If you’ve ever heard any bluegrass country music, you might already be familiar with a mandolin. While the mandolin is not as popular as the guitar, it produces unique sounds, blended with notes from other musical instruments, produces a piece of beautiful music.
Many popular music brands have used mandolin in their production. They include White Stripes, Led Zeppelin and R.E.M. “A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine,” a famous rock song released in the 1970s by David Grisman and Jerry Garcia is a very good example of the mandolin in action.
In that song, you get to see how David and his partner leveraged acoustic instruments such as the mandolin to produce a remarkable and heart-touching song that became a big hit of the era. They were some of the most famous mandolin players of their time.
Today, the mandolin is not only used in country music or rock songs but Latin music, Brazilian music, pop, jazz, and many others. Also, many instrumentalists and musicians have earned accolades as world-class mandolin producers. Learning how to play the mandolin is not hard at all. Once you understand the basics, you will really enjoy and play it very much.
So, What Exactly is a Mandolin?
For those who are new to the mandolin or want to start learning how to play it, a mandolin is simply a small lute-like musical instrument that is peer-shaped and has four pairs of metal strings that produce nice musical pitches. It is actually part of the lute family. Many people like to call it “a small guitar”.
The pairs of strings on the Mandolin are known as courses. Each course produces the same pitch, different from the other three. As in a violin, pitches range from low to high, namely, G, D, A, and E. When a course is played, it creates a strong repetition of the exact same pitch that results in an exciting musical effect.
The mandolin started in the early 15th century in Mandora, where it had its name from. By the middle of the 17th and 18th centuries, the mandolin had developed and become a profound and adored acoustic instrument for many musicians. It later became famous in Europe and the United States for the production of several hit music songs.
Parts of the Mandolin
While there are various styles, a typical mandolin has a head, neck, body, and a tailpiece. The head is the mainframe of the body. It is made up of a piece of wood with holes carved to serve as pegs for the metal strings on the mandolin’s body. It has a set of eight tuners with metal strings from the head to the tailpiece of the body. The tuners can either be tightened or loosened to lower or raise the pitch of the string.
Joining the neck to the tailpiece is a very short neck. It is made up of the fingerboard and the fretboard. The fingerboard is just a piece of wood around edges of the neck while the fretboard comprises pieces of metal, known as frets, to stop the vibration of the strings beyond a specific point when they are played.
Then there is the mandolin’s body, known as the “soundboard” or the “echo chamber.” It is made up of a wooden chamber where the pitch produced by the eight metal strings is heard. One or two holes are carved on the body to enhance the production of sounds from the inner chamber to the world. A pickguard is placed on top of the mandolin’s body to prevent the wooden base from being scratched.
Finally, the tailpiece of the mandolin is where the eight metal strings are held. Between the neck and the tailpiece, there is a relatively small movable bridge designed to make room for the adjustment of the tuning and also hold the entire body firm. The various components of the mandolin have all been designed to work in unison to produce amazing music when played.
Types of Mandolins
Mandolins have evolved over the years. Many creative and innovative ideas have enhanced the early Italian mandolin played in those days. After it gained popularity among musicians, it was actually the Neapolitan or the bowl-back. The entire mandolin was watermelon-shaped.
It was referred to as a “bowl-back” mandolin because of its sharp round bowl, lying at the back, and leaning gently against the stringed head. The “bowl-back” has a single hole on its soundboard that makes the tunes produced to be deep and heavy, requiring a high level of expertise to create interesting tunes.
This type of mandolin is not recommended for beginning players or learners. Usually, you will see this type of mandolin in movies as a stereotype of the olden Italian flutes. However, they are not common in the market these days as a result of their old-fashioned nature.
Music has evolved over the years. Not only did music evolved, but the instruments also. In the modern era, there are basically, two types of mandolin: A-Style Mandolin and the F-Style Mandolin. However, mandolin players have access to ever-increasing and a growing catalog of each type to produce the best work possible.
This mandolin has gleaned its name for having a peer or A-shape. It has a simple design, sleek flat back, and a streamlined body that makes it easy for players to hold it firmly against the body while playing.
