View Full Version : Super-newbie: feasibility of buying an oldie?

Aug-17-2009, 8:35am
Hello all,
I apologize if this is a really dumb question--I am fresh-new to the music world, and am looking to buy my first mandolin.
As a little background, my dad plays the guitar, banjo, and accordion. I grew up listening to him pick around, mostly on the banjo.
I've always wanted to learn to play something, but never quite got around to it. We're hoping to have kids some time in the nearish future, and I figure there's no better time to make sure there's music in the house... so I'd better learn how to make a little. =)
I'm looking for something very low-budget to get my toes wet. It appears that for roughly the same money I can either buy an 1890's-1920's mandolin and give it some TLC, or buy a cheapo new one. My question is: how feasible is it for someone like myself, who knows almost nothing about musical instruments, to buy an 80-100+ year old instrument and end up with something that sounds reasonably playable? I'd likely be buying from ebay or similar.
This is the kind of listing I was looking at: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=110422884613&ssPageName=STRK:MEDWX:IT

I assume I'm probably safer buying a low-budget new one, but it's never really been my style to encourage that sort of production... I'd really rather give some love to an old instrument, if I can. Is this at all realistic?

Aug-17-2009, 8:53am
Only dumb questions are unasked ones. Yours is far from dumb.

The instrument you cite was a Lyon & Healy bowl-back, with a crack in the fingerboard, but still playable -- if one believes the seller's description. It went for $147 on eBay.

Older bowl-backs are the bargains of the mandolin world, because demand for bowl-back mandolins isn't that strong. Instruments by good American manufacturers often go for a couple hundred dollars, in decent playable condition. If you think that you want a bowl-back -- the style in which most mandolins were made a century ago, but which is generally "out of fashion" today, except among classical and some ethnic mandolin players -- you have a good chance of getting a decent instrument for not much money. I would suggest that, if at all possible, you buy with an "approval period," during which you can have the mandolin inspected by a pro repair person, or at least by an experienced friend, to make sure you're getting an instrument you can learn on.

Most beginning mandolin players today want a "flat-back" instrument, with a body more like a guitar's than the lute-like bowl-back body. A vintage instrument, comparable in quality to the Lyon & Healy but flat-backed, would cost you many times what the L&H went for. So, looking for something "very low-budget to get your toes wet," you would be purchasing a new imported Asian instrument by Kentucky, Rover, Gold Tone, or something similar. I would suggest that you spend a few hours on the Cafe looking at threads for "best mandolin for a beginner," "best mandolin under $400," etc. etc. You will find dozens of discussions about the relative merits of different brands and models of student-grade mandolin.

I applaud your impulse to adopt an older instrument, and use it to learn on -- "give some love," as you put it. But make sure before you buy a bowl-back that you're really comfortable playing this type of mandolin; there are reasons that bowl-backs are less popular today, having to do with sound quality, ease in holding and playing, etc. If you can find a friend who has one, give it a try and see if that's where you want to be. And if you decide to get a newer student-level mandolin, do a bit of research first, especially if you're going on eBay. There is a ton of junk being sold there, "mandolin shaped objects" as we call them, for less than $100. Badly made, hard to tune and play, subject to near-spontaneous disintegration under string tension. A few days of research and testing, will pay off in finding an instrument you can live with and learn on.

Bill Snyder
Aug-17-2009, 8:57am
What type of music are you wanting to play? Obviously you can play any type of music on any style mandolin, but some styles lend themselves tonally to certain types of music better than others.
As far as getting a good, inexpensive, old mandolin on ebay it is very possible, but it is a bit of a gamble. Purchasing an older mandolin from an established, online or brick and mortar store that can give you some assurance that the mandolin is in servicable condition would be better.
Purchasing one from the classifieds here on the Mandolin Cafe would likely net you something playable unless the add stated otherwise.
The old bowlback mandolins can not take the tension of "bluegrass" strings and as a result several of them have neck problems. Something to ask the seller about if you purchase from ebay or a similar site.
Good luck.

Aug-17-2009, 9:14am
Thanks for the replies, both. "Mandolin shaped objects" made me laugh--I know close to -nothing- about buying musical instruments, but even I could tell there were a few listings I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole.
Music I'm wanting to play: definitely bluegrass!

Aug-17-2009, 10:00am
Pursuant to that... I suppose it never even occurred to me that different types of mandolins might play different styles of music! Someone had told me that the only real difference between an A type and F type (to a beginner) is cost. I'd assumed the bowl back was just the standard shape of them prior to the modern "evolution". Is there anything I should know about looking for a mando for bluegrass? I figured that at this stage, it wouldn't matter much.
I don't really care much about aesthetics at the moment... really all I want is something I can play around with, to learn where to put my fingers and how the strings work, that hopefully doesn't sound like a hunk of plywood wrapped in rubber bands =). The bowl-back does look a little awkward, but I'd rather help preserve and give some life to a better quality, elderly one than support the production of the el cheapo, self-destructing models, and even $250-300 is a bit out of my range at the moment.

