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Thread: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

  1. #1

    Default Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Hello, I was referred here from the General Forum board. I am taking classical mandolin lessons from someone who learned in Italy. They have a Bowl Back Mandolin that sounds beautiful. I live in the US, and I play with a small informal string orchestra.

    My question as I learn more about classical techniques, what is a good affordable mandolin that would sound well with the orchestra? Is there a difference between the F style and A style? Currently I have an F-Style Loar, LM520-VS. Altho I do realize that good playing and practice are what makes a good sound, I wonder if an A style mandolin would be more suitable for classical playing or does it really make a difference. Perhaps the A style would look more "classical" regardless of the sound. (an orchestra member calls my mando 'that plastic thing' because of the finish ). I am not finding any bowl back mandos in Ohio or many classical mandolin players either. Would like some suggestions from those with experience about classical playing. A violin luthier suggested an Alvarez A style would produce a more mello classical sound and steered me away from US bowl back mandolins as an affordable practical instrument. Thank you!

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    While I’m certainly not going to talk you out of getting a nice new A style oval hole mandolin to complement your F style, I will point out the Lloyd Loar originally designed the F-5 style mandolin for classical use.

    That said there will be plenty of folks that tell you to seek out a bowl back. A more readily available compromise might be an a style oval hole (like an Eastman 504) or an F2/4 style Eastman. In general, they’re better quality and have better fit/finish than the more recent Loar builds, in my opinion. That said, the next time your orchestra member calls your mandolin plastic, send him a link to an early 1920s F2 or F4 and tell him you’d love to have him buy you that upgrade, in the interest of preserving the orchestra’s image, of course. Geez. Sorry you have to put up with that guy...

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  4. #3
    Unfamous String Buster Beanzy's Avatar
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Those LM520 mandolins get a decent write up from many players on the forum here so don't sweat that unless you can't work the sound you want out of it.

    A good place to start playing with sound is with the plectrum. I'm not going to suggest any fancy stuff here for you, as you still won't know which direction your ears are guiding you until you begin to experiment a bit. So buy some fairly inexpensive picks in a few different widths either side of 1mm, maybe .88mm 1mm 1.25 and 1.5 then take one of each type and narrow the point to make something more like the Pettine shape. Have a look at "mandoisland" page here to get some ideas http://www.mandoisland.de/picks_meine.html (you can file them then fine sandpaper, then a polish with some rubbing compound and a final go with paper to make sure they have nice slippery edge. play about a bit with soft & hard plastics and different curves and let your ears guide you towards a sound you like for the orchestral playing. There's no right or wrong if you're responding to your ears while you're listening to how it fits in.

    Once you have a good collection of varying picks you can begin to experiment with strings each time you do a string change, all the while checking out how they sound with different plectrum types.

    Meanwhile you'll be educating your ears as to the kind of sound you want to gravitate towards, so once you go looking for instruments you'll better hear what they might or might not do for you. So you'll be more likely to make a choice that you will stay with for the longer haul.
    Above all treat it as a journey where there are multiple possible routes to reach several destinations, each giving their own sound possibilities.
    Eoin



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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Hi Marie,

    The Gibson company promoted their carved mandolins heavily for mandolin orchestra use in the early part of the 20th century. There are thousands of those instruments still in circulation and at very reasonable prices. If the F2 or F4 model that CES suggested is too expensive, one of the five A models might be just the ticket for you. The top model A4 would have been a popular choice for orchestra use both then and now. Check the Cafe listings and various vintage instrument dealers. As with all instruments make sure to have the condition and action checked and adjusted before use.

    Here is a fun mandolin orchestra photo you might enjoy. All Gibson, not a bowl-back in the bunch.

    Mark

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Mark Lynch

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    You absolutely do not need a bowlback to play classical music in the U.S.

    Eventually you might want an oval-hole mandolin, but there is no need to buy one right away. Save your pennies until you can get a vintage Gibson A-style or Lyon & Healy Style C.
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Very helpful about pics! Thanks

    - - - Updated - - -

    And all men too!

    - - - Updated - - -

    Gibson A style! If I can sell my violin, that would be great. Thanks! Will listen to the CD, love Celtic.