The simplicity and the resemblance of it to the modern-day guitar are what has intrigued people about it and also made it popular. They come at a lower price than the other mandolins. For those looking to learn to play Mandolin, this is the best one to get started with.
This type of mandolin is famous for its use by professional, experienced and advanced players. They have a fancy and attractive design that makes them look colorful on the player. They also have a nice holding point with a scroll for ease and convenience when playing.
The “F” name before the mandolin has its roots in the Florentine Style. This classy looking style differentiates it from the A-style mandolins. Other extra elements and lavish designs such as two F-holes give the mandolin the resemblance of a violin. As such, the F-style mandolins are highly-priced than the A-style mandolins.
Difference between the Mandolin and the Guitar
If you’ve never seen the mandolin before, you might mistake it for the regular guitar. These two musical instruments look alike to a high extent. They both have the same components: a head, neck, body, and tail. Even though they look alike, there is a difference between the two.
The most obvious way to distinguish between a mandolin and a guitar is the size. Generally, a guitar is much larger and bigger than a mandolin. In fact, that is the reason some people mistake the mandolin as “a small guitar.” The guitar has a large body with a very long neck while the mandolin has a small body and a shorter neck.
Another clear way to note the difference is the strings on each musical instrument. Unlike the mandolin which had eight metal strings, the guitar has either six or twelve metal strings, depending on the type or model of it. However, in both cases, each pair of metal string produce the same pitch, tune or chorus. The main difference is the number of pairs of strings.
The pitch is the tune created when the pairs of the string are played. Even though the guitar has longer metal strings, the mandolin produces higher pitches than the guitar. This is because the length on the string is shorter and the tension created is higher than that of the guitar.
The tuning on both musical instruments is what determines how high or low the pitch or chorus will be. In the mandolin, the tuning runs from the lowest string to the highest, GDAE while the tuning in a guitar is EADGBE. The frequency of the tuning also varies.
These things make a clear difference between them. Therefore, if you’re a guitar player, don’t imagine you can get over a mandolin so easy as that. You might note the difference in the beginning, but as you continue trying your hand on it, you will get used to the nature, style, and operation of the mandolin.
Ready to Buy a Mandolin? Key Things to Look At Before You Go
Whether you’re a mandolin lover or a guitar player looking to switch over to a mandolin, you will need a couple of things before choosing the best mandolin. There are several mandolin brands and models in the market, you need to, first of all, determine your buying criteria before you set off.
When you are clear on your buying criteria, narrowing down on what you want becomes easier and faster. Instead of wasting so much time browsing through hundreds of mandolin makes and models in a shop, you just go to the right category to get what you want. Well, the following are key areas to look to buy any type of mandolin.
1. Acoustic or Electric
This is probably the most important subject you have to consider when you are looking to buy a mandolin. How will you use the mandolin? Will you be playing alone or on stage? Will you play in your room or the neighborhood? While you play with a music band or just alone? These critical questions are crucial in determining the best mandolin to meet your needs.
In the days when the mandolin was invented, it was purely acoustic. There was no way to amplify the sound for a larger audience to hear on stage. If you are playing in front of a larger audience, the one way to get people to hear the sound of what you are playing is to put a microphone in front of the mandolin. However, the effectiveness of this depends on the quality of the microphone you are using.
The other way is to amplify the sound of the mandolin directly while playing. When it comes to electric/acoustic mandolins, having a live performance on stage or playing with a band is quite simple. You simply plug into an amplifier which directly amplifies the sound of the mandolin with a systematically developed volume embedded on the body of the mandolin, just like the electric guitars.
The electric/acoustic mandolins are semi-hallowed bodies structured to function with a pickup. The pickup of the mandolin helps to transform the sound of the mandolin’s strings into a series of electrical impulses that are fed into the amplifier. Using other loudspeakers, the amplifier helps to get the sound from the mandolin into the world for a lot of people to easily hear.
Another exciting feature of this instrument is its unique ability to reduce the feedback from the amplifier while decreasing the tone and increasing the overall quality of the production. This makes the plug-in electric/acoustic mandolin the ideal for professional and experienced mandolin players.
