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Thread: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandolin

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    Question Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandolin

    Hi All,
    I am excited about getting started on a Mandolin. I have been looking at all the brands and there are SOOO many to choose from.

    Right now, I am looking for something that is easy to play. I have played guitar in the past a little. But, I realized quickly that some of the mandolins seem harder (or in my experience), the strings were closer together and made it difficult for me to play. I went and looked at a Michael Kelly. Perhaps it wasn't set up to play yet - but I found it to be very closely strung, and harder to get clear notes. It seemed the strings were set higher. Is this a preference for the mastered musician?

    I am very limited to what I can actually go out and try. I am in nw chicago suburbs, and mandolins in stock are few and far between. I tried my sisters cheap old hickory and it was much easier to play for me. More space in between strings and easier to get a clear tone.

    I have also consider the Morgan Monroe MMS2W for the wider spacing. Is this an easy player? Trying to find someone that carries them - would consider a good used one truthfully - but I worry about the condition & integrity of disclosing the true condition of the instrument.

    Would LOVE any guidance on starter mandolins that play and sound pretty good for the money. I am trying to keep in under $300 if possible till I see if I have any ability with it.

    Thanks in advance for any suggestions, tips, or places to purchase. I have been panning thru the ads here....but they are usually over my budget right now.

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    Registered User Rodney Riley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    My first production mandolin was a Fender A-style acoustic/electric. They are under the $300 range. But look for one that has the solid top. My first one was a plywood top. Sold it when I found a solid top. (purchased them both from Guitar Center) It has an adjustable bridge that can be lowered for easy fretting. The Morgan and most mandolins have an adjustable bridge to help with the action. But as most here on the Cafe will advise you. Find a luthier/repair tech that work on mandos, (some techs work on guitars only and are not familiar with the nature of these beasts) and get it set-up. This would include but not limited to; Neck adjustment/reset, Nut work, Fret/fingerboard work, Bridge adjustment, Tuner cleaning/lubricating. Adjustments mostly on new mandos, possible reset and replacements on used. For ease of playing, the set-up is more critical than the maker.

    Oh, and welcome to the Cafe. Your gonna love playin these little monsters!
    Last edited by Rodney Riley; Oct-12-2011 at 10:53am. Reason: To give a hearty welcome.

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Thanks Rodney for your response. I have been looking thru the past inquiries posted here by beginners, and I see we all are trying to get familiar with and insight on models available. I am just going to have to get out and put the miles on till I come across one that suits me the best for now. Thanks for the suggestions.

    Also wondering if you could clarify something for me - does wider nut width then equal wider neck and spacing on the strings?

    Thanks! Donna Jo :o)

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    I've been playing on a Michael Kelly A-Solid model for a little over 6 months. It's their cheapest mandolin, but I think it's a great one for the price. I've heard they are a "hit or miss" brand. I would still recommend it. I ordered it from Folkmusician online and they do their own set ups (you can read about what they do to them on the site when you click on a mando), which is ideal if you're like me and have nowhere to take it to.

    As far as string spacing, I'm not sure. Most that I have played seem fairly equal. Though I do prefer light guage strings for ease of playing and clarity.

    Good luck finding an axe. Or should I say, "hatchet". I'm sure you will love it

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    There have been so many threads started similar to yours. Someone wants to start the mandolin, but wants to keep it under 300 dollars because they want to "see if they like it" before spending big money. While that sounds like a plan for most people, that price range is problematic. You run the risk of buying an instrument that will discourage you quickly because it has not been set up correctly. I cannot emphasize strongly enough, in this price range SETUP IS EVERYTHING!!! I would highly recommend buying from a dealer who will include the set-up. Elderly Instruments, Folkmusician.com, and The Mandolin Store are three examples of places that will do that for you, and they have served many forum members well. In your price range you will find your choices are limited. There are Kentucky and Rover models that would fit the bill. Elderly sells a Rover WITH their excellent set-up for $150, a true bargain.
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    Registered User Pete Summers's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    I second the recommendation for the Rover RM50, IF you can find it in stock. And absolutely, order from one of the vendors on this site who include a complete set-up. Any mandolin, even the lowly $49 Rogue, will sound and play like a mandolin if set-up correctly.

    The all wood Rover is a good beginner's mandolin (made by Saga, who also makes Kentucky). It sounds, looks and plays good (at least mine certainly does) and is really hard to beat at that price.

