Mandolins are stringed instruments that are descendants of the lute. They have an oval body similar to the lute and eight strings arrange in four pairs. The instrument is played by either plucking or strumming the strings. There are several different types of mandolins. Choosing the right mandolin depends on the type of music you wish to play.
Types of Mandolins
It is of benefit to play as many different types of mandolins as possible before making a purchase. Each type has a different scale length and produces a different tone. Understanding how the different mandolins sound will provide a frame of reference to help make the best selection. The Neapolitan or Bowl-back, mandolins more closely resemble the original mandores than other types. These instruments have a dark, rich sound but are rarely used today. On occasion, musicians who play classical, Baroque or orchestral music will use a Bowl-back mandolin. Professional classical musicians prefer high-grade round backs. Many mandolins of this type are poorly constructed, but those of higher quality produce a dark, round tone.
An A-style mandolin refers to one designed with an oval body similar those that Gibson produced in the 20th century. They typically have a carved, arched top and back and may have either an oval or dual F-holes. A-style mandolins are played in many musical genres including classical, bluegrass, rock and Celtic. They produce a robust midrange sound. These instruments have a reputation for high quality. They are usually made of lighter construction and are less expensive than the F-style mandolins.
The F-style mandolin was introduced as the premium Gibson model in the early 1900s. The models are distinguished by their ornate body and other decorative features. They may be constructed from a variety of materials but are heavier than A-style mandolins. The F-style mandolin may include either oval or dual F-holes. They may also be found in several different finishes. F-style mandolins are a favorite among bluegrass and jazz musicians. These instruments produce a projecting tone with dynamic range.
Mandolins have either oval or F-holes. Mandolins with F-holes typically have a robust, projecting sound while those produced by oval holes take on richer characteristics. F-holes provide a brisk, vibrant tone compared to the temperate and flowing tones of the oval hole. The variation in sounds results from the energy being focused in the higher overtones produced at the top of the hole in an F-hole mandolin. The full, rich overtones of the oval hole mandolin are produced at the expense of projection.
Where to Purchase a Mandolin
You can save some time and money if you read a few magazines and look at some ads before shopping for a mandolin. It will give you an idea of the types of mandolins available and the various price ranges. You can also compare prices. If you find a good deal, call to make sure the pricing is accurate before making a trip. A store that specializes in musical instruments will have the best selection. The sales people are usually very knowledgeable and can offer advice, however, they are frequently the most expensive. They may have one that has been there for some time that they will sell at a discount so it should not be discounted. The more places you shop, the better deal you will find.
If you are looking for a used mandolin, a pawn shop is a good place to look. Let your friends know you are interested in purchasing one as well. You may find a musician that has purchased a new mandolin and would like to sell their old one. You can also look in the newspaper at the want ads. Purchasing online or through the mail may often reduce the cost, but it is only advisable as a last resort. Purchasing a mandolin you have not heard or played is risky. If there are no other sources nearby, it may be the only alternative. Make sure the seller has a reasonable guarantee and return policy before purchasing.
Mandolins are available in a wide range of prices. Some lower end models constructed from plywood are of such poor quality that they are unplayable. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are instruments finely crafted by notable masters. A-style mandolins that are individually crafted and highly detailed can be found for around $1750 but are usually more expensive. Others found at smaller shops may range from $500 up to $10,000. Factory made mandolins that are playable may be purchased from $150 to $1500. Expect to pay $500 for a mandolin of reasonably good quality.
If a mandolin is constructed of quality materials, the sound will be open and responsive. The type of materials a mandolin is made from can significantly affect the quality of the sound without being visibly noticeable. Lightweight construction is notable for producing good resonance. Other characteristics that distinguish good quality mandolins include a dovetail joint at the neck, a truss rod to support the neck and permit adjustments and manually applied varnish. Sprayed on finishes can be rigid and interfere with the bass and treble ranges. The finish should be thin and flexible. Similarly, certain glues can interfere with vibration. Hide glues should be used to ensure a thin layer that doesn’t interfere with the acoustics. Make sure the instrument feels solid and that there are no cracks or missing parts.
Testing the Mandolin
It is important to ensure the mandolin is easy to play and produces the sound you prefer. Verify that the mandolin can be tuned easily. Make sure you are comfortable playing it. If it is too difficult to use, you will not enjoy playing it. Check each of the strings and listen for any notes that sound too flat or too sharp. It may be helpful to bring a friend or someone who is experienced with mandolins when shopping for your first one. It should be noted that a new mandolin may have a break in period. The instrument may not sound its best until after it has been played for a couple of hours.
Type of Wood
Understanding the type of wood mandolins are made from can help you get the best sound quality for your money. The soundboards for most mandolins are constructed of spruce. It is a sturdy wood that produces good tonality. Some mandolins have a laminated top that appears to be spruce, but the inner layer is a less expensive wood with inferior sound quality. Laminate will have layers sandwiched together while spruce is solid wood. Some more expensive mandolins may have laminated sides or backs. The soundboard is the most critical since that is the sound resonating component. Other wood such as cedar, mahogany and maple may also be used to construct mandolins.