View Full Version : Newbie has a question

Jeff Mando
May-19-2014, 2:37pm
Hi, new to this site, great stuff. I've been checking and reading different postings trying to get up to speed with the current thinking. I'm a newbie here, but have been playing guitar since 1966 and banjo/mandolin since the late 70's. I'm a vintage guy, the question I have is why do most members prefer recent Chinese instruments to vintage USA instruments, when both seem to be approximately the same price? Is it because, most people want to play an F-style, and no vintage USA instruments are available at that price point. What about a 20's or 30s Gibson A-style vs. an imported F-style? About the same price. Not to sound like Donald Sterling, but why wouldn't everyone choose the 90 year old Gibson over the import? Just asking and confused on this point. On a related note, I do have a Chinese Durango copy of a 40's slope shoulder Gibson J-45 and it is a great guitar for $150, but certain not worth $1000 and certainly nothing like a real vintage J-45. Not meaning to offend, just want to get with the current thinking. Thanks.:mandosmiley

Jim Garber
May-19-2014, 3:09pm
Who says that most members prefer one thing over another? I have nothing at all against Chinese mandolins but I do not own any. I have always played vintage instruments (not just only American, either) in general but do own some modern instruments.

As for comparing Gibson As with similarly priced Pac-Rim Fs -- I think some players prefer the look and tone of those Fs (esp with F-holes).

Capt. E
May-19-2014, 4:26pm
Very complicated subject. Laying aside the whole F vs A discussion, there is a sense of pride among many that comes with buying a new instrument. In addition, there is a degree of confidence and anticipation in the instrument not giving the player any problems, especially if you are a beginner. If you poll experienced players, I don't think there is any particular preference for new over vintage. What is mainly desired is an instrument that will play well. I love vintage mandolins and have owned a dozen different brands and models over the years. I enjoy giving them some TLC (most have needed some kind of repair), playing them a while and passing them on to another player to appreciate. Maybe it comes from having parents who were antique dealers. I will agree that it is a bit curious that someone would buy a new chinese made instrument when they could get a great sounding 100 year old Gibson for the same price. I do believe that 50 years from now that Gibson will still be going. Not sure about the chinese mando. Time will tell. Maybe 100 years from now people will be marveling over the wonderful antique Kentucky KM's and remarking on what a bargin they are still.

May-19-2014, 4:27pm
...why do most members prefer recent Chinese instruments to vintage USA instruments, when both seem to be approximately the same price? Is it because, most people want to play an F-style, and no vintage USA instruments are available at that price point. What about a 20's or 30s Gibson A-style vs. an imported F-style? About the same price. Not to sound like Donald Sterling, but why wouldn't everyone choose the 90 year old Gibson over the import?...

Lots of Cafe´members have old Gibson A-models. If you want an F-model, it's hard to find a US-built one, new or vintage, for under $1K, and many don't have that kind of money -- as you recognize. Also there's the question of the "f-hole sound," and there aren't a lot of vintage A-model, f-hole US-made instruments, though some do play Gibson A-40's and A-50's.

As the mandolin market is now, Asian imports dominate the sub-$1K market, at least for new instruments, and finding a vintage Gibson oval-hole A-model for less than that price is getting harder and harder. The global marketplace has sorted out musical instrument pricing, so that almost all the student-grade and most mid-range instruments are made in Asia, some in Eastern Europe.

You can get a decent Rover, Kentucky, Eastman or Loar mandolin, even an F-model, for under $1K. And the fairly recent expansion of Asian-made instruments into the "pro" class has given US manufacturers real competition in the $1K-$3K range as well.

Where I would agree, partially, is that plurality of Cafe´posters seem to evaluate mandolins by appearance, acoustic quality, playability, and suitability to the player's individual choice of sound and style -- rather than by country of origin. Nothing wrong with wanting to support US mandolin builders -- current ones or "historical" ones -- but that may not be the first criterion that's applied here.

May-19-2014, 4:50pm
Vintage instruments, by and large, have to be played before purchased. A Ginson 1923 A2 may be a good make from a good year, but there was a whole lot more variability in construction back then, and there is a great variability in how the instrument has been cared for over the last 100 years. So buying without trying is kind of risky.

Folks without ready access to a music store to go try them out, who just want something reliable that will likely sound good and play well, can get a recently made instrument from a reputable brand with better confidence that the particular instrument will live up to the brand reputation, which most of the time, it does.

While I am a vintage guy myself, yet I firmly believe we are living in a golden age of luthiery, where real great sounding instruments can be made with more consistency and reliability today. And a two year old instrument is bound to be less finicky than a vintage instrument, with 100 year old tuners, and 100 year old frets.

Its all good, and meets the needs of a diverse market.

May-19-2014, 5:31pm
As a player who literally JUST had an Asian made mandolin, rover rm-75, show up at my door I will weigh in.

