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Thread: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

  1. #1
    Registered User Gibcaster000's Avatar
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    Default Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    We all know MAS is real, and obviously nobody needs a reason to buy a new mandolin other than wanting one and having the available funds. I am also under no illusion that the instruments at my disposal are holding me back in any way.

    Obviously practice is the most important part of developing as a player, and plenty of people become formidable players on very humble instruments.

    That being said, I am interested to hear folks' experiences regarding the timing of new instrument purchases and how (if at all) they related to your progress as a player. Either an "I reached this benchmark and decided I deserved/wanted/earned a better (or just different) mandolin," or an "I upgraded to (or added to the stable) 'Instrument X' and it helped me develop in this area" type of thing.

    I've always been fascinated (with both guitars and mandolins) by what draws individual players to the instruments they choose. I guess this is kind of an offshoot of that; how has the instrument you play been tied to your journey as a player?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!
    Last edited by Gibcaster000; Nov-13-2020 at 1:11pm. Reason: spelling error
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I bought my first mandolin about eight years ago. It was kind of an impulse buy, and it was maybe the second cheapest option available. It seemed OK to me at the time. I actually remember going into a Guitar Center maybe a year or so after I bought it, and I saw a Gretsch New Yorker. I played it for a few minutes and had to put it down immediately. I was kicking myself with the newfound knowledge that had I spent just a smidge more, I could have gotten a far better instrument.

    I played that first mandolin on and off again, never really committing to learning it. Then the pandemic happened! I went in full steam ahead, signed up for video lessons, and took my cheapo mando to the local luthier to have it professionally set up for the first time. That was... eye-opening. The luthier told me that there wasn't much he could do in terms of setup:
    - The bridge was as low as it could go, but the action was still too high.
    - The neck was slightly bent, so the intonation was completely out of whack. (20 cents sharp at the 12th fret, to be exact, and bridge adjustments weren't going to help that)
    - It would be far too costly to modify the instrument in ways that would only make mild improvements, at best.

    In order to lower the action further, he ended up filing down the slots in the nut and sanding down the feet of the bridge. He also told me that I should really consider investing in an intermediate-level instrument, specifically something with a truss rod. I took it back to him for a restring a few weeks later, and the original nut cracked. He reiterated his recommendation for a new instrument.

    At that point, I had had my eye on the Eastman MD304 for a while. With the pandemic still ongoing, those were in rather short supply. After much deliberation, I ended up springing for the MD504 instead. I intend to hang onto it for a while. I can't say I'm immune to GAS, but I highly doubt I'll be purchasing a second mandolin anytime soon.
    Eastman MD504
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  3. #3
    Dave Sheets
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I started playing on a Japanese made bowl-back I got on a whim in high school. Once I got out of school, got married and starting playing a good bit, my wife strongly encouraged me to get a better mandolin (she was somewhat less than impressed by that bowlback), fortunately I stumbled found a flatiron A, that's been of good service for a long time. I've purchased a wide range of instruments, and the only ones I really regret buying were inexpensive.

    Instruments that don't play in tune are worse than useless, they are harmful.
    -Dave
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  4. #4

    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I had never tried a stringed instrument before, watched my brother struggle with learning to play guitar and decided it looked too difficult
    I play harmonica and do some vocals in my band, and always got frustrated if I couldn’t get one of my guitar players to jam. I’ve always loved the sound of the mandolin. So I bought a Rogue this spring to see if it was something I could learn. It wasn’t playable, way too high at both the nut and bridge. So it sat lonely all through the first lockdowns. I finally borrowed some files and tried lowering the action, somewhat massacring the job without the benefit of Ron Meldrum’s excellent e-book. But it was at least playable enough to start working on some chords, and quickly discovered that it came pretty easily and I fell in love with it.
    I cheated a bit and started with songs I already knew and sang vocals and harps with... it really shortened the learning curve for chording while singing, and I got a harp rack so I could accompany some songs. So now, four months in I can play and sing a dozen songs, half with the harps on the breaks. My problem has been that the mando still isn’t playable beyond the fifth or sixth fret so I haven’t really worked on scales or melodies, really just chording and strumming.

