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Thread: No frills vs fancier mandolins

  1. #1

    Default No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Do builders usually spend more time voicing their higher end mandolins to make sure they sound better than their "no frills" models? I have always wondered about this.

  2. #2
    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I think independent builders work well on all their models but frills add cost
    Because of skills needed, time involved, and possible materials used.

    However productions line instrument may vary well have less done to them because of the production methods and maintaining a bottom line. A plain Jane instrument can sound fabulous from many builders here. While a fancy production line instrument may sound the same or worse. It pays to research the guys you want to buy from.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Thanks for the response.

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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Keep in mind that even with production instruments you can find keepers but that means getting them i your hands to try them. I have a Little Martin with the sitka top that after trying several in different shops just stood out from the rest. I’m sure this can hold true for mandolins off the shelf as well, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open.
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    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    More time means more money in commerce. Makers such as Collings, who sell all across the price spectrum, certainly can't spend the time voicing lower priced instruments to achieve the same sound as higher priced instruments without economic (sales) consequence.

    With small builders, YMMV considerably.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Thanks, that's exactly what I was wondering about. I recently purchased a higher end Collings and was blown away by how much better it sounds than my other "no frills" USA made mandolins.

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    Mandolin user MontanaMatt's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I have two blinged out mandolins, and they both sound terrific. One by Bruce Weber, one by Audie Ratliff. I haven’t had the opportunity to play any production Ratliffs, but the Weber is markedly better than the production models from the same era.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    For me as a builder there is no difference in my builds from a sound or tonal standpoint whether i am building my base model or a deluxe model. Its the upgrades like fully bound , Waverlys, James tailpiece, higher end case, inlays, spectacular wood grain etc that increase my price. Some of the best sounding mandolins i have built or played had average looking backs sides and tops. A good builder can build a great sounding mandolin out of average looking wood. That being said you have to know how to judge a piece of wood for its tonal properties and that comes with building experience
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    Registered User Charles E.'s Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    There are a number of independent makers who make a "no frills" model mandolin in an effort to provide a great sounding instrument at an affordable cost. Ratcliff, Girouard and Ratliff come to mind. I don't believe they are compromising in the tone department.
    Last edited by Charles E.; Aug-07-2021 at 6:15pm.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I have played some pretty disappointing blinged out mandolins, and some great no frills mandolins. As for Collings, I think that they would beg to differ on spending more time voicing one model over another. Bill set a very strict example over what he wanted his company build, and as far as I know, they are still walking that line. Steve McCreary is wedded to keeping Bill's legacy alive.

    Different top, side and back materials will lend different results. The same goes for different finishes. I don't think that you can make generalizations.
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    Registered User liestman's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandobar View Post
    I have played some pretty disappointing blinged out mandolins, and some great no frills mandolins. As for Collings, I think that they would beg to differ on spending more time voicing one model over another. Bill set a very strict example over what he wanted his company build, and as far as I know, they are still walking that line. Steve McCreary is wedded to keeping Bill's legacy alive.

    Different top, side and back materials will lend different results. The same goes for different finishes. I don't think that you can make generalizations.
    I have played brand new Collings MTO and MT2O mandolins side by side and other than a slight difference between the top woods, they were amazingly the same sounding instruments. Same with Ellis mandolins - my A5 (the plainer version) was indistinguishable in sound from an F5 with the fanciest appointments. Maybe other brands are different but to me, Collings and Ellis treat all their instruments the same.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I've only built four mandolins, but I can't imagine not doing everything I can to ensure that it will sound good before I glue on the top. I would assume all builders have the same mindset.

  15. #13

    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I would say for a modern one-man small shop it wouldn't make any difference in sound.

    The "argument" may stem from years ago, in the case of Martin guitars, for example -- the workers who did the the inlay on the pearl-trimmed Martins were the most experienced workers in the shop. All things equal, would you rather have you guitar built by someone with 35 years experience or 10? This is the argument that the D-45 guitar will always sound better than a D-28, even though they are the same guitar construction-wise (except for the trim.)