    The mandolin is a small instrument and seems to most adult beginners as too small to play with adult fingers. It's not, though. If you learn to hold the instrument correctly (think violin, not guitar, for left hand position), you'll soon find that narrow fingerboard and close fret spacings to be a natural advantage which uses an economy of motion compared to a guitar. Think of fiddlers, who deal with an even narrower fingerboard than the mandolin. Once you are use to it, you'll love it.

    See this video for excellent playing tips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmagoBQunZI

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    Registered User Jim MacDaniel's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    As Don said, if you buy online, definitely buy from someone who does a proper setup on it - and any of the cafe's sponsors such as those he listed in his post should be safe bet on that account.
    Last edited by Jim MacDaniel; Oct-12-2011 at 2:38pm.
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    For easy play under $300 look for a used Mid Missouri or Big Muddy. (Same builder, the latter is the reorganized name.) I started with one and it is very easy to play. The simple design and light strings make it very playable, if not so loud. If you go with an arch top with adjustable bridge you will need to have it set up professionally and, no, you can't count on that at that price point. The latter depends on the seller, if you search through our archives you will find recommendations for dealers that set up even cheap mandolins. It won't be a big box, there you'd be lucky if they even get the bridge in the right place and take the paper out from under the bridge (which is a good clue that the seller is clueless about mandolins),
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    Registered User Rodney Riley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Quote Originally Posted by DonnaJo View Post
    Also wondering if you could clarify something for me - does wider nut width then equal wider neck and spacing on the strings?
    Yes, the nut will match the width of the neck. If I understand correctly the strings (GG DD AA EE) will be spaced together the same. The spacing G course to D course to A course to E course will increase equally to compensate to the neck width. Any Luthier can jump in and educate us if this explanation is not correct.

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    Registered User John Kinn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    As a rule, this is correct. But nut width and string spacing don't have to correlate. I think e.g. Sam Bush (and his Gibson model) has a somewhat special string spacing..

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Have it set up with light-gauge strings ... easier on your fingertips!
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Quote Originally Posted by multidon View Post
    I cannot emphasize strongly enough, in this price range SETUP IS EVERYTHING!!! I would highly recommend buying from a dealer who will include the set-up.
    Wow Don, thanks for the input on purchasing with a setup. That is kinda what I was wondering about and thought it would be worth having done. You see I had gone to look and try a Michael Kelly Firefly - it was beautiful...but when I went to the music store to try it out, the instrument was out of tune, and I thought hard to play. I kinda believe now that it wasn't set up at all as you said.The strings were quite a bit higher off the neck and also strung with heavier strings. I am thinking now I didn't get a true idea of what that instrument could be. Store said they usually didn't carry mandolins - so that would also fall true of not knowing how to set one up. I don't really want to go "cheap" - and I understand what you are saying about buying a little better quality to get a better playing instrument. Thanks for all your suggestions!

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    Have it set up with light-gauge strings ... easier on your fingertips!
    Thanks Mando.........that is a great idea till I "toughen up" a bit.

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    DonnaJo, I hate to encourage anyone to go into debt to try out a new hobby but I really think purchasing the right mandolin to learn on is imperative to giving yourself a chance to succeed. If you are very comfortable with your current debt situation I suggest that you go all out and spend between 1000.00 to 1400.00 for your first axe. For $1200.00 you could buy a used Gibson A9 right here on the classifieds with a 48 hr return policy that will serve you well for many years. They are well made, sound very good and play easy. $1200.00 @ 12% interest = $144 if you keep it for the year. If you decide to sell it three months later you'll be out $36.00. Because more than likely you'll be able to sell it for the $1200.00 you orginally spent. A $300.00 mandolin is unlikley to sound good or play easy no matter who sets it up. When you want to sell it (and it will be soon if you progress) you will have a very difficult time getting any of your $300 back. They're cheap and that's that. The planets may line up just right for one out of one hundred but its rare. I don't see any on the classifieds tonight and I know the mandolin bug is biting but take your time. I have seen some really good buys on these recently and they will show up again. About the 48hr approval. When you get it take it to a Bluegrass jam and ask a mandolin player what he or several people think of it. It's hard to evaluate a instrument you can't play. Good luck. Mandolindan1960