    I just bought myself an early Christmas present and got an Eastman 605 so I can play with the band. But I shipped it home to Washington state instead of where I’m working in New Mexico, so I won’t get to play it till Christmas because of the latest lockdowns here. I can’t wait... and once I have the Eastman here I’ll tear down the old Rogue and start over with Ron’s book to make it a playable campfire mando.

    And so the MAS begins!

  5. #5
    Registered User John Flynn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I had been playing guitar for about 20 years, both acoustic and electric. I never felt that much interest in moving up the ladder to more expensive guitars. I wound up in a church group with four six string guitarists, which was redundant and bought a cheap, laminated Korean made mandolin. It was truly a POS, but I really liked it. Within a year, mandolin became my main instrument and I upgraded to an Alvarez A-800, which was my only mandolin for 10 years.

    I was pretty much self taught up that point and still playing it too much like a "little guitar." Then I started taking lessons and attending a lot of workshops with great players. I was really learning how to play mandolin like it should be played. Within that next 10 years, I got a Rigel A+ Deluxe, an Old Wave oval A, a Parsons flat-top and a Mendel octave, all of which I still have.

    I nearly went broke in the 2009 recession and that pretty much cured my MAS. I decided to be happy with what I have and really like all four instruments. I don't take lessons anymore, but I still play in groups and jams. My improvement in the last 10 years has been more about music than the mandolin itself. I have improved in music theory, music reading and playing by ear. So technique-wise I probably haven't improved much in the last decade, but I have developed a much better feel for what to play and when, which I think is more important, especially performing with groups.

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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I'm another one of the new players. I got a rogue-esque first mandolin just before the pandemic, and I enjoyed it but upgraded to a the loar before starting fall semester in college. As far as helping my playing, the biggest progress has come since I got to the point where I could regularly practice for an hour a day. That required a setup that didn't kill my fingers.
    In addition to that, just feeling and hearing my mandolin gives me joy, and that encourages me to play more. It seems from the comments that the most important thing is having a playable instrument, but I also think that having one that you appreciate helps you progress as well.

  7. #7
    Be Wild Zach Wilson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I started playing guitar at 12yo and moved on to bass in my teens. I had a couple friends learning banjo and there were enough guitar guys and so I picked up mandolin so the group could have that percussive chop. I played a Ply top Fender for years before getting a Mid Missouri (Big Muddy now). I sold that when I was more interested in bass with my punk band but still had the Fender. In 2015 at 29years I bought a used The Loar solid top A shape (I'd been playing mandolin for 14 years). Later that year, 2015, I won a Weber Yellowstone F through the cafe and The Mandolin Store.

  8. #8
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I'd been playing guitar for at least 25 years before picking up the mandolin (started guitar age 11), and also had been playing the tenor banjo for 2 years. Because I always bought second hand guitars and banjos I was able to have nicer instruments than if I'd spent the same amount new, so when looking to buy my first mandolin I brought that mentality with me. As a guitarist I had had lots of Gibsons over the years so that probably swayed me to buy a '60's Gibson A-50 on eBay. The price was great ($500) but the mandolin not so much, so I quickly sold it and got a Flatiron 2M after reading lots of positive comments about Flatiron pancakes here. It was a nice wee mandolin but MAS had already bitten so I moved on to a Weber Aspen II.

