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Thread: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

  1. #1
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    Default What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    I’m thinking about upgrading from my Eastman 505, and want to stay objective and remember what to check out in a mandolin before I pull the trigger. I find that when I go to a music store and sit down to try out new instruments all the excitement causes me for forget what to “inspect” carefully. So, I’m putting together a list on my iPhone to be prepared. Here’s what I have so far, but I sure would appreciate others’ advice.:


    -Where is the bridge relative to comfortable arm/wrist position?
    -Are the strings centered over the fretboard?
    -Is the bass course buzzing or clear?
    -Neck comfort: V or U? Thickness
    -Radiused fretboard?
    -Nut width (Eastman 505 is narrow 1 3/32”; Standard is 1 ⅛”; Wide is 1 3/16”)
    -How fast can I play scale sequences?
    -Fret thickness, ease of fretting, sliding
    Action, height at nut
    -Evenness of strings in horizontal plane
    -Bridge flushness with top
    -Binding-top, bottom, fingerboard
    -Tuning machine smoothness
    -Case
    -Finish (gloss, satin) effect on tone.
    -Dings, scratches
    -Strap button(s)
    -Fretboard extension over oval hole (comfortable picking working distance?)
    -Is fingerboard cantilevered over top or (like old Gibsons) or attached?
    -Intonation up the neck
    -Clarity on higher frets
    -Sustain
    -Even response/sustain on all strings
    -Clarity or tubbiness (strings new or dead?)
    -Volume

  2. #2

    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    Hi mate,

    I think you got good points covered. For me it is just the feeling I get and if I like the tone. I guess I'm simple like that.

    Just play a couple and I bet you will find a winner.

    All best!

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  4. #3

    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    Does the sound appeal to me?
    Is the playing comfortable, ie, neck and right hand?
    Is the condition acceptable?

    Not much else matters to me. Your mileage seems more variable.

    If the tuners stick on a great sounding instrument are you going to pass it by?
    Play it like you mean it.

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  6. #4
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    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    You’ve got an excellent list. For me, all those factors are important, though I wouldn’t count out an excellent instrument because of set up issues, which are remediable. The big kickers for me are the tone, first and foremost, followed by (though almost equally important) the feel in my hands and against my body, and how well it plays up the neck. I have an Eastman 315 that’s one of their good ones. It has 80% of the tone of a Collings MT for much less $ (I had the Eastman and an MT in my possession at the same time for about 6 months...the MT was clearly better to me in tone, playability, and fit/finish, but not necessarily 4x better). But, the 315, while very good, loses tone up the neck compared to my Kelley A5, my Silverangel, and my Flatiron 1N (humble though the latter may be). I think that’s the test (and have heard a couple of top tier pickers say the same), the up the neck performance...
    Chuck

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  8. #5

    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    A lot of your list is setup related. While a great setup is ideal, you don't necessarily want to rule out instruments that might just happen to have the action on the low side or some other setup issue. People's preferences can be all over the place in regards to action.

    We also tend to favor the familiar. Not always, but more often than not something significantly different will feel strange. There is an adjustment period. This is especially true of neck shape, nut width, frets or anything that might require changes to your muscle memory. It takes some time to adjust.
    Robert Fear
    http://www.folkmusician.com
    1-800-493-4922

    "Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don't.
    " - Pete Seeger

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  10. #6
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    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    Whew ! I think you are over thinking it ! Let your ears be your guide ! Just get an Ellis or a Girouard and don't worry about it !
    My two favorite pastimes are drinking wine and playing the mandolin but most of my friends would rather hear me drink wine! Adapted from quote by Mark Twain------supposedly !

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  12. #7
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    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    Balance to me is the mark of a good to great instrument. Even tone can be personal preference. Most of what you list can be easily corrected or just gotten use to. My best mandolin is a Dearstone, no matter where you fret it the volume is there no weak points. Note the second string at the twelfth fret and the sound is balanced with an open string. Having said all that I have a Kentucky that I play about as much that has some "dead" spots but I love the Gibsony tone so sometimes we just like a particular instrument.

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  14. #8
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    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    Thanks, all, for your perspective. Yes, I don’t mean for this to be a complete “make or break” list. I just want a reminder for things to pay attention to when I compare mandolins in the heat of the moment at the store. Sound and feel are certainly what it’s all about, but as someone who’s been playing the instrument for less than two years, I’m sure I don’t have the intuitive sense for these (especially feel) that more experienced players have (and may not even realize). I am much better informed now than I was when I bought my current mando, when I missed something important. That’s why I want to be ready when I plunk down a possibly bigger chunk of money for my next mandolin.

  15. #9

    Default Re: What to look/listen for when mandolin shopping?

    I'm thrilled to have a few good stores around. I let them sweat the details. I then let my body dictate what I like. I try not to pay attention to neck width or radiused or not fretboards, just how it plays and sounds. If the instrument is used, I look for aesthetic issues that would be deal breakers for me. Like buying anything, you can get an idea how well something was cared for.

    I found moving up from the same mandolin you own, any of the usuall suspects worked for me. Once I had spent time with my Silverangel, i developed a better understanding. That jump to something like a Weber or Collings is going to be dramatic.

    IMHO, don't settle for higher up the Eastman ladder. Not worth it. For an experiment, play a Kentucky or Eastman G string, then grab a Collings and play that G string. If you can't tell an imediate qualitative difference, play your Eastman for a while longer. An investment of $1500 more or less in the used A style market should be satisfying. After playing something like this for a while, you'll find things very interesting going forward, like how much more you'll be willing to pay for just a small reward.
    Silverangel A
    Michael Kelly LSFTB
    Arches F style kit
    1913 Gibson A-1

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