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Thread: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

  1. #1

    Default Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    I was talking to a friend earlier today who liked my humble Kentucky KM-272, but wondered about some of the changes I have been making to it. After looking over its new fittings, he said, "How come you just don't get a better instrument."

    I told him, "Why should I? I really like how this one sounds, and it plays very well."

    He nodded and understood. We've both found gems that didn't cost much.

    Having been in the musical instrument business at one time, I've often been amazed by how much musicians spend on instruments for what are often fairly questionable reasons. Violins actually made by Stradivarius and Guarneri are worth millions and highly sought, yet double blind tests have consistently shown even the most skilled players and appraisers can't tell them from other well made instruments. I am especially fond of the video in the link below, where an expert flutist not only fails to identify the most expensive flute but confused the best for a student instrument of modest price.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHMFdks4CGg

    In my own work as a mental health professional, I am well familiar the power of the placebo. The belief that something is going to help is so powerful it can make us perceive healing. The placebo effect becomes more powerful as the thing we believe in becomes more complicated, too. This generalizes out to our perception of musical instruments. The more we spend on something, and the more experienced we believe its maker was, and the more complicated was it's making (i.e., hand carved verses cut by power tools), the more likely we are to perceive we hear better tone or that the instrument plays better.

    The difference between junk instruments and well made ones is obvious. But what is the difference between an instrument of modest cost and quality build verses one of extreme cost and quality build? What makes a mandolin worth spending a fortune on? Where do we define the point of diminishing returns, where the gains are worth far less than the price increases? And how do we know if what we believe perceive actually is. Highly subjective questions what are always interesting.

    (This isn't really a question post so much as just opening a topic for discussion, should anyone be interested.)

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  3. #2
    Registered User colorado_al's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    I think that some of the lower cost mandolins are a terrific value. Most made by skilled crafts-people in China these days. For a long time the Kentucky 100 & 200 level mandolins have been well regarded and they have recently gotten even better. I own a Kentucky KM-272 that I bought for $350 and I have played it in A/B testing against every modern oval hole mandolin I could. I've only played one that I liked better and it was a Collings MT2O that was $3600. That's 10x what I paid for the Kentucky. A Weber Absaroka around that same price that I played certainly was more ornate and more nicely finished, but the Kentucky felt and sounded better to me. Was the Collings worth 10x more than the Kentucky? To some perhaps. If I could spend $3600 as easily as I spend $350 now, I would certainly have bought it. Some people have that kind of money. I don't.

    I think for some, the perception is based on bias towards USA made, or small builder made, etc. I certainly think there is a place for that. I'm very pleased to have bought from and supported a local luthier as well. I have a Mark Franzke A5 that was quite expensive by my standards and it is a terrific mandolin. It is not something that one would be able to buy from a Chinese instrument factory, because it is a one-off. It is not made on a production line. Would I be able to find another for less money that sounds and plays as good? Maybe. But it wouldn't be an original from someone with whom I've shaken hands and spent hours talking with about his craft and music. I don't think that is placebo. I think it adds value to the instrument in ways that cannot be measured, but real, not imaginary, value.

    There are builders who have worked hard to develop a reputation for reliably creating high quality instruments. Collings for example. I'm sure I could buy any Collings MT without playing it before hand, and be perfectly pleased to play it every day. Would it be the best Collings I ever played? Probably not, but it wouldn't be too far off. The fact that they cost $2500 plus is due to many factors like cost of labor and manufacturing in the USA, high quality materials, etc. Are they 7x better than a Kentucky KM-250? I don't know how to factor that, but they are certainly better in many respects.

    Conversely, there are inexpensive mandolin makers who consistently build crappy mandolins priced right around where the Kentucky 100 and 200 series are.

    I guess what I'm getting at, is that you do have diminishing returns as you go up the price scale and gems can be found at a lower price, though one should be discerning at any level.
    Last edited by colorado_al; Jan-24-2018 at 8:26pm.