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Quote Originally Posted by mandodan1960 View Post
    DonnaJo, I hate to encourage anyone to go into debt to try out a new hobby but I really think purchasing the right mandolin to learn on is imperative to giving yourself a chance to succeed. If you are very comfortable with your current debt situation I suggest that you go all out and spend between 1000.00 to 1400.00 for your first axe....A $300.00 mandolin is unlikley to sound good or play easy no matter who sets it up. When you want to sell it (and it will be soon if you progress) you will have a very difficult time getting any of your $300 back. They're cheap and that's that...
    Disagree. You can buy a Kentucky KM-140S from Elderly Instruments here for $199. Elderly does shop set-up on their mandolins, and you can even call them and ask that the instrument be set up with low action. For a student instrument, ease of playing and proper set-up are much more important than overall sound and appearance. This is a decent student model mandolin, with a solid spruce top, laminated back & sides, adjustable truss rod and dovetail neck joint. It's far from a "pro quality" instrument, but it's eminently playable if properly adjusted.

    If I had been told, when I got my first mandolin, that I had to spend $1K to get an acceptable learner instrument, I wouldn't have taken up the mandolin at all. (Of course, my first mandolin was free, a 'teens Gibson A-1 "attic find," though it needed a top crack repair and a set-up.) There are perfectly acceptable sub-$300 mandolins that people can learn on. They don't sound as good or look as nice as a $1.2K Gibson A-9, but you can learn to drive on a Honda Civic as well as on a Ferrari or a Lexus, and when you decide that you're ready, and have the resources, to purchase a professional quality instrument, you can trade in the "beginner" instrument, or pass it on to another student -- one who will probably be happy to get a well-set-up, well-taken-care-of entry level mandolin for $2-300 or so.

    Many of us have perhaps forgotten what it was like to start out on our first mandolin, guitar, banjo et. al. I lucked out on the mandolin, but learned banjo on a $35 no-name with a skin head and a 5th-string friction peg that never stayed in tune. I learned guitar on a Harmony "brown box" with no bridge that someone gave me; I got a bridge, glued it on (wrong), and was off to the races. Not that I'm recommending that DonnaJo learn on a cruddy instrument as I did, just sayin' she needn't mortgage the farm to get an acceptable student mandolin.
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    Registered User mandobassman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    I would agree with Allen. While you certainly want to get the best playing mandolin you can afford, you don't have to spend a ton of money to do it. I have two cheap mandolins. One is a Rogue that I bought for $25 on Craigslist for my 5-year-old to kick around. It's a terrible mandolin, and even after I set it up the best I could, it still plays terrible. I wouldn't want anyone to try to learn on that mandolin. I've been playing for 35 years and can't play that mandolin. However, I also recently picked up a Johnson MA-120, also from Craigslist, for $40. It needed a new bridge, so after getting that and a new set of strings I had a total of $70 invested in this instrument. Not only is it playable, it sounds fantastic. This mandolin can be bought new for $179 so we're not talking about a great quality level here, I just think I got a diamond in the rough. It does show that you CAN get a decent mandolin without spending a bunch. The mandolin that Allen mentioned is as good, if not better than my MA-120. Certainly good enough to get your feet wet and see if you are going to like it or not. Buying from Elderly, as Allen suggested, or any of the Cafe sponsors, is a good way to make sure it is set up as good as it can be to give yourself the best shot at success.
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Starting out on the mandolin, your fingertips will hurt. Heck, your finger muscles may ache a bit too if you are not used to holding down strings and such - it's muscle that you may not be using right now. Don't give up 'cause you get blisters, aches or other annoyances. We've all had to deal with them.

    Even if you are a guitar player you may find that the guitar callosus don't line up with the callosuses you need for the mandolin.

    Set up makes a difference for sure. Big issue is setup at the nut. Setup at the bridge can be adjusted using the thumb screws - it's easy. Bad action at the nut is just terrible. So, a retailer that knows how to make the nut right is key.

    What sort of music do you imagine playing on the mandolin? Are you driven by the mandolin styles of somebody in particular? Are you thinking when you get some skill you'll want it to have a pickup?

    I honestly don't like the thin tone of a cheap starter mandolin. Yeah, they are good for learning and when setup properly will be a good tool for practice. Learning though usually requires playing with other folks. Action too low (at the bridge) can take away volumn, mostly 'cause you can't attack the strings with enough vigor and avoid buzzing.

    Consider looking at Big Muddy mandolins. Used from a motivated seller you may be in the $300 to $400 range, but they cost more new (maybe like $600). Flat top mandolins have a great sound that's pretty versatile.

    Good luck and have fun.