    Anyway, you see how this story is progressing! I went through a lot of mandolins trying to learn what worked for me with my main criteria being playability and sound. Certainly the switch from the Flatiron to the Aspen II jump started a lot of progress for me because the Aspen just felt more comfortable to play so I couldn't put it down. From 2009 to 2011 I purchased 9 mandolins, actually 10 counting the little electric J.Bouvier, nearly forgot about that one. Of those 10 only 4 were purchased new: a Pomeroy A4, a Redline Traveler, the J.Bouvier electric and I had a Hilburn A5 built for me. In that same timeframe I also owned the following second hand mandolins: Gibson A-50, Flatiron 2M, Weber Aspen II, Weber Custom Gallatin F, Weber Vintage A, an Eastman 905, and a Mike Black A2Z. Then I had a multi-year hiatus where I not only didn't pick up the mandolin, I didn't even own one. That lasted from early 2012 to late 2015, mainly due to becoming obsessed with jazz drumming, playing drums in a band, and starting a small business.

    When I got back into the mandolin I bought a 1927 Gibson A-jr, which was lovely, but the flat fretboard just didn't agree with, much as I tried to get to grips with it. So I moved that on and picked up a 2014 Collings MT-O - immediately the rust I'd felt having put the mandolin down for the few years seemed to fall away. I had put much of my struggling on the A-jr down to being out of practice, but picking up the MT-O it became clear that a percentage of my struggling was due to not being comfortable on the A-jr's flat fretboard. I pretty much felt like I'd settled on a keeper with that MT-O, until I got the chance to play a Girouard oval A at one of Marla Fibish's mandolin workshops. I was floored by everything about it - the sound, the workmanship, the playability. It had more midrange than the MT-O, seemed warmer sounding, and it's standard nut width felt better to me than the MT-O's wider one. I ended up contacting Max the next day and got the ball rolling on a build and finally have found my keeper. Of all the mandolins I've gone through some were sold to finance another one (Gibson A-50, Flatiron 2M, Redline Traveler, Weber Aspen II, Pomeroy A4, Eastman 905, Gibson A-jr, Collings MT-O), some were sold due to job loss (Weber Vintage A, J. Bouvier), some were sold to pay the tax man (Mike Black A2Z), and one just didn't click (Hilburn A5).

    My MAS is going to be on hold for the foreseeable future now as I moved back home to Ireland after purchasing a small farm here earlier in the year. I'm down to one of each - one guitar, one banjo and one mandolin. If my ship ever comes in I'd love to get Frank Tate to build me a tenor guitar, but if not I've enough nice instruments to keep me going. Each of my instruments does everything I need them to and I'm just enjoying putting the honest wear and mileage on them - nothing like sitting by the wood burning stove playing the mandolin on a stormy night with a hot whiskey on the table beside you!
    2018 Girouard Concert oval A
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    Quote Originally Posted by Jill McAuley View Post
    - nothing like sitting by the wood burning stove playing the mandolin on a stormy night with a hot whiskey on the table beside you!
    Nice Jill, I sit by the wood stove with a glass of wine, might have had a brandy earlier, and play mandolin. Maybe some guitar or banjo, but mostly mandolin. I don't know that I could remember the progression that got me to where I am today with instruments so I won't try, but it started around 45 years ago after I got out of the service.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I played the guitar a long time ago. I stopped playing for a few years.
    I still have guitars (I have two) and trying to (re)learn stuff I used to play and new tunes.
    One day I bought a ukulele, then a banjolele and a sopranino ukulele. At first
    mostly strumming songs, then starting to learn instrumentals.
    At one point I got a hammer dulcimer but never got around playing it (but I don't despair).
    A few weeks ago I bought a mandolin (an Eastman A-model 305). I just learned the
    easy chords (C, G, D) and I'm trying to learn two pieces (Chicken Reel and Buffalo Gals).

    I don't think I'll get a new instrument any time soon.

  13. #11
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    Just speaking of mandolins, don't think about mine as upgrades as much as obtaining instruments to fit a need. The purchases this year were trying to scratch a particular itch. Wanted one with an installed pickup. Plus, had been interested in getting a Flatiron as one person I admire uses one. So got the Flatiron Performer just as everything started to change in March. Then, when taking it to a band practice a few months later it ended up being easier for the fiddler in my band to hear than my Collings MT. Okay, so that's good. Then recently an itch for an F style (my first) met up with The Mandolin Store posting a used Weber Gallatin. Turns out, both my bands like the sound of it. So what I have are options.

