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Thread: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

  1. #1

    Default 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    I'd really appreciate suggestions for an inexpensive 5-string.

    I'm a violinist who hasn't meshed with guitar. Jazz, maybe some swing are what I like singing, and want to play. Like everyone, I love Jason Anick's tone on the Arrow Jazzbo. Looking at something inexpensive to start, maybe afterward a Jonathan Mann semi-hollow?

    Has anyone tried the Sparrow solid-body made in Virginia advertised on Reverb? $750
    The Gold Tone GME-5 neck seems short--maybe prone to flabby C? $499-ish There's also a "Crocbite" solid body on Reverb. Is there a budget semi-hollow 5 string?

    Thanks for any suggestions!

    This is my first post after lots of lurking. Thank you to the musicians who take time to be part of this great community, and especially to Ted Eschliman and Martin Stillion.

    -Sherri
    Last edited by SandyBeach; Aug-26-2022 at 4:40pm.

  2. #2
    Registered User John Rosett's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    A friend of mine bought a Gold Tone, and we were both very unimpressed. The Sparrow looks like it would be higher quality, but I haven't seen one yet. You can sometimes find a Blue Star Mandoblaster, or a Kentucky solid body 5 strings for a reasonable price.
    "it's not in bad taste, if it's funny" - john waters

  3. #3
    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Speaking as someone who’s made this trip, get a good 4 course instrument to start. Lots of good ones for a lot less than a Jazzbo. You’ll learn the chord shapes on the 4 courses, you already know the fingerings. When you go to 5 strings, the chord shapes transfer with different names.

    You won’t be satisfied with a Kentucky, the tone is not similar. No solid body electric will give the jazzy, hollow bodied sound.

    And you need to master the pick anyway

    I love the sound of my Jazzbo, playing it through a Blues Jr.
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  4. #4

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Thanks, John and Bill. I am pretty decent with a pick, after playing a tenor banjo for many years. Bill, are you recommending that I start with a conventional, 8-string/4-course acoustic mandolin?

    Not sure I want a really hollow sound. I'm looking for a saturated, round tone. I have an inexpensive Telecaster guitar, and like its tone on the neck pick up with the treble damped a bit. In other words, I don't mind if I sound like an electric guitar while playing the electric mandolin, because I'm seeking out the instrument to get the intuitive fingering and reading of sheet music that I enjoy on violin. I do like the Arrow G 2-point! You have great taste in instruments.

    Disappointing to hear that the Gold Star and Kentucky may not do as starters.

    There's a Blue Star 5-string in a not-mellow purple on Reverb, but it's $985 with shipping. There are two 4-string Blue Star Mandoblasters on Reverb (from the same shop) at $674 each.

    How about giving up on the 5th string and going for an Eastwood MRG uke or mando, which are the same thing with a different set of starter strings? I might have to do surgery to lob off the top 1/3 of that headstock.

    Once the price gets toward $1000, it starts feeling like I should simply pursue something from JMann. But that's a lot to invest in a non-mainstream instrument unless I know I'm loving it.

  5. #5
    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Your goals are the determining factor. If you want to bolt from the gate with a fat, jazzy sounding tone, I think a hollow body instrument (with a magnetic pickup) is the ticket. Maybe a Harmony Batwing. I’ve sold my 4 and 5 string solid body mandos, but if you love the telecaster sound, solid body might work for you. You can get a lot of tone color from an amp.

    I’ve had my Jazzbo for a year and play it daily, it’s a fairly easy switch from the 4 course. You just have so many more choices in shopping for a 4 course instrument (and amp), than you do with a 5 string, especially around the budget numbers you are describing.