2. Body Style
We’ve already discussed the various types or styles of the mandolin: the old-fashioned bowl-backed mandolin, the F-style mandolin and finally the A-style mandolin. When you are about to buy a mandolin for practice or performance, you have three main choices. You have to know the structure of each body of mandolin and then choose the one that meets your needs and preferences.
To determine what will work best for you, consider your style of playing, skillfulness and then your budget. As said earlier, the mandolins with F-style usually come with attractive features, nicer designs but at a higher price range. While many pro-players love it, the averaged beginner mandolin player can also try it and get used to it.
The mandolins with A style are simple, easy to use by beginner mandolin players and also have a relatively lower price. The simplicity, as well as the structure, makes it the best type for anyone who wants to practice or master the art of playing the mandolin.
The bowl-backed type of mandolin requires a high amount of experience to play excellently, even though their price is cheap. They are known for their deep, dark and lovely tones which are often administered in classical music, traditional folk music, and the orchestra.
No matter what you choose to buy, just ensure that it is top-quality, well-crafted and has no problems with the musical strings, hallowed-body and finally the tailpiece. Base on your style of playing, preference, and budget, narrow down your decision on what to buy.
3. The Wood Type
Another important feature to take note of is the wood used to manufacture the mandolin. In most cases, the kind of wood used to produce the mandolin affects the tone quality.
The pieces of wood or materials for manufacturing the mandolin also tell a lot about the price range and the instrument’s quality. Mandolins are musical instruments that produce sounds based on the amount of stress or tension exerted. The level of tension or stress on the strings goes to affect the kind of pitch produced by the courses.
This is the reason mandolins are usually made from different kinds of wood. Each part has a type of wood which makes it ideal in having the right effect on the tune produced while making it easy for the player to hold the instrument as well. The different kinds of wood used in production can also help you know the difference between affordable and expensive mandolins in the market.
Take for example some of the most expensive mandolins. The head is normally made from mahogany or cedars. The back and the sides of the mandolin are usually made from these wood. In some cases, a solid maple is used.
Apart from the high-grade durability and strength of the mahogany/cedar, it also gives the soundboard of the mandolin to produce a deeper pitch or tone which makes it difficult for other musical instruments to cut out when playing among full music band.
The inexpensive or affordable mandolins have their soundboards from spruce with the backs and sides of the body made from laminate. Spruce is the kind of wood that is generally light in weight, but really strong. Using spruce in this regard is a great way to maintain the quality of the tone while making the mandolin less expensive for the beginner.
Apart from the mandolin, spruce is always highly in demand for the production of the soundboard in other musical instruments such as the piano, violin, and the guitar. That means you don’t have to feel worried about choosing spruce/laminate made mandolin over a mahogany/cedar-made mandolin.
Laminate is also a strong wood and highly preferable. In most affordable mandolins, they are used in the top, back and side. In making the top, several layers of wood of different pieces are pressed toward each other to create a beautifully carved shape known in most mandolins. Ideally, you have the outer made up of spruce/laminate with the outer layer made up of mahogany.
Here’s the catch about the laminate: Even though the laminate is strong, it begins to diminish in quality over time through continual usage and this decreases the quality of the tone. Apart from the quality effect on the sound, they are a very good choice for those with a limited budget.
One of the critical components of the mandolin is the neck. Since the neck can easily bend while playing, it needs to be made a solid and rigid wood source. Maple or Mahogany is the most ideal wood piece used for the neck of most expensive mandolins out there. Again, laminate can be used in the neck.
However, due to the nature and vulnerability of the neck, manufacturers will normally use various wood pieces to prevent the neck from bending over time or while it is being played. In that regard, a truss rod is used to create the inner section of the neck. This helps to easily adjust the neck to create the best tone possible without having any problem or difficulty with the neck.
Connecting the neck to the body is the bridge. Unlike the guitar which has a static or unmovable bridge, the mandolin’s bridge is movable. Therefore, they ought to be made from a wood piece that enhances their movement while keeping it in a solid-state. Rosewood or ebony are the typical pieces of wood used in the making of the bridge.
After the mandolin has been constructed, producers try to use a nice finish to prevent the various piece of wood used from damages. You might also want to watch the finish of the mandolin before narrowing down your choices. Ideally, a heavy finish will be preferable than just a little finish.