  10. #7

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    The CD is beautiful. I see the various instruments too. Nice!

  11. #8

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Welcome, Marie! Try as many as you can and ultimately get what you feel you like best. I personally prefer the feel of my right arm position with a Neapolitan-type mandolin (a bowlback) when playing "classical" music (especially for multi-course tremolo). However, I played a Lyon & Healy Style A (a 2-point archtop and completely different thing than the Gibson style generalization) with a very large symphony orchestra in late February and was perfectly audible. Regarding archtop mandolins of decent quality, as occasionally alluded, there's more difference in sound between oval vs. f holes than there is between A vs. F style. I have a pretty substantial mandolin collection and host monthly, public classical-music gatherings in Columbus during ordinary times (currently on hiatus). I also love to help folks shop and am pretty good at doing so objectively (in spite of my personal preferences) and remotely. Roughly where in Ohio are you?
    Last edited by Eugene; May-19-2020 at 12:15pm.

  12. #9

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    FYI, my primary mandolins are this 1908 Martin (don't know why those photos decided to lay on their sides):

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    . . . and 1922 Lyon & Healy:

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    . . . and I play "classical" music pretty exclusively.

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    Registered User Rob MacKillop's Avatar
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Marie, it wasn't all men all the time:

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  15. #11

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Beautiful Instruments!
    Quote Originally Posted by Eugene View Post
    FYI, my primary mandolins are this 1908 Martin (don't know why those photos decided to lay on their sides):

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    . . . and 1922 Lyon & Healy:

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    . . . and I play "classical" music pretty exclusively.

  16. #12

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    I am in Cincinnati. Until I sell my Violin, I have some budget contraints.

  17. #13

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    That is awesome, thanks. Interesting the women are all playing Bowl back.

  18. #14

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Understood. Still willing to help you source mandolins . . . eventually—or to make my collection available for your dabbling to explore what instrument type you might like, perhaps if you're available to road trip to Columbus once the meetings I host resume. I also visit Cincinnati on occasion. Have several friends with U. Cincinnati's and Xavier U.'s music programs as well as with the Greater Cincinnati Guitar Society. With whom are you studying mandolin and, if you know and don't mind sharing, what's the make of his/her mandolin?

  19. #15

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Thanks so much! I would love to find something but confused over A and F style vs A hole??
    I am with the New Horizon Orchestra ( for those over 50) that is hosted out of CCM, Director is Betty Ann Gottlieb, CCM Professor. I am taking lessons with a local teacher who is in a well known
    Bluegrass band and has a Jazz guitar degree from UC. Also, Frances Taylor is in London helping me with Classical ‘baroque’ style. She wrote a book about her lessons in Italy. She has a custom made bowl back, not sure who the luthiers were but I think it’s quit ‘up there’ in quality!



    Quote Originally Posted by Eugene View Post
    Understood. Still willing to help you source mandolins . . . eventually—or to make my collection available for your dabbling to explore what instrument type you might like, perhaps if you're available to road trip to Columbus once the meetings I host resume. I also visit Cincinnati on occasion. Have several friends with U. Cincinnati's and Xavier U.'s music programs as well as with the Greater Cincinnati Guitar Society. With whom are you studying mandolin and, if you know and don't mind sharing, what's the make of his/her mandolin?

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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    A style references the teardrop body shape without the scroll and points, F styles has the ornamental scroll and points. Either of those styles may have F shaped sound holes (there are 2 of them running vertically on either side of the bridge like on your Loar) or an oval or d shaped sound hole, which is typically one round or oval shaped hole right under the fingerboard extension in the midline of the mandolin (like those seen in the all lady photo above).

    Instruments with F holes, whether they’re A or F shaped, tend to project their sound more and “cut through” the mix when playing with others, which is why they’re preferred for bluegrass. Instruments with oval holes, regardless of A or F shaped bodies, tend to have a little more sustain and a little more bass. They can be very loud, but don’t project as well as an F hole instrument, especially if they’re flat rather than carve topped. I learned this lesson when I took a Flatiron 1N to a jam with mostly grassers, because it was my “best” mandolin at the time. That flatiron was LOUD, but didn’t have the projection or cut that my Kentucky F style F hole instrument had. It was one of those, “oh, so THAT’S what they mean when they talk about F vs oval hole” moments, where I could hear and experience the difference. I took the Kentucky to all future such gatherings.

