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Thread: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

  1. #1

    Default Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    I bought an Alvarez off of craigslist years ago for $300, but have no clue of the model or age; now it needs re-fretting, which will cost $350, so I am considering using that on a down payment of an upgrade.

    My question is that an intermediate player is probably my ceiling, and nearing 60 and have little musical training. I will never be a professional, but do play in a band for fun. What is a good level mandolin for me?

    Initially, I thought about The Loar 520 or a Washburn M3SW, would that be selling myself short?

    Since they are all out of Beijing and a spruce top and maple back & side, the same length & width, is the difference between The Loar 520/Washburn M3SW and the Kentucky KM-650 or Eastman 515, mainly cosmetic; rosewood fret & bridge, better/fancier tuners, etc? Or is there something else pushing the cost up that I just have no clue about.

    Thanks in advance!

  2. #2

    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    I had a RAG mandolin built to my specs a couple of months ago for $1500, and could not be happier.

    https://ragmandolins.com/home

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    Registered User Eric F.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    I suggest you buy the finest mandolin you can comfortably afford and play the snot out of it until you shuffle off this mortal coil. You don't need to be better than intermediate to have a fine instrument that brings you pleasure.

    Steve sure likes his RAG and so do some other recent buyers who've posted here. Of the ones you mentioned, I'd take the Eastman if I couldn't play them and compare.

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    If you can make your way to a well stocked friendly retailer, like Cafe sponsors, do it.

    Time for an adventure, take a trip to Nashville, and make an hours-long visit to Carter’s. Have a fabulous time taking mandos off the wall and giving them some attention. Maybe you’ll be offered a visit to the back room where the GOODstuff resides.

    You might just find the one that moves you along.
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    But don’t forget to consider an Eastman. There are usually some used ones in classifieds, and the merchants appear to have received new shipments.

    I bought used, years ago, played it a lot and like it enough to have doubled my “investment” with a full refret and bridge-saddle upgrade by a solid pro luthier.
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric F. View Post
    I suggest you buy the finest mandolin you can comfortably afford and play the snot out of it until you shuffle off this mortal coil. You don't need to be better than intermediate to have a fine instrument that brings you pleasure.

    Steve sure likes his RAG and so do some other recent buyers who've posted here. Of the ones you mentioned, I'd take the Eastman if I couldn't play them and compare.
    I agree completely --- except for the RAG commentary, only because I've never played one. There is a symbiosis between player and instrument, so you will become a better player with a better instrument.

    I'll also add that when you're looking at mandolins under $2K, another $200-300 can get you a noticeably better instrument. As Eric said, if you don't have a store within driving distance where you can test drive the instruments, an Eastman 305 or 315 would be a pretty safe bet, and the 515 you mentioned would be even better.
    still trying to turn dreams into memories

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    flyfishermandolinist mandognome's Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    My paraphrase of Colin Fletcher’s advice about what sleeping bag to buy: find the best one you can afford, then buy one better than that.

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Eastman and Kentucky (Eastman, especially) still do a ton of hand carving and work in their building process, and their quality tends to be better than some of the other mass produced imports, so the price difference, IMO, is justified based on the quality of build and tone upgrade you’ll typically get with their instruments. If you do a bit of googling you’ll find a series of promotional “factory tour” vids by Eastman that highlight their builders’ skills.

    I agree an Eastman 515 may be all you’ll need. That said, if you can go A style, look for a used Silverangel Econo or a Ratliff...
    Chuck

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Too many folks tend to think that a 50% increase in purchase price will buy a "significant" upgrade over their beginner instrument, but what it really does is buy a different set of compromises. To get a real upgrade (noticeable to both the player and the audience) probably takes an increase of 300% or more. So the suggestions above, even of $1,500, are pretty good.

    The "unexpected intangible" is that THAT will buy a difference in feel & responsiveness that inspires you to become a better player, a HIGHLY satisfying result for even us non-professionals!
    - Ed

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Depending on your skill level, dedication to practice, follow through on good habits you gain from lessons, and participation in jams, and what style you mainly play and where you play mainly will influence my answers...

    For a very good all around instrument that I would consider buying with out putting hands on first (assuming I get a 48 hour approval period) I would reccomend a used Collings MT. Those I have handled have been very well constructed and they are powerful instruments. Who needs a scroll? Maybe you but not me.

    If you like Old Time or Americana and you maybe play at small jams or alone, consider a Used Martin A style Flat Top, a Flatiron Pancake or a Big Muddy. These, I think are under appreciated and sound great. Different a bit from an arch top but with great voices of their own (look for those from decent Used Vendors - likely not ebay or CL).

    I have always been satisfied with my Eastman mandolins. I've not gotten a new on in ages but I always found their slimmer V shaped necks more comfortable to me YMMV.

    I have personally bought instruments from Elderly and The Mandolin Store and both did excellent set ups on them so they played great out of the box. You may even find a Used Eastman deal! You can often find a non-collectable Gibson Oval hole in a similar price range to those models you listed. As long as it doesn't have debilitating structural issues, those are great instruments.

