A brief guide to selecting a mandolin
F Mandolin, F holes
A mandolin, oval hole
A decent mandolin may be a fairly big ticket item for many people. Finding a mandolin that meets your
needs can enhance your music and your life. This guide briefly covers key aspects of mandolins we handle
at Gianna’s. Visit www.mandovoodoo.com for a more in depth look at mandolin evaluation, mandolin
history, and our acoustic optimization process.
What kind of mandolin?
Mandolins come in a wide range of styles, from ornate F hole models with hand carved arches to simple
cigar-box flat tops. First, figure out what type of music you want to play. I’ll divide the spectrum into
bluegrass, old-time and Celtic, classical and orchestral, and jazz. Mandolins fall into three very general
categories: bowl back, flat, and carved arch top and back. Arched mandolins further divide into the fancy
curly bluegrass F style, the teardrop A style, and the two point based on the old Lyon & Healy design.
General types of mandolin
The archtop mandolin is the most popular. These mandolins have bent ribs or sides reinforced at their
junction with the top and back. The top and back are hand carved in an arch, at least in the best models.
The less expensive ones may simply be stamped out and bent from laminated wood. Archtop mandolins
generally come in the teardrop “A” style and the fancy Florentine “F” model. The F model is heavier and
takes more work to make, making them more expensive than equivalent A models. Two point models also
exist, but in much lesser numbers. I think the F models tend to have a chunky sound, while the A models
have a more robust midrange. Two point mandolins are somewhere in between, with a jazzy tone.
Gibson first described their teardrop mandolins as A models in the early 20th Century. A style mandolins
usually have arched carved tops and backs. They may host either twin F holes or an oval hole. I’ve seen A
style mandolins in bluegrass, old time, Celtic, and everywhere else.
Two point mandolins have some of the decorate points of the F style, giving a bit more mass at the neck
joint and impacting the tone somewhat. Mandolin accumulators and jazz players like the different look and
intermediate sound of these instruments.
Neapolitan bowl back mandolins often show up in movies and on TV. Or as a prop. This early design
evolved from the lute. They are rarely used by working musicians today, although top-level classical players
often prefer them. They also appear in mandolin orchestras. Good examples have a dark, round, lush tone,
but are difficult to find.
Mandolins used for different kinds of music
Most, but not all, bluegrass players prefer the “Florentine” F style mandolin with its sort of violin f-shaped
sound holes, scroll and points body outline, with arched top and back. This type is likely popular because of
Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5. Players who like the F-5 variety claim it has a great popping “chop” for
rhythm chords and supports strong, clear single-string lead lines. Generally the A style mandolin with its
simple teardrop shape costs less and gives excellent performance, perhaps with less percussive “chop”
but with a richer midrange.
Classical and orchestra players like either F or A style instruments with oval sound holes. Oval hole
instruments have less energy in the high overtones and more in the fundamental and lower overtones. This
gives a sweet, singing tone that blends well.
Old time and Celtic players are less fixed in their ideas, but often use A type oval hole mandolins, or even
flat mandolins. Neither genre calls for strong rhythm support and the the players usually track other
instruments in unison. Some projection is required to cut through the group, often including guitar,
concertina, and bodhran (Irish drum).
Jazz and blues players like a fat but projecting tone, crisp response, and a wide dynamic range. They seem
particularly attracted to 2 point F and oval hole models, although this attraction may be more a function of the
look than the performance. Many of these players prefer flat top FT74 or LaBella MJ11 jazz strings
For a different, lower, mellower tone, more mandolinists are moving to mandolas. These are tuned like a
viola, a fifth lower than the mandolin (CDGA) and with a longer scale (16" usually). The mandola isn’t just a
big mandolin; it really has a different tone and style.
Oval hole or F holes
F hole archtop mandolins tend to have a focused, strongly projecting punch. Oval hole mandolins often
sustain more and have a lush character. The F holes give a crisp, clear tone while the oval hole gives a
warm, supple tone. The difference comes from the concentration of energy in higher overtones from the F
hole mandolin’s top. The oval hole gives more of the rich, lush lower overtones, but tends to sacrifice some
projection and presence. At the ends of the spectrum, a poor quality or very stiff and new F hole mandolin
may sound thin, while a weak oval hole may sound muddy or soggy.
Ideally a mandolin sound play easily and securely, giving a complex, open, and immediate response.
These qualities come from design, construction quality, and materials. In practice, materials can vary
greatly in acoustic quality without correlation to appearance.
Afficionados tend to grade quality on wood selection, adherence to traditional designs and materials, and
execution. Most point to hard carving to accommodate the individual pieces of wood, light weight for easy
resonance, and traditional construction. Traditional construction includes a neck fitted with a dovetail joint, a
single action bent truss rod (strengthening and allowing adjustment of the neck), and hand applied varnish,
rather than sprayed on urethane.
Another point is the glue used. Many glues act as a barrier to vibration, forming a relatively thick “gasket”
between the pieces and often allowing creep over time. In contrast, traditional hide glue is hard and
vanishingly thin in properly fitted joints, creating an acoustically transparent joint. Our Eastman mandolins
use hide glue.
Finishes are especially important. Many low end mandolins have sprayed on finishes with excessive
stiffness and thickness. Any finish will tend to take out some of the richness of the bass and thin out the
treble range. On the other hand, raw wood picks up dirt and oils from playing, becoming soggy sounding.
The best finishes are thin, relatively soft, and highly flexible. These finishes don’t come out of a spray can.
All Eastman mandolins have thin, hand brushed varnish. Some are topped with nitrocellulose lacquer for a
more durable surface layer.