It all boils down to the price. No matter what features and qualities you want in your ideal mandolin, your money and budget will finally count. But, you have to know that price is what you pay for but the value is what you get. Therefore, you have to ensure you are okay with the value you will be getting after paying the price of the mandolin.
In most cases, the most affordable mandolins will be priced at $ 50 and more. This type has the same feature and model of expensive ones. The only thing that differs is the wood type, design, structure, extra functions, and other attractive features. For those who are just starting, a low price type of mandolin will be the best pick.
The most expensive mandolins have prices that start from $ 10,000 and above. They have artistic features that make them worth every penny. They are usually used by pro-players who perform on a live stage alone or among a music band. This doesn’t prevent you from using or buying this type when you are a beginner or an intermediate player.
Finally, regardless of what you choose, ensure you first of all, test and try it. Play it for the first time and take a critical look at the note, tone, tuning and entire functionality. Before paying your hard-earned money, you want to make sure that the mandolin meets your needs, style, tastes, and preferences. Ideally, it should feel better on you, sound better, and then look better.
Top 8 Top Picks for Mandolins for New Players
If you have read the guide to this level, you might have already know exactly what type of mandolin will be preferable for a beginner. Generally, as a beginner, you are new to this musical instrument. You want to know the parts, functions, how to play and finally how to perform in front of a live audience if that’s also part of your goal.
In the selection of what mandolin to buy as a beginner, there are various choices. In the end, what you choose must be congruent and aligned with your goals. In this regard, you want to keep your goals in mind while looking at the various make, models, and brands of the mandolin in the market for beginners.
To get started, the following are the four major mandolin brand categories:
For each brand, there are different versions with exciting and interesting features. You get to choose the brand and the version that will most likely help you achieve your goals in mind. Before you proceed to buy, let’s take a critical look at all these mandolin brands.
Best Mandolin Brands for Beginners
Below is a comprehensive review of some of the outstanding mandolin brands for beginners looking to get started with their play and move up-to-the pro level in the shortest possible time.
Kentucky mandolins are highly rated as a top-quality brand, perfectly designed to match the needs of any beginning or intermediate mandolin payer. They are simple, easy to use, economical and best of all, very beautiful to behold.
Kentucky lends its brand name from the Bluegrass Country. The brand is produced and managed by Saga Music, based in California. Nonetheless, they have oversea production houses that handle most of the operations and manufacturing.
The brand is noted for their dedicated efforts and incredible artistic ability in producing high-grade mandolins in the world. The following are the two most common versions of Kentucky: Kentucky KM-272 Artist A-Style Mandolin and the Kentucky KM-150 A-style Mandolin.
1.1 Kentucky KM-276 Artist A-Style Mandolin
- Solid carved Sitka Spruce top gives you clean articulation and a crisp, bright tone
- Solid carved Maple back and sides for extra punch
- Slim Maple neck for comfortable, easy action
- Radiused choice East Indian rosewood Fingerboard ensures silky smooth playability
- Transparent brown lacquer finish imparts Enhanced luster and beauty
The Kentucky KM-276 Artist A-Style Mandolin picks up the feature of the old-fashioned style mandolin and leverages it to produce a unique A-style mandolin. They have a unique tone with an antique style, crafted for the modern and beginning mandolinist.
To create a unique style for the Kentucky KM-276, the producers decided to carve a single, egg-shaped hole right in the middle of the mandolin, surrounded by a beautiful artistic display of designs that makes the entire mandolin attractive and irresistible to the shopper.
- They are a preferable choice for tradition or Celtic-type music.
- They have a high-quality rating with attractive features.
- They have a refined tone quality that is often missed in many other mandolins.
- They come with a vintage-style of design, crafted in a modern way.
- They create a great feeling when played.
- They have a decent balance between the bass and the treble.
- They are less expensive with prices ranging from $ 350 and above.
- Due to the structure, sizing, vintage style of design, and the tuning, it will take some amount of time before any beginner can get used to playing it.
- The fine tone of its soundboard might not carry the same effect of the old-fashioned banjo, even though it has been designed in a vintage way. Therefore, it might not be a good fit to play bluegrass.