    My feeling is a well set up cheap mandolin is much better and enjoyable to play than an expensive one that's not set up right. In general, you get more value from a similarly constructed (trim level and builder) with an A over an F (they are easier and less expensive to build) and used over new.

    I'm a perpetual beginner level player. I sound the exact same on my Eastman as I did on a Loar signed Gibson. Soooo, I'm glad I didn't spend that much!

    Jamie
    There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and, after that, to enjoy it. Only the wisest of mankind achieve the second. Logan Pearsall Smith, 1865 - 1946

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    1. What's your budget?

    2. You want to trade in the Alvarez, so you probably need to go to a dealer that takes trade-ins, unless you can negotiate a private sale trade-in -- or sell the Alvarez in a separate transaction.

    3. All Chinese-made mandolins are not alike. Get all-solid-woods, carved (preferably hand-carved). Eastman and Kentucky are excellent choices in that regard. Eastman especially is known for labor-intensive production; their mandolins have a distinct "feel" and a characteristic voice, which some love, others not so much.

    4. You've been playing quite a while on your current instrument, so have enough experience to evaluate instruments on the used market. Balance that against Point #2, your desire to trade in your Alvarez. Don't spend a lot of time worrying about not getting a manufacturer's "original purchaser" warranty; in ±50 years of playing mandolin, I've never taken advantage of warranty coverage. Some have, but IMHO it's rare.

    5. Get out and play as many mandolins in your price range as you can. We can offer generalized advice, but every mandolin is to some extent unique, differing in small or large ways even from others of the same make, model and vintage.

    6. In my experience, the process of testing out different instruments can be rewarding and informative. Don't be afraid to try instruments quite different from the one you have. I would advise to concentrate on ones in your preferred price range; test-driving a mandolin you can't afford can spoil you for others that you can.
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    You could call The Mandolin Store (NFI), I did when I was upgrading, and told them what kind of music I was wanting to play, and how much I could spend, and asked for their recommendations. Then I bought, and still have them 5 years later, and am happy with the purchases (I couldn't decide which.) I am in my mid-60s, and will never be a professional (or even close,) but feel I work too hard not to enjoy the instrument I am playing.

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    Mandolin Player trodgers's Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Just my two cent, subjective thoughts and experience...

    The potential models you posted indicate you are looking for a F5 style instrument, under a thousand dollars. As most folks here would agree, you generally can get a better quality A style instrument for the same dollars as an F style. There's more labor that goes into that cosmetic scroll, with no actual return in sound. It's a fashion choice, and if you need to have the scroll, get it and be happy.

    I can say that I am generally not impressed with The Loar and current Washburn mandolins. The handful that I've handled sounded very thin and felt 'cheap' - not in a good way. Maybe OK for a starter, but not something I'd consider for an upgrade. With that said, I saw an older used Washburn Jethro Burns model about a year ago that was a complete cannon. It looked like a piece of laminated, over-over sprayed piece of garbage, but it had a good neck and fretboard and was loud as all get out. Sometimes you find a pearl!

    If you are indeed looking for an upgrade under 1K, I'd look at the Eastman or Kentucky brands - and I would look for something used, or on sale. I would also echo the sentiments about getting out and playing if you can. Nothing beats giving it a try-before-you-buy. I also understand that lots of us live in mandolin-deserts and travel can be a challenge. If that is the case, I'd get on the phone to one of the Cafe sponsors. They seem to be uniformly high quality folks. I don't image Scott would allow a second-rate or shady dealer to advertise here.

    Hey, best of luck on your search. I hope you find something that will knock your socks off!
    “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” -- Aldo Leopold

  18. #14

    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    WOW! You guys surely do not disappoint. After reading these comments and doing a bit more research, I am moving away from The Loar 520 or a Washburn M3SW, as that does appear to be selling myself short.

    Dollar value budget is not my big concern, I am just looking for a mandolin to last a lifetime that I will not out grow and 5 years or so from now, if I need to drop $350 to re-fret, I won't wonder if it is worth it. That does tend to put me in the $1000 to $1500 range, which is more than I initially thought, but you get what you pay for with musical instruments.

    I am finding out that AllanHopkins is right in that all Chinese mandolins are not the same, as is JESTanek comment about being in a mando desert. After poking around Eastman's and Kentucky's dealer list from DFW to Pensacola, FL, I found 1 place that I can try a few different ones. That shop is in Tyler, TX and is still waiting on Eastman 515 and some Kentucky's for a while.

    Thanks to this board, I also gave up on the idea of buying one online before trying some out, as I like the idea of finding one I can afford, then going up a model.

    Keep the advice coming, as I am not rushing into anything and still wide open on my options. Yes, I know I will pay more for a F style with F sound holes, but bluegrass is my love and might as well look the part.

    Eric F. "until you shuffle off this mortal coil." I love that line, see you in heaven buddy!