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    I have owned two Kentucky`s and both of them could hold their own against any mandolin costing 3-5 times as much, I had a KM-900 but didn`t care for the small frets so I sold it for about what I paid for it and bought a newer KM-956 which has larger frets, a scooped fingerboard and is radiused, about the same price that I paid for the KM-900...The 956 does sound a little more bassy than the 900, both are great mandolins for the money...

    Willie

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Always a joy when we have dueling threads.

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/s...-s-and-Gruhn-s

    I've always said that if you can't hear the difference between your mandolin and one that is more expensive think of it as a blessing. You don't have to spend any more money. Just don't assume that everyone is going to accept that. I do believe in the placebo effect. Many people make changes to their instruments (me included) and I hope to shout they think it makes them sound better. Otherwise it's a waste of time and effort. Carry on.
    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them". These are the words of J. Garber.

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Yes and no - I bought a Loar LM 220 as a starter mandolin, and it is a nice mandolin and I still have it. But I bought a Pava and a Weber and a Collings because as a musician from a very early age, I was unsatisfied with the complexity of the Loar tone. I am very satisfied with what I consider mid-level mandolins, and have no desire for any other mandolins.

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeEdgerton View Post
    Always a joy when we have dueling threads.

    https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/s...-s-and-Gruhn-s

    I've always said that if you can't hear the difference between your mandolin and one that is more expensive think of it as a blessing. You don't have to spend any more money. Just don't assume that everyone is going to accept that. I do believe in the placebo effect. Many people make changes to their instruments (me included) and I hope to shout they think it makes them sound better. Otherwise it's a waste of time and effort. Carry on.
    Ha! Me too! I like to go to Carter's and play without paying attention to the name on the headstock and see where my hands and fingers guide me. I have been very surprised to find that some of the instruments that I liked a lot were quite reasonably priced. The Redline A5 was my favorite of the under $3000 class. In contrast, I had the pleasure of playing a Nugget last week and was blown away with how great it sounded! I now understand why they command such a high price. I still am not going to buy one, but if I had disposable income that allowed $20,000 purchases, I would.

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    I am a huge believer in the placebo effect. I would love to see what would happen if all labels and logos disappeared from instruments. No one would know what they like, what they're supposed to like, and roughly 75% of the threads on this site would disappear. We'd have to talk about why we prefer Josh Pinkham's take on the Bach partita over Mike Marshall's, or maybe what would happen if Dawg were in the original Hot Club of France. The question would be " what's a good starter mandolin for $300?" The answer would be "I dunno, one that costs $300?" I don't even look to see what players bring to the concert series anymore. It's a musical performance, not an instrument audition.

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  12. #8

    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Violins actually made by Stradivarius and Guarneri are worth millions and highly sought, yet double blind tests have consistently shown even the most skilled players and appraisers can't tell them from other well made instruments.
    It is important to point out that the violins compared with the Strads and Guarneris in tests were definitely NOT $300 instruments. Most of those instruments that may have been preferred to the Strads were top notch instruments with prices comparable to Gilchrist or Monteleone mandolins, in the $7000 to $50,000 range.

    For a beginner it may not make a lot of difference to buy a $3000 instrument over a $300 provided it is set up properly and solid wood. When you can play and notice a difference it is time to change. Many, if not most, classic recordings were made on decent, professional quality, mid range instruments. Monroe's Loar did not cost him a hundred thousand dollars. But it also was not bottom of the barrel. Acoustic blues is probably the only genre where classic recordings were made with cheap instruments because that was all they could afford. Most of those guys moved up when they could afford better. There is a bias against Pacific rim instruments because 25 or 30 years ago most of them were not good instruments. That has changed.

    There is not always a complete correspondence between price and quality. There are some exceptional cheap instruments and expensive ones that are dogs. But generally going from a $300 instrument to a $1500 instrument or a $3000 instrument will yield improvement in sound. Whether it is enough to justify the price is your call. But it is not all placebo.

