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Thread: Buying without being able to play

  1. #1

    Default Buying without being able to play

    Iím looking into upgrading my Kentucky KM-150 which I already bought based only on references. It was my first mandolin and saw it as a student instrument, but also a test, since I didnít know if would enjoy playing.

    My concern with the upgrade is that I live in Spain and I basically canít go to a store and play a few better mandolins and decide. There are none. Again I can only search information but not feel the instrument I will buy.

    My option initially was a Kentucky KM-1000 but the store where I could buy it from told me that itís Ä2200 and I perhaps I should consider paying the extra bucks and get a Northfield S series (the difference in price is not small, Ä1300 but could also be worth if I donít want to change mandolin in many many years). This store is very professional boutique and whatever my option is I know I will receive the instrument with a proper setup.

    Setup concerns me when it comes to cheaper options like an Eastman 515 bought from Thomann or the likes. I donít know what I will getÖ and Iím still paying significant money.

    So this is the dilemma of someone who wants to get a better mandolin but has no options to play and feel.

    PS: all in all Iím kind of leaning on the Northfield but itís also a lot of money and feels like buying a very expensive car after just having experience with a humble one.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Not knowing if this will be realistic in your situation I make this suggestion.

    At the prices mentioned it would be worth traveling to some place you can
    try various mandolins in person. If at present there are no such places in
    range or the travel too difficult, then wait. Eventually mandolin stocks will
    increase, and travel is likely to become easier.
    Thanks,
    sounds_good

  3. #3
    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    458 dollars is a return flight from Madrid to Nashville at the moment.
    https://www.expedia.com/lp/flights/m...d-to-nashville
    Last edited by Simon DS; Sep-09-2021 at 3:59am.

  4. #4
    Registered User Willi Bahrenberg's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    I totally feel you. So far I bought all of my instruments online without playing them first. And while I haven't had experiences that I would call outright "bad", I sure learnt some valualble lessons that I am gladly willing to share. Here we go:

    When it comes to big retailers like Thomann, your concern is entirely justified: They don't seem to care about setup at all - I just recently got a "The Loar"-mandolin that I had to sand down the bridge, file the nut slots and tighten the truss rod to make it playable. When your're inexperienced in this kind of stuff, this can be intimidating.

    Boutiques for high-end instruments should provide a good setup - some even guarantee that the instrument will be setup-checked before shipping, like TFOA in the netherlands. And they also frequently sell lower tier instruments like Eastmans!

    Most private sellers don't have bad intentions. Some might be ignorant of what is a problem worth mentioning, some might intentionally leave out relevant details in their item description. I've never been lied to directly, but sometimes failed to ask the right questions. For example, if the ad says "great action, plays like butter" you can expect this to be true. But if the aspect of playability is entirely left out, this is what you have to ask about. I had to learn this the hard way myself!

    Other questions worth asking:
    - If the action is good the way it is now, can the bridge still be lowered? (super important IMHO!)
    - What condition are the frets in?
    - Does it have intonation issues?
    - Are the tuners easy to operate and does the instrument keep the pitch stable?
    - Is the truss rod accessible and operable?
    - Are there really no structural issues? I.e. loose braces, seams/binding coming apart, rattling when playing or gently shaking the instrument, creaking when gently pressing the top or back

    Don't hesitate to ask or request additional pictures, after all this is about transactions of several hundreds of even thousands of euros!

    Best of luck - and also, I sent you a PM

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  6. #5
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Hopefully someone else will be able to give specific advice for Spain, but I just did a quick currency conversion and that appears to be over $4,000USD for the Northfield. Am wondering if you could buy it from a US seller and have it shipped there for less? The Kentucky is closer to US prices.

    It can be tough. In the US a lot of folks do buy without being able to try first. It's somewhat easier with a good return policy, but it can still make one anxious. My Coombe was purchased without playing it beforehand, but (a) I knew the prior owner and (b) have done business with that store for over 30 years so there is a level of trust on both sides.

    FWIW, I really like my Northfield S series, but have played a Kentucky KM-1000 that I would have been happy to own also.
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  7. #6
    Registered User Willi Bahrenberg's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric Platt View Post
    Hopefully someone else will be able to give specific advice for Spain, but I just did a quick currency conversion and that appears to be over $4,000USD for the Northfield. Am wondering if you could buy it from a US seller and have it shipped there for less? The Kentucky is closer to US prices.
    Eric, in most cases, buying in the US is not worth it for us EU citizens. Import fees, shipping costs and the EU VAT (the reason for the higher prices in the EU) will have to be paid upon import which will eat up all potential savings.