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    Registered User meow-n-dolin's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    "Bling," at least when applied to Martin guitars, seems not to matter when it comes to sound. I managed a acoustic music store back in the seventies, and we sold more than our share of Martins, both new and vintage. In my estimation, the new D-28's sounded every bit as good as the new D-45's, as a for instance. And, Martins of the same model were very consistent, though some variation between individual guitars was often noticeable. This did not mean some didn't sound as good as others -- just ever so slightly different. I picked my HD-28 out of a group of five we had in stock. Another person who worked there also bought one, and we were both convinced we got the better-sounding guitar

    We had our share of mandolins, too, but seldom had more than one or two of the same make/model for comparison at the same time, so I really can't comment on those.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Martin basically sorts/grades wood on appearance, i.e., nothing to do with sound. That grading generally carries into the model lines, but other than bling, and the amount of handwork that is required to produce the finished product, so sound is not a determinant, in that sense.

    Now, there may be some bias if you start looking at how some woods may have a quality, in general, that people like more, and that wood, by virtue of rarity (e.g., BRW) or processing (torrefaction, et al) costs more, so ends up in higher priced/margin instruments. That may influence how an instrument is finished, if that's what is necessary to cover costs. And, that, I believe, carries down into smaller, and even individual makers to some degree, but if there's a generalization to make (IMHO), it's that the cost of an instrument is based primarily on material and labor cost, and, of course, what the market will bear. The inverse is also at work, so if you're trying to make an instrument to meet a price point, it's going to exclude those things that force costs to a point where the instrument cannot be built and sold at a profit.
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    Registered User John Bertotti's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Back in 2007 my dad died and left me some money. I decided to adopt a daughter, I was adopted, and buy a custom shop Martin. I wrote up my specs had our nephew who ran a mom and pop store send it in to Martin. The lady replied back with this, we already have a guitar with all those specs in production minus the inlay. It would be much less expensive and would come with the ‘37 burst. I wasn’t sold on a burst but considering the cost difference I was almost sold. I wound up with 000-18 GE with the ‘37 burst. A couple thousand less than the CS. Sometimes I wish I had the CS just for the bling but this is an exceptional sounding guitar even without all the inlay. Bling to me means nothing when it comes to tone but it sure can be nice to look at! But I always buy based on tone if I have the chance to play the instrument first. I guess I just saying don’t prejudge and instrument just because it is basic in appearance.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Martin apparently did take tap tone and stiffness into account when they graded their tops during the first half of the 20th century.
    Although a lot of that changed during the modern era, there are signs that they are currently attempting to be a bit more conscientious about their building practices than they had been in the recent past, at least on their upper line models.

    We'll have to see what happens, though. For those who don't know, Chris Martin has just retired from the daily management of the company, and although he retains his position as chairman of the board, Martin has a new president. It has been stated that the new president took a class in lutherie and has built an instrument or two, which is a good thing. While Chris Martin successfully saved the company from going under, he has several times stated that he did not have much ability as a woodworker.

    As far as whether or not a builder puts equal care into the interior construction of their instruments regardless of the trim level of the instrument, that depends on who the builder is.

  20. #18

    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by dstrevell View Post
    Thanks, that's exactly what I was wondering about. I recently purchased a higher end Collings and was blown away by how much better it sounds than my other "no frills" USA made mandolins.
    "How much better it sounds" is a subjective evaluation. Collings' instruments are famous for their impeccable fit and finish, consistency, and reliability. Sonicly, they've mastered the tone profile that cuts through the mix. All these things make them popular with professional musicians who rely on them for their livelihood.

    As far as voicing is concerned, I read long ago that Bill Collings perfected the weighted top deflection system that gives them the ideal top stiffness for producing their sound. This would make them less reliant on seasoned luthiers who've refined the art of tap tone hand graduating/bracing, and the extended time that requires.

