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Thread: Question on "tiers" of instruments

  1. #1

    Default Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Iím a beginner turning more of my focus to mandolin from the tenor guitar Iím a little less new on. I have a Rogue mandolin which I recognize is as cheap as they come and which at first bothered me for a tone that felt almost like it was a toy.

    As I looked to move up, though, I found my little Rogue wasnít that much ďless badĒ than the seeming next steps up. It wasnít just the Recording King stuff but also lower-end Loars and Ibanezes. In the end, while some of the under $300 instruments sounded a little better than the Rogue, they werenít enough better to tempt me.

    There arenít a lot of music stores in my region, but I finally found someone with an Eastman MD-505 that Ė at last Ė felt and sounded like a real upgrade. Still, it surprised me that Iíd have to go all the way up to an $850 instrument to lap the cheapo that I have.

    Iím fortunate to be able to afford the MD-505, though I want to keep looking around a bit, but Iíve been daydreaming about getting good enough to warrant a top-tier Collins, Weber, or Northfield. Iím just not good enough to deserve anything like that now, though, and I donít know mandolin well enough to want to commit to one among them while Iím still trying to learn.

    All that leads to my question, one I donít think Iíve seen addressed in the forum archives: are there ďtiersĒ of quality to keep in mind, and, if so, what defines them? Do I really need to go to an all-solid wood model? At what point does it move from ďcheapĒ to middle-tier Ė assuming the Eastman is middle tier.

  2. #2
    Registered User mbruno's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    The curve of mandolin prices vs quality is STEEP. IMO, until you get to those instruments priced around $1,500, you are mostly just paying for better quality control. You can find 2 low end mandolins from the same maker that sound and feel completely different. As you scale up, the consistency of sound between instruments from the same maker is better. My first mandolin was a Rouge too. I had to spend probably 4 - 5 hours setting it up after I got it to get it to an "okay" spot. That included sanding & repositioning the bridge, sanding down the neck a bit (the neck was like playing a 2x4!), and replacing the tail piece (one of the "teeth" holding the strings broke pretty quickly so it had to be replaced anyway). Still sounded cheap when I was done, but at least it felt a little less cheap haha.

    If you're looking to stay under $1k, Eastmans are a great choice. I know a lot of players that love their Eastman. I personally think they have a pretty "tin" tone, but they feel good at least haha.

    If you can shell out $3k+, you'll get a mandolin you likely won't need to replace for a while - and when you do, it'll likely hold it's value better. If you have the funds to start, a great way to incrementally tier up is buy a quality instrument, hold it for a bit (year or two), and try to resell at a slight profit. You get to try new instruments for free and ultimately will get one you really like. I bought my Gibson F9 for ~$2,500 in 2010 or so. New versions are selling for $3k - $5k now. Not a huge gain, but enough to upgrade if I so chose.
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    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    To upgrade from plywood instruments you have to look at mandolins carved from solid wood. Eastman mandolins are a good next step and the 505 is a good choice. You might also consider the 305 from Eastman...

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/188886#188886

    As far as tiers go, the Asian imports such as Kentucky, The Loar and Eastman are the step from your Rogue. Next (price wise) would be quality made flat tops like a used Flatiron, Morris or Big Muddy. A Step above that and you are getting into A models from makers like Northfield, Girouard, Pava and Collings. After that you are into individual makers with a long reputation of fine instruments and be prepared to pay the big bucks.

    Good luck with your search!
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Joe, there are many others in the Cafe who are far more knowledgeable and experienced than me, and they're very good about responding to all sorts of inquiries. I feel sure you will get some really good advice regarding your question. But, as I am still in the somewhat early stages of learning the mandolin and have a series of instruments that I have acquired along the way, I will at least share my experience with you. I did buy one of the Rogue's for my grandson, but he is in to other interests these days and doesn't really play it. My first for me was an Epiphone MM-30 A style. I've probably had it 8 or 9 years and I've got to say, for a "cheapie" (under $300--$229, I think they currently retail for), it has served me well. I leave it out on a stand pretty much all the time and when I am sitting at my desk working and have some music going, I will often grab it and pick along with those songs I can do. It's my recommendation for a lower priced starter and one that would probably get a lot of use early on. When I stepped up for the first time it was to a double=point made by Mike Bruhn in Astoria, OR. It's a nice instrument, cost around $500, and I occasionally play it. But about 5 or 6 years ago I stepped up to a Weber Gallatin A and that was my big "next tier" purchase. An excellent instrument in the mid $1k range and with nice tone and volume. For my level of playing, that is a reasonable place to have landed and a lifetime instrument. BUT--I have been hit twice after the Weber with MAS (Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome) and purchased instruments that I can't really justify based on my current level of play. However, both are Gibsons (2004 F9 and 2004 A9) and that is really what seduced me. I am retired now and probably will not be able to succumb to future bouts of MAS. So, I am very content to have a quality threesome of instruments that will carry me thru the rest of the way.

