rich mellow tone preferred by many Celtic musicians.

Bowl-back mandolins are popular with baroque players and are often seen at renaissance fairs. Bowl-back mandolins are also frequently used by classical musicians.

Solid body electric mandolins are a perfect fit for the guitarist looking to increase their range.

Tip #1 Spend As Much As You Are Able

This may sound like a salesman's trick but I assure you it is not. When I bought my first mandolin I was enticed by the $39.99 special. What a fiasco! For my $39.99 I ended up with a dull sounding laminated mandolin with a hard sound deadening lacquered finish, an action too high to play comfortably, and a bridge that could not easily be adjusted low enough to fix the problems with the string height. Learning to play on an inferior mandolin can be very discouraging not to mention hard on your fingers. I can guarantee you will be happier and more likely to continue practicing if you purchase a quality entry level, all solid wood mandolin.

***Top Pick*** Entry Level Mandolin The Rover RM 50

I know it doesn't make much sense to shell out thousands of dollars for a top of the line mandolin when you are just beginning to play...

I was pleasantly surprised when I tried out this mandolin. The Rover RM 50 looks good and sounds better; with good set-up it will make a great playing entry level instrument.

Rover RM-50 Affordable Entry Level Mandolin at a Great Price

Rover RM-50B Deluxe Student A-model Mandolin - Black
Rover RM-50B Deluxe Student A-model Mandolin - Black
This entry level mandolin comes with a solid spruce top and solid maple back and sides. The Rover RM 50 mandolin sports a mahogany neck attached to the body with a traditional dove-tail joint, bound rosewood finger board, compensated bridge, and beautiful abalone inlay all features you would expect to find on much more expensive mandolins. You will be hard pressed to find a better entry level mandolin for the money. See more mandolins for sale...
Mandolins for Sale: An A style Mandolin offers the best value for the money.
Mandolins for Sale: An A style Mandolin offers the best value for the money.

Tip #2 For Best Value Buy An A-Style Mandolin

Get The Most For Your Money When Buying Your Mandolin

The goal when purchasing a mandolin, is to get the best instrument you can for the money you have to spend.

As I mentioned before, all things being equal there is no tonal difference between A-style and F-Style mandolins. F-style mandolins look really cool, but you are simply paying a lot of extra money for fancy scroll work that adds nothing to the sound. If you are not really adamant about having the F-style scroll, you can save a lot of money and end up with a better instrument.

The quality of the instrument does influence the sound so I recommend investing your money in a higher quality A-style Mandolin.

Image Courtesy of: Jana Obscura, on Flickr

Best Mandolin Under $350 Kentucky KM-250

Simply put the Kentucky KM-250 Artist A-model is the very best mandolin I have played in this price range. With all of the high end features I have a hard time calling this an entry level mandolin, but the price is definitely entry level. You could spend a lot more money on a mandolin that will not match this one in quality.

Kentucky 8 String Mandolin, Right, Traditional Sunburst (KM-250)
Kentucky 8 String Mandolin, Right, Traditional Sunburst (KM-250)
With a hand carved and graduated solid spruce top, hand carved flamed maple back and sides and high-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish this mandolin is a thing of beauty. The Kentucky KM-250 Artist A-model also features a rosewood finger board with mother-of-pearl position markers, mother-of -pearl inlayed peg head, and high quality Gotoh Tuners. With the look feel and sound of a higher priced instrument the Kentucky KM-250 is an excellent value. See more mandolins for sale...

Top Of The Line Kentucky Mandolins - In Stock On Amazon

No matter how you measure it the Kentucky KM-900 is a top-end mandolin, offering great quality and sound at a great price.

Kentucky KM-900 Master A-model Mandolin - Sunburst
Kentucky KM-900 Master A-model Mandolin - Sunburst
The Kentucky KM-900 A-style equivalent of the KM-1000 listed above, featuring the same top quality fit and finish.
Play every mandolin you can get your hands on by Katie@! on FlickR
Play every mandolin you can get your hands on by Katie@! on FlickR

Tip #3 Play, Play, Play

Before you buy your mandolin, you need to visit your local music shops and play as many mandolins as you can get your hands on.

Try the different types and brands, listen to the sound, and look at the fit and finish. If you find a mandolin in your price range that looks and sounds good buy it. The tonal quality of mandolins even those of the same brand and model vary widely especially at the entry level.

Image Courtesy of:Katie@!, on Flickr

Tip #4 It Is Possible To Find A Good Values Buying Online

Points To Consider When Buying A Mandolin Online

Yes, you can purchase a good quality mandolin online. I purchased my second mandolin online and I have been very happy with it. Online musical instrument dealers don't have the same overhead as brick and mortar stores so in general their instruments are cheaper. Online dealers often provide a wider variety of mandolins than your local musical instrument dealer.

There are a couple of things to consider when buying a mandolin online. Not all online dealers set-up your mandolin for you in fact, most do not. Plan on $75-$125 for a professional set up once you receive your mandolin. The dealer from whom I purchased my mandolin did do the set-up and it was spot on. If you purchase your mandolin online you will not get the chance to play or hear it before buying so it is luck of the draw. Ask the dealer to pick the best of the lot many will.

Do your homework; consider the pitfalls, add in the possible extra costs and if it still looks like a good value buy it.

Professional mandolin set-up is key by Ken Mayer on FlickR
Professional mandolin set-up is key by Ken Mayer on FlickR

Tip #5 Get A Professional Set-Up For Your New Mandolin

No matter if you buy your mandolin from the local musical instrument shop, or online plan on laying out the money for a professional set-up.

A well set-up mandolin is much easier and more enjoyable to play, making any money spent on the set-up money well spent. Trust me your fingers will thank you.

Image Courtesy of: Ken_Mayer, on Flickr

Did You Purchase A New Mandolin? - Here are a few mandolin video lessons to get you started.

Resource For The Beginning Mandolinist - Mandolin Accessories Make Great Stocking Stuffers

I have been teaching myself to play the mandolin; in the process I have tried many books, a couple of mandolin tuners, and several mandolin straps, below you will find a few of my favorites. Books are great tools for learning to play but I would suggest taking a lesson or two as well just to set a good foundation. Trust me bad habits are hard to unlearn.

Amaze Music - Music articles and resources.

Enjoy Your New Mandolin

When you purchase your mandolin the door has been opened to a fun and rewarding hobby. Remember to have fun and keep playing. One last tip, beware of MAS (Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome) it can strike anywhere anytime and can be somewhat expensive cure.

A Special Thanks from The Mandolin Buyer's Guide

To all the folks that have helped me out.

Thank you to the Fisher Family Singers blog, for the fine post about "The Mandolin Buyer's Guide".

Thanks for visiting I hope you found this page helpful. If I missed something please let me know.


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