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Thread: Your First Upgrade

  1. #1
    Registered User Yeet's Avatar
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    Default Your First Upgrade

    Hi! I've been a long-time lurker on here but just decided to join because I have curious questions for those with more experience than myself!

    ----------
    Context if you want to read it (otherwise feel free to skip this section): I've had my mandolin for about 4 or 5 years; I decided to try it out when I was in high school. I only played it on and off, and when I played it, it was usually just strumming some chords and occasionally mixing in an extra finger or movement for some razzle dazzle. I'd probably play it a lot for a few days to a week and a half and then not touch it for more than a couple minutes for several months. I got a ukulele a couple of years ago and it was very quiet and much easier, so I started using it more for a while and neglecting my poor mando. Basically, pretty much all I did on the mandolin until last month was play like a dozen chords...not much.

    Anyway, this past month I started trying to play my mandolin as more than just an accompaniment for singing. When I'm bored I window shop and look at all of the cool mandolins out there. From the start, I told myself that I wouldn't buy an upgrade until I go from being a beginner to being intermediate. But the mandolust is so real!

    ----------

    My current mando is a ~$50 Rogue 100A. I don't have much to base my standards for mandolins on; this is my first and only ever mandolin and I've only ever heard mandolins in a similar price range in person (and for short periods of time).

    I'm not going to get a new mandolin until I get decent and it becomes worth it to have a much more expensive one (not sure how much more expensive at this point; depends on whether I'm impatient and decide to get one as soon as I feel like I'm intermediate or much later when I can give it a lot more thought, learn more, and save up more).

    So! I'd like to know:

    What was your starter mandolin, what brand and model was your first upgrade, and how did you decide you were ready for an upgrade? How was your upgrade better than your starter?

    Feel free to include anything else you want to share about your experience finding your mandolin soulmate.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My first was an Aria A model with F holes. It was super cheap and sounded like it. But, it helped me learn the basics. I got tired of the poor sound and went to a teens Gibson A 2. Got a decent price back in the late 70's. The difference was astounding. Then I went to a Kentucky F 1500 just because I was lusting for an F model. Finally, in 1993 I called Randy Wood and got him to make me one of his F 5's. I'll never need another mandolin.

  3. #3

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My first was an Olympia OM-6SW. It was quite good, just a bit weak on the wound strings, and I kept saying I wouldn't upgrade for years. However I discovered while learning jazz chords that holding down the two middle strings on the same fret with two fingers without muting adjacent strings just wasn't possible on this 1 3/32" nut mandolin. I'm 6' 4" and my fingers aren't particularly big for my size but apparently, big enough. I had been trying out every mando I came across anyway and now focussed on 1 1/8" with radius or 1 3/16".

    I came across a mandolin with 1 3/16" nut which was cut to maximize distance between courses. Best of all the chubby V neck fit my hand like a glove. I loved the sound as well, it had pro volume and tone, but the the top had been carved too thin so Barry Kratzer has it now for a new top, fret job and a few other items.

    So, everything is better for me with the new mando except price. I went from $230 to $1500, inclusive of the additional work.
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  4. #4
    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My "starter" mandolin was a 'teens Gibson A-1 found in my grandfather's attic. So a lucky break for me, though I had to have a huge top crack, "repaired" in the past with adhesive tape (!), glued. Playing bluegrass in the 1970's, I convinced myself that I needed an F-style instrument, so the A-1 went in trade on an F-2.

    The F-2 was "better" than the A-1, but more in terms of bluegrass "cred" than acoustic improvement. I didn't know any better, but also didn't make a serious blunder in upgrading.

    A new, better instrument often leads to more frequent playing, which in turn leads to better playing -- regardless of the construction or acoustic qualities of either mandolin. Play the new instrument, then play the old one, at the dealers; decide if the improvement warrants the higher price.
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  5. #5
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    I bought my first mandolin in 1979. It was a new import, and cost $40. I do not recall the brand-- it may very well have been an unlabeled instrument. It did not play cleanly-- it rattled, it buzzed, and was lacking in tone. Within six months, I was ready for another mandolin.