On another note, I couldn't see if there was a way for me to move the thread myself. I'm most interested in the feasibility of (and any hints on) finding a (very) vintage instrument, but if this is more appropriate for another forum please let me know. I've been lurking around for a while but don't feel quite comfortable with the SOPs yet.

Aug-17-2009, 12:10pm
I'd assumed the bowl back was just the standard shape of them prior to the modern "evolution". Is there anything I should know about looking for a mando for bluegrass? I figured that at this stage, it wouldn't matter much.

You're right about the lute-shaped bowl-back body being the historical shape of the mandolin. Up to the late 19th century, I'd hazard a guess that nearly all mandolins were built that way.

But you won't find many bowl-backs being used in bluegrass, blues, jazz, country, or "Americana" folk styles. Since 1900 or so, the dominant form of mandolin in those and related styles, has been a flat-back, usually with a carved arched top similar to a violin's, but also with a flat or "bent," "canted" top.

Any style of decent mandolin will give you an opportunity to learn fingerings, chords, how to play scales and tunes. As a rule, a bowl-back won't produce the type of sound most people consider suited to bluegrass. It will have a sweet, "ringy" sound, but not the percussive, aggressive quality that bluegrass players generally prefer.

There's also a lot of discussion about A-style vs. F-style mandolins, but I'd second your first impression: for a beginner, the main difference between the two styles is that F-styles require more manufacturing time due to their more complicated shape, and thus an F-style of equivalent quality, almost invariably costs more than an A-style.

John Kinn
Aug-17-2009, 3:33pm
There are houndred of threads on this on the forum.But to put it simple:Go for an A-style. Asian imports can be good value (Kentucky, Rover,Eastman), or look for used instruments in the classifieds. I would advice against buying on e-bay (no set-up, lots of junk!)

Aug-17-2009, 3:58pm
Thanks all!
kinnjohn: I suspect I will be doing a lot of lurking and very little posting... any questions I have have probably already been answered many hundreds of times, here :)
I think I'll probably end up going with a bowlback, at least for the time being. I know it's not quite "right" for good bluegrass sounds, but that's okay, no one's gonna be hearing me play but me =)
Thanks again!

Capt. E
Aug-20-2009, 9:10am
I was very lucky early in my mandolin journey to find a 70's japanese "Shiro" A style on ebay for $200. Paid $75 for a good set up and now I have something equivalent to most $1500 instruments. It is still my favorite next to my $3300 Weber Bighorn. I believe the Shiro is another name used by the Aria company. Most 70's vintage japanese made mandolins are quite good, some were better than the contemporary Gibson mandos. Some brands to look for: Kentucky, Ibanez, Epiphone, Washburn, Aria and my Shiro.
Another possible is to find a pancake style. They sell for less than a carved top. The best of these are Flatirons. I own a Flatiron N1 that I bought on ebay for under $400.

Steve Ostrander
Aug-22-2009, 10:35am
There is much more difference in tone and volume between F-hole and oval hole mandos than between As and Fs.

If you want an affordable vintage mando I would suggest looking at Stradolin.

Rob Gerety
Aug-22-2009, 10:53am
My recommendation is to stay away from vintage until you have more experience. You might be lucky with a vintage instrument - but you might not be lucky. It will be very difficult for you to assess a vintage instrument with you present level of experience. A troublesome vintage instrument could get in the way of your learning process. A good vintage instrument won't add much to your learning experience when compared to a decent modern instrument.

If I were you I would by a good used A style F holed mandolin. I say f holes because I believe thre is a bigger market for resale. Maybe a Kentucky or an Eastman. I would plan to spend around $250 - $500. This kind of instrument is much more likely to be trouble free and playable which is the key at the beginning in my opinion. After a year or so you might want to get something else and this one could be sold without much of a loss or you could keep it as a spare. Or, it could well hold you a lot longer for a year if you are absolutely band new to playing music.

barney 59
Aug-22-2009, 2:55pm
Buying vintage instruments can require a little knowledge to be able to spot potential problems,especially online. I don't know your budget but if you have the vintage bug I would suggest searching for a vintage Gibson A model. Take your time and study them a bit before you jump in.There are usually lots of them on ebay, sometimes craigslist and quite a few are under $1000 and some as low as $600 these days. Find something that is cosmetically rough looking but intact, thats where the bargains are. Take it to a luthier and get it set up. You will probably need to do this if you buy a budget newer mandolin or an old bowlback anyway. Presently they are a bargain and you will always get your money back if you want to trade it off later. With an old Gibson pretty much everything is covered musically. Other than that I'd suggest going to a reputable music store and see what they have. Most Gibson A models in a music store will probably be $1000 + but I played a Kentucky in a shop a while ago that was brand new for $239 and it was a pretty good starter. A good shop will usually set it up before they hang it. It sounded alright and was very playable. Where do you live? Someone here will direct you to a good dealer closest to you.

