New! Tabs for Popular Fiddle Tunes:
"Shuckin' the Corn"
The Bernhart Mandolin Webpages explore the history of the mandolin, buying and building mandolins, basic chord structures, the different styles of playing and the various makes and models of mandolins available on the market
A short overview of members of the mandolin family
Here's an excellent overview by Bruce Dix of Fret magazine on what to look for when purchasing a standard 8 string "A" or "F" style mandolin:
Whether you're checking out mandolins at a music store, pawn shop, flea market, or garage sale, be prepared to walk out the door. Take your time, no matter how eager you--or the salesperson may be, and get some perspective on any instrument you're considering.
Look the instrument over inside and out, top to bottom, whether it's new or used. Does it feel solid and well-built? What about workmanship--are all the joints, bindings, and inside glue seams neat and tight? Are there any parts broken or missing? Do you see cracks anywhere in the wood? Existing cracks are a problem; repaired cracks may indicate future problems.
Does the instrument look appealing to you? Some players don't worry about appearance; others just wouldn't be comfortable with a scratched or cosmetically unattractive mandolin.
Inspect the hardware. Do all the tuning machines work easily? Are there visible signs of wear? Worn or broken gears can be a big headache to fix or replace, especially on older instruments whose parts have long since passed out of production.
Are there loose braces or tone bars inside the soundbox? Loose braces aren't terribly hard to reglue, but they may be a symptom of other troubles. What about the bridge? If it's a movable or adjustable bridge (like most mandolin bridges), do the bridge feet mate well with the contours of the soundboard? You shouldn't be able to see daylight under the feet.
Neck straightness is another important issue. A neck that isn't straight makes for difficult playing, and it can cause problems with buzzes and poor intonation. Many mandolins have adjustable truss rods, which can aid in correcting warped or bowed necks. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with mandolins that lack truss rods; most American mandolins built before 1922 or so didn't have them, and a lot of those instruments are still in service. However, if such a mandolin has a bent neck, then purchasing it is a gamble. Maybe it can be fixed; maybe not.
If you're buying a bowl-back instrument, pay special attention to the neck. "If the neck joint is cracked or loose, if it moves at all, forget it," says Tony Marcus, a mandolinist/repairman in the San Francisco Bay area. "Only the finest bowl-back instruments are worth fixing, since the shape of the back makes special tools and procedures necessary." This is especially important advice for beginners, since there are many inexpensive bowl-backs available, and beginners are likely to consider them.
On any mandolin, take a careful look at the soundboard--the top. Most mandolins you will see have carved tops. There is inherent structural strength in that arched shape. The top must be strong enough to counter the considerable pressure that the strings bring to bear on the bridge. It's a delicate balance. If the top appears caved-in, or warped, that's a sign of a top which may be too thin to stand up under string pressure. Get suspicious any time you see the soundboard contour deviating from the natural lines of the carving. If you're in doubt, consult a mandolin expert who has repair experience. A mandolin sold "as-is" may be a bargain that's worth fixing, or may be a waste of money.
After you've checked out the physical condition of the mandolin, put it through its paces. The most important consideration in buying a mandolin is payability. And payability, of course, has a lot to do with the physical state of the instrument--which is why your inspection comes first. Some people might say that tone is more important; but if a mandolin is difficult to play, you won't really enjoy working with it no matter how good it sounds. For beginners, especially, a great-playing instrument is far more important than a great-sounding instrument.
Novice mandolinists will need help from a friend or a coach here. Is the action high or low? How does the neck feel? Check each string at every fret, looking for buzzes, intonation problems (notes that sound flat or sharp of where the pitch ought to be), and individual frets that are set too high or too low, or are unevenly worn. You may need to put on a new set of strings to make an accurate diagnosis; with dead strings, no fretted instrument is at its best.
If you turn up problems in any of these areas, be aware that some are easy to fix: Raising or lowering an adjustable bridge may remedy action problems and buzzing; repositioning the bridge may cure poor intonation. On the other hand, if something like a bad fretboard is at fault, then you've got to weigh your options. Investing a $100.00 fret job in a valuable $2,500.00 vintage mandolin makes economic sense; putting the same kind of money into a $50.00 "noname" plywood mandolin is impractical. It's up to you to determine whether you're buying a diamond in the rough, or a pig in a poke.
Once you're satisfied with the way the mandolin plays, then ask yourself how it sounds. This is a highly subjective point; ask five mandolinists to describe good tone, and you'll probably get five very different answers. Again, "tone" is a sensibility that you'll develop over time. Just go with what sounds pleasing to you now, and with the best (i.e., most trustworthy) advice you can get.
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