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How to Buy The Best Mandolin For Your Money

Written by Jazz Brown

If you are looking to buy a mandolin you are probably having a difficult time deciding on which one to get. There are a lot of different makes and models and prices can range from as low as $50 up to the tens of thousands! Yes, that is quite a big range. So, how do you make the best decision about which mandolin to buy?

If you want to get the best value for your money there are a few things about mandolins that you need to know. The purpose of this page is not just to sell you on a certain mandolin, but instead to help you understand what you need to know to make a wise choice.

If you know what you are getting into and you are aware of what to look for you can make your mandolin buying experience a good one.

Solid Wood Mandolin Or Laminated?

Most mandolins that are under the $200 range will have laminated sides and back and many of them will also have a laminated top. Laminated means that the material is made of layers of wood pressed together instead of solid wood. A laminated mandolin will decrease in value and lose sound quality over time while a solid wood mandolin will actually increase in both value and sound quality with time and proper care.

If you are really serious about playing the mandolin you will want to get one that is constructed of solid wood. I was able to find only one mandolin that was made entirely of solid wood in the under $200 range; the Rover RM-50. You can get the Rover RM-50 for around $150 to $180 depending upon where you go.

How to Buy The Best Mandolin For Your Money

Rover RM-50

A much better choice for a solid wood mandolin would be a Kentucky. The Kentucky mandolin is well known and for the price range ($225 to $800) it is a very well built instrument. You can get the solid wood Kentucky KM150 for around $225 to $250, it is well worth the extra cost to get the Kentucky when comparing these two mandolins.

How to Buy The Best Mandolin For Your Money

Kentucky KM-150 A-Style

A Or F Model Mandolin?

The Rover RM-50 and the Kentucky KM150 are both A model mandolins. F model mandolins bring a higher price, but the difference in the two types of mandolins are mostly in the appearance (at least for mandolins in the lower price ranhes).

There is no doubt that the F Model is a much better looking mandolin, but you don’t want to sacrifice on quality just for cosmetics. In other words if you buy a cheap F Model mandolin it may look great but it will not be a good quality instrument. If you are set upon getting an F Model and you want a high quality instrument you can expect to pay more than $300.

If you look around you can find several lower priced F model mandolins. However, the cheaper F models sacrifice quality for appearance. For example you can get a Rogue RM-100-F model mandolin for around $175. The RM-100-F is made with a laminated spruce top and laminated maple back and sides. It is a beautiful looking mandolin, but playability and sound quality are low.

I also saw a Santini F model mandolin on eBay for 89.95 with free shipping. This too is a very nice looking mandolin, but it is also made of laminates.

Should You Buy A Cheap Mandolin?

There are mandolins available for under $100, but these mandolins will likely have a lot of problems such as string buzzing, low tone quality and inability to stay in tune. Mandolins in this price range are not much more than toys and will probably do more to hinder your learning than to help. Imagine trying to practice on a mandolin that will not stay in tune or makes awful buzzing noises.

Some cheaper mandolin brands commonly available are Johnson/Savannah, Rogue, Rover and Indiana although each make does have some higher priced models. Some of the better mandolin makes are Kentucky, Morgan Monroe, Michael Kelly, Eastman and of course the Gibson and the Loar.

How To Comparison Shop For A Mandolin

Before you make the decision about what particular mandolin to buy be sure to read as much as you can and compare prices among different sellers. Prices can vary more than $100 on the exact same mandolin at different stores!

When you shop for a mandolin don’t just compare the prices. One seller may have a slightly higher price, but they may offer free shipping, free set up, and even extras like a case or gig bag, tuner, instructional materials, etc. Remember to consider the added value of things like this when looking at prices.

Free shipping can save you as much as $39.99, a case or gig bag is worth $25 or more, and professional set up is worth at least $50.

Buy A Mandolin With Professional Set Up

Believe it or not there is one thing that may actually be more important than the price, and that is set up. If you buy a brand new mandolin that has not been set up you will have to do some work on it, or pay someone else to do it, before it will be truly playable.

