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Thread: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

  1. #1
    Ben Beran Dfyngravity's Avatar
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    Default Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Well there was a recent thread on this, but as Ted and Scott pointed out...it strayed fairly far from its intent. Though I was a bit confused with the original posting. So I would like to start another thread here but with a little more direction as I am interested in this.

    It is without a doubt that not all professionals are playing mandolins that cost 2K or more.......well at least they didn't pay 2K for their mandolins. So what are some mandolins worthy of the professional gig? What are you looking for your mandolin to have that makes it worthy enough to do some gigs with.

    I had a Kentucky KM-675 about 6-7 years ago that I though was a very good mandolin. Very loud, great chop and the tone was fairly pleasing. After about a month I replaced the fingerboard with an ebony one, put larger frets on it, a new nut, bridge and a new tailpiece. I had it done by a guy who was just starting to make instruments and he did a decent job and did if for not much at all since he was just learning the craft. A gamble on my part but it paid off. When I first bought the Kentucky it had great potential, it just needed a bit of convincing. I eventually sold it because I was playing a lot of classical and needed a mandolin more suitable for that type of playing. But I sold my kentucky to a guy who was playing in a bluegrass band and once he played it he said sold.....point being, after all said and done...the Kentucky was way under 2K and was a great mandolin even for a professional.

  2. #2
    David Mold OldSausage's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    As long as a mandolin is reasonably playable and doesn't sound like a horrible piece of plastic, you can use just about anything to play a professional gig, unless you're on the really high end. Once the sound has been through an SM58 and a cheap PA all that's left is the middle, so the audience isn't really going to catch much nuance anyway.

    What you need a really high quality instrument for is practicing quietly by yourself.

  3. #3
    Destroyer of Mandolins
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    It's not the mandolin that makes the professional, it's the other way around. Musical instruments are only tools. I've never owned a mandolin worth more than a thousand dollars, yet I've earned my living with them for the last 15 years. I'm not famous. I'm not a celebrity. I never will be. I don't even want to be. I am a professional musician because I earn my living playing music. I can earn a paycheck with a $50 mandolin if I have to. Owning a valuable instrument would not have changed the course of my career. I am the musician. The instrument is not.
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    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I don't think a professional needs a great instrument. They need good volume primarily and good tone secondly. A whole lot of mandolins would suffice. Especially at a gig. Even recording. I'm going to say it and then duck for cover fast! I have heard more than one recording of Bill's where his mandolin sounds bad! That's right,BAD. Sorry folks but it's true. Loar or not for what ever reason it just doesn't sound good on some of his recordings. Whether it's bad strings, bad mic, or God forbid, Bill having a bad day who knows?! My MK A+ sounds better. The point is that you don't need a great instrument to record with either. If you told a pro they couldn't have a mandolin that retails over $1500. They'd do okay. Was it Steve Morse that had one too many Strats stolen when he was on the road and began to take Squiers on tour? He did fine with them.

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    Destroyer of Mandolins
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    We're ONLY Trying to EXPRESS OURSELVES!

    Sorry, I COULDN"T RESIST. THANKS FOR BEING OPEN-MINDED.
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    Robert Fear Folkmusician.com's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I have seen professionals playing a KM-150, and a properly setup KM-150 has plenty of volume and adequate tone for the average pro (emphasis on AVERAGE). Of course it is not going to be their ideal mando, but I can't imagine it ruining their gig.
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    Registered User abuteague's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I was at a workshop at a mandolin camp where the instructor challenged those present to give him the worse mandolin available and he would play it. Sure enough someone produced a less than $50 special that they were feeling not so good about being surrounded by all the more expensive models in the room. The instructor squeezed a very expressive tune out of that joke of a mandolin and then recommended a setup. It sounded quite good.
    His own mandolin had some duct tape repairs on it and he kept it in the trunk of his car and it had some real serious personality, but he could play anything on it from jazz standards to bluegrass or the blues. He could play slow or fast. He bent that instrument to his will and it did what he told it to do. When it fell apart, he bought another. He played sub $1000 mandolins as a matter of principle.

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    David Mold OldSausage's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by abuteague View Post
    When it fell apart, he bought another.
    What, he ran out of duct tape?

  9. #9
    garded
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    You know, before the other thread got out of hand, and most of us were put off by all the yelling(lol Tim) I was going to say, I have played many the Kentucky 150s that I woulda played a gig on. And not to many other makes can I say that either. And that's without retuning.