    I happened upon a 1941 or '42 Strad-o-lin in a music store for $75. It needed a tailpiece, and the tuners were on their last legs. It sounded much better than the import, so I gave the import to a friend. 6 or 8 months later, the top on that import collapsed, even though the instrument was well taken care of. It ended up in the scrap heap.

    I played the Strad-o-lin exclusively for 7 or 8 years. During that time, I replaced the bridge saddle and the failing tuners and refretted it. Then one evening, Norman Blake handed me a Gibson A-4 at a jam session [it was not for sale], and a light went on: "Oh, this is what a good mandolin is supposed to sound and feel like." I saved up my pennies, went up to George Gruhn's shop, and played every old Gibson he had. Out of those 8 or 10 mandolins, I picked out the best one, which was a 1917 F-4. I wrote a check for $2500 and walked out of the shop with that F-4 and a 1939 Martin 0-18 for my girlfriend. If I recall correctly, the mandolin cost me $1600 and the guitar cost $900. It was a lot more fun in those days, before prices started to rise. That was in 1988.

    A couple of years later, the girlfriend left with the Martin. I don't think she plays it much anymore. I still have both the Strad-o-lin and the F-4. Since then, I have owned other mandolins, but that F-4 has been the keeper.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    First mando was a new pawnshop Czech bowlback that was overpriced at $29.00. I played it for a year or so, until the cheap brass frets were worn out. It wasn't worth re-fretting, alas.

    I went to guitar for a few years, until Ry Cooder's first album opened my ears. I spent a year getting enough cash to buy a mandolin just like his F4. It's still my #1 mando, though there are still a dozen others around here underfoot.

  7. #7
    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    I still have my first with no upgrades other than new strings and a BC pick. It is a 1911, give or take, Vega Bowl Back, no bling on it just a simple plain but incredible sounding Bowl Back.
    My avatar is of my OldWave Oval A

    Creativity is just doing something wierd and finding out others like it.

  8. #8
    Registered User John Soper's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My first was an old Harmony Monteray that I bought for $25 in a pawn shop. I couldn't figure out why it could be in perfect tune for open strings, but the two E strings kept getting further and further out the higher you went on the frets. I finally noticed the chip in the nut, replaced it and it was OK. My first upgrade was a 1920 A3 that I got for $300. Unfortunately had to sell the A3 to finance a U-Haul truck for a cross-country move. Wish I still had that one! I had a '40s Gibson A on semi permanent loan for a few years, bought a $75 Kentucky in a pawn shop for my 40th birthday, and my upgrade from that was a Collings MT2 5 years later. A world of difference.

  9. #9
    Some Ability - No Talent MikeZito's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My first mandolin was a Santa Rosa MD11. In hindsight, it was an almost laughable instrument - but at the time, it was all that I could afford (I think I paid $69) but it was invaluable to me as something to learn on, because I literally brought it with me everywhere that I went, and played it at every concievable opportunity.

    A very short time later I added a Goya GM23 - which again was not exactly a world class instrument, but it introduced me to the world of oval hole mandolins.

    Over the next 2 or 3 years I picked up a a couple of very serviceable little Morgan Monroe and Epiphone f-style mandolins, and a 1929 Martin Style 20, before finally settling on an absolute killer Rigel R100 Custom.

    For various reasons, all of those instruments had to go, many years ago - and now I am a confirmed oval-hole guy, with my Kentucky KM-272 as my 'main' mandolin.

  10. #10

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    The first mandolin I ever bought was a Gilchrist. I do have a banjo mandolin that was given to me prior to that. I should add that I was already playing banjo in a band before deciding to get a mandolin. I was fortunate to have access to some great mandolins before I made a decision. When you upgrade, get the best instrument you can afford. It will help your playing.