    Now, do any of these make me a better player? Probably not. More that it's not an instrument that is holding me back from being a better player. The limiting factor is still the space between the ears.
    2008 Weber Gallatin F, 2018 Collings MT, 1989 Flatiron Performer A, 1929 Gibson A Jr., 2018 Eastman MDO-305
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I first picked up a mando about 10 years while living in southern Mexico. We had a terrific jam with all the ex-pats but as is often the problem, too many guitars. The host of the jam had a pretty little bowl back that had been neglected. I restrung it and learned a few two finger chords and had a blast strumming chords adding a new sound to our mezcal fueled jams.

    Moved back to the States and with a limited budget went on the hunt. The dirty little MAS enablers around here at the time recommended I try to find an older Gibson A-50. So what did I do? Bought a cheap Rogue F, cuz it was purrr-tee. Youíd think after 20 years of guitar playing and 40 years of life, I would have known better that as someone mentioned here, instruments that are hard to play and donít stay in tune are worse than useless, they are harmful. Sold the Rogue quickly and for very little loss and found a great Gibson A-50, (turns out the cats and kittens on the cafe know what they are talking about and itís not a great conspiracy to get me to spend more money... or is it?!?) which I named the One That Got Away. With this purchase I got excited about playing because it sounded great, was easy to play and it was a Gibson (snob). I progressed from 2 Finger Chord Charlie to Alex the Amateur with this purchase.

    Due to a combination of life and interest in other instruments I acquired reverse-MAS and foolishly sold the Gibson named The One That Got Away. (Sweetie if you are a member of The Cafe and reading this, I miss you and love you, I hope you found a good home, it was me, not you. Iíll never forget that time we nailed Blackberry Blossom with the guys on the back porch...)

    Went mando-less for years until last summer when a Loar 310 came up cheap on FB Marketplace. Bought it well below market value. ďYouíd think after 30 years of guitar playing and 50 years of life, I would have known better that as someone mentioned here, instruments that are hard to play and donít stay in tune are worse than useless, they are harmfulĒ. I gave it a good set up and it wasnít awful but far from aspiring and my guitar got more attention.

    Shortly after buying The Loar I met Alan Bibey who lives in my town and got mandolin fever and MAS. Sold the Loar and bought an Eastman 515 from the classifieds. It was so easy to play and sounded so good, all I wanted to do was play. I was so blown away by the upgrade, I figured why not upgrade one more step and be done (famous last words), so a few weeks later I purchase an Eastman 815. The 515 sounded better, so it was catch a release for the 815. Then a few weeks later Banjo Ben Clark had a Black Friday deal on a Northfield F5S, I just couldnít say no to. I never thought Iíd spend more on a mando than a guitar. I pulled the trigger.

    The Northfield arrived with a Blue Chip pick and from the first strum until a year later this instrument is more responsible for my progression as a player than any instrument Iíve ever owned. Period. End of story. End of MAS (joking!). It inspires me to play and for the first time in my playing career, Iíve set goals and committed to focused practice.

    My motto is buy the best instrument you canít afford (lots of 0% financing promos, credit card, sell the kids toys, the wifeís jewelry, whatever it takes) you get what you pay for and youíll never be dissatisfied.

    If you see a nice A-50 from the mid 70ís at your local jam or pawn shop, tell her I said hello.

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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    Strangely, I have been struggling thinking about this. I think the best I can come up with is that from time to time, unpredictably, I get an strong desire (sometimes it feels irresistible) to hear, make, experiment & shape a particular sound or type of sound to fit my situation or desire to express the things I want to express to one degree or another.