Quality relates directly to the kind of production environment. At the top is the individually made instrument,
where one pair of hands does everything. These mandolins are expensive, have individual character, and
generally very good to superlative. You’re counting on one person to do everything well enough. At the next
level, highly trained specialists work under the direction of a master maker. These mandolins are generally
very consistent and often use just as much or more handwork than individual makers. Our Eastman
mandolins are at this level. At the bottom level are mandolins made in a general purpose instrument
factory by factory workers to a standard specification. These are often tarted up by fancy inlays and
components to attract buyers with “flash.” We stock the well-known Kentucky brand of factory mandolins.
Mandolins range widely in price. At the low end are laminated boxes produced by pressing plywood into
arched plates. These are often unplayable. At the high end are exquisite artworks by recognized masters.
Individually made mandolins in A style can sometimes be had for as little as $1750. These generally have
style and flash that is appealing to many, so long as the tone is there. Most are much higher in cost.
Small shop mandolins start quite reasonably, with low end models available from Gibson, Weber, Collings,
and in the imports, from Eastman. Prices start at about $500 (Eastman MD500 A models) and go to over
$10,000 (limited production Gibson mandolins).
Playable factory mandolins range from perhaps $150 for some imports up to perhaps $1500. The more
expensive factory instruments tend to have lots of fancy inlay, including the fretboard. This doesn’t add
performance, just flash. And it interferes with future fingerboard work.
In my assessment, decent mandolins with suitable response and tone start at right around $500. The
Eastman MD505 A style F hole mandolin remains the ideal starter instrument. For those with less available
cash, the Kentucky KM350S ($395 list) or even less expensive KM250S ($295 list) work adequately. We
carry and set up the entire Kentucky line when requested.
Most mandolins shipped to dealers are partially set up. Many dealers appear to sell mandolins as they
arrive, with weak strings, poorly fitted bridges, nuts very high, unlubricated tuners, and all too often with
unadjusted truss rods or uneven frets. Trying to play these instruments is very frustrating. We set
instruments up thoroughly.
Shoppers in the commodity age generally have a difficult time telling products at a given price level apart.
Often there are few differences in performance
Specification and componentry shoppers
Beginners often have a difficult time determining mandolin tone quality, construction level, and playability.
Too often beginners become taken with fancy decorations and inlays, gold fittings, and flowery
descriptions. Buying a mandolin for the fingerboard inlay is like buying a car for its stereo. All mandolins
have similar specifications: spruce top, maple or other suitable back, frets, tuners, and so on. The main
determinant of quality is the manipulation of the wood in skilled hands, not the ability to place a fingerboard
in a computer controlled machining unit. Look beyond the flash and find out how a mandolin you’re
interested is made, how it is finished, and what others think of its performance. Keep in mind that players
have widely varying taste in instrument sound and appearance.
While quickly picking something inexpensive at a full range music store or clicking a button at a big online
shop may be easy, it is unlikely to find you the best performance for the dollar. These kinds of shops rarely
have the selection and quality of mandolins allowing careful choice. Most important, mandolins require
careful setup to get them playing well. Players from all over the country send me even quite high quality
mandolins to get the setup just right for them. Many of the entry level mandolins showing up are almost
unplayable. A convenience purchase can soon become quite inconvenient.
The search for the ultimate bargain has impacted musical instrument dealers and shoppers in several
ways. The “discount” is generally illusory. First, some suppliers post inflated “list” prices, allowing some
makes to appear deeply and profoundly discounted, while other makes simply do not have the cushion.
Second, mandolins require setup and careful tweeking. This takes skill and time. A big click-through
supplier may have the same mandolin as a small specialty shop and offer it for $100 less. The mandolin is
very likely to arrive with the bridge poorly fitted, the nut high and only roughly fitted, an unadjusted truss rod,
and slightly uneven frets. A good shop thoroughly checks and adjusts each mandolin, ensuring it plays
easily and produces optimal tone. Gianna’s goes the extra mile and performs advanced acoustic work on
each mandolin. Finally, specialty shops work to ensure that the mandolins matches the player and
generally offer the best service.
Some players think buying a name buys performance. A star plays an X, so the player gets an X. Brand Y is
famous, so the player buys a Y. Buying like this is easy, but doesn’t ensure that the specific mandolin
matches the player, plays well, sounds good, or is even the same thing as the instruments that made a
The top end instruments bearing a brand may be completely different from the entry level instruments. For
example, I played a Guild guitar for some time. It was made in Guild’s custom shop in Nashville, rather
than on their usual production line. The only things it had in common with the typical Guild guitar were the
wood and the basic design. Everything else was more than cut above the production models. But it was
still a Guild guitar.
A specific brand or trade name may not mark the same instruments as it used to. For example, Gibson
mandolins have been made in completely separate production lines in Michigan, Montana, and now
Tennessee. The products of these different shops are different. Not necessarily better or worse, but
Many brands once made in the US are now farmed out to overseas bulk producers. Some of these
instruments work adequately, some don’t. Regardless, they aren’t the same instruments as they once
Finally, a new mandolin has to break in before it sounds its best. At first, the mandolin still seems to
consider itself a piece of lumber. The mandovoodoo(tm) process “opens up” the instrument a good deal. A
couple of hours of playing get the bridge seated and the wood working as a unit. Gradually the bass
becomes more rich and the treble mellows out a little. Eventually the instrument starts to sound full and
hollow, resonating easily.
Mandolin buying checklist
Neck length (short or long):
Fingerboard (radiused, extended):
Tailpiece (stamped or cast):
More about mandolin evaluation here
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