    A few folks have mentioned Martin here which is a club I just joined. I bought a new Custom Shop 18 and from my reading it sounds like with Martin, you don't get hand carved bracing/tone bars until you reach the Authentic series ($5000+)

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    Adrian Minarovic
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Different producers do it differently. Most small makers do the same quality of work on all instruments and save only on bling and fanciness of wood. big companies can be different.
    I can say from my work on instruments that Gibson mandolins (at least post 2000 or so) were not tuned at all, only MM probably got some extra treatment. The biggest difference was bling, attention to (exterior) details, quality of wood. I've seen Bush and Fern models that have CNC marks on the inside unsanded and I spent sometime to know closely an F-9 that looked like a first attempt of a new employee.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    What about Weber? It would seem by reading their descriptions of each series from their website their mandolins sound better the higher the series.

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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I think this is a builder by builder question, frankly. I would imagine the builders that carefully carve their plates work them to their potential. Do you get different "better" tone out of more figured wood than plainer wood, the jury is very much out on that. Does the type of tailpiece (mass) modify the tone (again, the jury is out on that. The finish can surely affect tone between the thickness and the type used so maybe that comes into play.

    In my experience with Eastman mandolins, the best sounding ones of a particular selection available in a place at a specific time is people report that it varies, meaning sometimes a particular lower cost one sounded better (to that player) than a more expensive one.

    The things that add to cost (bling) that don't affect tone may be things like fancier binding, scrolls and points, inlay. Things that affect the playability and tone should be your first consideration, the builder's experience shaping plates, tuning machines that work well, neck angle, and using tonewoods that have the characteristics you're going after (maple vs rosewood or Engleman vs Red Spruce vs Cedar), type of bracing used, fret size, type of finish.

    In general, I would expect instruments from a builder to sound similar within reason (like does a Collings MT sound worse than a MT2, nope). I don't think it's possible to say, the more you spend the better it will sound across the board. IT may also be possible that no matter how much you spend, your ability will become the limiting step in the instrument's performance and sound.

    A fancier more attractive (to you) instrument may inspire you to play more which may or may not improve your skills. You also have to fight your own internal bias on the cost vs real benefits or results obtained (a lot of marketing tries to confirm that bias - often comments from folks who have purchased instruments do that, too).

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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Quote Originally Posted by Rob Roy View Post
    "How much better it sounds" is a subjective evaluation. Collings' instruments are famous for their impeccable fit and finish, consistency, and reliability. Sonicly, they've mastered the tone profile that cuts through the mix. All these things make them popular with professional musicians who rely on them for their livelihood.

    As far as voicing is concerned, I read long ago that Bill Collings perfected the weighted top deflection system that gives them the ideal top stiffness for producing their sound. This would make them less reliant on seasoned luthiers who've refined the art of tap tone hand graduating/bracing, and the extended time that requires.

    A few folks have mentioned Martin here which is a club I just joined. I bought a new Custom Shop 18 and from my reading it sounds like with Martin, you don't get hand carved bracing/tone bars until you reach the Authentic series ($5000+)
    There is still someone at Collings who voices the mandolins "by ear", using "old school" methodologies. It's not cookie cutter, and it never was. I've asked this specific question. They rough out using CNC, but a lot of the build time is still very manual. They spend a lot of time building instruments manually, which is why you don't see a heck of a lot of Collings mandoins for sale out there right now.

    I think it's a matter of pride when people are building instruments. They want every build to sound its best.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    Bob Givens rarely used fancy wood and still had great sounding mandolins.
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    But for different woods, I wouldn't expect a builder's less expensive models to sound any less like their higher end. I wouldn't say the same is true with large guitar makers like Fender or Gibson but I don't know of any mandolin makers that are anywhere near that big
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    Masamando Steve Hinde's Avatar
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    Default Re: No frills vs fancier mandolins

    I don't use lower grades or higher grades for levels of trim. They all get the same wood quality and the same construction. The hardware is another thing. But even then, I choose to use what I consider good quality.

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