    But what you want to hear is the key.
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  6. #6
    '`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`' Jacob's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Have a Sparrow Solid Body 5-string Walnut Electric Mandolin purchased this past October. (This seller is open to offers.) Has become my go to electric five string. Very well made, superior fit and finish, nice choice of scale length, excellent plugged in sound. Would've preferred a radiused rather than flat fretboard, but it is comfortable. It's composed of Richlite, a synthetic material made from resin-infused paper that feels and wears like a CITES protected hardwood. Extremely pleased with the Sparrow. (nfi)

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  8. #7

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Wow! Jacob, that's exactly the sort of info that I was wanting on the Sparrow! I emailed the maker with some questions a couple of weeks ago, and on radius, he said it was flat but that he could radius it. (Sorry if that info makes you wince.) It's a handmade humbucker? Might you be able to post a sampling of the sounds it can make?

    I have a Boss Katana amp already, which is versatile.

    Bill, you are so right that 4 strings are so much easier to find (and probably to re-sell) than 5.

  9. #8
    Pittsburgh Bill
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    Speaking as someone who’s made this trip, get a good 4 course instrument to start. Lots of good ones for a lot less than a Jazzbo. You’ll learn the chord shapes on the 4 courses, you already know the fingerings. When you go to 5 strings, the chord shapes transfer with different names.

    You won’t be satisfied with a Kentucky, the tone is not similar. No solid body electric will give the jazzy, hollow bodied sound.

    And you need to master the pick anyway
    Agree! If you want to learn mandolin and want to play it like a mandolin rather than, example a guitar, you need a four course instrument to learn playing techniques associated with the mandolin such as tremolo and more.
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  10. #9
    Registered User John Rosett's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    I'm glad to hear that the Sparrow is of good quality. I got the Tiny Moore live show from Acoustic disc, and now I'm wanting a 5 string again.
    Another 5 string option that I forgot about is the Eastwood Mando 5. I don't know what the quality is like, but a friend had one of the 4 string Mandostangs, and it was not too bad. It looks like they're out of stock, but pretty reasonably priced if and when they make more: https://eastwoodguitars.com/products/eastwood-mando-5

    Another option, if you can find a used one for a reasonable price is the Fender FM60E 5 string. Prices are going up on these, and the quality is so-so.
    "it's not in bad taste, if it's funny" - john waters

  11. #10
    '`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`' Jacob's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    FWIW, my Fender FM-60E 5 string stays in its gig bag in a closet, while the Sparrow is on a stand by the sofa.

  12. #11

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    The Sparrow is sounding good to me as a starter, especially at the price point. If there were Eastwood 5-strings around, that was of real interest to me. It seems like for not a lot more money, the Sparrow may be better, particularly the pickup.

    I'd prefer a hollow or semi-hollow. But understandably, I don't know of anything below $1000.

  13. #12

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Reach out to John L. Smith. He'd be my first choice in that price range. I'd also recommend Belmuse. He's higher than your budget but less then a Mann. I'd also recommend the Kentucky five strings that Martin has at emando.com. The kentucky's with the tune o matic bridges are much better than the ones with fixed bridges. Sparrow is new to me but could be a hidden gem. The only question that I'd be asking is the width and thickness of the neck. I know a couple people that have bought "mandolins" from uke builders but the neck was flat and wide and not what they were expecting. Along those same lines, I'd seek out Fanner instruments(uke builder) and Yuri Barreto. I'd plug myself but I'm so far behind that I don't know when I'll get caught up.

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  15. #13

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    I'll follow up on each of those suggestions, Andrew. Much appreciated. Your reputation is great.

  16. #14
    Registered User bbcee's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    An NFI “+1” for Fanner - he’s making really interesting instruments, makes his own pickups, and answered my questions promptly and politely. He’s seems willing to accomodate the customer’s requests. Best of all, prices are great.

    Here’s a YT of Kym Warner playing one of his Jazzmaster-inspired instruments that’s a touchstone of sound for me. https://youtu.be/cLBoIth6t54

  17. #15

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Fanner is doing beautiful work! It is almost all ukes, and a lot of tenors, with 17" an 19" necks. I don't see a 5-string at the website, FB page or on Reverb. Prices are great but...the devil is in the details of turning out a 5-string mando that really performs, I think. As in, no hum or extraneous sounds, strong and even volume and tone across the strings and at every fret, holds tune, stands up over time. If someone has a 5-string at something like 14.5 scale, I'd love to hear your impressions of it, and hear some sound clips.

