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Riverboat Music Buyers' Guides for Mandolins
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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

Buyer's Guide for Mandolins - From Riverboat Music(tm), Mandolin is the oldest fretted instrument being used in American music today, and for a while was one of the most popular.

Although various mandolin tunings have been popular in various times and places, the most common mandolin tuning is so popular that when it's used on other instruments (like banjo), it is still called "mandolin tuning." Or when instruments like four-string guitars or irish bouzoukis are tuned an octave down from mandolin, it's called "octave mandolin tuning." So the little instrument has more effect on the musical world at large than you might think.

An 1897 Washburn mandolin, built in the USA to traditional European standards. Click for bigger photo.A 1987 Washburn mandolin, built in the USA to traditional European standards. Click for bigger photo.The traditional "Florentine" design, built in Europe had a bowl-shaped back made of strips of wood, just like the lutes of the middle ages. European players use small flatpicks ("plectrums") to stroke the strings rapidly in both directions. Good players can get almost a continuous tone out of the thing (think the theme to Dr. Zhivago). As the mandolin followed European settlers to this country, that style continued to be played well into the early 20th century. By 1880, more American homes had mandolins than any other fretted instrument, and many cities had "mandolin orchestras" that would incorporate a range of mandolin sizes and perform music that was originally written for violins, violas, and cellos.

The c1897 Washburn mandolin at the right copies a traditional European mandolin design.

To help meeet this need, guitar builder Orville Gibson and his chief designer Lloyd Loar wondered if the instrument could be made more quickly, and frankly, stronger without losing its tone. By about 1900, they had introuced the "arch-top" or "arch-back" mandolin, which incorporated violin-type carved front and back and an elaborate scroll shape on the left shoulder. Typified by the Gibson F4, and later by the f-hole F5, it was an early hit.

1916 Gibson F4. Click for bigger photo.
1916 Gibson F4 back. Click for bigger photo.
Early Gibson F5. Click for bigger photo.
1949 Gibson A-50. Click for bigger photo.
1916 Gibson F4
1916 Gibson F4 Back
Early Gibson F5
1949 Gibson A-50

Simpler shapes were also available. The ones that lacked the elaborate scroll shape acquired names like "A-body." In addition, the hand-carved tops and backs were replaced by flat or gently bowed tops and backs. Round or oval holes competed for a while, although f holes are more common today. Unlike guitar, which channels some pretty low frequencies, the shape of the hole isn't quite as critical on instrument that play mostly very high notes, although some folks would claim that - all other things being equal - f-hole mandolins sound a tad brighter than round or oval-hole mandolins.. Plus the F holes allow the surfact of the mandolin to support more pressure than round or oval holes do.

What's the Difference? - One reason Gibson's arch-backed mandolins caught on so quickly is that they were louder than the old round-back "Florentine-style" mandolins. So much louder that you never see roundback mandolins used in any form of American popular music after about 1920.

All things being equal an A mandolin will be about as loud as an F mandolin, but some folks claim the F mandolin is brighter. That's one reason you see so many in Bluegrass group: before amplification, players felt that they needed that edge to stand out among all of the other treble-y instruments. Now it's a tradition.

That said, fingering is the same. So you can start on any playable mandolin and eventually transfer to another body style if you want to. As a rule, A-body mandolins are cheaper than otherwise identical F-body mandolins, so most folks start out on A-bodies. I'm more folk than Bluegrass, and my A mandolins have always done the job for me. That said if i was picking Bluegrass solos all the time, I would probably consider upgrading.

Top Considerations

Better mandolins have solid tops. The best mandolins have sold back and sides as well. That said, it's possible to learn on a cheap, laminated-top instrument. I've come across a few that had great sound for what they were,and would have held their own in any amateur or semi-pro setting. On the other hand, good solid-topped F-bodies (to my ears, at least) have a kind of resonance akin to a good violin played pizzicato - you wouldn't think that little cigar-box-sized sound cavity could product so much tone.

