Page 1 of 4 1234 LastLast
Results 1 to 25 of 77

Thread: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

  1. #1
    Isolated enthusiast Caleb's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Location
    DFW, America
    Posts
    3,284

    Default Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    A recent visit to a shop with many nice mandolins has had me asking this question over and over for the past month. Let’s assume that a “good” mandolin is one that was made primarily “by hand,” as that has come to be understood (e.g. hand-carved top). Obviously the internal parts of any instrument have to be hand-assembled; the same with installing binding, etc. As far as I know there are no machines (yet) that a person can load up with wood and other materials, push a button, and out the other side pops a completed instrument ready to be strung up.

    First of all, let’s ignore the entire issue of price difference. We all know that builders will charge what people will pay—simple as that. No harm done either way. So price should not really make an instrument good or great; it only makes one expensive or cheap[er]. I understand the contributing factors, such as labor and cost of materials; but for the most part, the price is what people will pay for the item.

    What I’m more concerned with are the technical aspects of good and great instruments. For example, Eastmans and Kentuckys, brands that most here consider very decent instruments, have models that come with hand-carved, all-solid woods, hand-applied finishes, radiused boards, etc, etc. The same specs you’d see on a Collings, Weber, Gibson, et al. But on my recent visit I noticed the vast difference in tone and feel of a Collings and the Eastmans, in particular. I paid closer attention because I’ve always wanted a Collings instrument, and I own an Eastman instrument. My Eastman is a nice mandolin; it plays in tune, has a balanced tone, good volume, has the ease of playability that I enjoy, etc. But the Collings had all of these qualities as well. And each one was superior to the Eastman, some in slight ways, and others vast (volume especially). The Collings even “felt” better in my hands. I also noticed that the Gibsons just “felt” better than the less expensive, yet still “good” mandolins.

    Does it simply come down to the builder adding personal nuances during the process? Slight tricks that cannot be seen with the eye necessarily? I have a Luthier friend that insists that it’s the quality of the tonewoods that makes the difference. He claims that with the right wood combinations a Stew Mac kit could rival any bench-built instrument from any maker, past or present. Do the Eastmans, Kentuckys, et al simply use inferior woods, though “solid” inferior woods? I know there is the occasional “import” that defies all the odds, but for the most part they fall just short of the Collings, Webers and Gibsons that we hear so much about.

    I would really like to understand what ultimately makes the difference.
    ...

  2. #2
    Capt. E Capt. E's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2008
    Location
    Austin, Texas
    Posts
    2,863

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    One of the first differences I notice about a mass produced instrument and a fine hand-built luthier product is the weight of it. On first visual inspection a Kentucky may look very much like an Ellis or an Altman for example, but the Kentucky can weigh 30-40% more. One of the reasons for increased volume etc must simply be the mass of the instrument. I expect the thinly carved tops and backs etc will resonate and vibrate more strongly as the strings are struck resulting in a much more dynamic sound.
    Jammin' south of the river
    '20 Gibson A-2
    Stromberg-Voisinet Tenor Guitar
    Penny Whistle
    My albums: http://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/album.php?u=7616

  3. #3

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    "Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference"? The answer is: you do, my friend.

  4. The following members say thank you to OldSausage for this post:


  5. #4
    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Location
    Traverse City, Michigan
    Posts
    806

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    To answer your question I think Lord only knows. A great design, great materials, and great craftmanship will generally turn out a superior mandolin. But a great one? I just got back from trying about ten mandolins at a store. Some pretty expensive, some not so and couple in between. A used Kentucky 675 was the best of the bunch? Why? I don't think anyone can tell for sure. The next 675 might be just okay. I'm not going to trash brands here but two of the mandolins I played today were big name brands selling for a few thousand. It's a fun subject to mull over but I don't think there is a definite answer.

  6. #5
    mandolin slinger Steve Ostrander's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Location
    Capitol of MI
    Posts
    2,739

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    A good mandolin becomes a great mandolin when the owner is trying to sell it.

  7. The following members say thank you to Steve Ostrander for this post:

    Lucas 

  8. #6
    Isolated enthusiast Caleb's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Location
    DFW, America
    Posts
    3,284

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Quote Originally Posted by OldSausage View Post
    "Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference"? The answer is: you do, my friend.
    I think I understand the sentiment here, and I tend to agree with that sentiment. But if I'm doing the same thing on seven different instruments and one stands out with better volume and overall response, it's the instrument.
    ...

  9. #7

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I know very very little about mandolin construction other than the wonderful primers I've received when shopping for mandos. I know a tiny bit more than that about violin construction thanks to the restoration project I had completed for me this past summer.

    Based on what my luthier told me over the course of the process, I'd bet the previous post that mentioned the difference in weight between Kentuckys/Eastmans and Collings/etc. is right; the luthier that worked on my fiddle explained that a lot of the sound quality comes from subtleties in the thickness and graduation of the top and bottom plates of the fiddle (among many other things too, of course). Too heavy/thick and the sound is muffled, too thin and it can be harsh, etc...

