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Thread: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

  1. #1

    Default Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Hi everyone,

    I in an area of Canada that is not close to a store carrying vintage mandos. As a result, my fix for an old instrument will have to be satisfied online. I've been doing what research I can, but am hoping that you good folks will be able to help me pick a good one.

    If this has been comprehensively addressed in a previous thread, I'd appreciate if you could please point me in the right direction.

    Here are some questions that I have, and below I have identified a few models that I have my eye on.

    I am very grateful for any time that you can give to providing your comments, either generally as to the process or specifically on the models that I link to.

    Here are my questions:

    1. Does buying from a retail store (as opposed to an individual owner) reduce the risk that you are buying a lemon or that the online description is inaccurate? I would prefer to not have to rely on the right to return since shipping to & from Canada will be expensive. At the same time I'm mindful that there are a great many awesome individual sellers and that literally thousands of satisfied buyers have purchased through the Cafe and other online marketplaces from just plain people.

    2. What should I be looking for in pictures? I'm more interested in sound than looks. Based on my research I'm mostly concerned with cracks and seams at the neck joint. But I can't tell anything about whether the condition of the fretboard or if there is warping.

    3. Other than looking at pictures, is there anything that I can do to get assurance that the mando is in good repair? Is this a good reason to buy from a well-respected retail store?

    4. How concerned should I be with previous repairs? Is it a bad sign that repairs were required, or is it a good sign that repairs were made?

    5. Is it unreasonable to request a sound clip or a zoom meeting to hear the instrument?

    6. Is it easy to remove an unwanted pickup?

    7. Any other helpful advice?

    My primary mando is a custom. I plan on using it for bluegrass and having the vintage for a change of sound and to play old time and the odd Celtic-type song. Here are a few of the mandos that I'm thinking about - as you'll see, it is A-Jrs and an A-0. For this category, does the vaunted "Loar era" designation carry more weight?

    Links are to the Cafe ad where applicable.

    A. https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/186433#186433

    B. https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/186256#186256

    C. https://reverb.com/ca/item/53642186-...ehead-mandolin

    D. https://reverb.com/ca/item/44741421-...a-0-1928-brown

    If you've made it this far, thanks so much for reading and thanks in advance for your thoughtful comments.
    Last edited by Penguin41; May-01-2022 at 12:13pm. Reason: proofreading

  2. #2
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by Penguin41 View Post

    1. Does buying from a retail store (as opposed to an individual owner) reduce the risk that you are buying a lemon or that the online description is inaccurate? I would prefer to not have to rely on the right to return since shipping to & from Canada will be expensive. At the same time I'm mindful that there are a great many awesome individual sellers and that literally thousands of satisfied buyers have purchased through the Cafe and other online marketplaces from just plain people..
    Buying from an established dealer is less risky; some will explicitly offer a seller's warranty on instruments they sell -- though you'll have to ship the instrument back if you're dissatisfied. Some of the stores that sponsor the Cafe depend to some extent, on good word-of-mouth from Cafe purchasers. Cafe classifieds are probably as safe as you can get with regard to the integrity of individual sellers -- there's careful oversight and complaints are treated seriously -- but one can't completely screen sellers, so there's some risk involve. As to whether descriptions are accurate, however objective the seller tries to be, he/she is still trying to sell you a mandolin, and a seller's "excellent condition" may seem like "fair condition" to you. There is never a fully effective substitute to in-person inspection and trial before you buy; just ain't.

    2. What should I be looking for in pictures? I'm more interested in sound than looks. Based on my research I'm mostly concerned with cracks and seams at the neck joint. But I can't tell anything about whether the condition of the fretboard or if there is warping..
    Well, if you can get a series of pics, from different angles, that helps. Get a "side view" that shows the neck, the neck/body joint, and the body down to the bridge if possible; it may reveal neck curvature, improper angle of the neck/body joint, unacceptably high action. Get a shot of the back, where cracks often appear. A close-up around the tailpiece, from the side, may show damage. It's rare to get a detailed-enough photo to show fret wear, which you may well find on any "vintage" instrument.

    3. Other than looking at pictures, is there anything that I can do to get assurance that the mando is in good repair? Is this a good reason to buy from a well-respected retail store?
    Yeah, as discussed in Question #1. I would opine that most sellers -- especially those who want to continue to use Cafe classifieds -- won't out-and-out lie about condition and repair history. However, they wouldn't be human if they didn't try to present their instruments in a favorable light. And their "minimal" repairs or condition issues, may seem serious to you. The more contact (phone, e-mail) you have with an individual seller, the more data you accumulate to form opinions of the seller's reliability. Still, no real guarantees.