    Another undeniable pro who uses a Kentucky, albeit a KM 1000, is Joe Craven. He's another guy who can play anything and make it sound good.

    And I'm with Charlie. You can have a million dollar axe, and at the hands of the wrong sound tech or recording engineer, it can sound like garbage.

    I had to laugh a while back when a local pro was on a weekend radio show and he was remarking how you used to be able to pick up a Dobro for a couple hundred dollars anywhere. But since Jerry Douglas made the Dobro famous, the prices have shot through the roof. So, it would seem the pro's drive the market, whether they mean to or not. Sad thing is they probably don't get any of the action, even if they're names on it, or do they?

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    Bill Healy mrbook's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Only one mandolin I've owned cost over $1,000, and I no longer own it. All the others cost less, but were chosen becasue I thought they were worth playing. I've had quite a few compliments on the sound of my mandolin, and no complaints (to my face,anyway) - and no one has asked what it cost.

  11. #11
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I've done most of my gigs on sub-$2K mandolins. Now, in all honesty, neither my 50's F-5 nor my old 3-point F-2 cost $2K, but I bought them a long time ago, and they certainly would cost more than that now. I have played dozens of jobs with a Sobell I bought back in the '80's for $800, but again, it was a one-of bargain price, for particular reasons, and wouldn't qualify as <$2K on the open market.

    So let's think about more recent prices. For a couple years my main vocal-accompaniment mandolin was my Gibson Army-Navy Custom "pancake," 1986 Carlson signed, $900 at Bernunzio's. I've done a fair amount of work with an Eastman 615 mandola, which I got for around $1,500. When I do my 19th-century historical jobs, if I'm not using the B&G Victoria which I inherited, I'm using either a Howe-Orme mandolinetto or a Merrill aluminum bowl-back, each of which I picked up on eBay for less than $250. Several times I've used my Regal Octofone, which cost me less than $300. And, of course, the prize is my Strad-O-Lin, $25 in a private sale, several hundred dollars worth of repairs, which I've had in the studio, onstage, and in many many jams.

    Not to say that an aspiring pro mandolinist, buying a new instrument in 2009, wouldn't feel the need to get near $2K for a professional-grade instrument. But if one's not compelled to buy new, and is willing to do a bit of looking around and trying brands other than the "majors," one can find an instrument for $1K or less that meets the needs of a performer.
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by Charley wild View Post
    I'm going to say it and then duck for cover fast! I have heard more than one recording of Bill's where his mandolin sounds bad! That's right,BAD. Sorry folks but it's true. Loar or not for what ever reason it just doesn't sound good on some of his recordings. Whether it's bad strings, bad mic, or God forbid, Bill having a bad day who knows?! My MK A+ sounds better. The point is that you don't need a great instrument to record with either.
    It's an opinion, so it's neither true nor false. Some would agree with you, others not. But the thing you neglectled to mention was that Monroe was badly recorded on many occasions. I was amazed at the sound of the Bear Family re-mastered CD's as compared with some of the albums I had that featured the same material. Same thing with his voice. On some really poor pressings, he sounds quite thin. Hearing those same recordings on Bear Family, I realized how bad those albums were. I've also heard some terrible pressings. I've had different versions of the same sessions on vinyl, one sounding far worse than the other.

    On the original topic, I get that you can sound good on a lesser instrument but it does take work, where a truly great mandolin will give up its tone more readily. I recently saw Seattle's Downtown Mountain Boys. Their mandolin player had a fantastic-sounding Heiden. I enjoyed listening to the sound of that mandolin. I certainly would rather hear that than a Michael Kelly.

    The other thing is just personal pleasure. I love listening to the sound of a nice mandolin while playing acoustically. When I get on stage it's less important to me because I'm not hearing the same thing though the monitors that I am in my living room.

    I think the point is well-taken that an expensive instrument isn't completely necessary but there is a reason why people want them and are willing to pay for them. There's nothing wrong with wanting the beautiful tone that comes from a top-quality instrument. On the other hand, if most of your playing is done in noisy bars to drunk, non-caring patrons, maybe the Bic lighter approach is the better way to go.