    At this point, you might be asking: "So what's your point?" I guess it's this--I still play the Epiphone from time to time and it still suits my level of play. The Weber and the Gibsons, of course, are so much better in tone and volume; and, I have to tune the Epi far more often than the other 3. But, depending on what you are playing and where you are playing, you may have plenty of time to consider moving up the "tier" ladder. I've done a few gigs with a Rolling Stones cover band where I've played mandolin on "Wild Horses" and "Dear Doctor"; I bought an inexpensive electric mandolin, a Dillion, for those gigs simply to get the amplification. But, it is really not much better than the Epiphone as far as sound quality--it's just that it has a pickup and I can plug in for those gigs. Long story short: Welcome to the Mandolin Cafe and expect to hear good thoughts from a lot of folks.
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    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Not an answer to your question, but my 7₵ as a fellow newbie:

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe K View Post
    ...I donít know mandolin well enough to want to commit to one among them while Iím still trying to learn.
    Valid point. You need to know what you want.

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe K View Post
    Iíve been daydreaming about getting good enough to warrant a top-tier Collins, Weber, or Northfield. Iím just not good enough to deserve anything like that now, though ....
    Invalid Point. Consensus is a good mandolin can help you get better faster and be more pleasant to play.

    Go with something that makes you smile.
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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    If the check will clear, you deserve it.

    The best advice I’ve heard from others is to get the best instrument that speaks to you that’s within your budget. Pay no attention to the name on the peghead. Don’t hold yourself back by struggling with a difficult to play or poor sounding instrument.

    Pricing tiers are manufacturers way of increasing their profit margin. They typically add elements to the product that are higher margin than the basic product. And the last 5-10% of sound and quality control is the most expensive part.
    Not all the clams are at the beach

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    I recommend having an instrument that sounds better than you currently play. I want my instrument to never hold me back, but rather inspire me to play better. I like knowing that if my playing isn't quite where I want it, then it is my need to improve, not the fault of the instrument. The Eastman is a great mid-tier mandolin. I was very happy with my Eastman 515 and played it for many years before I adopted my current instrument. I hope you find as much joy with your mandolins as I have with mine. Welcome to the Cafe!
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    IMHO the answer to your question about going to a solid wood mandolin as your next instrument, and paying in the $750 - 1000 range, is a definite YES. Assuming you paid about $200 for the Rogue buying your next instrument for about $400 won't get you a much better mandolin. Now you've got $600 in two mediocre instruments. One is enough. Keep the Rogue for your beater. We all need one.
    My suggestion at this point is that you think about what type of music you are wanting to play and start looking for a quality instrument that suits that style. For instance if it's bluegrass you'll probably want a carved top f-hole. Old time music, maybe an oval hole or a good flat top. Lots of good used instruments in the classifieds in this price range.
    And dig through some of the threads here about specific makers . Lots of good honest opinions by the contributors here.
    Best of luck and keep us posted.
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Iíll give you the same advice I gave my wife when she started learning guitar: buy the best instrument you can afford. Often people think they should buy a cheaper instrument to start on but that usually just ends in people giving up due to the instrument feeling, playing, or sounding poorly. My wife ignored the advice and bought a little $100 acoustic, played it 3-4 times, and never touched it again. When I was at the shop trying new mandolins she saw some Martins. She held and played a few and I played them in front of her too. Her eyes lit up with one, a Ď72 D-18. The sound got her instantly and she liked how it felt in her hands. Fast forward and now she has grown into that guitar and still feels no need for a different one.
    Buy the best you can, the one that you dream about and the one that lights you up. There is your motivation to learn and grow. If not, wait a few years and flip it
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    I have a Martin D18 almost as old but I bought mine new - it was the best I could afford and I still have it. That said, there wasn’t much available in the UK in those days - a bit like it is with mandolins today (since TAMCO closed!).