    4. How concerned should I be with previous repairs? Is it a bad sign that repairs were required, or is it a good sign that repairs were made?
    If you're buying Gibson mandolins from the 1920's, it's more the exception than the rule if the instrument's skated through the century without having any work done on it. So I'd expect a high probability that it's been repaired, refinished, had tuners or tailpiece replaced -- perhaps lost its pickguard somewhere along the way. Good chance it's needed a new case as well, maybe had a strap button installed. Question is, how serious are the repairs, and who did them? I have hardly any older instruments that haven't been repaired; if the repair was done by a skilled, experienced instrument tech, it does decrease the market value somewhat, but doesn't impair playability or sound -- may in fact enhance them. Again, get the seller to explain "service history" in as much detail as possible, then make your own decision.

    5. Is it unreasonable to request a sound clip or a zoom meeting to hear the instrument?
    Not a bit -- and if you're spending significant $C for it, several phone calls or e-mail exchanges should be made, at a minimum.

    6. Is it easy to remove an unwanted pickup?
    Depends on the type of pick-up, and how it was installed. Some piezo pick-ups are just mounted inside with sticky tape or putty, no big gig. If there's been drilling to install the pick-up or accommodate wiring, that's another story. Magnetic pick-ups retrofitted to vintage instruments are rare in this day and age, but they do occur, and would in general require lot of top modification. If the seller mentions an installed pick-up, get as many details as you can pre-purchase.

    7. Any other helpful advice?
    Well, not trying to talk you out of your plans, but I would not spend anywhere around $1K US without playing the instrument first -- unless it was an extremely "rare bird" that I wouldn't have many chances to acquire if I didn't "jump on it." I've bought a Waldo bowl-back mandocello and a Gibson tenor lute "unseen and unplayed," but the probability of one showing up at a local dealer was so low, that I took the chance(s) -- with acceptable results. If you truly feel you have no alternative to buying an expensive vintage mandolin solely over the internet, I wouldn't necessarily fear the worst; most sellers aren't dishonest, and try to fairly -- if optimistically -- represent their mandolins in their advertising. But you seem a cautious purchaser, and let me re-state that the only way to be sure you've learned all you need to know pre-purchase, is to give your vintage Gibson a test drive. Beyond that, you're assuming some degree of risk -- acceptable or not, your call.

    7a. For this category, does the vaunted "Loar era" designation carry more weight?
    Not with me. Early 1920's Gibson mandolins -- that's when Lloyd Loar worked for them -- are generally considered to be from a period of excellence in Gibson's manufacture. However, unless you're buying a "Loar" F-5 for, say, $150K Canadian, Mr. Loar probably had nothing to do with its manufacture; other Gibson models were generally in production before he showed up, and continued to be produced after he left. "Loar era" is a way to add a few buxx to the asking price, like "pre-CBS" for Fender Strats, or "lawsuit era" for certain Japanese-made instruments.

    Every instrument is to some extent unique; generalizations can go only so far. You can get a "lemon" with impeccable pedigree and credentials. You can get an amazing mandolin from an uninformed and sketchy seller. That's why I always want to play the mandolin first. However, if you're careful and get as much pre-purchase info as you can, you should come out OK.

    Not that I'm guaranteeing it...
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  4. #3

    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Simple thing. If you are really buying on sound, you have to hear it in person, play it yourself. What you want to hear is not anyone else’s understanding.

    Other than that, you can get lost in trying to figure out condition, originality, resale value, some of which can be estimated. So yes, a reputable dealer will evaluate some things, and even have an opinion on sound, and have a return policy, and yes, this is all good.
    But your sound can come from a new build, a damaged one, an ugly one, a cheap one, or one too valuable to ever take out of your house.
    And maybe, your preferred sound will change later on, and you will be looking again.

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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Allen is pretty spot on with his advice/opinions. I've purchased a few vintage instruments on-line over the years and (knock on wood) have found that it's not nearly as scary as it sounds.
    And yeah, "Loar era" is pure hyperbole.

    Kirk

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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by tiltman View Post
    And yeah, "Loar era" is pure hyperbole.
    I only disagree insofar as the Loar era also coincides with a number of advances — adjustable truss rod, more narrow neck profile, adjustable bridge, etc. — that are favored by many modern players (including this one).
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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    A fellow Canadian says, ask first if they ship to Canada. Many American dealers don't. This has come up on a recent thread.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

  10. #7
    Mandolingerer Bazz Jass's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Since I was 17 in 1989, I've bought a total of 12 instruments from the USA, delivered to me here in New Zealand.