  13. #13
    Free Spirit Aran's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I will reiterate that Eastman's are fantastic value... Saying that though I have to admit that I am on my second Weber and I love it..... And yes part of me wanted an American hand built axe....

    My brother is a professional musician (wish I was) and plays an Eastman 915 which was a lot less than 2K and he also has an old Epiphone which he has placed frets between the frets for some semitone notes for weird music that I don't understand fully.... Anyhoo the Epiphone was even cheaper than the Eastman.... I will never play as well as my bro.... So can take some solice in having a nicer mandolin....

    Yep sibling rivalry is rampant....

    I just think that my bro is a good case in point....
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    Registered User sanctuary13's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I'm not a pro mandolin player, but I was a session drummer for a few years. I've recorded for studios using custom built Sonor drums, acoustically tuned to the alignment of the freaking planets during the construction of the wooden shells, seriously nutty alchemical stuff from Paiste, all that stuff. Sounded really good cuz it was mic'd right and played right. I've also played gigs where the kit was missing parts, had mismatched no-name drums taped onto stands. Sounded really good cuz it was mic'd right and played right.

    I love getting into the nit picking musicians can about instrument quality. Given a choice, I will always go for the better sounding instrument, whether thats more expensive or not, but most professional musicians can't just afford whatever is best. you have to make the best out of what you've got. while I may just love the appearance of a gorgeous custom shop instrument, I prefer the sound of well played cheaper instruments.

    I do feel there is a lower cutoff however. The Rogue/Rover/Savannah/whatever $50-$60 spray paint faded A's we see everywhere are perfect for someone first dabbling in mando playing, but simply cannot live up to pro playing, be it strain or just constant use. My $500 Epiphone F style may not be the best instrument on the block, but i've got it setup just perfectly for how I play, and while my mando isnt up to where my drums are, It goes in leaps and bounds.

    The nicest drumset Ive ever owned cost $1200, and thats just because I prefer 8" 10" 12" 14" toms as opposed to the more common 12" 13" 16", so had to order it. I've recorded 4 sessions on it and played innumerable shows in it, from bars to funerals.

    As I'm not a full on mandolinist yet, I'll just say this as a generality: take all your idols and the brands they endorse and forget ALL of it. endorsement deals do not matter. You wont be able to perfectly emulate their sound without spending thousands upon thousands of dollars in rackmounted studio gear and microphones and training in all of its use. So the best thing for a pro to do is learn their instrument, not just the playing of it, but the construction, weaknesses, general maintenance of it, then find a brand which is of a decent enough quality to be consistent in tone, have reliable hardware that will keep its tune, and feels good to you. past that I dont care if the mandolin has 4 scrolls, 10 horns, three bone nuts and a tone guard on both sides and is entirely made from abalone inlay. Actually I think I saw a pic of one like that from the 20s.
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    Cafe Linux Mommy danb's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim2723 View Post
    It's not the mandolin that makes the professional, it's the other way around. Musical instruments are only tools.
    I agree that the player is the bigger contribution, but I've never been comfortable with the statement that the quality and wonder of the really fine instruments can be dismissed. It's not keyed to price either! I've got an old heavily-played snakehead here that lacks in cosmetics and collector value, but can out-belt instruments worth 10x it's value.

    I've had my hands on all sorts of fun pieces over the years, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that a really fine instrument lifts you to new heights and makes whatever you are doing sound better.

    There are all sorts of tricks and techniques that simply don't work on low-end instruments. You'd never even realize they were possible if you didn't play on something where they "worked".

    Back to the original poster's question- the biggest bargains in the instrument world are vintage Gibsons that have had a few repairs or cosmetic issues. You can pick up snakeheads and even F2/F4s with repairs or refinish work in the sub $3k price range. Tonally these will blow almost anything else out of the water until you get up in $8-10k price ranges nowadays.

    Repairs and overfinish can kill the value of a piece, knocking off 50% because it limits the audience to serious committed players. Look for something used, something vintage, and be picky for tone. You can get great bargains out there if you don't let the phrase "Repaired top crack" scare you off!
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    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by mandolirius View Post
    It's an opinion, so it's neither true nor false. Some would agree with you, others not. But the thing you neglectled to mention was that Monroe was badly recorded on many occasions. I was amazed at the sound of the Bear Family re-mastered CD's as compared with some of the albums I had that featured the same material. Same thing with his voice. On some really poor pressings, he sounds quite thin. Hearing those same recordings on Bear Family, I realized how bad those albums were. I've also heard some terrible pressings. I've had different versions of the same sessions on vinyl, one sounding far worse than the other.