    The trouble with “tiers” is the harder you look the more tiers you have and I always advise going with your ears. Never mind the name on the headstock; does it play well and do you like the sound? I bought a mandolin a few years ago built by a maker I’d never heard of - it was a Kimble.

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe K View Post
    ... it surprised me that I’d have to go all the way up to an $850 instrument to lap the cheapo that I have.

    ...

    All that leads to my question, one I don’t think I’ve seen addressed in the forum archives: are there “tiers” of quality to keep in mind, and, if so, what defines them? Do I really need to go to an all-solid wood model? At what point does it move from “cheap” to middle-tier – assuming the Eastman is middle tier.
    Let me try to answer your 'surprised' point. You come from guitars, which is a useful starting position.

    With acoustic guitars, the big step up is a solid top. You can buy one of those somewhere around the US$300 price point. This is because there's no fundamental change from the all-laminate design or production. All large-production factories (Martin and Gibson included) simply thickness their solid tops to a standard thickness, and then they go into the production line. For a low-price brand, a solid top just costs extra in materials, there's no appreciable change to production.

    Solid top is also the step up for mandolins, but for the Gibson-style F holes that means a carved top. Carving from solid wood, even with machines, is a lot more expensive. Suitable billets of wood are more costly, a proportion have to be discarded because the carving reveals flaws in the wood, and attaching a solid top isn't just a drop in replacement for attaching a moulded laminate top, so production processes change too.

    Plus, the market for better mandolins is tiny compared to the market for better guitars, so there are fewer economies of scale = more expensive.

    Plus, finally, making a small instrument sound good is just harder than making a large instrument sound good. I'm an amateur builder of guitars and soprano ukuleles, and guitars are just easier to make sound decent. So a solid top mandolin requires more skilled labour = more expensive.

    In the 1930s-60s makers like Stromberg-Voisinet (Stradolins) or Harmony at a cheaper price point made an intermediate type of mandolin, which had a solid wood top thicknessed like a guitar top and then heat pressed into the arch, supported by shaped bracing. That's cheaper to make than a solid top, but I'd guess the market for such a mandolin is too small and I don't know of anyone making like this today, at least for factory production.

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by Sue Rieter;1868791
    [I
    Invalid Point.[/I] Consensus is a good mandolin can help you get better faster and be more pleasant to play.

    Go with something that makes you smile.

    I can attest that the Sue's advice was true for me. I used to be convinced that I wasn't worthy of moving up from my 400 dollar Loar. When I got over that and bit the bullet on a new Northfield my love for playing, practicing, learning, and overall fun factor went through the roof. It definitely pushed mandolin from hobby to obsession for me. A nicer tiered mandolin certainly isn't a requirement but I wouldn't rule it out simply because you don't feel you're good enough.

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    Registered User Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    I'm not a pro, but I'm on my fourth mando (and last, for the foreseeable). I've never bought a new mandolin, but, I think of their tiers this way:

    1. Plywood. (What you have.)

    2. Asian solid carved. (Some are great, of course, but I put a premium on homegrown.)

    3. Domestic solid flattop. (These tend to sound great, and you can get 'em for under $1k new But visually, they don't have the preferred vibe. Do you care?)

    4. Domestic/European solid carved priced around $2k to $3k new.

    5. Domestic solid carved priced over $3k new.

    There are also tiers of bling, some of which can command stratospheric prices. These are more obvious:

    1. Plain flattop.

    2. Plain A.

    3. Plain F. (Not really that plain, since the scroll, points, and headstock are purely decorative.)

    4. Fancy A.

    5. Fancy F.

    With used mandos, there also seem to be tiers of eras, especially among Gibsons. I don't know much about those, but I can say that Loars (F5s from '22 to '24) are the most coveted, "Loar era" also seems to be a selling point, and the Norlin era ('70 to '83) was the company's worst patch.

    Beyond that, playable older mandos get a lot of respect in general.

