Swimming in a sea of wood and strings.
November 3, 2009 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Boyfriendbirthdayfilter: Do you know anything about buying mandolins? Please hope me!

My boyfriend is a musician (guitar mostly, dabbles in bass) and has mentioned that he would like a mandolin. His birthday is next week (oops!), and I’m interested in buying one for him. However I know little about buying musical instruments, and nothing about mandolins!

I’m looking to spend about $200. Is that a reasonable amount to pay for a decent quality instrument? Is a mandolin something that I could buy at Guitar Center or do those sound like they came from Toys-R-Us? What should I look for and what should I avoid?

I've looked at two previous questions and through the FAQ at Folk of the Wood but I'm still unsure. There are SO MANY FUCKING OPTIONS! A-style, F-style, A-style with F-holes...halp!

Do you have some advice for me? The more direction the better, because I feel like I'm swimming in a sea of wood and strings!

I live in New Orleans, LA if that's relevant. I'm okay buying online if I need to.
posted by radioamy to Shopping (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd hesitate to direct you too much, especially since it's not even showing you things to see what you like, but trying to help you guess what someone else might like. Things like the style, are simply a choice of the musician, depending on the type of sound he wants out of it, the style of music he'd be playing on it, and perhaps the style of mandolin played by his favorite mandolin players. f-style are, broadly speaking, more bluegrassy than a-style, for example. Is there a decent instrument available for $200? Depends on what his criteria are - if he's serious about this, he may want to pick it out himself.

Why does he want a mando? Is there someone he's emulating? Is there a type of music he'd like to play? Are there friends of his that he plays with who you could talk to?

In any case, as previously mentioned, Mid-Missouri are good affordable entry-level instruments, and I've personally had great experience with Elderly Instruments. It's not a mega-shop, you could probably just call them and explain the situation, and they'd be happy to offer a suggestion.

Option B: buy him a case for his (nonexistent) mandolin, and a gift certificate.
posted by aimedwander at 1:44 PM on November 3, 2009

The best thing to do would be to take him to the store with you, and have him play several under the guidance of a knowledgeable salesman. For a beginner, something from Guitar Center should be perfectly fine, though $200 is on the cheap side of things. You should plan on spending more if this instrument is going to last him a while.

Alternatively, you can buy him something super cheap and used just to get him off the ground and let him see if he likes it; however, be aware that anything bought under such circumstances is very likely to be difficult to play. Something bought from a musical instrument shop (rather than a pawn shop or ebay) is more likely to be reliable, even if it isn't new.

The A-style, F-style stuff have essentially nothing to do with how the instrument sounds or plays; you can think of them as degrees of fanciness of the decorations. A-style is the most spartan, F-style the most fancy (with violin-style f-shaped sound holes, the spirally-thing up by the neck, and intricate fretboard inlay).
posted by Commander Rachek at 1:53 PM on November 3, 2009

I just bought myself a mandolin to learn on (a Savannah SF-100, the cheapest F-style mandolin you can buy at just under $200) in July and am already hearing its limitations and planning on buying a better one for myself for Christmas. It will probably be a Mid-Mo or an Eastman in the $600-$800 range, which I expect it will fulfill my mando-lust for a while.

The forums at mandolincafe.com have more information than you can possibly ever need. My own summary of the "buying my first mandolin" threads goes something like this:

In general an A-style is going to get you a better instrument than an F-style at the same price because the A-style body is simpler to make, but they do have a different tone and a different look, both of which might matter to your boyfriend.

Mid-Mo and Kentucky are often named as good value beginning instruments.

Buy from a place that will do a good setup of your instrument. Elderly or Janet Davis are frequently named. Most of the places that advertise on MandolinCafe will do this. This will get you an instrument that sounds as good as it can right out of the box, rather than leaving it up to you to string the thing and correctly position the bridge (or take it to a shop for setup) before you can do anything with it.

But as aimedwander says, it all depends on your boyfriend, his goals and his tastes. If he's played stringed instruments before and plans on playing in a bluegrass band, he's going to want a different instrument than if he just wants to see if he likes it and will probably never leave the couch with it.
posted by ThePants at 1:58 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You know, I'm not 100% sure what he wants to do with it...probably what he does with his guitars, which is sit around the house and fuck around on it. He hasn't been in a band in forever. I'm guessing he's more into the bluegrass style than the Celtic.

He's just mentioned a few times that we've seen a mandolin on TV or a mandolin's been mentioned, "I want a mandolin."