    I still have 8 of those, which I consider a pretty high strike rate. Some I loved immediately, some took some work and time, some were total let-downs.

    Being so far away, it's never practical or financially viable to return them, so if they're not great, I work as hard as I can to make them better, or sell them them locally, generally at a loss, and mark it down to experience.

    Here's some things I've learned:

    - there will likely be something about a vintage instrument that you weren't expecting - something funky hiding in the trunk. Regardless of how reputable, experienced, obliging the seller is, there will probably be something you didn't expect. A barely noticeable repaired crack, a tuner that is slightly different to the others, some finish that isn't exactly right. The older the instrument the more likely this is.

    - the sound of the instrument maybe better, worse, in the ballpark of what you were expecting, but it will never be exactly what you expected. Even if you've heard a recording of the instrument. That being said, I've been slightly disappointed with the sound of certain instruments I've mail-ordered, only to be completely won over by them within a few days.

    - shipping instruments across borders is 100 times more involved than it was 30 years ago, IF the seller is doing things properly. If it's a cowboy seller pleading ignorance to the rule about CITES, Fish & Wildlife etc, you'll probably get lucky and the instrument will just turn up. I bought my F4 by a dealer who did things to the letter of the law - processing time was close to 3 months - BEFORE shipping.

    - damage can happen in transit. I had my dream Ovation guitar turn up with a huge finish crack right across the top. Definitely not there in the photos. End of a horror story that had the guitar tracking to New Zealand, sitting in customs for 3 weeks, inexplicably returning to the USA, being held in customs for another 3 weeks before being returned to the seller "undeliverable" with no financial recourse. We shard the cost of getting it back to me, only to find the damage. Cut my losses (about 60% of purchase price) and sold locally. Worst ever international deal.

    - often your dream instrument is closer to you than you think. I recently thought to take up dulcimer, and was getting quotes from USA dulcimer suppliers, as they aren't really heard of here in New Zealand. I was in for a big cost with shipping taken into account, plus the risk to rather a fragile instrument. At the last minute, I thought to phone around a few shops in my country who I new dealt with acoustic vintage instruments. Found a shop that had just had a deceased estate of four dulcimers come in, one of which was amazing, USA made - far better than the ones I was looking at internationally, and about half what I would have spent. This shop doesn't advertise online, so I would never have found these instruments by Googling. It was just that I phoned around.

    I hope that's helpful. It sounds scary, and sadly it is. My very favourite instruments tend to be the ones I tried in a shop somewhere, not even looking to buy, and couldn't leave behind.

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    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    I had a great A-jr that I bought online from a dealer - it was in excellent structural condition, but the frets were worn flat (not mentioned in the description on their website). I got it at a good enough price that it wasn't a deal breaker and I took it to me luthier for a refret. Only reason I eventually moved it on was because the flat fretboard didn't work for me, but it was otherwise a lovely instrument that sounded great and I'm sure it's still going strong wherever it is now.
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    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by Bazz Jass View Post
    ... At the last minute, I thought to phone around a few shops in my country who I new dealt with acoustic vintage instruments. Found a shop that had just had a deceased estate of four dulcimers come in, one of which was amazing, USA made - far better than the ones I was looking at internationally, and about half what I would have spent. This shop doesn't advertise online, so I would never have found these instruments by Googling. It was just that I phoned around.
    This is a great object lesson for the internet addicted among us who think all business can be accomplished online
    "To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are." Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

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    Mandolingerer Bazz Jass's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Can I also add that Folkway and 12th Fret in Canada REGULARLY have great vintage Gibson mandolins come in.

    Why not contact them, establish a relationship, and get a heads-up on what comes in before it hits the internet. Both companies have been more than forth-coming with me. Honest - will tell me if a mandolin is not great - and willing to share sound clips etc.