    So yes, buying new can be painful here (Weber Yellowstone F-Style 4.999€, Northfield NF-5S 3.695€, Collings MT 3.495€), but the used marked is a little more relaxed. Bluegrass mandos are more of a niche thing in Europe, so prices of used instruments can easily drop to more reasonable levels.

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  9. #7
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    I bought all of my "keeper" mandolins without playing them first, and have not been unhappy. 2 were from The Mandolin Store (NFI) and one was used. All great experiences, the 2 from TMS were a Weber and a Pave, the used was a Collings, all are very quality instruments.

  10. #8

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    I live close to Nashville, so I have been fortunate to play a lot of great mandolins. Some of those were very expensive ($20k+), but I still find Northfields to be incredibly good mandolins. Especially for the price. As a matter of fact, I own a Northfield NF-5S that I absolutely love. I've played plenty of Gibsons, Collings, Skip Kelley, Gilchrist, Pava, Ellis... etc. mandolins, and I've owned a few of those (all of which were great instruments), but I've never felt like letting go of my Northfield. They really are that good.

    So in my opinion, if you are looking for a "forever" quality instrument, I would spend the extra and get a Northfield. Yes, they are a lot of money, but for the quality that you get, they are a great value, and a great quality instrument that you can enjoy for a lifetime.

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  12. #9

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Having a trusted music shop helps with buying sight unseen. I can't speak to the Kentucky mandolins but I know the Northfield is a good mando. I have the F5M which preceded the Artist Series. I liked the F5S' but couldn't find one so I just ordered the F5M. I'm so happy with it I can't imagine getting another mando unless something happened to this one. If it turns out you don't like it I'm sure you could sell it.
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

  13. #10
    coprolite mandroid's Avatar
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    Question Re: Buying without being able to play

    Done that , using the classifieds, here ..
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  14. #11
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Many suggestions above. Here's another question for you Eurofolks. What about instruments made in European Union countries? For instance, I know that there are some excellent makers of US-style instruments coming out of luthier shops in the Czech Republic. And I have heard of Flatbush in Denmark.

    I don't know if those shops make instruments more in price range but just curious.
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  15. #12

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Another vote for the Northfield F5s. Itís the least expensive of the three mandolins I play, but itís often the first one I take out of the case and the last I put away.

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  17. #13
    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Hogo, in the builder's section, is quite respected and is over in the EU.

    That said there are no Mandolins in my area other than a mom and pop who had a The Loar which I got to try and was not impressed with. They closed, so no mandolins nearby. I have bought both of mine sight unseen. A used bowl and a commissioned one from OldWave. I think you would be happy with a Northfield but look into commissioning a build from a good builder. There are many benefits of doing so.
    Last edited by John Bertotti; Sep-10-2021 at 3:44am.
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  18. #14
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    Many suggestions above. Here's another question for you Eurofolks. What about instruments made in European Union countries? For instance, I know that there are some excellent makers of US-style instruments coming out of luthier shops in the Czech Republic. And I have heard of Flatbush in Denmark.

    I don't know if those shops make instruments more in price range but just curious.
    On the theme of the OP looking for a European made instrument I looked up Capek's prices for F models and they list €2630 as the price for their Basic model and €3460 as the price for the Professional model, with other models above that going up in price range.

    I've bought all my mandolins sight unseen barring a Jimmy Moon AE I owned briefly, bought from Trevor at TAMCO while visiting Brighton when I was first starting out. Living in a small cottage is a great built in MAS controller (not a lot of room here for another instrument case), but if I was to hanker for a second mandolin (because the Girouard isn't going anywhere!) I'd commission something from Frank Tate in Dublin. Great luthier, shop local, no import taxes etc.
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  19. #15
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Iíve had very good luck buying from the Cafe classifieds, but my purchases have definitely gotten better with experience. As stated above, asking the right questions is key. It also helped me to have been able to play a nice variety of mandolins during a visit to Nashville a few years ago, a more recent trip to TME in Boston (the fall of 2019), and various visits to Lowe Vintage (which is only about 1.5 h from me). I now know what I prefer as far as neck profiles, nut width, radius vs flat fretboard, etc.