1.2 Kentucky KM-750 Artist A-Style Mandolin
- Solid German spruce carved top gives you clean articulation and a crisp, bright tone
- Solid flamed Alpine maple back and sides for extra punch
- Slim Alpine maple neck for comfortable, easy action
- Choice Santos Rosewood fingerboard ensures silky smooth play-ability
- High-gloss sunburst finish for traditional beauty and luster
This version of Kentucky mandolin is similar to the earlier one. But, there are some little variations that make it unique, different and outstanding. Just like the Kentucky KM-272, it has a great structure, breath-taking designs, and unfailing construction.
The best of it all is that the price is quite lower than the other one, even though quality standards have not been compromised. A typical one can be found at around $1,000.
- It offers a high-quality standard.
- The bridged truss rod can be adjusted to various levels.
- It comes with a very nice finish that protects the wood.
- It can easily be played by beginners.
- The tone quality is worth bragging about.
- Even though it has a high-quality, the design style is not as creative as the other mandolin version.
- It has a plastic strip button that can easily loose, break, or even detached from the entire body.
- Its lower registry of tone quality that can be dull as compared to other mandolin brands.
The Roque brand is known for creating remarkable designs at really low prices for the beginner mandolinist. The brand has grown over the years with its products used all over the world by even the most experienced players.
If you have a limited budget and you’re looking for a great mandolin that presents you features of the most expensive grades without compromising the quality, then Rogue comes to mind. The design style has been tested and proven over the years as an expert in the market.
Basically, there are two common versions of the Roque brand: Roque RM-100F F-Style Mandolin and the Roque RM-100A A-Style Mandolin.
2.1 Roque RM-100F
This is a mandolin with the F-style with classic designs that enhances the outlook and makes it visually appealing to the buyer. It is has a reliable and trustworthy construction, developed to be the flagship version of the Roque mandolin brand with a budget production cost.
- It is one of the most affordable F-style mandolins.
- It has a better sound quality than the RM-100A version.
- It has a word-class F-style structure with classy designs.
- A higher solo can be played due to the protruded neck area.
- The movable bridge is sometimes tough to adjust and might require expert help.
- It has comparably low-ton quality when you take a look at other mandolins.
- The relatively low-quality rating of the tuner can make it hard to have a perfect tune.
- It might require professional help to adjust the movable bridge since it is sometimes tough to adjust.
- It might not be suitable for the bluegrass music band as well as the ensembles.
2.2 Roque RM-100A
Roque RM-100A is one of the enviable mandolins with A-style that any beginner would be proud to have. It boasts of a great finish which makes the entire mandolin look attractive, eye-catching, and appealing. The finish is either sunburst or black, giving it a great look at a distance. The exciting part if this beautiful piece of a musical instrument is priced at only $ 70 so that the average player can afford it.
- It comes at a very low price range so that any beginner can buy.
- You can literally start learning to play the mandolin without breaking your bank.
- It is great for those looking to learn and become better at playing.
- It has a solid base of construction that makes it durable and strong.
- It can be hard and difficult to get the right tune
- It has a great outlook yet the design doesn’t make it unique from all others.
- Even though it has a thick finish, it tends to affect go over to affect the tone quality.
- There is no truss rod in the movable bridge area, thus the neck is susceptible to warping.
- When the neck warps over time, the entire instrument can’t be played again.
- With a laminate top, it makes it matchless to other refined and classy mandolins.
The Gretsch brand traces its roots to the highly creative, talented and young German instrumentalist who migrated to America during the mid-18th century. His style of the mandolin is still an ancient and adored brand in the market by most beginners.
The Gretsch mandolin brand is noted for producing the best mandolins in the world. Their product ranges can easily be identified through a blend of a classy American style of design with the modern version of the mandolin. This enables them to offer the mandolin market top-notch quality possible at the most affordable price range.
The two main versions of the Gretsch include the following: G9350 Park Avenue and the Roots Collection G9310 New Yorker Supreme.
3.1 G9350 Park Avenue
This mandolin has great construction, classic design and a round hole beautifully carved on the soundboard. It is great to look upon and has other attractive and remarkable features that are beyond description. The top is made up of solid spruce while the sides and backs are made of maples.