    I agree with others that you can significantly change the volume and tone of your mandolin by experimenting with picks and strings until your violin sells. Try monel, silk and steel, nickel bronze, and bronze. They all have a slightly different tone than the typically bright sounding phosphor bronze strings that come stock on most mandolins.

    Also, another oval hole option to consider is the Martin Style A mandos, which have cant tops (like many bowl backs) but flat backs. They have a slightly short (13 inch) scale than your Loar, and can be really sweet sounding instruments. They’re typically not as highly regarded as Gibson mandolins, but there are good ones out there, and they tend to be a little less expensive ($700 +/-). I bought one as a relatively inexpensive impulse buy a couple of years ago. It was a 1974 model (look older than that if you check these out). I liked my Flatiron 1N better, but my daughter loves the shorter scale and lower string tension, so she has the Martin now. My Martin is also not as loud as the Flatiron, so it’s a good apartment practice instrument for her.

    Good luck in your search, and I agree that it’s probably best if you can wait to buy until you have the chance to play a few different styles. There aren’t many stores that offer such a wide variety, so taking Eugene up on his offer to try a few of his may be your best bet outside of a road trip to Nashville to hit Gruhn’s, Carter’s, etc. Hope this helps!
    Chuck

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  22. #17

    Thumbs up Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Thanks very much.
    Quote Originally Posted by CES View Post
    A style references the teardrop body shape without the scroll and points, F styles has the ornamental scroll and points. Either of those styles may have F shaped sound holes (there are 2 of them running vertically on either side of the bridge like on your Loar) or an oval or d shaped sound hole, which is typically one round or oval shaped hole right under the fingerboard extension in the midline of the mandolin (like those seen in the all lady photo above).

    Instruments with F holes, whether they’re A or F shaped, tend to project their sound more and “cut through” the mix when playing with others, which is why they’re preferred for bluegrass. Instruments with oval holes, regardless of A or F shaped bodies, tend to have a little more sustain and a little more bass. They can be very loud, but don’t project as well as an F hole instrument, especially if they’re flat rather than carve topped. I learned this lesson when I took a Flatiron 1N to a jam with mostly grassers, because it was my “best” mandolin at the time. That flatiron was LOUD, but didn’t have the projection or cut that my Kentucky F style F hole instrument had. It was one of those, “oh, so THAT’S what they mean when they talk about F vs oval hole” moments, where I could hear and experience the difference. I took the Kentucky to all future such gatherings.

    I agree with others that you can significantly change the volume and tone of your mandolin by experimenting with picks and strings until your violin sells. Try monel, silk and steel, nickel bronze, and bronze. They all have a slightly different tone than the typically bright sounding phosphor bronze strings that come stock on most mandolins.

    Also, another oval hole option to consider is the Martin Style A mandos, which have cant tops (like many bowl backs) but flat backs. They have a slightly short (13 inch) scale than your Loar, and can be really sweet sounding instruments. They’re typically not as highly regarded as Gibson mandolins, but there are good ones out there, and they tend to be a little less expensive ($700 +/-). I bought one as a relatively inexpensive impulse buy a couple of years ago. It was a 1974 model (look older than that if you check these out). I liked my Flatiron 1N better, but my daughter loves the shorter scale and lower string tension, so she has the Martin now. My Martin is also not as loud as the Flatiron, so it’s a good apartment practice instrument for her.

    Good luck in your search, and I agree that it’s probably best if you can wait to buy until you have the chance to play a few different styles. There aren’t many stores that offer such a wide variety, so taking Eugene up on his offer to try a few of his may be your best bet outside of a road trip to Nashville to hit Gruhn’s, Carter’s, etc. Hope this helps!

  23. #18

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    I have another (dumb) question. I am so new at this and looking at used Gibson’s, I am wondering if the Gibson’s have truss rods and if not, does it matter?

