The mandolin is an instrument with a rich history. An eight-string member of the lute family, what we know today as a modern mandolin was first developed in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. It quickly earned itself a place in European Classical music, taking the place of its precursors such as the mandola and other similar lutes in many orchestras and compositions. Later, the mandolin would earn itself a place in the rich traditions of American country, folk, and bluegrass music. It would even make some appearances in jazz, rock ‘n roll, and avant garde music.
Today the mandolin continues to serve its vital role in all of these genres of music and more, as well as having carved out a niche all its own among modern recordings. If you want to inject a bit of old timey flair to your composition – regardless of the genre – the mandolin is an exceptionally evocative way to do so. Or if you’re interested in mastering a familiar mandolin style, perhaps emulating your favorite bluegrass player, there are more choices than ever for picking up a decent mandolin.
Below, we’ll dig into a few details on what makes a quality mandolin. Then we’ll take a look at a few specific mandolins we think you might find worth a purchase.
Table of Contents:
- I. How To Spot A Good Mandolin
- II. Staying In Tune
- III. Mandolin Varieties
- IV. Best Mandolins – Our Hot Picks
- V. Get Inspired!
How To Spot A Good Mandolin
Before you go getting any sticker shock, it’s important to know that mandolins can be a little pricey. Especially if you’re used to the prices of seemingly similar stringed instruments like guitars, basses, or ukuleles, you might find yourself scratching your head at the cost of a mandolin. Not that they’re all going to break the bank. But lower-end mandolins tend to start at $200 or more, which is the price range of the instruments we’ll be examining below. Compared to an acoustic guitar – which is much larger and one might expect to be a bit pricier – mandolins are not cheap.
There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that demand for mandolins is much lower, leading them to be produced in smaller quantities. But perhaps more importantly, the fine work of crafting an instrument as small and precise as a mandolin is tricky. It doesn’t lend itself well to mass production, so you can expect to drop a few bucks if you want to get a quality mandolin. Hand-carved mandolins are by far the best sounding and playing instruments. Unlike with guitars which can be reliably mass-produced, the intricacies of small mandolin bodies necessitates a lot of attention to detail which is best accomplished working by hand.
Budget mandolins are rarely hand-carved. Even mid-range mandolins are often only partially hand-carved. While these instruments can be okay, they pale in comparison to a hand-carved mandolin crafted with careful attention to every detail. Generally, we would advise avoiding any sub-$200 mandolins.
As you pick out a mandolin, keep in mind that the lower-end models aren’t likely to give you much bang for your buck. That said, there’s nothing wrong with starting on something affordable just to figure out if the mandolin is the instrument for you.
Staying In Tune
One of the most important things about any mandolin is its Tuning Gears or Tuners. While these are essential on any instrument, because the mandolin features strings tuned in octaves, it can be quite tricky to get it sounding right.
With poor tuning gears, this will turn from a challenge to a nightmare very quickly. When looking for a new mandolin, always pay close attention to how easy (or difficult) it is to keep it in tune.
The mandolin consists of eight strings tuned four “courses.” Each note is doubled an octave above by its adjacent string to create a “course” when the player holds down both strings simultaneously. In many respects, the mandolin is very similar in construction to a guitar. It has many familiar features such as a neck, frets, tuning gears, bridge, sound holes, and tuning gears. Where the mandolin makes its most important departure is in its reduced size and the shape of the instrument’s body. Mandolin bodies come in three primary varieties:
Bowl-Back Mandolin: Bowl-back mandolins are the oldest style of mandolins. They closely resemble the lutes of antiquity which predated the mandolin and are sometimes referred to as Neapolitan mandolins. These are most popular with classical musicians and fans of historical and renaissance music.
A-Style Mandolin: A more modern style of mandolin popularized by Gibson’s A model mandolins dating back to the early 20th century. A-Style mandolins are versatile in tone and can be used in a variety of different contexts from classical to jazz to bluegrass. With a simple tear-shaped body that lacks the complicated scroll of an F-Style mandolin, A-Style mandolins can be comparatively cheap to purchase while still offering a very similar tone and feel to an F-Style mandolin.
F-Style Mandolin: The F-Style mandolin is the weapon of choice for most country and bluegrass players. It is very similar to the A-Style but incorporates a “scroll,” an embellishment in the wood which sits at the top of the mandolin’s body near the bottom of the fretboard. While some feel that the scroll impacts the tone of the instrument, its purpose is almost entirely cosmetic. Though very similar in tone and playability to an A-Style mandolin, the craftsmanship required to incorporate the scroll into the body’s woodwork can make F-Style mandolins substantially more expensive than their no-frills counterparts.
Something else to look for is the instrument’s Sound Holes. The sound holes are the holes cut into the body of the mandolin to allow it to resonate and project its sound. The size, shape, and position of the sound holes can affect the mandolin’s volume, projection, and overall tone. Outside of the body type and the sound holes, there are some more modern options for mandolins as well. Electric mandolins are available which emulate the ever-popular electric guitar by incorporating a magnetic pickup. Or you can opt for an electro-acoustic mandolin, which is effectively a traditional mandolin equipped with a piezo pickup allowing you to easy connect it to amplification.