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  12. #11
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    First mandolin was a Kentucky 675-S, bought after much research but before I discovered this site. Only $350, but it was an eBay mess, and I ended up putting as much into getting it playable as I did buying it. I’d have been much better off buying new from one of the Cafe Sponsors. I recently gave it to a youngster interested in mando, and he’s still wailing away on it.

    I added a Fender 62SE blueburst for plug and play convenience, bought a Mandobird IV for solid body fun, and bought a Flatiron 1N for oval hole tone. The 1N is the best built and sounding of the bunch, but doesn’t have carved top chop (as it shouldn’t), so it wasn’t an upgrade so much as acquiring a different voice. I gave the Fender to my brother, who’s still playing it periodically in church, and I still own and play the other 2.

    My first real upgrade was my Silverangel Econo, bought used for $900. It is truly a step to a whole other level of craftsmanship and tone, a truly professional quality instrument capable of handling any acoustic genre of music. It’s so good that it staved off MAS for over 5 years. I once took a trip to Nashville and hit the usual suspects, playing everything I could get my hands on. There were better mandolins, but they were all $4000 dollars and up. I kept it over a Collings MT I picked up in a trade for an OM as well.

    The next purchase was not an upgrade but a beater, an Eastman 315, to replace the Kentucky i gave away. It’s a surprisingly good instrument, especially for the price, but it doesn’t have the complexity of tone or quality of woods that my better mandolins have.

    I did eventually upgrade again, to a Skip Kelley A5, not too long before my wife decided she wanted to downsize (as our youngest was off to college). I’m going to be scaling back my stable in the near future and am still debating about what to keep, but I most often end on keeping the SA and the Kelley. Fewer but better makes sense.

    So, I have 2 points to that long ramble. If you’re playing out with others/for others and the Rogue is holding you back, an Eastman 305 or Kentucky 505 would be significant upgrades and would serve you well for years. If, however, you’re just playing at home and have the Rogue well set up so that it’s not holding you back in that regard, keep learning and saving until you can get into the 1000-1500 range. That’s the first true step up into potential “life long” mandolin territory, IMHO. Used SA, Morris, Ratliff, Bulldog, Flatiron, and the Kentucky masterbuilts (KM 900/1000) come immediately to mind as options.

    Whatever you decide, good luck!
    Chuck

  13. #12

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My first mandolin was pretty decent..a Kentucky KM505. I played it for about 9 months before the seductive idea of playing a really good instrument invaded my mind. After a lot of research I did some shopping and found a great Collings MT2 with an Italian Spruce top and a wide nut done with a cream top. It's a real looker and more importantly, has fabulous tone. I only spent $2000 more for the Collings but gained far more than that. The only upgrade I see in my future is some Grover 309s.

  14. #13
    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Quote Originally Posted by Yeet View Post
    What was your starter mandolin
    My starter mandolin was a Mid-Missouri M0 flattop, and to make sure that it was the right one, it was soon followed by a Flatiron 1N, a Redline Traveler, and a Gypsy Vagabond all purchased in the same price range ($400-$500). In the process, I learned that I favored pancakes (Flatiron/Redline) over tulips (Mid-Mo/Gypsy) and liked modern playability features (Redline) more than traditional ones (Flatiron).

    Quote Originally Posted by Yeet View Post
    what brand and model was your first upgrade
    My first upgrade was a 1924 Gibson snakehead, which cost me as much as the four starters combined.

    Quote Originally Posted by Yeet View Post
    how did you decide you were ready for an upgrade?
    As it was the end of the school year, and I had incoming stipends, I knew I had some “found money” in my home economy to afford it.

    Quote Originally Posted by Yeet View Post
    How was your upgrade better than your starter?
    The depth of tone from a carved archtop was an ear-opening experience and paved the way for further explorations with f-holes in the future.
    1924 Gibson A Snakehead
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  15. #14
    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Sorry, I read upgrade to mean mods to the mandolin. When I bought my next mandolin form the Vega BowlBack, I commissioned an Oval A from Oldwave Mandolins. I can't remember the exact year I got it but it was around 08-09. I still have both and no others, although one with F-holes would be nice for variety.
    My avatar is of my OldWave Oval A

    Creativity is just doing something wierd and finding out others like it.