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    Registered User Cary Fagan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    I think it is doable but you need to be careful. I live in Canada too. When I was in the US for a while I had a vintage Gibson A J shipped to me from a reputable store. The action turned out to be way to high (despite my questions about playability, neck, etc). It had the original fixed bridge on it so I couldn't try to adjust it--I sent it back. which turned out to cost more than I expected (shipping plus restocking fee.) Then I had An A2 shipped from another store. Bowed neck, sent it back. Then I had another A2 sent from a well known dealer (lots of ads on the cafe) who said it was in perfect playing condition. It also (if I remember correctly) had a bowed neck and some top sinkage. Sent back. Then I had one sent from a private seller on the cafe. It seemed great. But after a couple of weeks it began to buzz. I raised the action. Happened again. I had to conclude that the top was sinking. Sent back. In the end I bought a slightly used Pomeroy oval hole. Which I love but a part of me still hankers after that Gibson. My experience is that the first three dealers were all untruthful about the condition. Only the fourth couldn't have known that the instrument would develop a problem.

    So I suggest you: make sure the seller has owned it for some time. Don't just ask if the action is low--get them to measure it. Ask for more photos if needed. Another thing to do is check Kijiji Canada every day because Gibsons do show up there and it is much cheaper to ship within the country and hassle free in terms of the border. Right now there is an AJr for sale in Ottawa (which I know nothing about personally): https://www.kijiji.ca/v-guitar/ottaw...e-a/1610844016

    Please note that I am not suggesting you shouldn't look online, just that you need to be careful and the instrument should be returnable. Folkways and the 12th Fret are a good idea. By the way, I loved the sound of those A1 or A2 sheraton brown 1918-21 Gibsons that I tried. Good luck!
    Cary Fagan

  18. #12

    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Thanks to all of you for taking the time to share your experience and advice.

    I've been keeping my eye on Folkway and 12th Fret - they're both about an hour drive. I've also reached out to the owner of the A Jr on kijiji, but Ottawa is a bit of a hike.

  19. #13
    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by Penguin41 View Post
    I've been keeping my eye on Folkway and 12th Fret - they're both about an hour drive. I've also reached out to the owner of the A Jr on kijiji, but Ottawa is a bit of a hike.
    from original message:
    Quote Originally Posted by Penguin41 View Post
    I (am) in an area of Canada that is not close to a store carrying vintage mandos.
    An hour from Toronto and Waterloo? I though you were in Baker Lake or Igloolik or some such place!

    Best of luck with your search. Be patient, and as my former father-in-law told me, "Never do business with a man in a hurry," to which I add, "And don't be a person in a hurry when you're doing business."
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

  20. #14

    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Thanks Ranald.

    The current stock in Folkway and 12th Fret is probably not what I'm looking for, and although I'm currently close to both I'll soon be moving to PEI. So not quite Igloolik, but far enough.
    I will be in the US for work in 2 weeks, so I might try to ship to the hotel and bring it back across the border. I would pay whatever taxes but hopefully save on shipping.

  21. #15
    Registered User Cary Fagan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    I have brought several mandolins back from the u.s. with me and have never paid taxes at the border. But perhaps you are a more honest soul.
    Cary Fagan

  22. #16

    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Well, Cary Fagan, if that is your real name you'll certainly be stopped at the border from now on

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    I spend a lot of time in PEI, where Long & McQ is about the only musical instrument shop. Their stores are small. Otherwise, there's a luthier making violins, cellos, and guitars in Belle River, and a Washburn (not what you're after) for sale now in a Summerside pawn shop, so I get your point.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

  25. #18

    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Ottawa Valley here. Twelfth Fret is number one resource in Canada. Biggest selection and in particular plenty of great mandos.CBOM, and banjos. I’ve talked to Folkway but didn’t get follow through on what I was looking for.

    When you’re in PEI your best resource for vintage instruments is Halifax Folklore Centre. There’s also a number of recurring Canadian sellers of interesting instruments in the classifieds here, from all over the country. which is why they’re a must-read even if you don’t like importing instruments unseen.

    Bes5 of luck!

    That said, North American made instruments are duty-free either way across the Canada-US-Mexican border under whatever-they-call-nafta this year. If a border must be crossed, It is definitely a best-practice idea to pick it up in person from a US location, especially if you can thereby try-before-buy, which is significantly more important for a vintage instrument than a recently-made one from a maker with a reputation for consistency.
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Don't forget that these are vintage (or, as we used to say, old) mandolins, and may incorporate materials such as ivory, rosewood, mother-of-pearl, etc. that are currently restricted in international commerce. I'm far -- far -- from familiar with CITES regulations, but before you have a vintage mandolin sent you from the States, make sure you're in compliance with whatever restrictions and needed documentation that may apply.
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by Bazz Jass View Post
    Can I also add that Folkway and 12th Fret in Canada REGULARLY have great vintage Gibson mandolins come in.

