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Thread: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

  1. #1

    Default Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    I said "play", not "sound".. although it doesn't sound that bad for a beginner instrument


    There have been a lot of questions about the dirt-cheap mandos like the Rogue, and I wanted to post what my experience was with one - in case it helps any others get the most out of theirs. Nobody wants to drop 3-400 on a beginner mando when they aren't sure they or their kid will even stick with it. Anyway - after working my Rogue over - it is amazingly playable and serves its purpose well - a beginner mandolin for my daughter. I'm a 30+ year guitarist, so I'm pretty harsh when it comes to judging beginner instruments.. If it plays poorly, it is hard to learn on - so i'm not saying the Rogue is a great instrument by any means.. but I was able to make this one play like a dream and I don't think my daughter would be nearly as far along if I hadn't. She can play it for a couple of hours and not even complain.

    Goal: Buy a Rogue A-style mandolin and make it as playable as possible. Was on sale at the time for $39, so it wasn't that big of a risk.

    The Theory: A Rogue is a cheap, asian-import mandolin. Mass produced in a factory. However - so is that $199 fender, $150 gretsch, etc.. They just have had a little more effort put into the setup. My theory was that I could buy this $40 mando, put a little elbow grease into it and have something way more playable than your average stock beginner mando for considerably less.

    The Plan: I can't do much about the tone - it is what it is. However, I CAN make it playable by adjusting the action. The action (how high the strings are off the fretboard) is affected by 1) the height of the nut, 2) the height of the bridge and 3) the relief (curve) in the neck. We will adjust all three. While we can't really adjust the relief of the neck on the Rogue (it has no truss rod) we can make sure the frets are level and don't have any high / low spots.

    Here is what I did - step by step

    Step 1: Unboxing. Tuned it up and played on it a bit.. not the worst thing I have ever played, but definitely cheap. Throw those strings away - buy some decent once. Less than $10.

    Step 2: Frets - Disclosure: this is NOT the proper way to do a fret job.. this is just how I did a fret job on a $40 instrument that I would be willing to throw away if ruined.. Not having a truss rod - we can't adjust relief. We just need the frets to be level with strings off.

    2a: Get a dead-level / flat sanding block and use 150 or so. Block should be at least 8 inches long, so it forces the frets to be level. Lightly sand up and down the fretboard (just on the metal) until you see the surface of each fret has been scratched. If the nut gets knocked off, don't worry - we're going to pop it off in a minute anyway.

    2b: Sand lightly down each side until you don't feel rough fret spots. Lightly! We're not trying to sand finish or binding off here.. just feel for any sharp fret ends and get rid of those.

    2c: at a 45 degree angle, bevel the edges of the frets along each side of the neck.

    2d: (if any builders reading this haven't cringed yet - here is where it starts) Take 300-400 grit, and using the pad of your finger, sand each fret back and forth to smooth it. This will give it a slight crown. Yes - you are probably marring the fretboard, but again... it's a $40 mandolin.. You can clean that up later. While you're at it - run up and down the neck sides to smooth / roll any hard edges. It'll feel better to play.

    2e: Do the same thing with steel wool. This will make the frets shiny again. if you have wet-sanding paper (i did) feel free to use up thru 1000 - 1500 and really get them glassy.

    If any frets have any deep scratches in them - repeat the last two steps again on that fret and polish it up. Just be careful not to sand too long on any one fret - you'll lower it. Everything has to be even.

    Step 3: The Nut. Using a card or something in a fret slot - see how far above the first fret it is. Make a pencil line below the slot where you want it to be. Measure that - and this is how much material needs to come off the BOTTOM of the nut. Pop off the nut. I just pushed it back towards the tuners with my thumb and it came right off. Sand the bottom of the nut on your sanding block until that much material has been removed. I just make a pencil line and sand until it is gone. You can't put material back, so err on the side of caution and check often.