Now that you know a little bit of background information on the mandolin, let’s take a look at a few specific models.
Best Mandolins – Our Hot Picks
This beautiful A-Style mandolin from Luna isn’t technically a classic bowl-back mandolin, but its stylish antique look lends it a distinctively dated look. Boasting a maple neck, solid maple back and sides, and a gorgeous solid spruce top featuring a Celtic Trinity symbol sound hole and rosette, the Luna is truly a sight to behold. Luna didn’t just stop at making a nice looking mandolin, either. It is comfortable to play and has a nice tone. Though on the low-end of the price spectrum for mandolins, this could be a great addition to any collection. Or an extremely inspiring instrument for an aspiring mandolin player to cut their teeth on.
One thing to note before purchasing is that the Luna comes with a floating bridge which is disassembled prior to shipping. You’ll need to set the instrument up once you get it, or take it to a local music shop to have it properly setup.
If you’re looking for a decent mandolin without getting too crazy on the price, this Kentucky KM-270 is worth a look or two. An A-Style mandolin incorporating an oval sound hole into a solid sitka spruce top, this is an attractive and very playable instrument. It offers a slim maple neck for quick, easy playing, and continues its use of maple through the solid carved back and sides. Rounding off the package is a dark rosewood fretboard elegantly highlighted with Mother of Pearl inlays. Although it lacks a bit of the visual flair of an F-Style mandolin, this also cuts the price tag down quite a bit.
It may not have that classic bluegrass look, but it is more than capable of tackling just about any style of mandolin music. However, the oval sound hole does give this instrument something of a different tone from the more popular F hole style mandolins. A very versatile and well-rounded instrument at an accessible price point.
Generally, budget F-Style mandolins are to be avoided. But this Ibanez sits right about at the price point where things start to turn around. Combine this with Ibanez’s reputation for producing exceptional instruments at great prices and you have something exceptional, like the M522SBS mandolin. Featuring an absolutely gorgeous solid spruce top, flamed maple back and sides, and yes – the distinctive F-Style scroll sitting atop the body. The body makes use of classic F holes for the instrument’s sound holes.
Aside from being stunning to look at, this is a fun mandolin to play. Ibanez’s gold die-cast tuners do a decent job of keeping the strings in tune. The neck is very playable and great for beginners or intermediate players. An excellent way for an aspiring bluegrass mandolin player to get their hands on a not too shabby F-Style mandolin without breaking the bank. Or a great buy for anyone who finds themselves infatuated with that fancy bit of woodwork which makes these so attractive.
If you’re looking for a reliable A-Style mandolin for under $500, this Kentucky KM-150 is a top pick for sure. Featuring hand-crafted solid German spruce on a top adorned with two F holes, this is mandolin is a delight to behold. It’s also quite fun to play, with a neck made from select solid Alpine maple. The instrument’s back and sides are also made from maple. As an A-Style mandolin, the KM-150 will play better than just about any F-Style mandolin within a couple hundred bucks of its price point.
It seems that Kentucky wisely invested in functionality over frills with the KM-150. The tuning gears hold their tuning quite well, while the neck is a breeze to play. Extremely versatile, these mandolins are ready to tackle just about any mandolin part, whether it’s from a sprawling classical epic, a rollicking bluegrass tune, a somber country song, or even an eclectic piece of rock music.
A great choice for beginners willing to invest in their instrument, or intermediate players looking for a decent workhorse.
If you’ve got your heart set on getting a real, hand carved F-Style mandolin, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option than The Loar LM-520-VS without spending nearly twice the price. The Loar might not be a brand with much name recognition, but when it comes to mandolins they know their stuff. The company’s founder, Lloyd Loar, was a noted luthier who pioneered many of Gibson’s mandolin designs, including the original F-5.
Continuing in this tradition of making quality instruments, we have this beautiful F-Style mandolin. It’s equipped with a hand-carved solid spruce top, hand-carved maple back and solid maple sides, and a gorgeous bound rosewood fretboard. Rounding off the visual profile are two classy F holes serving as the instrument’s sound holes, a distinctive yet slightly understated scroll, and an eye-catching head stock featuring a second, smaller scroll.
Finding any hard-carved instrument at this price range would be a bargain, but here The Loar is offering a very playable and versatile mandolin for bargain prices.
Whenever you look for an instrument, try to find something that speaks to you. Something that aligns with your tastes and interests. Something that sounds good, feels good, and looks good will keep you coming back to it, picking it up again day after day as you improve as a musician.
For some the mandolin might seem like an anachronism in this modern world of synthesizers and electronics. But it has a special place in many genres of music. Maybe it is just waiting for someone like yourself to put it to good use in a completely new way.
Find the mandolin that makes you want to play and you’ll never regret it!