    On the original topic, I get that you can sound good on a lesser instrument but it does take work, where a truly great mandolin will give up its tone more readily. I recently saw Seattle's Downtown Mountain Boys. Their mandolin player had a fantastic-sounding Heiden. I enjoyed listening to the sound of that mandolin. I certainly would rather hear that than a Michael Kelly.

    The other thing is just personal pleasure. I love listening to the sound of a nice mandolin while playing acoustically. When I get on stage it's less important to me because I'm not hearing the same thing though the monitors that I am in my living room.

    I think the point is well-taken that an expensive instrument isn't completely necessary but there is a reason why people want them and are willing to pay for them. There's nothing wrong with wanting the beautiful tone that comes from a top-quality instrument. On the other hand, if most of your playing is done in noisy bars to drunk, non-caring patrons, maybe the Bic lighter approach is the better way to go.
    Your points are well taken. Bill was known as somewhat an indifferent recording artist to begin with according to his biography. And recording Bluegrass music is and was a real challenge to begin with. Bill wasn't the only artist to suffer from that fact. I'm surprised you are the only one took me to task a bit! lol
    Also I agree with your point that there is nothing wrong with owning or playing a fine instrument. Given a choice I'd rather hear a fine instrument over a mediocre one any day! But even second rate instruments have improved greatly since I started playing. It never ceases to amaze me how good a lot of the import acoustic instruments sound! It wasn't always that way.

  17. #17

    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I think that it is safe to say that the cafe web site would be a lonesome place were it not for bluegrass music and one W.S. Monroe. I also think that bluegrass would not have evolved as we know it had WSM not found that F5 in the barbershop. No mando available at that time had the tonal qualities and percussive punch of a Loar. When WSM heard that, his music changed quickly, and forever. Mando became, over a relatively short time, a very popular instrument once more. That has led to mando cross dressers-those who play bluegrass and classical-and the mandolin orchestras in this country were resurrected. Mandos show up elsewhere in pop music, not only in this country but around the world.
    I am not saying that the mando renaissance of the late XXth century could only have occurred through the music of Monroe. But I am saying that WSM was a huge and seminal factor in all this, and that his choice of a particular instrument, the LL signed MM F5, enabled the development of his unique form of American music. Try playing "Kentucky Mandolin" on a cheap bowlback.
    So it is true that the instrument trumps the player, on occasion.

  18. #18
    Chris Hasty Chris Hasty's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by sanctuary13 View Post
    I'm not a pro mandolin player, but I was a session drummer for a few years. I've recorded for studios using custom built Sonor drums, acoustically tuned to the alignment of the freaking planets during the construction of the wooden shells, seriously nutty alchemical stuff from Paiste, all that stuff. Sounded really good cuz it was mic'd right and played right. I've also played gigs where the kit was missing parts, had mismatched no-name drums taped onto stands. Sounded really good cuz it was mic'd right and played right...
    I think there is a lot of truth to this statement. While, in my opinion, my $500.00 alvarez A body sounds great (I've gotten many compliments on it's tone)... I have played a few mandolins that sound better.

    However, I played at a mega church with a sound system that I can't even begin to imagine the cost of. It was beyond incredible, all digital and all wireless. When I heard myself during my warm up, I was surprised that it was my mandolin sounding that good. Even though I was playing through a mic on a stand in front of me, the sound guys were fantastic and made me sound like a true pro. Their work made my good sounding mando sound great.

    In that respect, I think dedicated sound pros can make up for many shortcomings a less expensive mando might have. Purely in the context of this discussion of course. I'm still wanting to upgrade because I don't play that sort of venue on a regular basis.

    This just addresses the sound part, playability goes much further in my opinion.