    Step 4: The Bridge. The bridge is adjustable, with thumb wheels, but for me it wouldn't go low enough. To fit the bridge, lay your 150 or so sandpaper grit-up on the top of your mandolin where the bridge goes. Now sand the bridge right on your mandolin so the bottom is a perfect fit. You can take a little material off this way. For more adjustment room - I took the saddle off and sanded material away under each side that sits on the thumb screw. All in all I took about 1/8" of wood off.

    Step 5: Re-Assembly. Put a dot of glue (super glue is great) under the nut and put it back. Lay the bridge back on the top. Not sure where the bridge goes? Get a ruler.. the distance between the front-edge of the nut to your 12th fret will be the same as the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge. String it up, tune it up, check and see if you have any buzzing. From here, you can raise / lower the bridge to get it where you want.

    Intonation - without getting too deep.. any string fretted at the 12th fret should be exactly an octave higher than the same string open. If it is sharp - mobe the bridge slightly toward the tailpiece. If it is flat - move the bridge slightly away from the tailpiece. As a beginner - just get it close, most of your work will be below the 7th fret.

    Couple of other notes: The tailpiece on my rogue was very buzzy.. I ended up putting a tiny shim underneath so it would press a little harder against something. Took out the low G rattle / buzz.

    Also - keep in mind that the lower your action, the worse your tone is. If you need it super low so your kid doesn't quit the first time their fingers hurt - then don't worry so much about the tone or a buzz here and there. However, as their fingers get stronger, raise it up a bit to get a purer note.

    Lastly - if you want to keep tweaking.. replace the nut with something else. Bone, TUSQ, etc.. Pick up a better bridge/saddle.. Get a heavier tailpiece. Tuners are a bit suspect on the rogue but from what I understand they are not standard - so you might be stuck with them. Taking them apart and lubricating everything can cure a lot of ills but keep in mind that you can spend a TON of money on high end tuners - so it is what it is.

    This post isn't meant to start any sort of debates - i'm not claiming this is the right way or best way. These methods are quick and dirty - heavy on the dirty! I'm only posting in case anyone else has bought one of these little guys and is feeling adventurous enough to dig in and work on it a bit. If you know nothing about instruments - trying to follow a professional guide to a setup is pretty daunting. This is just meant to break it down into a few easy steps. If you can figure out how to rub something with a sanding block - you can do this...

    Everyone recommends a professional setup on a new mando - and I completely agree. I'd happily spend the $100-$200 to get an intermediate mando professionally set up - but for a $40 mando? it just isn't very practical. I hope this post helps somebody out! And while this may sound like a lot of work.. I did this all over my lunch break.. But even if you put 2-3 hrs into it, it's still worth it if you can greatly increase the odds for success - for you or for your student.

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  3. #2

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    While I would buy a $400 mandolin used for $200, playability is a function of mechanical relationships and, if the neck is not twisted, can be achieved with any instrument. It is just that most aren't willing to invest time or money, or the types that would buy a cheap mandolin don't know any better.

    Kudos to you for taking the trouble. There is a Rosa String Works YouTube video of just this dolin, and the setup procedure to make it playable.
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  5. #3

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Yep, what Brick said. I once purchased a used $50 Lotus (garden-variety econo import) for a client - its set-up (playability) was about perfect.

    Playable cheapo instruments for learning are everywhere - if one has a discerning eye (of course, so are unaplayable ones - due to catastrophic neck warpage, etc)

    I recently traded a tele for a MIC upright - bass had made the rounds of people trying to learn and had given up. No doubt why: the bass was essentially unplayable. I performed the simple requisite nut work, and it's now a well set-up bass.

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    Registered User Sakamichi's Avatar
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Good post. At first I thought this was from the Rosa String Works playbook. At any rate, it's good information that is really beneficial to beginners like me who are starting off with a budget instrument—I am learning on an Ibanez M510.

    FWIW, I imagine many of these "cheap" imports are made in the same facility as they look nearly identical. Except for Savannah. I saw an F-style one at a music store recently and the fit and finish was not nearly as good as my little Ibanez. Also, if you're a newbie like me and looking at the Ibanez M510, the dark violin sunburst version is finished to a higher level than my "open pore" version. I bought my wife the former, and I do have a bit of envy whenever I see it.

