A friend of mine has been letting me borrow his Epiphone MM-30 A-style mandolin for about a year now; he's been great about it, but my guilt for keeping it so long and my desire to own my own instrument that I can love has prompted me to buy something I can call my own.
I am a pretty raw beginner after even a year, so it's not as if the MM-30 is holding me back. But I've begun to be annoyed with its tinny upper-register tone and the fact that strings that are in tune when open turn sharp when fretted.
So - after scrimping and saving, I have $500 for a mandolin, and am hoping that is enough to get me a good upgrade, something decent that can grow with me as I learn. While it'd be great to get a beautiful mandolin with a gorgeous inlay, fantastic finish, etc., what I really, really want is a great player that will hold its tune, intonate correctly, and give me something as close to that gorgeous liquid mandolin tone as I can get at this price point. I am looking for bang for the buck.
I've done a lot of research online, but I've hit a bit of a stopping point, and this is where I would love to get some advice. I've narrowed down to a few reputable brands and a few models that look good, but I can't seem to differentiate them. The difference between solid sycamore, maple, mahogany - is there really a difference in tone? Rosewood vs. ebony bridge and fingerboard - is that just an aesthetic thing? Should I hold out for non-generic tuners? I do want all solid wood.
I would just go down to a local shop to see which feels and sounds best to me, but I haven't found a place in Seattle that stocks these. Guitar Center has two mandolins, both Epiphones like the one I'm already familiar with. Dusty Strings is a nice place, but its mandos are way, way out of my price range. And I've checked both the Kentucky and Morgan Monroe dealer locators and there are none nearby.
So, if I can't try these myself, could somebody please help me make heads or tails of this list?
So far I've narrowed it down to, with best prices:
Morgan Monroe MMS-2W (spruce/sycamore) - $379
Rover RM-75 (spruce/maple) - $381
Kentucky KM-505 (spruce/maple) - $446
Morgan Monroe MMS-3W (spruce/maple) - $449
Morgan Monroe MMS-4 (spruce/sycamore) - $449
Kentucky KM-620 (spruce/maple) - $470
Michael Kelly MK17 Legacy Plus (spruce/maple) - $499
I've seen a few used higher-end Kentuckys, Michael Kellys, and Washburns around near my price range. And the Gold Tone GM-70 and "The Loar" LM-500 are near enough to my price range that I could stretch if they are worth the premium.
But to be honest, I just can't differentiate these. The specs all look similar, and I think they're all imports. Of course, every retail site I visit uses the manufacturer text, so according to them, every one of these mandolins gives ringing tone, great bark, and the best performance for the dollar. I'm sure much of the tone comes from the pick and strings you use, but I would have to imagine there is at least *some* difference between these mandolins. I've looked at the Folk of the Wood videos, but not all of the mandolins here are represented there and the sound in the video is tinny enough that it's hard to tell much about the tone (to my ears, anyway).
I would appreciate any advice that would help me make order from this chaos. If anybody actually owns any of these mandolins, I'd appreciate hearing about your experience ...