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  14. #9

    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    When I've had the chance to play a wide of price ranges, I've never thought any of the well regarded relatively mass produced Pac Rim instruments sounded as good as the likes of a Weber Gallatin or Collings MT, Satin Pava, etc. The 900 and above Kentuckys came close, but still, when compared to a Northfield F 5S, lack the tone. Now we are talking a thousand dollars more for what is really not that much improvement, but it is money I would pay. Now when you move up another notch, your thousand to fifteen hundred buys and audible but lessor tonal improvement. Diminishing returns.

    I don't know if placebo is a word I'd use, but marketing sure comes into play. And what your heros play, subliminally or not, is a factor. Or what your friends will drool over, or if it's got a scroll or not. I've played enough mandolins to have a firmly entrenched opinion that spending $1500 on most any used A is going to yeald an instrument superior to the $1000 import. I'd love to find one that breaks the rule, but have not so far.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    I was going to state exactly the same point that CarlM made. The 'comparison' Violins were of superior quality anyway. In mandolin terms,much like comparing a Lloyd Loar F5 with a Gilchrist / Dude. etc. My personal point of view is that some of the finest players seem to think that they 'need' a Strad. / Loar & seek to justify it in terms of tonal values that escape most of us. For the life of me,i can't hear any 'improvement' in tone in Chris Thile's Loar compared with his Dude. That Dude.is still one of the finest sounding mandolins i've ever heard. yes - i can hear differences,but that's it 'differences'. I suppose that's whe we choose our own mandolins because to us (to use my own phrase) - they have a 'more pleasing difference' compared to others.

    I feel that instruments such as Strads. / Loars etc. do come with a huge status symbol attached ,& that many folk overlook their shortcomings in order to justify owning one - purely my opinion. Just to return to Mr Thile - i have his first 2 CD's - ''Leading Off'' & ''Stealing Second''. I know that he played a Gibson mandolin on both,i doubt if it was a Loar,but it sounded tremendous.

    I have to plead guilty to having some of the MAS that these top pickers have. I'd love a good Gibson F5L or Sam Bush model,simply for the fact that Bill Monroe played a Gibson mandolin,not because it was built / signed by any specific builder - just for the 'Bluegrass connection'. However,if it didn't sound at least as good as any of my current 3,i'd pass,
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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Quote Originally Posted by Cliff Seruntine View Post
    (This isn't really a question post so much as just opening a topic for discussion, should anyone be interested.)
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Both of my Kentuckys cost just a tad over $300....for both of them.

    My problem is this....and, reading above your a mental health professional makes me nervous to say this as it may be analyzed, lol...but I was raised with, well, not much. Thus, when I find something I like.....I over do it and right now I'm trying to control that urge and avoid further MAS issues. I'm not saying that while trying to learn guitar that I owned several.....not saying that at all.....never did really learn that thing.

    I know growing up that way had an effect on my acquisitions in my present day.

    I too have found two "gems", well, at least to my ears. I too agree that sometimes labels are way more valued than actually should be.

    Or what your friends will drool over, or if it's got a scroll or not.
    Ding, ding, ding....we have a winner of what is my MAS issue right now. I KNOW my A-type sounds as good or better than an F. I know the price point is better. I know this. It's the look that is making me contemplate a further purchase. So, play it up to marketing, a darn good marketing at that.
    Last edited by B381; Jan-25-2018 at 8:12am. Reason: Spelling, added info, because the edit button is there....

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    For me, it's a kind of equation, or a set of equations. Remember the old phrase, Happiness = Reality/Expectation? It's kind of like that but with more variables. Think about all the words we use to describe instruments as equations:

    Playability = Materials + Set-up + Personal adaptability
    Tone = Materials + Set-up + Volume + Individual technique
    Value = Price + Tone / Provenance

    ...and the list goes on.

    Unfortunately, none of these are absolutes. An unknown Wienman mandolin at $5,500 seemed like a bad value on paper -- until we learned of its tone and the builder's provenance. Now it seems that it's a GREAT value, if comparisons to a $20K Gibson Master Model are borne out.

    I'm blessed (or cursed) that my Eastman is sufficient for my current needs. When I bought it, there was a $3K Weber available. It wasn't 3 times better (according to my calculations) than the Eastman. However, the Eastman was worth more to me than its modest price jump over the objectively "good" Kentucky, whose neck profile and tone didn't suit me.

