View Full Version : What Makes a Great Instrument?
So I'm a complete beginner, both to mandolins and to music. I bought my first mandolin maybe three or four weeks ago, and I've been making some headway but I'm still nowhere near decent at it.
Anyhow, something that's always eluded me in the past, and especially now that I'm trying to actually learn music, is the difference between grades of instruments. It could be lack of experience, or maybe I'm just tone-deaf, but as long as the instrument plays I can never seem to tell the difference between a cheap one and an expensive one.
So for those a little more experienced than I, what is it that makes an expensive mandolin (or any instrument, for that matter) better than a cheap one? Is it the precision of the manufacturing? The quality of the materials? And can anyone describe for me the differences I should be able to notice in the sound they produce?
Quality materials and tools, careful consistent execution, experience. The top shops and builders have people building who have honed their craft through many instruments and apprenticeships. They've learned what their particular sound is and in general build towards it and make incremental improvements/refinements in tone and aesthetics as their careers progress.
Your ear will develop as your skills and experience develops. A good key is to play many different instruments from stock production models to small builder ones.
To a certain degree, you get what you pay for with the knowledge that as the budget increases the differences between mandolins becomes less of higher quality but rather in nuances and market demands for a specific builder. That is, a $1000 mandolin may be 10x better than a $100 one but a $25,000 mandolin may not be 2x better sounding than a $10,000 one or even a $5,000 one. They may sound different but not significantly so. You should also understand you need not spend tons of money to get what you can get or need from an instrument. It depends upon your goals, skill, and how hard you practice your skills to achieve your goals.
I believe the instrument is important (for achieving sonic potential) but the player has to pull it out of the box, so to speak.
Jamie (who has heard much more fantastic sounds come out his mandolin in the hands of some others than from his own).
Experience, but it's also the experience of the player in addition to the builder. Experience comes with time. Weeks aren't enough to develop an ear any more than a couple of sips allows you to determine whether a particular bottle of wine is good or great unless you're trained to discern it.
You can debate endlessly about what makes a great (or even good) mandolin for you because it depends on your own taste, and taste changes with experience. The width and profile of the neck, oval hole or f-hole, high or low action, strings and picks all influence the sound and feel of an instrument. I love a dark, woody, bass sound for Irish (which I play more often than other types of music), but I like a bright, plinky sound for choro and a more modified and balanced sound for classical. Ergo I own more than one instrument, all of which are very nice and could be better if I had more money. Which do I like more and which makes the better instrument? It depends what music I'm playing.
What Jamie said is true and the more expensive instruments got that way because the players that have tried them have been greatly satisfied with them and word of mouth is a great way to advertise them....Also some older instruments are being bought for as a collectors item in hopes of it becoming more rare in years to come which increases the value...As far as sound goes some of the inexpensive ones have a great sound and in the past few years they are getting so much better...The builders also learn as they go along just like a player, in years to come you will hear mandolins that you will love to have and like most of us you will own about four or five, it`s called MAS...
Welcome aboard and sit back and soak it all in, some great people on here that know what they are talking about and are glad to share info....
...as long as the instrument plays I can never seem to tell the difference between a cheap one and an expensive one...
I worked part-time for the late Eldon Stutzman back in the 1970's; he ran a little instrument dealership that was only open on Saturdays. His son Dave inherited and expanded the store, currently Stutzman's Guitar Center (http://www.stutzmansguitarcenter.com/) where I do a lot of my instrument "bidness."
Eldon had a saying for those trying out instruments in his store: "If you can't tell the difference, buy the cheaper one." There are a raft of objective criteria of instrument excellence: better woods, better design, more handwork, better "fit and finish," more ornamentation, etc. There are also more subjective criteria: preference as to sound, appearance, "feel," even the instrument's origin. And the market also values age, provenance, and high-profile manufacturer.
But I really like Eldon's advice. If you can't hear, feel, or otherwise experience any difference -- if the instrument's not better for you -- then don't waste a lot of time worrying that you're "tone deaf" or some such. Beyond a certain base level, what you buy and play is a matter of subjective taste. Some are happy for a lifetime with an inexpensive mandolin; others long for the "best of the best" and come up with the cash to own one. As they say, "Play, don't worry."
What makes a great instrument to me?
Two things: It's gotta sound good, and it's gotta play like buttah.
The sound thing is a little subjective. :)
Seriously though, price does equate: If i can't afford to take it home and play it, what good is it to me personally? So in my world, 16k instruments are bad. ;)
There are certain base line things that are required for an instrument to be good. Good materials are on that list, but mandolins are made form wood (mostly) and wood is a natural material so there are limits to how "good" that wood can be. some fairly "cheap" instruments have wood in them that is just as good as or better than the wood in high dollar instruments. So wood is a component of the makings of a "great" instrument, but not an important aspect in what separated a "great" instrument from a mediocre instrument.
Another basic is good building technique; proper structural considerations, proper geometry, good joinery, and so forth. Even the lower priced factory instruments are generally pretty well made as far as those considerations, so good, solid construction doesn't really separate the "great" from the "good".
Playability and feel are important, but even the cheapo mandolins can be set up to play well if their construction is good enough to allow it. They might not come from the factory set up for optimal playing ease and tone, but a modest amount spent on a professional set up will get you there for far less than buying a high dollar mandolin. So, playability is not what separated the "great" from the "good".
So, what doe's separate the "great" from the "good"? It's the details. The details of style, aesthetics, "fit and finish", and appearance, are all important to one degree or another, though it is a matter of opinion how important that is for an instrument to be considered "great", to that leaves the details of the sound that make the real difference.
Many threads on the subject of "coupling" show up here from time to time. Good coupling, that is, in a nut shell, how well the components of the instrument work together to produce sound, particularly the top, back, and the air within the instrument. For that to work well, the top and back plates have to be carved to specific parameters of stiffness, mass, and thickness so that they respond well to string energy and to one another. That carving requires good understanding of how plates, and the mandolin as a whole, work to produce sound, or else enough experience to develop a "feel" for how things work so that the builder, though perhaps not able to fully understand the physics of it all or be able to explain it, has at least some working knowledge of what does and does not work.
Good coupling in a well made instrument still doesn't necessarily make a "great" instrument though, IMO. To me, for an instrument to be "great", it must first have an excellent design, be made with excellent materials, display good construction, have excellent "fit and finish", be very playable, have good feel and balance in the players hands, it must be responsive to the players input and be capable of producing good "tone" at all levels of loudness with excellent balance of tone and loudness from string to string and from fret to fret.
So the things that separate the "great" from the "good" are the details of the sound. Those details of the sound can escape novice players, and new players often cannot hear the difference between good and great instruments. With experience, players learn to hear, feel, and otherwise perceive the details, develop their own preferences, and discern not only the differences between good and better instruments, but also the differences between "great" instruments. Past a certain point of quality there really is no better or worse, only different, and some "great" instruments will appeal to some players and others to other players.
And one last thing. The retail price has very little direct correlation with quality when you get into the upper price ranges. To some extent, "you get what you pay for" when comparing student instruments, "average" production instruments, and so forth, but when you get into the highest quality, hand made instruments, prices are determined by a segment of the market that can make little sense to people who do not understand it, and it becomes the responsibility of the buyer to trust his/her own judgement to wade through the choices and find the bargains, if that is the desire, or simply find his/her best instrument choice if "price is no object".
Thanks for the replies everyone, I really appreciate everyone taking the time to explain things thoroughly.
Great post. I don't think anyone could have said it better.