    Sounds like you're thinking about it the right way. Let us know what you get next. (Almost said "end up with," but we know there are plenty more in your future.)
    Gibson A-Junior snakehead (Keep on pluckin'!)

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    This Mandolin Cafe is all about buying a mandolin. Most everyone here has purchased a mandolin because of the topic. So the classifieds are a very active market. (Just look at the response from your question.)

    So yes, this is the place to get a better mandolin. There are dozens of discussions about your situation, so you will not only become an expert shopper but you will end up with at least 2 mandolins.

    The hunt is the fun. Everyone is doing it. Personally, I'd never buy something new. There are too many good deals out there.
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by DougC View Post
    The hunt is the fun. Everyone is doing it. Personally, I'd never buy something new. There are too many good deals out there.
    The only exception Iíd add is that there are instruments, often custom ordered, that would not otherwise exist in nature and turn up used as deals in the classifieds. They need to be bought new (if one values such things).
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by Charlie Bernstein View Post
    I'm not a pro, but I'm on my fourth mando (and last, for the foreseeable). I've never bought a new mandolin, but, I think of their tiers this way:

    1. Plywood. (What you have.)

    2. Asian solid carved. (Some are great, of course, but I put a premium on homegrown.)

    3. Domestic solid flattop. (These tend to sound great, and you can get 'em for under $1k new But visually, they don't have the preferred vibe. Do you care?)

    4. Domestic/European solid carved priced around $2k to $3k new.

    5. Domestic solid carved priced over $3k new.

    There are also tiers of bling, some of which can command stratospheric prices. These are more obvious:

    1. Plain flattop.

    2. Plain A.

    3. Plain F. (Not really that plain, since the scroll, points, and headstock are purely decorative.)

    4. Fancy A.

    5. Fancy F.

    With used mandos, there also seem to be tiers of eras, especially among Gibsons. I don't know much about those, but I can say that Loars (F5s from '22 to '24) are the most coveted, "Loar era" also seems to be a selling point, and the Norlin era ('70 to '83) was the company's worst patch.

    Beyond that, playable older mandos get a lot of respect in general.

    Sounds like you're thinking about it the right way. Let us know what you get next. (Almost said "end up with," but we know there are plenty more in your future.)
    There's also the Fancy AF one's
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Thanks for all the advice, all of you. I thought it might be a complicated question. Even with a range of answers, though, I got a consistent sense: get something you love, and it will be easier to love something that's solid wood and carefully made.

    I liked the Eastman, but I wasn't sure I loved it. When I checked the classifieds this morning, this came up: https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/188922#188922

    I won't know whether I love this one until it arrives in a few days, but I know I love the idea of it. I've daydreamed about a Morris for a few months, and this one seemed to check all the boxes at just the right moment.

    Thanks for all the inspiration, but I can't help noting that MAS is awfully contagious.

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by DougC View Post
    This Mandolin Cafe is all about buying a mandolin. Most everyone here has purchased a mandolin because of the topic. So the classifieds are a very active market. (Just look at the response from your question.)

    So yes, this is the place to get a better mandolin. There are dozens of discussions about your situation, so you will not only become an expert shopper but you will end up with at least 2 mandolins.

    The hunt is the fun. Everyone is doing it. Personally, I'd never buy something new. There are too many good deals out there.
    I don't have the courage to buy an instrument on the internet that I have never played, or even held. It is so commonplace that I must be missing something.
    Last edited by Captain Kirk; Jun-15-2022 at 11:57am.

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe K View Post
    Thanks for all the advice, all of you. I thought it might be a complicated question. Even with a range of answers, though, I got a consistent sense: get something you love, and it will be easier to love something that's solid wood and carefully made.

    I liked the Eastman, but I wasn't sure I loved it. When I checked the classifieds this morning, this came up: https://www.mandolincafe.com/ads/188922#188922

    I won't know whether I love this one until it arrives in a few days, but I know I love the idea of it. I've daydreamed about a Morris for a few months, and this one seemed to check all the boxes at just the right moment.

    Thanks for all the inspiration, but I can't help noting that MAS is awfully contagious.
    The ad appears to be gone so I can’t see what you ended up with… but as the recent buyer of a Morris I’ll say congratulations on a great choice!

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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    The link doesn't work any more, so I'm thinking you got a Morris? Congrats! Let us know if it's what you wanted for a next step up!