  7. #5

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Yep. I had as many as 3 Rogues. I keep loaning them out. If I loose track of them, I think it's a good thing. I call them a good gamble.

    It's a good call to de-burr the frets, at the very least. I recon if I were going to set one up again, I'd go with lighter strings than the J74. I've used J74s a longtime, and can't remember using anything else. So it seems like a good experiment. Especially for ease of play, above projection.

  8. #6

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Sakamichi View Post
    Good post. At first I thought this was from the Rosa String Works playbook. At any rate, it's good information that is really beneficial to beginners like me who are starting off with a budget instrumentóI am learning on an Ibanez M510.

    FWIW, I imagine many of these "cheap" imports are made in the same facility as they look nearly identical. Except for Savannah. I saw an F-style one at a music store recently and the fit and finish was not nearly as good as my little Ibanez. Also, if you're a newbie like me and looking at the Ibanez M510, the dark violin sunburst version is finished to a higher level than my "open pore" version. I bought my wife the former, and I do have a bit of envy whenever I see it.
    I haven't heard of the Rosa string works playbook.. i guess i need to check it out.

    I've been impressed with those ibanez models.. The antique brown finish is nice - but every one I have picked up has been surprisingly playable. They are a pretty solid option.

  9. #7

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    I am brand new to playing the mandolin and appreciated this post. I bought a Rogue and found it suitable for now. I have my eye on upgrading at some point in the near future but for now I upgraded the strings and that has made a diff in the sound. of course I have not been able to compare to other instruments for the most part only a couple of Gretch at the local GC. hope to try out some of these improvements as I build confidence in working on it.

    thank you.

  10. #8

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    I played a cheap mandolin for 10 years and played everybody else's mandolin as comparison. Never found a single one that played better than mine and that included the Gibsons and other fancy brands. That includes my new "The Loar" I just got, too. They all felt like the same mandolin (maybe didn't all sound like the same one, but they felt like it). A good set-up is totally worth it. You are lucky you know how to do it. I broke the nut on my poor cheap mando putting the strings on the wrong direction.

  11. #9

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    I am very impressed with my Rogue considering the price I paid for it. The tone is fine, just not very loud. I'm amazed that the intonation is as good as it is.
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  12. #10

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    I agree with the $50 Rogue. I still have one I play occassionally. I mainly play my F-520 Loar that might not be a true Loar but it does say Loar and for $430 it works for me and I like it. Now I do play my $50 Rogue when I go on trips as it's less stressful if something were to happen to it like get scratched, damaged, stolen, etc. But yeah right away I changed the strings and fixed the action which is what I have done with all 4 mandolin I've owned. To me the $50 Rogue isn't so hot for bluegrass but perfect for playing the blues.

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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Paid $49.00 for this one. Stripped the finish, made new pick guard, added stew-mac tail piece, J-74'strings, de-burred, leveled and polished frets, added arm rest and replaced the tuners. Adjusted the nut, set the bridge height and intonation. The original tuners are not standard hole spacing so I had to plug the holes with dowels and drill new holes. Added a set of used tuners from a Kentucky I upgraded. Had to refinish the head stock but it is black so no big deal. Plays very nice and has a nice laminated kind of tone. Do I have better mandolins? You bet, but the project was fun. I liked it so much I got a hard shell case for it for another $46.00.. If you are low on cash these Rogue mandolins are a start once you get a proper set up. Note: I have purchased several Rogue mandolins and the all black ones have a thinner neck profile and seem to sound better than the sunburst model. I recommend the black ones
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    I completely agree with the gist of this thread. For the beginner, playability is the most important aspect of in instrument (heck, it's mighty important for the pros as well) and there is no reason that a $40 mandolin can't be made to play well. Fret dressing and action are the basics. Being able to get those nut slots as low as possible is key. You might also think about re-shaping the neck profile but you would need to know if the neck can handle it. For example, does it have any re-enforcement and if so, how deep into the neck is it placed. Unless you know those things, thinning it down is a gamble.