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    As everyone here knows, I love bowlbacks and have played them for years and have some very nice ones. OTOH I also play carved top Gibson-style instruments as well in various genres of music. Although I love bowlbacks I hesitate to recommend them as the ultimate mandolin for classical especially if you have never played one. You have to adjust tl a different way of holding them and I know some folks that gve up and go back to a mandolin that they can control better while holding.

    I am sure that Frances Taylor's instruments are exquisite—she is one of the top players in the world. It says on her website: "She plays at both modern and baroque pitch, using either her Embergher or Pecoraro mandolins or her copy of a Vinaccia." The first two mentioned are the top of the line vintage Roman-style Italian instruments and the last is a copy of what looks like an earlier Vinaccia which is another of the finest Italian makers.

    Unless you are rolling in the dough, I would hold off on getting anything new right now. It sounds like you are moderately confused. I might talk to your local teacher and find out who he or she would recommend for a shop to look at your mandolin for proper set up. And explain to your orchestra mates that the style of mandolin you are playing is perfectly suitable for playing classical. And that if they don't stop making fun of your instrument you will tell them some viola jokes or worse. :-)

    Are you the only mandolinist in this orchestra? It sounds like it. What kind of music are they playing? Ah I see: New Horizon.

    As others have noted, if you have your heart set at this time with a better instrument, first play as many as you can. Are there decent music stores in Cincinnati that might have a few mandolins to try out? What does your local teacher play.

    Actually, how are you playing these days with this ensemble anyway?
    Jim

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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    This kind of group should be an encouraging and welcoming environment for people and their instruments. It's not a place for people to disparage each other's axes. If you're bothered by other people putting down your instrument, let the instructor know. You shouldn't have to put up with that.

    I don't know of any Alvarez mandolin that would sound better than what you've got. Alvarez mandolins are inexpensive low-end instruments AFAIK.

    I do hope you and Eugene can get together at some point so you can try some of his instruments. That's a very generous offer he made.

    Gibson introduced truss rods in 1922. Most Gibson mandolins since then have had truss rods. It's easy to tell whether a Gibson mandolin has a truss rod; the ones that have them will have a truss rod cover on the headplate.
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  28. #21

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Thanks Jim, and I totally agree that I am moderately confused abut I am also trying to learn. Long personal story short, I played violin with this orchestra till I tore a rotator cuff that is an ongoing issue. The are meeting virtually, but I will not play again with them until the Fall. I have the music, and practiing that. They are very encouraging for anyone to play with them, a lovely group. I think my Mandolin is setup fine, the current Loar F style. Surprisingly, there are few mandolins available because of covid-19 and shipping issues, used not coming in to the stores since they have been closed, etc.. So hard to find. . We have a few stores here but they don't carry a lot. The most reasonably prices mandolin I found for sale in stock - that wasn't a beginner for $100 in stock-was a Goldtone GM50 Plus. The other store has a few Gibson A syle in the $999 and up price range-hence my question about a truss rod. and you are correct, so far I am the only mandolinist. Others may follow tho...
    Last edited by Marie Kathy McDonald; May-24-2020 at 7:48pm.

  29. #22
    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    This kind of group should be an encouraging and welcoming environment for people and their instruments. It's not a place for people to disparage each other's axes.
    In case it wasn't clear, I was referring to the orchestra Marie is playing with, not the Forum (although I suppose the Forum also functions best when we don't disparage each other's instruments).

    I don't see any reason to go for another instrument under $1K right now. That's essentially a lateral move with a low probability of improving your sound. Wait until you can afford something in the $800–$1K range.
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    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    There is plenty of time and advice if you have a mandolin now. I'd strongly suggest listening to youtube videos in order to chose the sound that you want. Here are a few examples.










    BTW I am recovering from a broken and dislocated 'bow arm' shoulder. After two years I've returned to my string orchestra. (and sometimes bring the mandolin!). So good luck!
    Decipit exemplar vitiis imitabile

  31. #24

    Default Re: Help with type of Mandolin for string orchestra

    Great advice here and videos too. I love the idea of watching these. Best of luck with your shoulder, I know it isn’t easy.

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