    Iíve only played a couple of Northfields (an F5S and their pancake model) at TME. I played them alongside a Pava, a couple of Collings, some older oval hole Gibsons, an Eastman 815, and a Rigel A+. Of those that I played the 5FS and the Pava were my two favorites. If I werenít so enamored with my Skip Kelley A5 I would have considered taking one of them home (but would have asked for a practice room so I could really put them through their paces; in the show room I was leaning towards the Northfield).

    Either mandolin youíre looking at is likely to be a step up from your 150, though sometimes Kentucky will hit a home run with their 150s. My experience would steer me towards Northfield, but it is a significant price difference (10 years ago I would probably have gone KM 900 series in your position; I went with a Silverangel Econo, actually, that I got used for 900 USD).

    I agree also that Capek and Prucha have made some really nice mandolins that are great values, and you may have better luck hunting them used on your side of the pond (or commissioning one).

    Iím not sure what your travel restrictions are like right now, but a trip to TAMCO in Brighton may be a good idea (for the experience even if you donít buy), assuming theyíre allowing visitors.

    Good luck, and welcome to the obsession!

  20. #16
    Registered User trevor's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Hi CES,

    Yes we are open 11 - 6 Tues to Sat. No appointment needed.
    Trevor
    The Acoustic Music Co (TAMCO) Brighton England
    Over 100 mandolins in stock.
    www.theacousticmusicco.co.uk.

  21. #17

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Buying online without trying is always a bit of a gamble. There's no getting around that. Sometimes it works out great and results in keeper instruments, sometimes not so much. Even if the maker is reputable and you know the particular shop does good setups, you might still not connect with the instrument. I always justify it by telling myself "Well I can always sell it later on for most of what I paid".

    I've had my eye on some Northfields myself lately...

  22. #18
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Living in Australia youare limited by choice of instruments. So i bought a Weber on brand alone and imported it in 2011 and i couldn’t be happier. Just sayin. All the best.

  23. #19

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Fwiw, I upgraded from a Loar LM 600 to the Northfield S series 3 months ago after trying out countless other models at 2 different local shops. I am absolutely in love with it and have nothing but good things to say. It was only about 6 weeks old when I bought it and sounded beautiful. 3 months later and it is infinitely better than it was which I didnt think was going to be possible.

  24. #20

    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    Just get an instrument from someone with a tolerable return policy. At worst, you'll lose the shipping cost if you decide to return it.

  25. #21
    Registered User urobouros's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    As far as making a big jump when upgrading, if you can afford it, go for it! I'm admittedly a cork sniffer but my Northfield was worth every penny. As far as buying it without trying it, I think you'll be safe there too. Regardless which way you go, may your cheeks be sore from smiling & your fingers be heavily calloused from enjoying it!
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  26. #22
    Registered User Kirk Higgins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    I recently purchased a Kimble F5 from a Mandolin Cafe member in the US and had it shipped to Canada. The individual was great to deal with and I think the early Zoom video call was good for both the buyer and vendor with regards to due diligence. I had no concerns related to the vendor once we held the Zoom call.

    I will insist on this for any future purchases for which I cannot view and play the instrument in advance of purchase.
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  27. #23
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    While there are limitations to PC sound systems, Kirk makes a good point about doing a video call.

    Also - CES mentioned the neck and fretboard profiles - I prefer a radiused board and a rounded (not V-shaped) neck. Do you know what your preference is and what those profiles are on the instruments you're considering?

    With the previously mentioned caveats, used instruments can be a great deal and can always be sold in the MC classifieds! You might also try putting in a "Wanted" ad to see if someone near you is selling. Might give you an opportunity to try before buying.

  28. #24
    Resident Hack
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    Default Re: Buying without being able to play

    I started a thread like this a little over a year ago. Excellent advice was given on all the things said here. But also, advice was given to know what I was looking for. Over the course of about 6 months, I watched videos and read about the sound differences of all the "usual suspects". I got to try a small handful of decent mandolins and felt/heard the differences I had already assumed at that point. By then, I felt like I was ready to trust.

    Those that are lucky enough to be able to easily try a large selection have the possibility of finding that magic instrument that excels over its peers for no discern-able reason. The rest of us have to "settle" for instruments we simply love, without getting to know whether they beat every other instrument in their particular geographic.

    Know what you want, and you'll almost assuredly wind up with the right instrument for you (right now). Once you get past the idea you might have to spend a little to simply try, you'll be ready. I just had to eat shipping both ways to try out a case, so I feel your pain but know it is temporary.
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