Here are the main factors you need to consider if you want to get a “good” mandolin.
When you’re buying a mandolin for the first time, you have to decide which type of mandolin you want to use. Usually this depends a lot on the type of music you want to play. Each type of mandolin comes with its own special traits, so you can’t really say that one type is better than the other. It’s simply a matter of preference.
Still, you can check out several signs that indicate whether a mandolin is great or not. It’s not all about the appearance, as some “eye candy” models may not sound right or are too difficult to play properly. It’s not always about the price either.
- Hand-carving. This allows for the accommodation of the various individual pieces of wood used for the mandolin.
- Light weight. This ensures the easy resonance of the mandolin sound.
- Traditional construction. The neck should be fitted with a dovetail joint. It should feature a single action bent truss rod, which makes the neck stronger and it also allows for neck adjustment. The finish should be hand-applied varnish, instead of sprayed–on urethane.
- Glue. Most modern glue muffles the vibration, allowing for creep (deformation) over time when it’s applied between various wood pieces. The better option is the use of traditional hide glue which virtually disappears between properly fitted joints.
- Finishes. The finish is crucial, because raw wood will pick up oils and dirt the more you use and play it and over time it will sound soggy. But a finish can thin the treble range, and reduce some of the lusciousness of the bass. Cheap and inferior mandolins come with sprayed-on finishes, and these are extremely thick and stiff so the sound really suffers. The best compromise is the use of thin, soft, and flexible finishes. These will have to be hand-applied. Some of the better ones use lacquer for greater durability.
- Craftsmanship. The most expensive mandolin is one made by a single person. Each of these mandolins has its own character, and they’re often superior from just about any factory-assembly product.
The next level is one made by several trained experts and specialists, and they all answer to a master craftsman. These are very consistent in quality and they can be quite good minus the exorbitant price.
The stereotypical bottom-level mandolins are made by average factory workers who may know nothing about musical instruments at all. They make their products according to factory specifications, and so differentiating one brand from another at this level is all about which company has the better quality control. Often, manufacturers decorate their mandolins with flashy designs that don’t actually improve the sound.
Cost. While you can’t always judge the quality of the mandolin by the price tag, it’s still a factor you need to consider. Some of the cheapest mandolins cost less than $150, and they’re virtually unplayable. Meanwhile, the most expensive mandolins are the handcrafted artworks of the acknowledged masters of the mandolin industry that can run into several thousands of dollars.
After you buy your mandolin, you have to play it constantly to break it in, and then after a while the various components will work together beautifully. The treble softens a little, while the bass become richer. When it fully resonates, then it’s finally what you would consider a good mandolin.