  16. #15

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Eastman MD 505 was my first. It was fine until I tried Northfield and Collings, then it wasn't. If you've played enough to know you'll stick with it, spend $1200-1700 on a used A. You can get a honey of a nice used A style for that. Avoid the incremental upgrade. My Silverangel cost me $1400 and can hang with anything I've played.

    I would not dissuade you from spending $5k either. Fine instruments just draw you to them and the more you play, the better you get.

    Playing a better mandolin dictated the need. Competence has nothing to do with it. Nothing.

    It's all in the tone, primarily the thickness of the G string, but it's there across all the strings. You may not be playing up around the 12th fret yet, but a good mandolin with not lose body up there.
    Silverangel A
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  18. #16

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Quote Originally Posted by Yeet View Post
    Hi! I've been a long-time lurker on here but just decided to join because I have curious questions for those with more experience than myself!

    ----------
    Context if you want to read it (otherwise feel free to skip this section): I've had my mandolin for about 4 or 5 years; I decided to try it out when I was in high school. I only played it on and off, and when I played it, it was usually just strumming some chords and occasionally mixing in an extra finger or movement for some razzle dazzle. I'd probably play it a lot for a few days to a week and a half and then not touch it for more than a couple minutes for several months. I got a ukulele a couple of years ago and it was very quiet and much easier, so I started using it more for a while and neglecting my poor mando. Basically, pretty much all I did on the mandolin until last month was play like a dozen chords...not much.

    Anyway, this past month I started trying to play my mandolin as more than just an accompaniment for singing. When I'm bored I window shop and look at all of the cool mandolins out there. From the start, I told myself that I wouldn't buy an upgrade until I go from being a beginner to being intermediate. But the mandolust is so real!

    ----------

    My current mando is a ~$50 Rogue 100A. I don't have much to base my standards for mandolins on; this is my first and only ever mandolin and I've only ever heard mandolins in a similar price range in person (and for short periods of time).

    I'm not going to get a new mandolin until I get decent and it becomes worth it to have a much more expensive one (not sure how much more expensive at this point; depends on whether I'm impatient and decide to get one as soon as I feel like I'm intermediate or much later when I can give it a lot more thought, learn more, and save up more).

    So! I'd like to know:

    What was your starter mandolin, what brand and model was your first upgrade, and how did you decide you were ready for an upgrade? How was your upgrade better than your starter?

    Feel free to include anything else you want to share about your experience finding your mandolin soulmate.
    Welcome!

    I’d say you’re in for a long wait to get decent on your current mando. You need a decent mandolin then take some lessons to help you develop into a decent player.

    Get an Eastman 305/315 these are very nice mandos around $500-700 new and great values used. If your wallet can take it look at the Northfields, the F5S runs around $3,000 new - a great value if you can find one - and you may never need another. If you decide you don’t like any of these you can pretty much get your money back.
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

  19. #17

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    First - a truly dreadful used Savannah. Big mistake.

    Traded it after 2 weeks for a Kentucky 160. Decided I preferred a radius board, so bought an Eastman 505 which I played for around 3 years.

    Eventually sold the Eastman and got a Northfield F5S. That was just over 4 years ago. Love it.