Neck Considerations

Because mandolins are so small, precision is everything. The frets have to be perfectly located, and they have to be perfectly aligned. In addition, there's a lot more pressure on that little neck than you'd think. So an adjustment rod is critical - you'd be surpised at how many under-$300 mandolins have no way of ajusting the neck if it goes out of whack.

Usually you can tell by a little plastic triangle on the peg head that is held down with three screws. That triangle covers one end of a long screw you can tighten or loosten to keep the neck from curving up or down. Mandolins that are missing this will eventually get bent out of shape by the pressure of the strings. Even some otherwise "reputable" manufacturers leave this feature out of their lower line mandolins. A c1950 Gibson 5FE mandolin with magnetic pickup.  Click for bigger photo.

Pickup Considerations

Gibson started putting magnetic coil pickups on their mandolins almost as soon as they were available. Yes, the sound is better through a microphone. In fact, I think a piezoelectric, properly placed and run through a preamp, gives a more realistic tone. But mandolins with mag pickups still sound like mandolins, which is more than I can say about some instruments.

I currently own a Fender FM-52E with a mag pickup. It's an old one from back in the day when they used to put adjustment rods in the neck - they don't any more. We picked it up because we were going to be playing a venue whose sound operators were notorious for turning microphones down just as you stepped up to solo. As it turns out, I almost never need to plug it in, but it's nice to have if I need it.

If your first mandolin does not have a pickup, and you wind up playing "out" a lot with it, you can always retrofit it with a piezo-electric pickup like the one here and use an outboard preamp, which significantly reduces the amount of carving you have to do on your instrument.


To give you some idea of what you can expect, I've listed some mandolins that may be worth checking out in the table below. Only a handful of mandolins are made in this country today and most of the ones worth playing aren't affordable for anyone but a working pro. So unless you can find a nice old US-built one locally, you're probably shopping "imported." That said, the better brands will give you a better chance of getting a good playable instrument the first time out.

Ordinarily I try to provide a range of examples from fairly cheap to very expensive, with the knowledge that nobody who can avoid it will buy a professional-quality instrument without seeing it. In this case, though, I've had experience with some of the "fairly cheap" ones, And I was surprised by the number of moderately-priced instruments with very nice features. So most of the mandolins in the following list are "midrange," but if you have your heart set on a better or cheaper instrument than I've listed, clicking on one that interests you will bring up a "suggestions" for both.

If you buy an import, inspect it immediately. If you don't know fretted instruments, have a friend who does look it over. Most of the 1-star reviews these things get are from people who got one that damaged in shipment or flat-out badly made, but didn't realize it until after the return period was over.

And remember, as you shop around, cool as they look, an F mandolin that is laminated and cheaply thrown together will not do you nearly as much good as a solid-topped, well-made A mandolin.

When you do buy, whatever you buy, please either:

  • Buy from a shop where every instrument is set up by a pro, or
  • Have a pro check it out and set it up for you as soon as you get it.
If you follow any of these links, you may see more that have been added since I wrote this page, but hopefully I've given you enough information to make an informed decision.

Guitar ModelIllustration (If available)
Solid or
Veneer Top
Online Availability
Ibanez M510DVS
Click a button in the right column for details

Click to see this mandolin's details on Musician's Friend.

Washburn M1S
Click a button in the right column for details

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Ibanez 511SEDVS
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Ibanez M522SBS
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce

Also available in a dark finish.

Click to see this mandolin's details on Musician's Friend. Check out the dark finish version on Musician's Friend.
Washburn M3EK
Click a button in the right column for details
Washburn M3SWK
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce

Click to see this mandolin's details on Musician's Friend.

Gretsch G9350
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce

Click to see this mandolin's details on Musician's Friend.

Eastman 515
Click a button in the right column for details
Solid Spruce


Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment. Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or "reader responses."

However you chose to acquire the instrument coming into your household, we wish you the best, and we'll answer your questions if we can.

Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*

Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.

Consider Buying Used: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the seller.

Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the musical instrument does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online listing until I can find a replacement or another supplier.

*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.

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