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Buying a Beginner Mandolin Advice

Rating: 13 votes, 4.92 average.
Here's the advice I give aspiring players looking for their first instrument and some general new to instruments shopping advice. I assume you know nothing about stringed instruments, floating bridges, string gauges, picks (just like me when I got my first). I also figure that $500 is pretty much the upper limit (or way above their upper limit) for just getting started in a new hobby. If someone told me I had to spend $500-1000 to see if I would like playing the mandolin, I wouldn't be playing today. That's a lot of money for a hobby that you might not stick with.

1) Don't buy off e-bay/craigs list, etc. Those instruments (if new) really need a set up and new strings before they may or may not be playable (many of the auctions don't offer returns). Buy from a decent dealer in beginner mandolins. If buying online be sure you can return the instrument if there are issues with it. Several of the Café sponsors do that.

2) When buying be sure your instrument comes set up or expect to spend another $40-100 having it adjusted. Nothing will stop you from learning to play faster than a poorly set up mandolin (except for amputations). In fact, a poorly set up mandolin will feel like it is amputating your finger tips, and if the bridge is out of place or not well seated to the top, it won't intonate or be too quiet. Set Ups are a must on all instruments. Think of them as an oil change or on-going maintenance. You will likely learn how to do some of these things as you own and play your instrument.

3) Get an A style mandolin for your first one. You get a better instrument for the same money.

4) F holes are probably a safe-sure bet for learning how to play. You can play pretty much any kind of beginner music on an F hole mandolin and not be disrespected for it. We seem to be a kind bunch to new players, in general.

5) If possible get as much solid wood as you can afford. Then get as much hand carving as you can afford. You will get better sound and more volume out of an all solid instrument from the same company, in general.

6) Replace the strings with D'Addario J74s. They are a great place to start. And they wear out fast enough to learn how to change your own strings. I like the method at

7) Spend $5 on an assortment of pics from Fender Heavy to Dawg and expect to have your favorite change over the next few months. You can change your instrument's sound more by changing pics and strings than by other tricking out items. This also costs a lot less than a new mandolin.

8) If possible, play a bunch to see if a certain one fits your hands better than others. If you're in a real store and trying mandolins out ask for a tuner and either see that the instrument intonates up the neck or have that demonstrated to you, only buy an instrument that intonates properly (if budget requires make sure it at least intonates up to the 7th fret).

If possible take someone who plays mandolin (or guitar or banjo) with you. They can at least evaluate intonation and probably tell a better mandolin from a worse one.

9) If you can buy used from a good store or source you will save money. However, there aren't tons of decent starter mandolins on the used market other than the occasional Mid Mo/Big Muddy and those get snagged pretty fast, often by those of us who have played a while and know how good those Mid Mo/Big Muddys are. Our classifieds have never let me down, but, again, there aren't ton's of $200-300 mandolins there (usually 10X that). Understand that most people do one of three things a) keep their first mandolin as a beater/camping mandolin b) give their first to another new player c) destroy the darn thing out of frustration (you don't want to be in the last category).

10) Buying by mail/internet. Actually call the dealer up and do the deal over the phone. Talk with them about being new to the instrument, wanting to get something that holds tune, intonates, and is there a trial acceptance period. If their answers don't feel genuine, or they try and push a much more expensive walk away. A good store knows that you may likely buy more mandolins and if they treat you right, you'll be back.

Your Mandolin Arrives Via Mail
So you get your new instrument and it arrives safe and whole in a box on your porch, what next? Bring it inside. Let the box warm or cool to room temperature, then open the box and wait until the contents feel room temp, then pull out the mandolin (still in the case or inner box), and (you guessed it) wait for it to get to room temp. Then you can open and enjoy your new instrument. This procedure protects the finish, remember, you may not want to keep this instrument and you will need to send it back how it came to you if you return it.

Some thoughts...
I don't worry too much about tone in first instruments, it will sound like a mandolin to the new player. Learning how to pick the strings, learning some chords and learning some tunes on an instrument that is comfortable to play, holds tune, and intonates well is much more important. Next get lessons sooner rather than later to prevent bad habits.

I think choosing a teacher is even more important than which instrument you buy first. That is a relationship.

I won't recommend naming brands in in this blog. Just look on the forum at the brands people are talking about, or post a question. I don't mind repeat questions on starter instruments. When I first came to the Café Michael Kelly was the it brand, then came Eastman, then J Bovier, then the revamped Kentucky line, now (2009-2010) there's The Loar. Certain brands like Mid Mo/ Big Muddy are consistently great first and beyond instruments (but you can only get them used with my $500 threshold).

Why give this advice? I started with a Lone Star that I struggled with for months before I had a set up and lowered the action to a playable height! Then I got and immediately had set up a Johnson all laminate A oval and a Kentucky KM140S (solid wood top only). That's basically 3 starter instruments within about a year. I could hear some difference between the Johnson and the Kentucky but they sounded like mandolins to me. Both were better than the Lone Star to play.

Mandolins are commodities. They aren't people. This isn't a marriage. In fact it's not even a relationship at this point. It's a first mandolin. You'll always remember it but you don;t have to love it forever. Like learning how to cook all you need to start is a skillet, a couple of sauce pans, a colander (maybe) and some hand utensils. You need to know how to boil noodles and heat up Ragu before you need to buy an Atlas pasta roller and slow cook a bolognaise sauce.

Most importantly, once you get your well set up inexpensive instrument, have fun. That's the point.

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