  20. #18
    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    My first was a Suzuki bowlback and I was perfectly happy with it; put it away for 20 years and when I picked it back up, the neck had warped. That was my first upgrade -- to my strad-o-lin. I got it before the internet -- i was talking with a music store about whether the bowlback could be fixed and they suggested I call a music store in another state and talk to them about what mandolin would be available that would be an upgrade and not too expensive. The strad is a lovely instrument, lots of tone, lots of volume and worked for about a decade, until the glue that held on the neck started to break down. I sent it to a luthier who kept it for more than a year so I looked around for something to play in the meantime and found a Kentucky 480s on sale at musician's friend -- this was shortly after I found the cafe and Kentucky was getting a good rep for playable instruments. So up until then, I only owned one instrument at a time and while they were all different, they were all about the same price range (although I don't know what the price on the Suzuki was, it was a gift from my parents). When I got the strad back (finally!) i sold the Kentucky because it didn't do it for me and the strad was my main instrument -- with a few side trips to a couple of bandolims just for the different tone -- until 2011, when i bought my Eastman out of a tent at Greyfox. At that point, arthritis had made playing the strad hard -- it's got a fairly chunky neck -- and I liked the Eastman feel but it sounded a little thin on the ground in the bass range. All this is to say that all my instruments up till then were more or less comparable instruments regardless of how well I played or whether i 'deserved' or 'qualified for' an upgrade. My teacher told me that my sub-$500 mandolins -- and many were very good for what they were -- were perfectly fine but that my skills would actually warrant a better instrument if i were so inclined. Not that i bought anything new, i just found it a nice thing to know.

    But I play a lot of ITM and I really felt I needed something with more bass than my Eastman. Not that I deserved a better instrument (the Eastman is a lovely thing and a superior version of the clan) but that I wanted a different sound. So everywhere I went, I wandered into music stores and tried out what they had. One thing I wouldn't buy is a worse instrument than I already owned. And having played long enough, I could hear what was worse. (I also own a $49 Rogue which i paid $60 to have set up so I know what they sound like. I loaned it to a friend and he thought the tone was wonderful. He's nuts, it sounds like the plywood instrument it is, but it's an easy to play plywood instrument that sounds a bit like a jack-in-the-box).

    I've been in some wonderful shops all over not to mention the instruments on display at Greyfox (there was a lovely czech instrument I fell in love with, but it didn't temp me to pay the asking price for it) and so it went until, dunno -- five? -- years ago when I wandered into Acoustic Music in Guilford (because I live in Connecticut and I'd never been there, which is nuts) and the guy there handed me a couple three instruments to play (nice, they were) and then he handed me a 1923 Gibson A1 snakehead that had the bass I had been looking for for years, a lovely tubby Loar-era Gibson sound, was a dream to play (it has a one-inch nut, perfect for my arthritic/carpal tunnel weakened wrist) and I fell in love. And somehow I made it happen. Because I wanted it and it was what I had been looking for. There was no question about whether I was competent enough, good enough, deserved enough, to upgrade to an instrument that cost about what any four of my other instruments cost. I bought it because I loved what it sounded like. And that really is the only reason to upgrade, in my mind.
    --------------------------------
    1920 Lyon & Healy bowlback
    1923 Gibson A-1 snakehead
    1952 Strad-o-lin
    1983 Giannini ABSM1 bandolim
    2009 Giannini GBSM3 bandolim
    2011 Eastman MD305

  21. #19
    Dave Sheets
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Started with a Japanese made bowl back of uncertain origin, and definite sonic limitations that I got in high school. Started really playing a lot after I got out of school. My wife hated it, and encouraged me to find something else. Found a slightly shopworn Flatiron A, which has been great for years now, might have even been a blem. I did get a really great oval hole recently out of the classifieds here that gets most of my mandolin playing time lately, but it's not better, just different.

    I kinda just blundered into the Flatiron. Dang lucky really. My wife really hated that bowlback.

    When I pick up some instruments, they just feel like they are going to light up when you start to play, they just feel like they want to rip, like they are ready to take off. That Flatiron was the first instrument I had that did that. Really careful setup work has developed this feel in a couple of good sounding but initially lackluster feeling instruments I've had. Setup work is really important. Come to think of it, most of the instruments in this group are been pretty loud as well. Loud tends to mean there is a lot of dynamic range available, maybe that makes them more expressive, more responsive?