I would have loved a vintage instrument, specifically a Loar F model Gibson. But I don't have $1000 to spend on a hobby, much less $125,000. What I was looking for was an instrument that sound good, was well made, and in my price range. Also let's not forget the matter of finding the instrument. I will be the first to say also that I wanted a F style because well, I like the look better. I had a great A model kentucky 550 but like the look and feel of the F. Tone and pedigree aside, for me it came down to getting what I wanted for what I wanted to play. As someone said before It being new, not just new to me made a difference. An instrument that would age with me and I could hear the stages of the tone. This is getting long winded and rambley but in closing. The instrument was the best and most available instrument of the style I wanted at the price I was willing to pay.

Jeff Mando
May-19-2014, 6:02pm
Thanks, guys! Makes sense. Reminds me of 40 years ago, the bluegrass fests were all Martin and Gibson, THEN some guys started bringing Yamaha FG-180's. (made in Japan dreadnought D-18 copy) The old guys hated them of course, but the younger people thought they sounded pretty good. The expression back then was a Yamaha gave you 80 percent of the sound of a Martin for 20 percent of the price.

Capt. E
May-20-2014, 10:15am
I was just thinking about Yamaha's. I have never been a big guitar player and never could justify the expense of a Martin etc. Most expensive I have ever owned was a 1962 Gibson LG-3 that I bought for $300 and later sold for $700 (they are going over 2K now). Last guitar I have owned is a Yamaha FG-150 red label I paid $125 for. That is enough for me. Mandolins are the same, casual players will not spend much or want to deal with the problems of a vintage instrument.

Willie Poole
May-20-2014, 11:26am
I bought a vintage 1919 Lyon & Healy mandolin and cleaned it up put on new strings, checked everything over on it and then re sold it for four times what I paid for it so to me that is why I buy vintage instruments, to re sell and make money in doing so...

May-20-2014, 5:21pm
I have a vintage (but not Gibson) A style. If I were to buy another it probably would be an Asian insturment for budget reasons unless I got lucky.

May-21-2014, 8:19am
This just my personal opinion. The vintage instrument market is full of pitfalls. We have all bought a vintage instrument thinking it was a great deal just to find out it really wasn't. There is a learning curve with buying vintage instruments, but it is a fun hobby. Keep in mind there is a misconception with general public that if a instrument is old it is valuable. Nothing could be further from the truth, there have always been cheap instruments and they will still be poor instruments today. I personally like Asian instruments I have a Scott Cao 850 violin that I paid $1700 for and it will hold its own with violins valued $10,000 and more. I like Asian mandolins, I think there are some pretty nice instruments and they are reasonably priced.It is good to have a instrument that you don't have to fiddle with and is setup correctly.
After you are done practicing. Then you can do what most of the rest of us do, hunt for the next must have musical bargain.

Jim Garber
May-21-2014, 8:55am
I agree with nickster60 that vintage instruments are not for the faint of heart. I have been buying and selling them for years, even before the term vintage was even used to refer to instruments (as opposed to wine) -- we called them used in the 1960s. I have gotten stuck in many cases but i chalk that up to experience and yet another thing to learn. Then again, I certainly do not fault anyone who goes for a reasonably priced new instrument (import or domestic) that sounds and plays well esp if you do not want to deal with the uncertainties of the antique ones.

However for me: I love the feel of the old ones plus that intangible feel of history I have playing them and having them in my possession. Of course considering the core group of the instruments I have played, I have bought quite a few others in order to get to the set I use most often.

May-21-2014, 9:37am
... l plus that intangible feel of history I have playing them ...

Nicely said, Jim!

Jeff Mando
May-21-2014, 10:27am
Well put, Jim! We also like the history because that's what the old guys played--Monroe, Scruggs, etc. The question always has been price, at least for the average guy. Everyone wants the best that they can afford. Maybe I have been out of touch for a while, but when did $1000 become a small amount of money? That is the hurdle I am trying to get over, regardless of country of origin. To my thinking, $1000 should buy someone a stage ready instrument that plays and sounds great. And I realize we are not talking boutique instruments or Gibson artist series F5's, just a better than decent instrument. The guitar comparison would be a USA Fender Stratocaster, lists for $1729, sells online discounted for $1249, and you can pick up a used one on eBay for $600-700 and it is a professional instrument that can be played anywhere. No, its not a custom shop handmade guitar, but a very good instrument. Maybe I'm asking are mandolins more complicated to make? Or are less of them being made? Or maybe a guitar comparison is like comparing apples and oranges? It just seems in the various discussions I've read that $1000 is talked about like $100 was 40 years ago. And 40 years ago, I had to think twice before spending $100, just like I would $1000 today.

Jim Garber
May-21-2014, 10:58am
You are comparing an acoustic instrument to an electric. It is different market. I think what you are describing even with an imported stage ready guitar cost approximately $1000 these days -- all solid woods. Mandolins are not only more complicated than guitars in some respects but there is a smaller market for them. There is also a big difference in arched top instruments between carved and merely pressed. I think there has to be some amount of handwork involved with the former.

May-21-2014, 11:04am
Jeff Mando
Yes mandolin are much more labor intensive that building guitars whether electric or acoustic. Do you remember when Japanese Strats were considered junk? They were great guitars are are now sought after. Asian mandolins can be pretty good instruments and I would worry about about the US built vs Asian built discussion. I own a Weber and a Eastman is the Eastman as good as the Weber, no it isn't but the Eastman didn't cost $3000.00. But the Eastman plays well and sounds pretty good and I bought it used for a decent price.