    I'm also lucky that my no-name beater, which I refretted for more than its market value, has a totally different but equally pleasing combo of tone and playability.

    I've never been blown away by a Collings, because for their plentiful supply, they're almost too perfect and consistent. They just don't have the "It-factor" for me.

    On the other hand, the best mando I've ever played was a $20K Gilchrist. It had it all: Looks, mojo, tone, volume, neck shape, setup, relative scarcity... I'd take it over a Loar any day. Luckily I don't have that money sitting around.

    I would love to participate in a blind test of mandolins at every price range, if somebody wants to arrange that! To make it REALLY interesting, at the end, all the participants could bid blindly on their favorite, having no idea how much it is truly worth.

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    A couple of thoughts from the person who started the other in the dueling threads In no particular order:

    I'm not sure the two threads are really so different. I don't read the OP here as saying there isn't a difference between a good, less expensive mandolin and a much more expensive one. It's more a question of how much difference and at what point does one no longer want to pay for that difference? For me, that point is somewhere in the $1800-2500 range. Most of the $8k mandolins I've played sounded fantastic - but not enough better for me to spend $6k more.

    Thinking back over the experience of playing at Carter's & Gruhn's, I may want to reconsider whether there's an objective difference in sound between a $2,000 mandolin and a $10,000 one. What I can say with certainty is that I have a clear preference for the overall experience of playing a Duff or a Gilchrist compared to, say, an entry level Collings or Weber. But that preference includes the way the instrument feels, the way it sounds as I play it, etc. I'm less certain that if I closed my eyes and listened to someone else play it I'd perceive the difference as clearly.

    I think we'd all agree that that if you take 20 instruments within a limited price range - say $1,500-2,500 - it's unlikely that with price tags removed and headstocks covered anyone would play them and then arrange them in order of preference from cheapest to most expensive. We accept that mandolins in a similar price range will be of similar quality and that individuals will have preferences between them. I'm less certain that that's the case as you expand that window. I'd be willing to put good money on the fact that if we took 10 reasonably experienced mandolin players from the forum and had each of them play and then arrange in order of preference 20 mandolins ranging from $500 to $10,000, they might not put them in exact order, but the higher priced instruments would be grouped at one end pretty consistently and the lower priced instruments would be grouped at the other end just as consistently. That's not to say that there might not be the rare exception - a low-priced mandolin that just has that "it." I just am reasonably certain that the wider range you're looking at, the rarer those become.

    Enough of my ramblings as I avoid working

  22. #15

    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Quote Originally Posted by Drew Streip View Post

    I would love to participate in a blind test of mandolins at every price range, if somebody wants to arrange that! To make it REALLY interesting, at the end, all the participants could bid blindly on their favorite, having no idea how much it is truly worth.
    Double blind mandolin test--I think that would be awesome. These tests often lead to unexpected results, as they have been done with various other instruments: guitars, flutes, violins, etc. And the results always indicate that once you get to the level of quality build, everything becomes subjective.

    Like others here, I like to support small builders and would prefer to buy a mandolin from a small shop. Sadly, the only local mandolin maker I know of is Brian Dean, and while I adore both his German deep flat back and his Lyon & Healy clone, I just cannot justify $5000 when I have no intention of ever playing professionally.

    Like Charlieshafer said earlier, I agree that we would be in for some radical revising of how we evaluate and value instruments if we were to remove all their labels and just judge them by their merits.

    One thing I like about the mandolin world is the instruments are undervalued compared to violins. You can get into a very nice mandolin for much less. That, at least, allows most of us to get into decent instruments.

    Interesting perspectives.

    BTW, if anyone knows a good place to buy a reasonably priced German bowlback of decent quality, I'd be interested. It is one kind of mandolin I've always wanted to try.