  19. #19
    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by eightmoremiles View Post
    I think that it is safe to say that the cafe web site would be a lonesome place were it not for bluegrass music and one W.S. Monroe. I also think that bluegrass would not have evolved as we know it had WSM not found that F5 in the barbershop. No mando available at that time had the tonal qualities and percussive punch of a Loar. When WSM heard that, his music changed quickly, and forever. Mando became, over a relatively short time, a very popular instrument once more. That has led to mando cross dressers-those who play bluegrass and classical-and the mandolin orchestras in this country were resurrected. Mandos show up elsewhere in pop music, not only in this country but around the world.
    I am not saying that the mando renaissance of the late XXth century could only have occurred through the music of Monroe. But I am saying that WSM was a huge and seminal factor in all this, and that his choice of a particular instrument, the LL signed MM F5, enabled the development of his unique form of American music. Try playing "Kentucky Mandolin" on a cheap bowlback.
    So it is true that the instrument trumps the player, on occasion.
    I respectfully disagree with your main point! You're trying to prove negative evidence. That Bill's music change because of his acquiring the Loar is a nice thought but it's not provable by any means. Put a different way,you saying that his music wouldn't have evolved without it! I find that hard to buy. To be true all the other mandolins available would of had to be vastly inferior and even in that case it's doubtful that it would have stopped Bill from evolving. And let's face it;it wasn't a Loar mandolin that gave Bluegrass music the kick in the butt to get it over the final hurdle, it was Earl!

  20. #20

    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    Quote Originally Posted by eightmoremiles View Post
    I am not saying that the mando renaissance of the late XXth century could only have occurred through the music of Monroe. But I am saying that WSM was a huge and seminal factor in all this, and that his choice of a particular instrument, the LL signed MM F5, enabled the development of his unique form of American music. Try playing "Kentucky Mandolin" on a cheap bowlback.
    No one can say what would have happened, only what did happen, and Monroe and his Loar are to mandolin in the twentieth-first century what Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kittyhawk are to modern flight; seminal and irrefutable. Richard D. Smith makes some tall claims for WSM's range of influence on many popular musical fields in his introduction to his book "Can't You Hear Me Callin'", that on consideration, are hard to contradict.
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  21. #21
    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    No one is disputing Bill's influence on various types of music or his influence on the instrument. My contention is that there were several other mandolins well above bowlback status available at the time and the lack of a Loar wouldn't have changed Bill's approach to his music.

  22. #22
    plectrist
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I totally agree with the point that a professional musician can successfully gig with inexpensive instruments.

    What a nicer instrument does for us wannabees ....... it just refuses to be kept in its case and demands be be held and played .... pushing us closer to a professional level of play ... where we can grab a "lesser" instrument ...... and so the circle goes.

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  23. #23
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    It's an interesting question how much equipment influences musical development.

    I think the history of music is a story of people doing what they could with what they had.

    I think it's pretty obvious that modern bluegrass as we know it would not exist if Monroe had played an old bowlback instead of the Loar, but perhaps he would have made a different but also interesting music on the bowlback. Perhaps with a greater emphasis on lyricism/subtlety over drive/dexterity.

    Actually, I think I would like that music better than bluegrass.

  24. #24
    Bill Healy mrbook's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    I've met a few good players who could just never afford an expensive instrument, but it never stopped them from playing. My best instruments were all handmade by small, unknown (not relatively unknown, but really unknown) builders, that were good buys because they didn't seem to have much resale value. They sound good and they are set up to play. They have served me well. I haven't had a desire for another, although I'm sure I'll need one some day.

    I played a show a couple years ago where I met another player who wanted to try mine and let me try his mandolin. His was nice, but I knew the maker charges around $6,000, and the bar wasn't the best place to evaluate it. As others have said, most people make music on the instruments they can afford. Most inexpensive instruments are not equal in sound to the more expensive ones, but it doesn't mean they can't be used to make great music. An expensive instrument won't make up for practice, technique, or inspiration. To be honest, though, when I hear a good mandolin player, I'm not that concerned with what instrument they are playing.

  25. #25
    Ben Beran Dfyngravity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Affordable mandolins for the playing professional

    You know I was thinking after reading through all of the post and realized that affordable really depends on your personally definition of affordable.

    When I first started playing mandolin, well guitar for that fact too I had not clue to how expensive instruments. And at that point, affordable was anything under $300. Now after about 8 years or so, I would consider anything from $500-$1500 to be affordable. Over those 8 years I have played dozens of different mandolins and have come to like certain qualities and look for those when I am in the market for a new mandolin. Though I have what I would consider the best mandolin I have owned and played, just a few weeks ago I played an A5 that really blew me away. If you were blindfolded you would probably have a hard time telling it wasn't a 2K+ mandolin even though it was under 1k.

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