    Anyway marcuspl, as a builder, I didn't cringe too badly at your post. If it was a high end mandolin that would have been different but I figure a $40 mandolin can be used to practice your set-up skills as well your playing skills.

    BTW, I also agree with the suggestion of lighter strings and pick for that matter. Anything to make the initial experience of learning to play an instrument easier and less painful is a good idea in my books. She doesn't have to fill a concert hall at this point.
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Darn! I just paid a whole $50 for my Rogue! As for set-up, string height at the nut was good, the bridge is well fitted to the top and just needed a small placement adjustment for intonation. Still tweaking the bridge height. Well worth the 50 bucks.

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    Registered User Sakamichi's Avatar
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Hudmister View Post
    Paid $49.00 for this one. Stripped the finish, made new pick guard, added stew-mac tail piece...
    Nicely done. I especially like the finish.

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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Sakamichi View Post
    Nicely done. I especially like the finish.
    Thanks Sakamichi, the finish was only removed from the top as it was very difficult to remove. I used a paint remover rated for epoxy and poly. The remainder of the instrument is the factory gloss black. The new top finish is sprayed on orange shellac with a little sanding and buffing. Some additional photos. I added side marker dots(abalone) and removed some wood from under the fingerboard at the extension. It is actually a decent sounding little mandolin and fun to play.
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Love this thread! I used three Rogue mandolins while writing my ebook on how to set up a mandolin. Email me for your free copy! I show you how to use ten dollars worth of tools to perform a complete setup, getting the nut slots just right, string height, and intonation. Email me at rob.meldrum@gmail.com and put Mandolin Setup in the subject line.

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    Registered User mandobassman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Hudmister View Post
    Thanks Sakamichi, the finish was only removed from the top as it was very difficult to remove. I used a paint remover rated for epoxy and poly. The remainder of the instrument is the factory gloss black. The new top finish is sprayed on orange shellac with a little sanding and buffing. Some additional photos. I added side marker dots(abalone) and removed some wood from under the fingerboard at the extension. It is actually a decent sounding little mandolin and fun to play.

    I've been working on a refinish on a Rogue as well. I see that you changed out the tuners. I am assuming that you re-drilled the holes for the new tuning machines. The Rogue has non-standard spacing. That has been my only hesitation, as I really don't have the proper tools to do that. You did a fine job with yours.
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    Dan Sampson mando_dan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    This is really interesting thread. Thanks for starting and sharing your techniques to get your $40 Rogue whipped into playability submission. Very cool. Ha, just occurred to me that a Rogue costs maybe 3% of a new Gibson MM. Anyway...

    Have you thought about Part B, working on the tone to the extent possible without pulling the top. I'm envisioning a relatively quick and dirty refinish- at $40 the refinish doesn't have to look all that good, in fact it might be fun to have some fun in the process ending up with a unique result. (Going Rogue?) Other changes might be a new nut, tailpiece, whatever, that can be done relatively cheaply and do in fact have a positive impact on sound, not a supposed if I squint my ears I can perhaps hear it kind of upgrade.

    I know these type of changes have been discussed hundreds of time on the board but you did such a nice job describing the playability part that I'd be very interested in you take on the sound.