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Visited Carter's in September and played an Old Wave oval. While mandolins never "speak" to me I'm fairly certain it mumbled something, and I continued to visit their site and stare at all seven pictures of it.
    Cliff's recent praise of his humble KM 272 had me wavering but Tuesday I pulled the plug and ordered the Old Wave.
    I'll probably never try out the Kentucky for fear Cliff was correct but purchasing the Old Wave prevents me from asking the what if question and the higher price will keep the MAS in check.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Quote Originally Posted by Tom Hart View Post
    I'll probably never try out the Kentucky for fear Cliff was correct but purchasing the Old Wave prevents me from asking the what if question and the higher price will keep the MAS in check.
    Honest.
    That's how you keep MAS in check!

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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    While attending Peabody conservatory, my cellist daughter and her fellow cellists would set up a screen on a stage and have their professor play a passage of music on all their cellos, $12K to $30K. Her $12K cello won or placed no lower than third, simply because of the maker being an unknown. The 30K cello was also highly rated.The $18K to $25K instruments were a jumble.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeEdgerton View Post
    I've always said that if you can't hear the difference between your mandolin and one that is more expensive think of it as a blessing. You don't have to spend any more money.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    In a jam or louder environment any mandolin will do, to some extent. For me it's when I sit alone or with one or two others and can really hear how my mandolin sounds that the sound of my mandolin is important. Do you play it because you love the sound and just want to hear it, even if you really don't feel like playing. That's when you know you like your mandolin and while there may be ones that sound better, they would have to prove it. If the mandolin is $300 or $3000, the point is do you love it's sound, does it make you want to play. That's it for me in a nut shell.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    It's all good when you love what you have.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Yes, that's the way it is for me. I like late night soft playing at any time, but especially after I come home from a noisy pub session. The tone is so lovely when the background noise of traffic is low.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    I have been playing fiddle for over 40 years but never had classical instruction. So with my level of skill at the prices asked for these days, I can probably distinguish varying qualities of instruments up to maybe $5,000. After that my ear and technique would not distinguish much of a difference. However, a upper-level player might have a much higher threshold. They may hear things that I certainly would not.

    As for double-blind, behind the curtain tests. I suppose they are as good as anything and are means to show the emperor (or the Emperor Stradivari violin) has no clothes. However, bear in mind that there are other things that players looks for besides tone heard by an audience. Players look for volume, responsiveness, ability to project to all corners of a concert hall and perhaps other subtleties that we mortals might not be able to discern. Frankly, I grow tired of hearing about double-blind tests especially of violins. I doubt that they affect the market for upper-level Italian violins one iota.

    As for our mandolin, a lot of this applies here. One of the most revered of the old Italian mandolins are Emberghers. I have played quite a few of the highest level of these set up by an expert virtuoso player and they have an uncanny ability to project in a room. I own a lovely mid-range one from 1904 but it is a joy to play it.
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    Quote Originally Posted by Cliff Seruntine View Post
    In my own work as a mental health professional, I am well familiar the power of the placebo. The belief that something is going to help is so powerful it can make us perceive healing. The placebo effect becomes more powerful as the thing we believe in becomes more complicated, too. This generalizes out to our perception of musical instruments. The more we spend on something, and the more experienced we believe its maker was, and the more complicated was it's making (i.e., hand carved verses cut by power tools), the more likely we are to perceive we hear better tone or that the instrument plays better.
    I was under the impression that the placebo effect is not necessarily a bad thing and that in medical situations is can be as effective as actual medical treatment. Check out this article from Harvard Health.

    As for applying the placebo affect to musical instruments, I ask you if there is a possibility that the reverse effect can also work. That a musician can be convinced that his simple, inexpensive (but well-made) instrument is as good or better than those costing 10 or 20 times as much. Once again, it is the power of belief. It could work both ways, right?
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    Default Re: Instruments, Cost & the Placebo Effect

    OK, I admit to not being as expert with a mandolin as a guitar.

    From a guitar perspective, I can tell the difference. That difference is based on what my ear perceives which is completely different for each person. Among other guitars, I own a Gibson and a Bedell. They are distinctly and noticeably different. Is one "better"? No, they are different.

    The Gibson is a great strumming guitar - loud and bold. The Bedell is at its best for finger picking, at least for me.

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