    I've had a whole bunch of instruments that weren't really inspiring, and those are the ones I regret buying, they just take up money and space. Good used instruments hold value pretty well. Come to think about it, I don't have any of the instruments I purchased new left, except that Flatiron, everything else I've kept was used.

    Instruments are a pretty good deal as entertainment- think what a movie ticket costs per hour, or even the cable bill per hour, it adds up to more than the yearly cost of a good mandolin pretty quickly.
    -Dave
    Flatiron A
    Way too many other instruments

  22. #20
    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    First was an Eastman MD 315, after much lurking/research here on the Cafe. When I knew I was fully committed to playing mandolin after about a year, I started more research on next-level instruments. I have played guitar and bass for a long time, so I know good tone. Stumbled into a great deal on a Weber Bitterroot F from Elderly, and that served me well for another year until I went to Austin for a conference and spent an afternoon at Fiddlers Green playing everything they had. Ellis, Pava, Collings, Northfield, Gibsons, etc. I was completely captivated by the tone and feel of the Northfield F5S. Found a good deal on a used one from Morgan Music and could possibly be completely happy with this one for the remainder of my life. I recently played a Givens A, though and really liked that one, but I aspire to a Kimble A so I have a good A model to go with my F5S.

    Agree with Br1ck above - playing ability is not the driver for an upgrade. Your ears and fingers are the drivers, and the only limitation is your wallet.

  23. #21
    Mandolin user MontanaMatt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    I was playing fiddle in a band when I got my first mandolin...
    It was a Gold Tone gm70.
    I played it hard and thought it was good. I then tried a few Weber mandolins, wow, the clouds parted. I then saved a lot of money, and went directly to a top of the line custom elite Weber. No regrets.
    2007 Weber Custom Elite "old wood"
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  24. #22
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Quote Originally Posted by Homer Savard View Post
    The first mandolin I ever bought was a Gilchrist. I do have a banjo mandolin that was given to me prior to that. I should add that I was already playing banjo in a band before deciding to get a mandolin. I was fortunate to have access to some great mandolins before I made a decision. When you upgrade, get the best instrument you can afford. It will help your playing.
    Your first was a Gilchrist ? Wow ! You saved a lot in the decision making process on what to get next ! You don't need a next ! Congratulations !
    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 !

  25. #23
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    I think upgrades are not earned with competence. Get the best mandolin you can afford and play the potatoes out of it.

    My first mandolin was a Terada, that my father bought me from a television repair and musical instrument shop. (Believe it or not these were not all that uncommon back in the day.) I played it high school through college, and even after for a few years, till I left it in a car one hot July, and it self destructed.

    My bought my second mandolin and I will never ever outgrow it. I will never be able to deserve it with competence, or discover all its secrets. Even now. And that characterizes all the mandolins I have bought or acquired since then. They are all way way better than me.


    I am studying classical mandolin with a Skype teacher, and it is amazing all ways I never played my mandolin before. The mandolin was always there just waiting for me to learn or discover what it could do, what it was good at. And it has taken years to unlock even a third of its amazingness.
    Indulge responsibly!

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  27. #24

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    I do think you need to play around some once you get to a certain level just to discover what direction you want to travel. I never had a whole lot of interest in bluegrass until I built my Arches kit. That mandolin loves bluegrass licks and has opened up a whole new musical world. My Silverangel excels on fiddle tunes. There is a lot of overlap, and truth be told either could be my only instrument, but it is a good thing to have multiple mandolins. The builder community needs it. After all, Luthier's thrive in an environment of MAS induced hysteria.
    Silverangel A
    Michael Kelly LSFTB
    Arches F style kit
    1913 Gibson A-1

  28. The following members say thank you to Br1ck for this post:


  29. #25

    Default Re: Your First Upgrade

    Your first was a Gilchrist ? Wow ! You saved a lot in the decision making process on what to get next ! You don't need a next ! Congratulations !

    You have to remember that in 1987 Gilchrist was not yet a common name in mandolins.
    It sounded great and I took the risk!��

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