    Thanks!
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by mandobassman View Post
    I've been working on a refinish on a Rogue as well. I see that you changed out the tuners. I am assuming that you re-drilled the holes for the new tuning machines. The Rogue has non-standard spacing. That has been my only hesitation, as I really don't have the proper tools to do that. You did a fine job with yours.
    Yes, I changed out the tuners. The Rogue RM-100A mandolin comes with single separate tuners (not mounted on a common base plate) spaced at about 25mm. The original tuners are chrome plated and are more like you will see on a guitar and to be honest they work just fine. I changed the tuners on my Rogue because I did not like the way the original tuners looked and I had a spare set of traditional tuners available from another project. The standard tuner post spacing traditional to American mandolins is around 23.3mm. I filled the original post holes with solid wood dowel and cut off flush with the face and back of the head stock. I used a drill press to drill the new holes and then refinished in black with appliance epoxy spray paint and it matched the original black finish very well. If you have the Rogue with the sunburst finish the face of the head stock is still black so it can easily be refinished black. On the back of the head stock the tuner base plate covers up the place where the dowels would show and no refinish is required. Much thanks to Marcuspl for his post and showing how you can get started on the mandolin without a significant investment. I have done four of these and sold three to students. I kept one because I liked it so much.

  25. #20

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Oliver A. View Post
    I completely agree with the gist of this thread. For the beginner, playability is the most important aspect of in instrument (heck, it's mighty important for the pros as well) and there is no reason that a $40 mandolin can't be made to play well. Fret dressing and action are the basics. Being able to get those nut slots as low as possible is key. You might also think about re-shaping the neck profile but you would need to know if the neck can handle it. For example, does it have any re-enforcement and if so, how deep into the neck is it placed. Unless you know those things, thinning it down is a gamble.

    Anyway marcuspl, as a builder, I didn't cringe too badly at your post. If it was a high end mandolin that would have been different but I figure a $40 mandolin can be used to practice your set-up skills as well your playing skills.
    Thanks! Glad it wasn't too cringe-worthy - and yes, it's all relative to the initial investment. I would certainly do a lot of things differently if it weren't $40. We are about to upgrade her to something a bit nicer, so i may continue to tinker. I'd love to build one from scratch one day but that's a little beyond my skillset. I've built solidbody electric guitars, but have never ventured into acoustic instruments. The neck on the rogue seems pretty small to me, not that I have a lot to compare it to. Maybe it's just because i'm a guitarist.. but it seems to have a bit of a V to it.

  26. #21

    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by mando_dan View Post
    This is really interesting thread. Thanks for starting and sharing your techniques to get your $40 Rogue whipped into playability submission. Very cool. Ha, just occurred to me that a Rogue costs maybe 3% of a new Gibson MM. Anyway...

    Have you thought about Part B, working on the tone to the extent possible without pulling the top. I'm envisioning a relatively quick and dirty refinish- at $40 the refinish doesn't have to look all that good, in fact it might be fun to have some fun in the process ending up with a unique result. (Going Rogue?) Other changes might be a new nut, tailpiece, whatever, that can be done relatively cheaply and do in fact have a positive impact on sound, not a supposed if I squint my ears I can perhaps hear it kind of upgrade.

    I know these type of changes have been discussed hundreds of time on the board but you did such a nice job describing the playability part that I'd be very interested in you take on the sound.

    Thanks!
    Sorry for the late reply - i just don't get on here as much as I should.

    I kinda went into this expecting it to sound like cardboard and in my experience, you really can't change the fundamental tone of a poor quality acoustic instrument, guitar, drum, mando, whatever. That said, while nobody will ever comment on how warm and natural it might sound, there are definitely things that can be done.

    My daughter (13) got annoyed at the buzzing and decided it was the pickguard, so off that went.. I've noticed intermittent rattle coming from the tailpiece. Maybe some felt strips would help out. It's an awfully cheap tailpiece though. I've seen $11 cast tailpieces on ebay that might be an interesting upgrade. I'm not going to put a $50-$60 tailpiece on this thing but i might spend $11.

    Beyond that - no, i never replaced the saddle or the nut. If you kill the rattles, put a higher quality saddle and nut on it, then it will at least be clear and project a lot better. The tuning machines are the worst and from what I understand, they aren't standard, so it is what it is. But with come creativity and buying some cheap upgrades, it could still be made to sound better and still stay under $100 all around.

    Even when we replace it, i'll keep it around and in good order just as a beater to take here and there. Nice to have for a camping trip or whatever.

