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Thread: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandolin?

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    Default How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandolin?

    Howdy everybody!

    I'm in the midst of a mandolin hunt for my 4th mandolin. I'm stepping up the budget and the game. I've been playing for around a decade, and I know more or less what I'm looking for... rich and sweet treble, with solid bass that would help cut the mids just a bit. However, my question is, whenever you are 'on the hunt' test playing mandolins what methods do you use to evaluate the mandolin at hand?

    I'm looking for any answers/techniques on this as I am slightly nervous heading out with a bigger budget. I want to make sure I find the right one without settling or overlooking details!

    Thank you all!

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    The biggest thing which helped for me was having a friend play it (if you are shopping in person). Playing behind and listening in front of are very different in my experience. If your friends are like mine however, it does not help with MAS.

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    I'm fairly new but I've found it helpful to bring my mandolin and switch back and forth. Without a reference instrument I get very fuzzy about comparisons. With, I can remember volume level and tone differences on each string.
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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Quote Originally Posted by Greg P. Stone View Post
    I'm fairly new but I've found it helpful to bring my mandolin and switch back and forth. Without a reference instrument I get very fuzzy about comparisons. With, I can remember volume level and tone differences on each string.
    Good point! I wasn't even considering this! I will have to do that! It might help ground me. Thank you for this!

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Play as many potential mandolins as you can !
    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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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Scales up the neck and across the neck up high. Softly struck and moderately struck and hard struck notes. If it holds a good resonant tone then I pick a few choice notes and check sustain and a few chords if all of these sing to me it is probably a keeper. I always make sure to check these things as I mentioned, struck softly and through to very hard and let's not forget some tremolo soft to hard. Sadly The two mandolins I have I never got to play first. I bought a bowl back from Jim and his description sold it for me and he was spot on. And the Oldwave I worked with Bill and explained what I wanted, he let me look at pictures of wood and choose and went on faith. Funny how the keepers are ones I never played first. Most of the stuff in the shops here were very low entry-level instruments that did nothing for me. But in playing those instruments I didn't like they helped me decide what I didn't want and like as much as the ones that were great did.
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    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    A quick look over to see what the general craftsmanship looks like. Not just 'fit and finish', but also proportions and lines. Is the neck well shaped? Is there anything that might affect playability? Potential structural problems? Does it feel balanced in the hands and on a strap? etc.

    For sound evaluation, first a few chop chords, next some notes on the upper frets. It is almost surprising how many mandolins fall down when played on the upper frets. mandolins with good tone, great chop, good loudness but weak high notes. It's one of the main things that separate the good from the great, IMO.
    How does it feel? Good neck profile? Good fret work? Good set-up? Of course, some aspects of set-up can be adjusted or corrected later, but only to the extent that the construction of the mandolin will allow.
    I like for someone to play the mandolin while I listen with my back turned, or otherwise so that I can't see the player. I try to pick out the individual strings. When I have trouble telling if the player is playing notes on the 3rd or the 4th string that indicates balance to me. i like for all notes to be relatively evenly balanced in terms of loudness and tone wherever they are played. Bass notes, high notes, in between; all should have somewhat equal loudness, presence, "pop" and tone. The A course should not stand out from the rest of the stings to the extreme (A certain amount of A-course prominence is to be expected in many instruments, it just needs to not be extreme.) The E course should not stand out as strident or shrill, neither should it be weak and "soft". It should ring out like a bell when played on the upper frets.
    I'm probably leaving some things out, one being comparing directly to a known mandolin to get a comparison. This helps with overcoming bias caused by the room, the situation, the comments of others and other influences.

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    The first thing I play is a scale I have ingrained in my fingers up the neck past the 12th fret. Autopilot so you can concentrate on sound. How evenly balanced is it? Then I chop. If you need volume, is it loud enough? The chop will tell you how the mandolin is voiced. Then I play a fiddle tune or two, St. Anne's Reel is usually the first, then some Irish tunes like The Irish Washerwoman, or Banish misfortune. I play these as fast as I can. Does it play cleanly? Some fit your fingers better. Then I play Monroe tunes. At any point, I can abandon a mandolin.

    Then, am I willing and able to buy it? This has sunk many a fine mandolin. When you think you have one, play something slightly out of your price range, just so you know you'll be happy with it. Somehow when you are willing to pay 5k, and extra thousand or two seems reasonable.
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    Some Ability - No Talent MikeZito's Avatar
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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Quote Originally Posted by FarmR View Post
    The biggest thing which helped for me was having a friend play it (if you are shopping in person). Playing behind and listening in front of are very different in my experience.
    As a non-bluegrass guy who is more of a melodic player with a light touch, it is often very difficult for me to get an idea of how a mandolin (or any other instrument) sounds when played by somebody else. Just about everyone I know has much different playing techniques and styles than I do, and therefore what sounds good in their hands will most likely sound very different in mine . . . therefore, I just have to play and listen for myself; (just being sure to turn my head properly to listen with my one good ear). To date, as a guy who does most of his playing in the studio, I can gratefully say that I have very seldom been disappointed by my choices, because my instruments often sound just as good, or even better, once I get them into the studio. In short - sometimes you just have to trust your own instinct.

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    There is the fact that a mandolin sounds different out front, but if you play by yourself then how you hear it is the only thing that matters.
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    Registered User John Soper's Avatar
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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Audition many and buy one (at a time)...

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Quote Originally Posted by John Soper View Post
    Audition many and buy one (at a time)...
    Well stated !
    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 !

  17. #13

    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Something I do when I'm in a shop with instruments... walking down the row, not looking at headstocks or prices, and firmly pulling my thumb across the strings at the twelfth fret, one course at a time. That allows me to hear the volume, string clarity/separation and basic string balance from in front of the instrument, no damping. This is also when an instrument might reveal more volume output than its neighbors, so I'll note such cannons for further playing/testing.

    I often find a correlation between responsiveness and high price, but occasionally I run across an instrument which really punches far above its weight. If it's in my price range, it might come home with me.

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    The true test is when you pick it in a band. That's when you know it will do what you need it to do. Sitting down by yourself won't get it. Having someone else play it in front you helps, but not if they are a pro and you are not. Bill Monroe could get the right tone out of an Ibanez.

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    That’s exactly how I feel too Tom,
    You can get an idea if a few things but, until you “baptize it by fire” in a band (or whatever situation you will most play in) situation you can’t really evaluate the potential of the instrument.
    That also sometimes takes a little time, when I was asked to “test drive” a well respected builders prototype, I had it for 6-7 months and I dug right in on it, initially it took me a few hours to find the spot between not enough and too much right hand power, it was easy for me to go too hard for what the better response was, I needed to learn to lighten up even when playing with a really loud banjo player. It was counter intuitive but, it did make a difference. It took time to see what it had. I wish I still had it, I could learn a lot more about how it responds and what my technique shortfalls are.
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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    Play it, do you hardest stuff and see how it works and sounds.

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    After playing it for at least 30 minutes, it should "speak" to you." "I'm the one, take me home!"
    John A. Karsemeyer

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    Default Re: How do you test the qualities you're looking for in a Mandoli

    But I'd venture many a mandolin won't ever get played in a band, so the owner needs to pick by a very different set of criteria. I did a trio gig last night where at sound check, the guy doing sound for us said the mic level was about right. That was before he realized the mic was muted and he was just hearing my very loud mandolin acoustically. I go play mandolins in stores, and they all sound less than loud to me. So in a band, my mandolin rocks the world, but the trade off is something like a Collings has a softer beauty.
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