Commander Rachek: "aware that anything bought under such circumstances is very likely to be difficult to play"

Definitely want it to be fairly easy to play (I mean as far as a 12-string instrument goes!).
posted by radioamy at 2:03 PM on November 3, 2009

For $200, you are mostly going to be looking at instruments that are at least partly laminate, rather than solid woods, but that doesn't mean you can't find something that sounds good. At a glance, it looks like Kentucky is making some sub-$300, all-wood mandolins; mid-Mo is another good option (which I know by reputation only, not because I have one). I'd get a basic handle on prices from Elderly, FOTW, Mandolin Bros., etc, and then look around to see what's available locally -- ideally, you would really like to play a bunch of different instruments before you buy. Every instrument sounds different; some sound better than others.

As a general rule, A-style models tend to run cheaper than the F-styles; for $200-300, you are looking at an A-style body. An A-style with F-style holes will serve as a nice versatile instrument for most varieties of mandolin music, from bluegrass to Irish to classical. (If he's thinking about playing mostly Irish stuff, you might consider an oval-hole instrument.)

If you can find a shop in your area with a good selection and friendly return policy, you might just want to buy an instrument but have your boyfriend come back later (with you) to see if there's another one in the same price range that he likes better. A decent shop will also be able to adjust the action on the strings to the level you want -- lower action can be easier to play (though if it's too low, the strings can buzz), but higher action can give you more volume and a slightly different tone.

For what it's worth, my first mandolin was a little A-style Epiphone, which I think ran ~$200 a decade ago -- nothing special (and in retrospect, there were probably better instruments in the same price range), but fun and versatile enough to learn on. I played it for several years, before finally deciding I was ready for something else, and it's still the instrument I take on camping trips, the one I let friends play, etc. Just find something that sounds good to you, and don't look back.
posted by chalkbored at 2:13 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I learned to play mandolin on a beautiful, vintage Gibson mandolin that played like a dream. I now own the cheapest cheapo mandolin imaginable and, while it doesn't sound as pretty as a nice one, it's plenty easy to play. The above answer stating that an important question is what your bf intends to do with the mandolin, how serious he is, what style he wants to play, etc. is correct. If he's like me and just going to play on it now and then for fun and take it on the plane when a guitar is too big, then a cheap one that is easy to play will do just fine. But if that's not his intent, he will likely be very disappointed if you get him a cheapie.

(Also, a mandolin has 8 strings - not 12.)
posted by The World Famous at 2:13 PM on November 3, 2009

Yeah, the mandolin is a great instrument, but kind of a bitch to play in a lot of ways; the neck way smaller than a guitar neck, for one thing, and you have to be much more precise in your picking than a guitar, and the (eight) strings are tuned in pairs, which is just plain weird, etc. etc. If the neck is warped or the frets are crappy, it just makes everything that much harder.

If your boyfriend does want to play it, I'd recommend he take at least a handful of lessons. The technique is rather different than for a guitar, and it's fairly easy to give yourself a repetitive stress injury by accident.
posted by Commander Rachek at 2:14 PM on November 3, 2009

I don't know mandolins but you might check out the offerings at Musician's Friend (search Mandolin> click on your price point) to get an idea. Seems there are some choices after all at that price, and be sure to check the reviews. Take that background knowledge with you to your local music store.

Wait. Mandobird? A mandoline-Firebird? That's the ticket :)
posted by artdrectr at 2:19 PM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: Commander Rachek: "If your boyfriend does want to play it, I'd recommend he take at least a handful of lessons"

Well since Christmas is around the corner, I was going to get him some kind of accessory for it...lessons might be the best idea!
posted by radioamy at 2:21 PM on November 3, 2009

Just a thought, do you think he'd like some guitar lessons with a cool teacher more than a mandolin of marginal quality? $200 could buy some really good lessons.
posted by sully75 at 2:26 PM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: chalkbored: "If you can find a shop in your area with a good selection"

I can't seem to find very many locally. I would definitely love to buy locally but I think any place will have to special-order. One place can get me a Fender FM52E for $250...but am I wasting money paying for an Acoustic/Electric? Can an electric guitar amp be used for a mandolin?
posted by radioamy at 2:43 PM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: Lots of good advice already - points worth repeating:

* It doesn't sound like he's too concerned about having a "proper" bluegrass mandolin (bluegrass musicians can get awfully obsessive about mandolins and banjos, and have a tendency to take the precedents set by Bill Monroe/Earl Scruggs as gospel), so I'd look towards the A-style end of the spectrum; $200 will go further on an A-style mandolin than it will on an F-style.
* Setup is important - someplace like the aforementioned Elderly or Janet Davis, who know acoustic instruments inside and out, will take care of you... the shop that carries mostly electric guitars and one token $85 mandolin on the wall can be a little more iffy.

Tone-wise, a mandolin with f-holes will have a little more bark to it than one with a round or oval soundhole, which tend to be a little mellower.