    I've come to think that in addition to "tiers" of instruments/luthiers, there's also tiers to knowledge and discernment. when i first started playing, any mandolin would do. I had a very nice bowlback that I learned on and I got used to the sound since I was playing classical anyway. When I moved over to a different genre, i was perfectly happy with a stable full of sub-$500 instruments (including the $60 Rogue) that sounded perfectly fine for my level of discernment. Some, like the Rogue, sounded plinky, but others didn't and so i gravitated to those instruments. It wasn't until I'd been playing ITM for six or eight years that I realized I wanted a very specific sound that I wasn't getting from my current crop of instruments and so began a search for that particular sound. I don't know if I would have been able to find the exact sound I wanted earlier in my journey. That's the only caveat I'll mention about 'buying the best you can afford' because you may find that you want an entirely different sound from what you've purchased down the line -- which makes buying a more expensive instrument twice as needful since you may need to sell it to get what you eventually want. it's not just that MAS is a thing. Your desires and ability to discern what you want also changes with time.
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Thanks, Randi, for clarifying that as you did. I'm looking forward to moving up in that "tier of discernment" as I go. I don't know what kind of player I'll ever turn out to be. (The goal is good enough to sit in with most local players without making things worse.) I do hope I'll grow as a listener, too, and I can feel a bit of that happening already.

    I didn't realize the ad would go down that fast. Here's most of it: "Morris A Mandolin. Mint/ as new condition. Flat top. Handmade in Oregon by Howard Morris. All solid woods. Solid spruce top. Solid figured maple back and sides. Cocobola fretboard, bridge, and headstock overlay. Premium Grover tuners. Outstanding tone and playability! Comes with hardshell case." With thanks to Tom Weir.

    I'm definitely excited. It is nerve-wracking to buy something without getting to play it first, but -- around here at least -- it's tough to get hands on mandolins of any quality let alone the really high-end ones. So many have praised Morrises here, and Tom shared so many photos and sound clips, that I'm willing to take the leap.

  40. #22
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    Quote Originally Posted by Joe K View Post
    Thanks, Randi, for clarifying that as you did. I'm looking forward to moving up in that "tier of discernment" as I go. I don't know what kind of player I'll ever turn out to be. (The goal is good enough to sit in with most local players without making things worse.) I do hope I'll grow as a listener, too, and I can feel a bit of that happening already.

    I didn't realize the ad would go down that fast. Here's most of it: "Morris A Mandolin. Mint/ as new condition. Flat top. Handmade in Oregon by Howard Morris. All solid woods. Solid spruce top. Solid figured maple back and sides. Cocobola fretboard, bridge, and headstock overlay. Premium Grover tuners. Outstanding tone and playability! Comes with hardshell case." With thanks to Tom Weir.

    I'm definitely excited. It is nerve-wracking to buy something without getting to play it first, but -- around here at least -- it's tough to get hands on mandolins of any quality let alone the really high-end ones. So many have praised Morrises here, and Tom shared so many photos and sound clips, that I'm willing to take the leap.
    I have one of those Morris flat tops, Joe. It's a nice mandolin. It was my #3 (not bought as move up but as additional ). It's the only brandy new mandolin I've acquired (thus far). It took longer than expected to travel from the west to the east, and yes, it was VERY nerve wracking !

    Hope you love it
    "To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are." Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

  41. The following members say thank you to Sue Rieter for this post:

    Joe K 

  42. #23
    Registered User
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    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    If it was you who got that Morris I’m gonna bet you’ll like how it plays and sounds. I’ll be in the market for an oval hole before long and Sonny Morris mandolins speak to me.
    Rookie, but determined to learn!
    Ratliff F-style Country Boy
    Eastman MDO-305 Octave Mandolin

  43. The following members say thank you to Kenny for this post:

    Joe K 

  44. #24

    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    I believe this is a picture of your Morris, sorry it’s a little blurry. It has a beautiful Cocobolo fretboard. You’ll have to post new pictures when you get it.


  45. The following members say thank you to 707erich for this post:

    Joe K 

  46. #25

    Default Re: Question on "tiers" of instruments

    That looks like it, 707. I'll happily post photos once it arrives. Thanks for sharing my anticipation.

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