Lately people have going Gaga over the Kentucky KM-150 it has been touted as a bargain and a good sounding mandolin. One can be had for about $300.00. from Folkmusician.com. Hard to beat for that kind of money.

May-21-2014, 11:13am
...To my thinking, $1000 should buy someone a stage ready instrument that plays and sounds great.

And $2.4K should buy a dependable new compact car, like my '72 Dodge Dart.

...Maybe I'm asking are mandolins more complicated to make?

Right you are! At least hand-carved, F-model mandolins for bluegrass players, which is what most buyers are looking for in a "stage ready instrument that plays and sounds great." Compared with that Strat you talk about, there's a quantum more hours of hand-work in a mandolin.

...Or are less of them being made?

Right again. They're probably making a thousand Strats for every Gibson, Collings or Weber F-model. Whatever economies of scale there are, whatever automated processes that can cut production expense, apply much more to electric guitar manufacture.

...Or maybe a guitar comparison is like comparing apples and oranges?

Not quite, since both are musical instruments; might be more like comparing mass-produced automobiles to small-factory sports cars. Both are suitable for what they're intended for, but the Ferraris get a lot more hand-work. If you want a custom-made electric guitar, you can spend in the neighborhood of what a mandolin would cost. If you want a mass-produced, decent quality mandolin, you buy one of the Asian imports at a price comparable to a mass-produced electric guitar.

...It just seems in the various discussions I've read that $1000 is talked about like $100 was 40 years ago. And 40 years ago, I had to think twice before spending $100, just like I would $1000 today.

Well, $100 in 1974 = $481 in 2014, according to the CPI inflation calculator. (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=100&year1=1974&year2=2014) And I'd guess you could get the equivalent of the Harmony Monterey mandolin you paid $100 or so for back then, if you spent $500 now. Not to argue that quality mandolin prices haven't gone up faster than inflation; I paid $450 for a 'teens Gibson F-2 in 1971 or so, and Mandolin Bros. want $4.1K for this one (http://mandoweb.com/Instruments/Gibson-F-2+Mandolin-1914/2756) today (not that Stan J is the Mandolin Discount King!).

And I think you can get a "stage ready" (imported) mandolin for $1K now -- a higher-end Kentucky, Eastman, etc. Also, depends on your definition of "stage ready"; accept a non-F-model, decide to buy on the used market, and you can be good to go. But don't think you're gonna get a Fender Strat equivalent. The realities of construction, economics, and the overall instrument market make mandolins pricey as compared to (especially solid-body electric) guitars.

May-21-2014, 11:39am
I pretty much always agree with Allen and he always makes good points. As for stage ready I think much of that is in the hands of the musician. Example

I play a little saxophone and I have house brand sax that is Sold by Kessler & Sons the big horn shop in Las Vegas. It is another of those good sounding bargain instruments. A friend dropped his Selmer and his back horn was being fixed so he asked to borrow my horn. I went to his gig and I couldn't believe it was the same horn it sounded fantastic. He sold his backup horn and bought a new Kessler for $800.00. It really is all in the hands of the player, good players just pull great things out of bargain instruments.

Jeff Mando
May-21-2014, 11:56am
Thanks guys, all fantastic points! Great to have a forum like this for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Jeff Mando
May-22-2014, 3:26pm
On a larger note, I think awareness has increased in the last 50 or so years. In the 60's Japanese guitars, like cars were considered cheaply made, a joke or novelty, at best. Something "radical" college professors might drive! My uncle was a VP at a big corporation and bought a 1961 VW and people thought he was very eccentric for doing so. Now, of course, imported cars are the norm. So, I can see why Asian mandolins are considered on their own merit now, where in the past there may have been a stigma. Times have changed. Just trying to teach an old dog some new tricks! (I'm still trying to figure out what Kim Kardashian's talent is.....)

May-22-2014, 6:43pm
Finding idiots to watch her show and one support her.

Perry Babasin
May-23-2014, 3:43pm
I don't know, I had an Alvarez Dove made in Japan in the late 60s, that was all solid wood and sounded and played great (wish I still had it!). Into the 70s Sumi was making some good (semi-legendary) mandolins for Kentucky that are still sought after. A lot of people really like old Ibanez 70s guitars and mandolins as well. BTW Gibsons offerings during this time period are generally considered bad.

I think that folks get into mandolin, and get blown away by sticker-shock when they start looking at what their favorite players are playing and then they look for compromises. I don't agree that there are an abundance of affordable vintage instruments out there, old Gibson ffs sell for crazy prices and the "affordable" old Gibson ovals are often sunken or partially sunken or have seam separations or cracks, and no truss-rods. Plus if you want an ff hole sound, that's the sound you want!

I would suggest that players or potential players pick instruments that approach the sound quality they desire, and that they can afford. They find the Cafe and read what everyone else posts, ask questions, then they proceed to upgrade parts and instruments in the quest for the sound (hence MAS). And there is always the question of Style preference A vs. F. Anyway it's a lot more complicated than you might think.