My first mandolin about 5 years ago was a Kentucky KM-150s, which are currently going for about $250, and it was a good starter instrument. The 's' stands for solid-top, which I think was definitely worth the extra $50 over the KM-150... it had very nice tone for the price. Caveat: I think mine was built in Korea, and if I'm not mistaken Kentucky has moved all of their production to China... but in general, so-called "Pacific Rim" instruments are pretty well-built for the price.
posted by usonian at 2:48 PM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: If your bf already plays guitar, he should be pretty set to teach himself mandolin. It's the only string instrument I can play, and I recall learning the basic chords in a month or so.

Yes, your money will go a lot further on a A-style than an F-style. (I prefer A's personally due to the lack of points to dig into my thigh, but my dad finds it easier to hold an F. YMMV.)

I think getting him a cheapo mando to noodle around with sounds like a great idea. The $200 Fender mando I learned on was frankly easier to play than the very expensive custom Weber I have now. Do it! You won't regret it. It's a fabulous little instrument.
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:48 PM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: Are there some starter models that y'all would recommend as easy to play?
posted by radioamy at 2:55 PM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: Oh also does a mandolin need a different tuner than a guitar?
posted by radioamy at 3:11 PM on November 3, 2009

Again, the playability of the thing really has less to do with the instrument itself (unless it is particularly lousy or weird) than with the way it's set up. There are exceptions, but basically any mandolin sold as a beginner instrument and set up by a good shop (like Elderly) will play fine. (Like fiercecupcake, I now have a pro-level instrument that is in some ways harder to play than the Epiphone I started with.)

There are a few design decisions that affect playability (e.g., do you like a flat fretboard or a "radiused" one, which curves in a slight arc?), but those are largely a matter of personal preference -- and without playing a few different instruments for a while, you're not likely to know which you prefer. And none of those things are as important as just getting a well-set-up instrument -- i.e. one that has decent intonation down the neck, one with an action that's set to be a reasonable compromise between volume and playability, etc.
posted by chalkbored at 3:14 PM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: I've noticed that some have truss rods and some don't. All I know about truss rods is that my boyfriend fucked around with the one on a guitar he was repairing once. Does it matter if a mandolin has one?
posted by radioamy at 3:19 PM on November 3, 2009

This is the closest I can get to finding my dear old Mandy Lynn. (So original.) If my dad didn't have her, I'd just look at the model number and make sure. Kentuckys and Mid-Mos are often recommended, but in our area, the Fender was the most accessible, and so it was. (And you know? It really does have a pretty tone and it's a breeze to play. Not as loud or as bright as a really good instrument, but it gets the job done.)

YES, as many have said, the set-up is really what matters. You can get a cheapie (do look for "solid top," that'll make a big difference) and get it set up by someone who knows that they're doing. It can even be advantageous to get one secondhand, so it's "played in" a bit; I looked at Craigslist in your area and didn't see one, but there's always pawn shops, your local music store, or the classifieds. A little scary, but maybe you have a musician-friend who can go with you.

For a beginner instrument, you probably don't need to worry about truss rods or radiused fretboards or any of that, but don't skimp on the set-up.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:50 PM on November 3, 2009

I love my Kentucky mandolin. I got a lot of great advice at Mandolin Cafe, and it's well worth hunting the boards over there.
posted by cachondeo45 at 4:48 PM on November 3, 2009

There are musicians who are professionals or serious amateurs who are really fussy about how pure-sounding the artifact they manipulate is. If your boyfriend is one of them, he should really select his own instrument.


My mom bought me a generic inexpensive mandolin for my birthday many years ago. I had usually played guitar and a bit of bass. This cheap mandolin is a FUN instrument which has given me decades of enjoyment. Going out to acoustic jams or folk festival campfires you can fit right in with the guitarists, and still stand out if you want.

Trivia: A Mandolin is tuned in 4ths like a fiddle, not in 5ths like a guitar. You can hit a similar chord to a guitar by inverting the shape of the same chord fingering from the bottom 4 strings of the guitar.

Also, if you are not bluegrass-oriented, the first song you play will probably be 'The Battle of Evermore' by Lep Zeppelin.
posted by ovvl at 6:30 PM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: You are all so awesome! You had some great advice and direction. Thank you also for the encouragement and reassurance that I was picking a good gift!

I was able to finally make a decision...Kentucky KM-150S from The Mandolin Hut. Heres to happy strumming!
posted by radioamy at 9:26 AM on November 4, 2009

Response by poster: Success! Just gave radioboyfriend his Mandolin. He loved it (and was surprised, which was also a bonus). It's a really beautiful instrument.

For anyone who reads this in the future and is in the same position as me, you'll find that most places have about the same pricing, but some will charge $15 to $20 shipping. It was about $20 more at The Mandolin Hut, but it came with a gig bag, book, dvd and tuner, and shipping was free.
posted by radioamy at 5:34 PM on November 11, 2009

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