Apr-08-2012, 12:32pm
Hello all--apologies for resurrecting a zombie thread, but I wanted to send a sincere thanks to everyone who was kind enough to respond. I lost track of the thread because it took me a while to work up the nerve to buy an instrument. A few months after posting here I bought a wreck of a bowl-back in a "learning moment" then ended up with a sweet Depression-era Kay Kraft for a total investment of about $400 after a bit of love and attention from a luthier friend. I posted photos in the "post a photo" forum if anyone's interested. Thanks again, truly!

PS: I'm in Eugene, OR!

Apr-08-2012, 7:18pm
Since you are new, I'll repeat what has been explained many, many times (sorry to all of you who have heard this before...again and again and again...)

An "A" style usually means it does not have the fancy scroll. An "F" style usually means that it does have the fancy scroll.

F HOLES can be on a mandolin that does not have the scroll (an "A" style) or on a mandolin that does have the scroll (an "F" style).

For what you want, low cost/bluegrass, you should be looking for a no scroll "A" style with "F" holes. (It sounds confusing, but it isn't). For under $200, you might be able to find a used solid top "KENTUCKY" or maybe some similar brand.

The complicated issue is having it SET UP properly, and that can cost anywhere from ZERO (if it is already well set up--not likely but possible if it is preowned -- or you have a friend who really knows A LOT about this) upwards of about $125, if you get a CA bridge and have the whole thing set up right. Playability is more important than tone at this stage of the game, since if you can't play it, you won't ever learn it. Tone is also important because you have to like the sound, but if you never play it, you won't ever hear the sound.

Having it set up so that the action is low enough and the bridge is properly shaped and put into place is VERY important for playability. Finally, I know it is wrong, wrong, wrong, to recommend that someone go outside the price range that they said was the limit, but if you can cough up another $60 or so, and get into the $250 (for a used one). On ebay (if you want to go that route), there are a number of used Kentucky's (make sure you get a SOLID TOP) for under 135 and a nice "THE LOAR 220" (a strong step up) but that's about 290 or so.

My advice: skip the bowlback, unless someone gives you one or you can get one at a yard sale for twenty bucks to practice on. Look for a used solid top Kentucky (about the only one I can think about that would likely be "reliable" in that under 200 price range, though there might be some other brands as mentioned above. Again, it's your money and not my place to suggest too strongly how you spend it, but if you plan on keeping this for a few years, it really might be worth it to save an extra $5/week and wait three months and jump into the $250+ category.

Also, the best deals are not in either the "new" or the "very vintage" category. The best deals for used (beginner but decent quality) mandolins are those likely built between 1970 and 2010 -- USED ("preowned?) but not "vintage" (especially pre-1950 and especially, especially pre-1925!) where vintage collectors might drive up the price and also, you can't be sure about possible structural problems.

OH MAN, I just posted to a question that's three years old and the poster already bought something but I thought it was a new post because I didn't look at dates carefully. Another fifteen minutes of my life gone! Oh well, I'll still post this in case some other "newbie" has the same question! And so my 15 minutes will not have been in vain :grin:

Apr-08-2012, 8:29pm
Oh! What good info--thanks a million, I know it'll come in handy somewhere. I was just thinking about the price range. I think I spent about $80 on the useless bowlback, $150 on the Kay Kraft and another $100ish (friend price =) ) for the setup and seam repair, so I guess it was a little less than I initially remembered but still more than I'd planned (thanks especially to the over-eager bowl back buy...). All in all I totally lucked out, the Kay could have just as easily been a useless wreck, too.

Apr-09-2012, 12:36pm
Glad you got something to play Mixie. The advice to wait until you know more before you buy a bowlback is good, as you've discovered. However, my first mando was an eBay bowlback, and it was a definite learning experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. I'm not an expert by any means, but I'm a lot farther along that path because of my ill-advised choice of an old bowlback. :)

Apr-09-2012, 2:04pm
The one you finally bought (the Kay Kraft) is about the neatest looking manolin out there... And you are the only one on your block that has one!!!

Congratulations... I will bet you are giving some folks Kay Kraft envy... Me anyway....

Apr-09-2012, 2:55pm
=) =) =)

Thanks for the kind words--I feel like I really lucked out in finding it. I cannot *believe* how much I love this little critter! Next step is to work up the nerve to let someone else hear me play... ;0)

@michaelpthompson: I still have it, and sometimes wish I could afford to have it put back together. It makes a lovely, big, round sound for the five or six seconds it holds a tune! =)

PS: Your Gypsy Rose mando is beautiful!