  18. #16

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Quote Originally Posted by SandyBeach View Post
    Fanner is doing beautiful work! It is almost all ukes, and a lot of tenors, with 17" an 19" necks. I don't see a 5-string at the website, FB page or on Reverb. Prices are great but...the devil is in the details of turning out a 5-string mando that really performs, I think. As in, no hum or extraneous sounds, strong and even volume and tone across the strings and at every fret, holds tune, stands up over time. If someone has a 5-string at something like 14.5 scale, I'd love to hear your impressions of it, and hear some sound clips.
    80% of what I build are 14.5" scale five strings. Honestly, I don't recommend a five string as a first instrument unless you are a real competent musician and/or have been playing four strings for awhile. I don't mean that as a slam to anyone but I can't count how many people have bought a five string from me only to sell it in a six months. They just can't figure it out or aren't playing it because they don't know what to do with the fifth string. I've resold a number of them and built a four string as a replacement. However, jazz and blues musicians really seem to make them look effortless.

    In regards to the 14.5" scale. The longer scale gives a less tinny and piercing E string as you work your way up the neck. You can tune a four string either GDAE or CGDA, so it gives you some tonal flexibility. The best reason is because you can balance the string tension across all the strings. A standard mandolin scale has a really floppy C string. I stole the 14.5" idea from Johnathon Mann. He got it right. Here is a jazz clip from Alex Heflin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEgAhPLgUYY

  19. #17
    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    NFI. Emando.com has 5 5 string Blue Star mandoblasters. Nothing wrong with a 14" scale, just choose strings wisely. I'm sure they can advise.
    Not all the clams are at the beach

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  20. #18

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Just a clarification: my comment on 14.5" was in context of saying Fanner instruments look great, but I'm not seeing that he has experience building instruments at the 14.5" scale.

  21. #19

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Quote Originally Posted by thistle3585 View Post
    Honestly, I don't recommend a five string as a first instrument unless you are a real competent musician and/or have been playing four strings for awhile.
    Andrew, I appreciate your participation in this thread. So, am I a reasonable candidate for a 5-string? My musical training was nine years of classical violin instruction and playing in an orchestra. I also started playing tenor banjo when young. Now, my tenor banjo is my daily instrument, like a pet companion. Tenor banjo is tuned C-G-D-A and violin is G-D-A-E, like a mandolin. Over the past year, I've experimented with tuning the tenor banjo down to G-D-A-E, and really liked it. It just feels like 'home base' because of my violin training. Reading music is effortless, just pure reflex. But the lowest string is somewhat floppy, and I miss the upper notes. And it's a banjo: what I really want is the sustain and tone of an electric guitar in the register of a mandolin, to fill that high counterpoint and melody in a jazz group context, and for my own pleasure and music writing. I mostly play melodic lines, with some light chords as fills. For me, the low C string of the 5-string mando seems like it would give me a place to transfer tenor banjo chords on the bottom 4 strings, more space for melody notes, and subtle mellow harmonic resonance even when not strummed or picked. I've been listening to quite a bit of jazz mandolin, and what I see and hear of 5-string mando is where I want to go musically. I'd wanted a good budget 5-string to start, to test it out. But I'm in my 60s, and as I've understood the limits of the low-priced models like Gold Tone, I'd rather not waste time with chasing down hums, etc. or being frustrated in trying to get the tone I want.
    Last edited by SandyBeach; Sep-02-2022 at 10:12am.

  22. #20

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Hey, SandyBeach!

    I just had sa few comments, observations and such to offer.

    I appreciate that you're not a beginner, that this won't be your first instrument, that you can use a pick, and that you're competent in both CGDA and GDAE tuning.

    I have several 5-course instruments, and they are great to use. I often play chord melody on them, occasionally across all five courses, but also just on four or three.