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    I agree 100 percent with Allen. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting an under 300 dollar beginner's instrument to start out. There are a lot out there that are decent quality. You will get characteristic mandolin tone if you avoid plywood and pressed tops. Entry level the Loar, Kentucky, and Rover would all be fine. For a bit more, Eastman would be great. For flat top, Big Muddy is great but would have to be bought used to meet the price point. The OP talks about a Michael Kelly Firefly in the local shop that is hard to play. What must be understood by the OP and all the good folks who want to join our ranks with an under 300 dollar instrument (and judging by the number of inquiries we get along those lines, their numbers must be legion!) is that most stores get them from their supplier, take them out of the box, and hang them up. That's it. And inexpensive instruments don't come from the factory set up and ready to play out of the box. They expect the store to do that. That's one way they save money and are able to offer that price point. Some stores do, some don't. The businesses who DO set up the instruments as they should usually say so quite clearly. I would strongly encourage the OP (and the rest of the vast under 300 dollars legion out there) to purchase their instrument from somebody who INCLUDES the set up in the purchase price. That way, you can go ahead and start playing it without having to worry about taking it to get worked on somewhere else at additional expense. A proper set up should include the following: check and correct action at nut, check and correct action at bridge, check and correct neck relief (if truss rod is adjustable). Having this done separately by a qualified luthier could add 60-75 dollars or more to your purchase price. That's why it's such a good idea to get it included.
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    I don't know if the OP has shopped any of the Web sites I suggested yet, but one thing that sticks out is that good quality under 300 mandolins are often out of stock because they are popular and sell quickly. I have no financial interest in Elderly Instruments but I was looking at their selection on line and noticed they have both the Kentucky KM-161 and KM-162 in stock right now for 275 (instrument only, no case). All solid carved woods, nitro lacquer finish, Elderly shop set up included. You would have to buy an case separately.
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    Glowering Clown In Crisis mandomiser's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    I bought my Kentucky KM-150 online for $199 a couple years ago including set-up by either mandolin hut or mandolin store, because someones review said it was the best thing they had played under $1,000. I see one of them has it with gigbag for $249, now. It is a great mando, and I am selling it on craigslist for $125 with a TKL hardshell case after buying a Godin.

    I dunno! If ya didnt come out of the oven with fingers small enough for the mandolin it might not be the right instrument for you.
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    Registered User Jim MacDaniel's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    So DonnaJo -- what are you leaning towards? If you haven't purchased yet, there are two options recently added to the classifieds near your pricepoint, either of which should yield years of mando-joy.

    listing # 51422: Kentucky KM 505 for $360 (Imported factory instrument.)

    listing # 51160: Big Muddy Mw-0W, for $350 (Hand-made in Missouri, and W represents its Wide neck option.)

    Both of these models get great reviews as excellent performing and playing instruments at their pricepoint, and both are recommended frequently here in the forums. A choice between the two might depend upon the music you intend to play, and in what environments. The carved-top f-hole KM-505 would yield a better chop for Bluegrass, and might project more in crowded jams or sessions. The flat-top M-0W's tone and sustain might be a better option for Classical, Irish, Old Time, folk, etc., but it's all a matter of taste -- and there is no wrong choice since either should be a blast to play.

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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Hi All,
    I have read all of your recommendations and suggestions. I thank each of you for your valued input. My delay now is, there has been a couple used one's suggested on here that are in my budget. However, I would then be buying without ever seeing, or trying it in person. I am very limited to what is around me in shops to go look at them to get familiar with a brand I'm interested in. Most guitar shops, are just that. If they have any mandolins, they are cheap, and not set up. It almost seems at this price bracket, it is best to just try to get the "BEST" used I can that has been professionally set up, and go for it.

    I am heavily considering the wider nut/neck mandolin - don't know if that will be a mistake or not. I am considering the Loar LM600 or Morgan Monroe MMS-2 that have that neck option.
    Any response to the wider necked mandolins - pros - cons? All input welcome........and thanks so much in advance for letting me bounce some concerns off all of you. You all are wonderful!!

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    Registered User Jim MacDaniel's Avatar
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    Default Re: Want to play Mandolin - Please suggest an easy playing Mandol

    Quote Originally Posted by DonnaJo View Post
    ...My delay now is, there has been a couple used one's suggested on here that are in my budget. However, I would then be buying without ever seeing, or trying it in person...
    Ask them if you can try it on approval -- that's not an unusual request when buying from another musician, and if for some reason you didn't like it, you would only be out of pocket for the shipping costs.
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