    Why not contact them, establish a relationship, and get a heads-up on what comes in before it hits the internet. Both companies have been more than forth-coming with me. Honest - will tell me if a mandolin is not great - and willing to share sound clips etc.
    I would add Byron Myhre at Myhre's Music in Edmonton to that list.

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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by Cary Fagan View Post
    I think it is doable but you need to be careful. I live in Canada too. When I was in the US for a while I had a vintage Gibson A J shipped to me from a reputable store. The action turned out to be way to high (despite my questions about playability, neck, etc). It had the original fixed bridge on it so I couldn't try to adjust it--I sent it back. which turned out to cost more than I expected (shipping plus restocking fee.) Then I had An A2 shipped from another store. Bowed neck, sent it back. Then I had another A2 sent from a well known dealer (lots of ads on the cafe) who said it was in perfect playing condition. It also (if I remember correctly) had a bowed neck and some top sinkage. Sent back. Then I had one sent from a private seller on the cafe. It seemed great. But after a couple of weeks it began to buzz. I raised the action. Happened again. I had to conclude that the top was sinking. Sent back. In the end I bought a slightly used Pomeroy oval hole. Which I love but a part of me still hankers after that Gibson. My experience is that the first three dealers were all untruthful about the condition. Only the fourth couldn't have known that the instrument would develop a problem.
    Boy you've had some bad luck!

    I do wonder though how many of these issues are caused by changes to atmospheric conditions - to pick a random unlikely scenario, if an instrument is being shipped from Arizona to Ontario (or Alaska!) it's just not going to arrive with a straight neck and decent setup. If you're not comfortable changing the setup yourself then you absolutely will need to find someone local who understands mandolins and can tweak things for your local climate. It's made of wood, and it will all move if the instrument is shipped halfway round the world.

    As a seller, I do worry about this, but there's really not much I can actually do about other than offer to (for example) Skype with the buyer and talk them through a truss rod adjustment. Or, just not ship long distance... but then we all go out of business when you're dealing in a "niche".

    To reply to the OP, if you're not happy with previously repaired instruments, then don't buy vintage. Sorry, but it's the nature of the game. Personally, I like the mojo of vintage instruments, and as a repair person, I'd rather have an instrument that's literally been played to death come in to me (strong chance it was a good one), than one with a minor injury that no one could be bothered to repair 'cos maybe it wasn't that great to begin with. But that's just me.

    Old instruments are like old houses, they can have real charm, or be total money pits. So you have to decide what level of risk you're happy with.

    Also, if you're buying from a predominantly guitar based store, don't expect a decent setup, whatever they say (unless you're lucky), I've had too many poor guitar-person setup's on mandolins brought to me for correction!

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    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Primer on buying vintage mandos online

    Quote Originally Posted by Tavy View Post
    Boy you've had some bad luck!

    I do wonder though how many of these issues are caused by changes to atmospheric conditions - to pick a random unlikely scenario, if an instrument is being shipped from Arizona to Ontario (or Alaska!) it's just not going to arrive with a straight neck and decent setup. If you're not comfortable changing the setup yourself then you absolutely will need to find someone local who understands mandolins and can tweak things for your local climate. It's made of wood, and it will all move if the instrument is shipped halfway round the world.

    As a seller, I do worry about this, but there's really not much I can actually do about other than offer to (for example) Skype with the buyer and talk them through a truss rod adjustment. Or, just not ship long distance... but then we all go out of business when you're dealing in a "niche".

    To reply to the OP, if you're not happy with previously repaired instruments, then don't buy vintage. Sorry, but it's the nature of the game. Personally, I like the mojo of vintage instruments, and as a repair person, I'd rather have an instrument that's literally been played to death come in to me (strong chance it was a good one), than one with a minor injury that no one could be bothered to repair 'cos maybe it wasn't that great to begin with. But that's just me.

    Old instruments are like old houses, they can have real charm, or be total money pits. So you have to decide what level of risk you're happy with.

    Also, if you're buying from a predominantly guitar based store, don't expect a decent setup, whatever they say (unless you're lucky), I've had too many poor guitar-person setup's on mandolins brought to me for correction!

    Great post, John. Home run.

    Nice to see you back here.

    I hope all is well, amigo.

    Mick

    So....you're really offering "Skype" repair advice? Do they have ZOOM in the UK? Wow. That would be a pretty fun thing to do.
    Ever tried, ever failed? No matter. Try again, fail again. Fail better.--Samuel Beckett
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