    Sometimes it takes the form of a new type of instrument (different sound altogether) or sometimes a different version of the same instrument (refinement of sound).
    This doesn't seem to take into account skill progression or benchmarks. I think at a certain point I can get a sense of whether a sound I want to hear is actually available from an instrument I have.

    A tin whistle in D and a tin whistle in C play some of the same notes, but they are not necessarily interchangeable. Neither is a match for pipes, or a G&S legacy plugged into a 100W 2x12. But you can play the same tunes on any of the three and all of them can be obnoxious and annoying to the neighbor that you don't
    like. An unplugged gibson SG won't fill the hole in an acoustic jam, even if it doesn't necessarily stop you from playing along. An F hole Girouard and an oval hole KM 272 are both A style mandolins and there is definitely some musical overlap, but surely some situations and sounds call for one instead of the other. Like scotch, irish or bourbon whiskey or a campfire vs blowtorch.

    I think the main trigger for me that begins a serious search is when the sound I want isn't available from the instrument(s) I have.

    The trigger for acquisition is simply when financial & practical limitations get out of the way.

    Now if I could just figure out the triggers that get me to practice

    So, since age 8 or 9 I have or have passed through clarinet, piano, two & a half electric guitars, one acoustic guitar, two violins, a bagpipe chanter, three mandolins, and a banjo. Also toyed with some midi drum stuff but that was a disaster. I'll play anything, if it has a sound I want.

    Right now due to various and complicated personal issues, it is just me, one mandolin and one acoustic guitar in a rented bedroom. The others are still waiting for me in another space if I need those sounds & can use them. Sometimes I do miss them, but luckily the instruments I have will do for almost anything I want/can/feel like playing these days.

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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I started with a bowlback which was perfectly fine until i put it away for 20 years and when i finally got back to it, the neck was too bent to keep the instrument in tune. Sigh. My next was a lovely strad-o-lin a music store with a nice large inventory of mandolins chose for me, which actually filled the bill pretty well for maybe 10 years when the neck started to come unglued. While it was in the shop -- for a year -- I picked up another instrument at the same price point (a Kentucky 680S? I can't recall any more) that just seemed never to be awake. Disposed of that. Then it was a series of similar price point mandolins, all of which are perfectly lovely things (I still own them all).

    But the longer I played, the more I wanted a specific sound. So I'd wander into a music shop and try mandolins. I didn't need anything to replace my mid-range mandolins, many of which sounded better than some of the others of all price points I tried, or just felt better in my hands (and I found I didn't like the balance of a lot of f-models I tried, or didn't like the width of the neck, or they didn't have the bottom I was looking for). I was taking lessons and learning different genres and improving my sight reading with my mid-levels. My teacher said my playing was advancing perfectly fine for an upgrade, but I was perfectly happy with the instruments I had.

    But -- one day -- it happened. I was noodling on mandolins at Acoustic Music in Guilford up the road from where I live and I was handed a 1923 Gibson A1 snake head. It had a repaired crack, the finish was mostly worn off in places and it was four times the price i normally pay for instruments. But it had the sound I wanted. And now my mid-levels go begging, except my Eastman, which I've modified with a bridge pickup so i can play plugged in.

    Frankly, what made me a better player was practice -- of course -- but also playing with people who are much better musicians than I am. Having a great instrument gives me a secret smile, but nobody but me (and the occasional mandolinist I play with) knows how good it really is, since the people I play with play other instruments -- flutes, fiddles, boxes, whistles, pipes, tenor banjo and the occasional bodhran and guitar.
    --------------------------------
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  18. #15

    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    Bought first mandolin in 1976 as a poor college student ($60). Learned some chords and fiddle tunes. Graduated and got a job. First paycheck went to Bob Givens in Sandpoint, ID, for one of his A models, $675. That was my first and only upgrade. Everything else has been sideways, adding an oval-hole, resophonic, electric, and mandola.

    But the Givens is still the main one and the last to be parted from when it comes to that.