    I'm a big believer in getting or modifying an instrument just as a proof of concept. I don't need to invest in the top of the line, or even in the middle. In this case, even a used Gold Tone 5-string would do, letting one work out ideal string tension for oneself at that scale length. That tension profile can then be used on an instrument of a different scale length, but same tuning.

    D'Addarrio has a string tension chart which is very useful. I set up a spreadsheet so I don't have to do each calculation by hand or by entering each calculation bit by bit on a calculator. I also keep in mind that given a string of a particular gauge at a given pitch, a string of double that gauge at the same tension will be an octave lower.

    I've also been surprised on forums when people describe low strings as being floppy, and when one actually looks at the tension, it is very low compared to the rest of the set. As an example on 5-string acoustic mandolin, if someone was using the GHS Ultra Light strings for EADG (9-32 gauges, much lighter than most use), you would need a .047 wound string for a low C. Very rarely in discussions regarding low strings does anyone suggest a gauge close to a tension in line with the rest.

    Regarding electric 5-strings, I currently own a J. Bovier with a 14" scale length, and (the surprise instrument) a NS Design NXTa-5 fretted violin. I replaced the removable upper bout on the NS with a strap button, and attached the other end of the strap to the shoulder rest apparatus. I both bow and pick it.

    Neither instrument has a problem with floppiness.

    I also since bought a used NS Design WAV-5 (passive, not active electronics) and added one of those inexpensive Fiddle Fretters, and put black tape on top of it. The frets, as negligible as they arr, still allow me to do chords with no intonation problems.

    Whatever you decide to do, good luck!

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  24. #21

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Explorer, thanks for your post. The string tension chart sounds very useful for experimenting with strings for the low C.

  25. #22

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    The issue with string tension on a standard scale 5 string mandolin is that its hard to get a good balance across the strings. My experience has been that there is no middle range but only extremes, so your strings are really light or really heavy. It definitely sounds like you can find your way around a five string fretboard so you just need to decide on what type of an investment that you're going to make. You're going to get your best bang for your buck by purchasing something used, preferably something that was a regular player, because it will have already been setup. Any new, mass produced instrument that you get is going to require a setup which is more money out of your pocket. You're also going to get what you pay for in terms of quality. Lower priced instruments are going to have inexpensive components leading to a thinner tone, have higher action to account for a poorly leveled fretboard and intonation issues. I have had a lot, and I do mean a lot, of electric mandolins through my hands as well as have sold hundreds of bridges, wiring harnesses and other components to upgrade instruments. The better pacrim instruments in my opinion have been Boviers, early Kentuckys with the TOM bridge and early Eastwoods. Early instruments being those from the 90's or before that were produced in China and especially in Japan. These can usually be found for less than $1000. Just my opinion, but your best resource is going to be emando.com.

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  27. #23

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Andrew, that is such useful information. I am on the hunt and will report back once I have something in hand. Very much appreciate all the responses on this thread, and hope this will be useful to others, too.

  28. #24
    Fingertips of leather Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Having an adjustable pole humbucker makes string balance a project of experimentation and reasonably doable. Don’t expect a pre made set of strings to achieve this end.
    Not all the clams are at the beach

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  29. #25

    Default Re: 5-string mandolin for beginner?

    Quote Originally Posted by thistle3585 View Post
    80% of what I build are 14.5" scale five strings. Honestly, I don't recommend a five string as a first instrument unless you are a real competent musician and/or have been playing four strings for awhile. I don't mean that as a slam to anyone but I can't count how many people have bought a five string from me only to sell it in a six months. They just can't figure it out or aren't playing it because they don't know what to do with the fifth string. I've resold a number of them and built a four string as a replacement. However, jazz and blues musicians really seem to make them look effortless.
    I came at 5-string after learning 4/8 and had a bugger of a time getting my head around the extra string. And it's not like I don't understand extended tuning - I play 5-string bass and 7-string guitar without the problems.

    It wasn't until I started looking at the 5 as 2 instruments - a tenor and a mandolin - that things started gelling. Now I don't notice the difference and have a 6-string tuned in 5ths so it's like a bike - once you get rolling all is good.
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