Most reputable mandolin sellers will include professional set up with your purchase. You should not buy a mandolin that comes “straight from the box” unless you are prepared to set it up or you know of someone who can. When you buy a mandolin from a seller who provides professional set up you are getting a lot of value added to your purchase.

Typical set up includes: Complete inspection of mandolin for damage or missing parts; Placement of bridge for optimal intonation; Adjustment of string height – often the bridge is shaved or the nut may need to be filed to obtain the proper string height. The mandolin is then tuned up and checked for buzzing at each fret. The mandolin is then left to rest for several hours or overnight and then everything is rechecked.

Recommended Mandolins

So, you can buy a Rogue for around $50 or you can buy a $16,000 or higher Gibson. What you decide to get will depend upon your budget and what you plan to do with your mandolin.

If you just want a mandolin to play around with I would recommend that you get a lower price range solid wood model. If you are serious about your playing then you should definitely get a nice mandolin. I would not recommend a cheap laminated model for anything other than a “toy” or a beginner instrument for a child.

My highest recommendation for an entry level to intermediate mandolin is the Kentucky KM150 or the Rover RM-50. Whatever mandolin you decide upon should be constructed with solid wood. If you are spending less than $300 to $400 you should stick with an A model, don’t sacrifice quality and playability solely for appearance.

Some Of The Best Mandolins

The Loar F Style Mandolin

The Loar is a legend among mandolins and anyone who owns one is very fortunate indeed. Here are some of the best quality mandolins you can find:

How to Buy The Best Mandolin For Your Money

Loar Golden Age F Style Sunburst Mandolin

The Loar Mandolin is crafted using solid spruce for the top and solid flamed maple for the back and sides. The fretboard and the bridge are made of ebony. The headstock scripting is done with abalone and mother of pearl for a really beautiful look. The binding is a vintage white and the tail peice and the pickguard are true reproductions of the original Loar.

Rocky Top Sunburst Mandolin

This traditional F style mandolin is constructed with a select spruce top, maple back and sides, and maple neck and a rosewood fingerboard. 13-3/4″ scale. The Vintage Sunburst Mandolin also includes gold hardware and mother-of-pearl binding.

How to Buy The Best Mandolin For Your Money

Rocky Top F Style Mandolin, Vintage Sunburst

This F Style F Mandolin Features:

  • Select spruce top
  • Maple back and sides
  • Maple neck with extended rosewood fingerboard
  • 13-3/4″ scale
  • 1-7/32″ nut width
  • 29 frets
  • Gold hardware
  • Mother-of-pearl binding
  • Vintage sunburst finish

Kentucky KM-505 A-Model Mandolin

The Kentucky KM-505 A-Model Mandolin is crafted with a solid spruce top, flamed maple back and sides, maple neck with adjustable truss rod, extended 29-fret bound and stained rosewood fretboard, and 15th fret neck/body joint.

How to Buy The Best Mandolin For Your Money

Vintage Kentucky KM-505 A Style Mandolin

  • Classic mother-of-pearl script and Kentucky-head veneer inlay.
  • Traditional snakehead peghead also carries deluxe tuning machines.
  • Adjustable compensated rosewood bridge.
  • Kentucky uses a multi-ply binding on the top and back of your KM-340S Mandolin.
  • A-style mandolin with solid spruce top
  • Flamed maple back and sides
  • Maple neck with adjustable truss rod
  • Extended 29-fret bound and stained rosewood fretboard
  • 15th fret neck/body joint
  • Classic mother-of-pearl script
  • Kentucky peghead inlay
  • Deluxe tuning machines
  • Adjustable, compensated rosewood bridge
  • Multi-ply binding on top and back
  • Traditional nitrocellulose lacquer finish

Mid Range Mandolins
Here are some mandolins that are priced in the mid range. These mandolins will be good for beginners and although they are not made from solid wood most will have solid tops. If you are in a low budget range take a look at these used mandolins.