- It is great for projecting acoustic musical sounds.
- The low and high notes made by the metal strings are clear.
- It boasts of high-quality sound quality than other mandolins.
- The frets on the body have been consistently aligned to enhance sound quality.
- It contains many features of other expensive mandolin brands in the market.
- The fretboard is narrowly shaped which can create a problem for players with larger fingers.
- It is a highly-priced beginner musical instrument with prices at around $ 600.
3.2 Roots Collection G9310 New Yorker Supreme
This mandolin version is much cheaper than Gretsch Park Avenue even though it also has great features. It has been designed based on the classic designs of the ancient mandolins.
With great modern qualities and construction, making it the taste of many beginners, the Roots Collection G9310 has become the main flagship version of the Gretsch brand of mandolin musical instruments. The price range falls around $ 250.00.
- Top-notch construction
- A high-quality mahogany top, back, and sides.
- A warm and excellent musical tone.
- Stunning classic designs of the expensive mandolins with A-style.
- A great pick for those looking for luxury features at a budget price.
- It might not be ideal for a bluegrass music band and related parties.
- Its vintage, classy designs can make it look like its one of those first ancient mandolins.
- It has been noted by some mandolinists as not being sturdy.
- Other people have also talked about the issues with the fret level and consistency.
The Ibanez mandolin brand is known for its creative, innovative and artistic designs that set it from the pack. Also, you can choose it based on the quality and the intermediate price level. The name of the brand has had its roots from Ibanez in Japan in the year 1957.
Due to their dedication to quality and focus on wowing mandolin lovers with wonderful designs, the brand has become global. Typically, there are two notable versions of Ibanez: Ibanez M522 and the Ibanez M510.
4.1 Ibanez M522
This type of Ibanez has a sophistical and gigantic F-style design that takes on the outlook of the historic ones of the 17th and 18th centuries. But they have been designed with modern feel and features that will make a player want to buy and try it out. Each part has been painstakingly designed and developed to create a dazzling appeal to the eyes.
- It has a great sound.
- It is a good alternative for other expensive mandolins with F-style.
- The courses are always in the right tune.
- It comes with a wide mahogany neck which tends to enhance the tone effect.
- The neck design structure also helps make the mandolin easily playable.
- It has durable construction with the top being made of spruce.
- The sides and backs are made of maples which is very good for sound quality.
- It has a relatively low tuner quality.
- It comes to a higher price range of $ 300.00 and beyond.
- Some players have had issues with the movable bridged though they are easily resolved by good players.
4.2 Ibanez M510
- A-style mandolin
- Select spruce top
- Mahogany back & sides
- Chrome hardware
- Pearl Dot Inlay
As compared to the price of the earlier version, this is much cheaper and a good option for the beginner mandolin players. It has interesting qualities, a nice finish and attractive designs that the beginner would be proud of. The top base of the Ibanez M510 is made of spruce with the neck section of the truss rod to enhance the movable bridge.
- It has a dazzling and stunning finish.
- The sound quality is very good.
- It has a high-quality rating at a very affordable price.
- The truss rod at the neck prevents the neck from bending.
- The tuners and pickguard might not be made from the best materials.
- Sections of the wood have been cut off to reduce the cost of production which might reduce tone quality while playing.
- It might require playing for some time to get used to the entire system.
- It might not fit well for some players due to its dimensions.
Having known all the above brands, which will be the best option for the beginner mandolin player looking for some kind of instrument to start learning?
In the end, you want to get the very best mandolin at the lowest price possible. For beginners who want a high-quality mandolin to get started with at the lowest price possible, the Roque RM-100A will be a very good option.
However, for those considering a musical instrument with a little bit of luxury and a higher level of sustainability for a long period of time, then the Kentucky brand will be a great option. Many experts and pro-players have said that this will be good for the intermediate or average beginner mandolinist.
Based on your unique tastes, you might want to try the other brands and versions of mandolins reviewed under this list. Whatever you choose, ensure it meets your musical goals and preferences for usage. Look at the quality, style, affordability, reliability, longevity, balance, and the versatility of the instrument before finally making your final buying decision.