  19. #16
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I completely deny the idea of deserving or not yet deserving or not yet ready for this or that mandolin. I deny the hierarchy of the "next" mandolin, or upgrading.

    I think that the first mandolin you play might be provisional and budget, to see if you are going to fall in love. But every other mandolin after that, IMO, should be the very very best you can afford. I still don't deserve my second mandolin and never will unlock all its secrets. I think one's second mandolin should be as close as possible to the last mandolin you will ever want. It won't be, but it is the way to think about it. Heck I bought the last mandolin I will ever want many mandolins ago.

    May you always have a mandolin much much better than you are, to inspire you, and to remind you that any problems are yours, and not the mandolin's.

    That all being said, folks can then talk about, well... what justifies purchasing another mandolin, if it is not an upgrade. To be brutally honest, my purchase of another mandolin is based on my wanting it. Maybe it has a sound that i want to pursue, like when I bought the resonator, or maybe I want to be part of a particular tradition, like when I got a bowlback, or perhaps I just get all tingly when this or that mandolin is in my hands, or I want get a easier to replace camping mandolin, or just because it is so pretty. Maybe the qualities I am looking for have changed or evolved, and I can tell the appreciate the more subtle differences between instruments. I don't need to justify their purchase to anyone. My own rules are that the money spent is discretionary, and that I refuse to go into debt for a mandolin, but other than that, I might get a mandolin because it is just so darn cool. Or maybe, I just can't bare the thought that I will never experience a new mandolin again.

    Another way to look at this, perhaps less hedonistically, there is great value in playing a mandolin for a long time, developing a good working long term relationship with it, learning its idiosyncrasies, knowing when you play it that the two of you have put on many miles together. Well if you are gonna have a long term relationship with a mandolin, best to get one you will never outgrow, as soon as you can. I mean doing the math, if 20 years from now you want a mandolin you have been playing for 20 years, you gotta get it now.

    And you don't have to justify it to me.
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  21. #17

    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I'm not sure I can say that acquiring a new/upgraded instrument can be directly attributed to any improvements I've had personally. Both in flute/piccolo and mandolin, I can speak to at least a temporary spike in enjoyment of practice due to getting a nicer sounding/responding instrument. Similarly, I think it's valid to say that you can be "held back" by the quality or setup of a particular instrument, especially if it's objectively not fitting your needs or current abilities. It can be frustrating to play on an instrument that's not responding the way you'd like it to (my mushy-springed Elkhart flute), especially when you've played on something that translates 100% of your efforts into the results you're intended (my solid silver headpiece F.A. Reynolds piccolo). I recently sought out a 1920s rosewood flatback mandolin because that's the sound and experience that I want, though I am sure I'll sometimes still have fun with my cheap Korean Aria A-style (even if it sounds like a toy to my ears sometimes).

    I guess if I had to summarize, I would say that our journeys as instrument-partners won't necessarily be linear; we'll find ourselves seeking sounds and playing experiences that we just hadn't discovered before, potentially leading us through a web of instruments rather than along a single path. (I feel like I got off topic, but I'm going to post this anyway, I guess, because I enjoyed thinking it through).

  22. #18

    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    I played guitar barely passably for forty five years or so. Finally bought my first top-flight instrument in 1998, but it was too aggressive and oddly held me back. Replaced that three years later with one that wanted to sound exactly like I did—an amazing lift that propelled me for several years. Since then, a couple of more instruments, each better than the next, and every time the boost, both psychological and musical, has been pronounced. Some truly great players like David Russell regularly (annually?) get new instruments, just for the lift it gives their playing. We can’t all afford that, of course, but with the right instrument, the effect is real.

  23. #19
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    Default Re: Skill Progression/Benchmarks, MAS and Instrument Upgrades

    Well .... I bought several mandolins over the years. I finally was in the position to buy the one I was wanting all along. Each purchase encouraged me to play. And so I have. R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

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