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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Ratliff Countryboys are a great step up. You'll go a long time before you 'outgrow' one. I certainly haven't.
    Play it like you mean it

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Know what you are looking. Find one you are comfortable playing. Take measurements. Some have radiused necks, some don't. There are thick necks, thin necks, V necks, etc. Scale length can be from the standard 14" down to 13 3/4 or so. Get that part out of the way, then you have the sound of the individual instrument to consider. You get what you pay for, kind of. Some are made to be pretty, and some are made to sound good. Some are both.

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Since it’s gotta be a scroll (hey, I get it), I’d look at Kentucky KM 1000 or 1050 (used) and the Eastman 515 and up. Ratliff has a very good rep, and you can occasionally find some “unknown” builders’ F styles for < 2000 (there were a couple in the classifieds when last I looked). Some of these are gems (I mean, Gilchrist had to start somewhere, right?), some lesser in quality than Kentucky and Eastman, so, in that case, playing before buying or buying from a reputable dealer is key.

    Best of luck!
    Chuck

  23. #18

    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    One thing to keep in mind is it may take a few different mandolins to find what you really like.

    I went through a bunch of "cheapies", meaning sub-$1,000 instruments until I found the sound I wanted.

    In the case of mandos it was a traditional oval hole. The Eastman MD604 ended up being all I wanted. I played some much more expensive oval holes later, (a beautiful blond Pava was the most memorable), most in the $3,000+ category, none were enough better to make me buy them. But now I know that I have what I like and am not missing anything that I know of.

    In the case of OM's it was similar, I started with a TC, which was pretty good, but I knew I wanted something different. A hand-made OM from Australia was a blind shot-in-the-dark, but it is so much better that I still find it hard to believe I got such a fantastic hand-made instrument for so little ($1500).

    I a few previous shots in the dark missed horribly. I won't mention their names because they did what they were supposed to, but I didn't know that wasn't what I wanted until after I parted with my money.

    At some point after I acquire a 'good-enough' instrument that gives me joy to play and doesn't hold me back, then it's all about the playing after that.
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    I absolutely deny the concept of some kind of alignment between one's ability and the mandolin one acquires. OK I can understand one's first mandolin being something economic, to see if the passion is there. But every mandolin after the first should be the very very best mandolin one can afford.

    Seriously, shoot the moon. Get something grrrrrREAT. You will be in awe of the instrument, it will motivate you to practice and to play and to get better at it. You want to get such a good mandolin that the mandolin will never be the limiting factor in your playing, for the rest of your days.

    The slight performance anxiety you feel when you take it out in public (I get that) will be motivation for you to work on sounding good. And the tone of the instrument will reward you even if the tune is intermediate.

    I have been at this for a while, and I still do not deserve the second mandolin I ever purchased. It is still an instrument deserving of a much better player than me. It still as untold beauties to be unlocked.
    Having something to say is highly over rated.

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    Registered User Eric F.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Here's what I'd get if I could go just a bit higher than your range. (It's always easier to spend other people's money.) Coming soon for $1775 at Elderly. You can always send it back if it doesn't ring your chimes.

    While you say you want to play before you decide, it's hard to find a bunch of mandolins to try in one place unless you live in Nashville or near one of the few stores with a good mandolin selection.

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    I just bought a real nice Eastman 515 from a friend in Nashville who is not gigging much due to the pandemic. I guess things are getting pretty tight for them. If interested PM me, I don't need it and it is just sitting here in its case.

  28. #22

    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    I picked up a used Breedlove OF AM for $700 locally last fall. Its a lovely Mando and American made...

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    Every day is a gift. Sheila Lagrand's Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Note, and everyone who responded, I owe you a great debt of gratitude. Last September I bought an Eastman MD 305. She's a lovely instrument, and is my second after a 2-week fling with a secondhand Washburn. Tomorrow I am off to my local sponsor shop (Sun Valley Guitars) to trade her in toward my "intermediate" mandolin. And after reading the comments here, the instrument I've put on hold is likely to be my forever mandolin. That was not my plan 48 hours ago.

    Details after I get home from the shop tomorrow .
    Now, what was I after when I wandered in here?

    Phoebe, my 2021 Collings MT
    Fiona, My 2021 GSMonroe Guitar-Bodied Octave Resonator Mandolin
    Charlotte, my 2016 Eastman MDO 305
    Giuliana, my 2002 Hans Schuster 505 Violin
    Rich, my 1959 Husband

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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Congrats! Can't wait to find out what you're getting!
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  33. #25
    Every day is a gift. Sheila Lagrand's Avatar
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    Default Re: Intermediate Mando - Good Mando to Step up to?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jill McAuley View Post
    Congrats! Can't wait to find out what you're getting!
    JIll, me either!
    Now, what was I after when I wandered in here?

    Phoebe, my 2021 Collings MT
    Fiona, My 2021 GSMonroe Guitar-Bodied Octave Resonator Mandolin
    Charlotte, my 2016 Eastman MDO 305
    Giuliana, my 2002 Hans Schuster 505 Violin
    Rich, my 1959 Husband

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