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    Registered User Mike Scott's Avatar
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Nice job! Similarly I had some excess $$$ in my PayPal account a while back and picked up a blem Ibanez 510 online. It had been ďset upĒ by the seller who had several for sale. The good news was the nut was fine as were the frets. The action was high at the 12th fret and the intonation was off. Fixed those and changed strings. It then played well, but didnít sound all that good. I figured I bought it so I could throw it in the car and not worry about it so didnít really care. I later noted that the tailpiece was resting on the top. It was so weak, I ended up replacing it with a fairly cheap stainless steel one (had to fill in the old holes and re drill-more trouble than I figured on). Also removed the pick guard. It now sounds better than it has any right to. Not on a par with my SA or Morris, but closer than I would have thought and probably as good as some lower end Kentuckyís Iíve had. All in all a very worthwhile exercise and I am now much less reluctant to fiddle around with stuff on my own rather than take it in for work...........
    Last edited by Mike Scott; Oct-24-2017 at 10:27am. Reason: Typos
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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    My rougue has a hump in the neck, and it will never be truly playable. I've literally taken sand paper to the frets to try and help it out, but it's truly a lost cause. And the tone, when played loud, has a sort of unmusical "clang" to my ears. None the less, I'm glad I was able to get a mandolin so cheap. I would have never known how much I like the instrument otherwise, so I have no regrets.

    I'll be getting a Kentucky KM-156 soon, hopefully, which will take me further along in my mandolin journey.

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    Default Re: Making a $40 Rogue mando play like a dream. It is possible!

    Quote Originally Posted by Erok View Post
    ... the tone, when played loud, has a sort of unmusical "clang" to my ears. ...
    Yup, I'd say that just about every extra-low-cost instrument I've ever tried is that way.

    I have a $50 Rogue mandolin right here sitting on the table within easy reach for quick tune/song ideas (no worries if it falls over or gets something spilled on it), and in earlier years I've done my share of playing stuff like old cheap 1930's plywood 12-string guitars (tuned in 5ths, of course, what else would a person tune a guitar to? lol).

    The solution, for me anyway, is the same in all instances: play with a light touch, and also play nearer to the fretboard (further away from the bridge), both those things make the tone better, more mellow, not as harsh and strident.

    But the light-touch playing technique has one unfortunate side effect. It drastically reduces a cheap instrument's likely already-too-low volume.

    The volume problem can be fixed easily enough if you're amplified. Amplified doesn't have to mean so "godawfully loud" it rattles the windows, but just a little boost so that you're not drowned out by the loud concertina player sitting next to you.

    But if you're playing strict acoustic-only jams or sessions where they don't allow mics or electronics of any sort, (I don't even bother going to those anymore, I no longer regard them as fun, plus there aren't any around here anyway, nearest acoustic-only jam is hours away), anyway if you're using that soft-touch playing technique, you probably won't be able to be heard over the other instruments.

    For home practice, or jamming with a couple of friends in the living room, low volume probably won't be an issue.

    One note about the nut on these budget instruments, at least on my Rogue mandolin and also my cheap little Yamaha mini classical guitar, on both of those the nut is *very* soft plastic and it's incredibly easy to overdo it if you're using cheap *files* when you're cutting down the nut slots. On the Rogue, I made the mistake of using a small cheap needle-file to cut the slots, the only problem with that was that the cheap file left a sort of 'burr' in the slot which, after the string went into the slot, resulted in the burrs being dislodged and letting the strings sit lower than I'd anticipated. Darn. Lesson learned, now instead of the cheap needle files, for soft cheap plastic nuts I've reverted back to the technique I used when I was about 10 years old and that's to use a plain ol' sharp Xacto knife and cut a "V" shaped slot... don't know if that's "proper" or not, probably not. Eventually, if I can ever work up sufficient motivation again, I probably should put a Tusc nut on there instead... I actually did order a Tusc nut once, but after I placed the order it turned out the company was out of stock and it would be a 2 month wait, bah, didn't 'really' need it anyway so I cancelled the order and never got around to ordering again.

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