    I'm sure I'm not putting this in very expert terms, but on the whole I'd take interpret it to mean that even within different brands of instruments that are all hand-carved, hand graduated, hand-everything, solid-wood, etc., that the subtleties of construction could still vary, leading to different qualities of instruments.

  10. #8
    Registered User Tony Sz's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2003
    Location
    Southeast Michigan
    Posts
    156

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Quote Originally Posted by Capt. E View Post
    One of the first differences I notice about a mass produced instrument and a fine hand-built luthier product is the weight of it. On first visual inspection a Kentucky may look very much like an Ellis or an Altman for example, but the Kentucky can weigh 30-40% more. One of the reasons for increased volume etc must simply be the mass of the instrument. I expect the thinly carved tops and backs etc will resonate and vibrate more strongly as the strings are struck resulting in a much more dynamic sound.
    While I tend to like lighter weight instruments, I'm not so sure that weight separates the good from the great. Why? Because I've played great sounding and playing examples from both camps (although I've probably played more poor instruments that were heavy as opposed to light). I once played a really mando that seemed unusually heavy. When I picked it up I was thinking well, this can't be terribly good, but upon playing it , I was totally surprised. I guess at this point, for me, weight by itself is not the issue.
    Tony Szczygielski

  11. #9
    Registered User Tony Sz's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2003
    Location
    Southeast Michigan
    Posts
    156

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I once played a really mando that seemed unusually heavy.

    oops, please disregard the word "really" in my previous post.
    Tony Szczygielski

  12. #10
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    Location
    maryland
    Posts
    1,403

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I've learned a lot from similar threads, and I've tried to prove the luthiers right....or wrong. Well, they are right. The difference is more than can be written here. There are so many details in wood, and in the expert craftsmanship. I am convinced that the difference, if you are measuring, is in the consistancy. I am confident that a Kentucky 675 (overall) will not consistantly be as GREAT as a Randy Wood or an Altman, Kimble, Ellis, Daley, Stanley, Gilchrist, etc. I've read and heard the conversations about, "have you ever played a bad Daley or Stanley or Wood," and the answer is usually "no" or "it needs a set up" or "it's not broken in yet." Of course, I'm referring to the builder of a mandolin, not a specific one.

    Bob

    I hope no one says we've already discussed this. I get a lot out of these threads.
    re simmers

  13. #11
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Oct 2002
    Location
    san diego
    Posts
    1,267

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    A good or great instrument is really the luck of the draw. A $3500 Weber can sound better than a $20000 Gilchrist. Or the other way around. Some makers make more consistant sounding mandolins but really, it's finding a great sounding mandolin that is the trick. The best mandolin I have ever played in 30 years was $7000 not $25000.
    ntriesch

  14. #12
    Registered User sunburst's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2003
    Location
    Kentucky
    Posts
    14,583

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    The details.

  15. The following members say thank you to sunburst for this post:


  16. #13
    Celtic Strummer Matt DeBlass's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2009
    Location
    Madison, WI
    Posts
    858

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I'm also in the "I'm no expert but..." camp, but I'll throw in my two cents. It seems to me that, since wood is such a variable material, there's a certain element of chance in whether a wooden instrument will become really great or not. However, what an experienced builder can do is work with the characteristics of each individual piece of wood to bring out the best sound it's capable of. Of course "best" also depends on what the builder thinks it should sound like, so each builder's personal preference will be reflected in the instrument.
    If I call my guitar my "axe," does that mean my mandolin is my hatchet?

    Breedlove Quartz KF
    Kit Built Oval Hole
    Martin 000M
    Highland Harp

    https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/mattdeblass2

    Feed My Ego, Visit My Youtube Page

  17. #14
    Registered User Charley wild's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2009
    Location
    Traverse City, Michigan
    Posts
    806

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    One thing that has to be mentioned in a thread like is that beautiful sound is in the ear of the beholder. Who says a certain mandolin sounds better than another? Me? You?
    Quite often I see posts here that lead me to believe that to many the answer to greatness is written on the peghead. How many times have I read here someone apologizing for a fairly expensive mandolin that obviously hasn't lived up to their expectations. "It's hasn't opened up yet, but it's a Collins, Weber, etc." (I'm not picking on these two brands, I'm just making a point) "It doesn't have the volume but it has sweet tone" is another often heard comment. There are many more of these telling comments but you get my point. They are willing to forgive a big name brand mandolin no matter how average it sounds. These posters could never bring themselves to admit that they heard a PacRim mandolin at a jam or where ever that was "better" than their's.

  18. #15

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Does someone here know definatively that F5MM tops are of a higher grade than an F5G? If they are, then was the makers intension to end up with a better instrument in the F5MM from birth.

    If a grader from Collings, Eastman, and Gibson looked at 50 bits of tonewood, would they all grade them the same?

    All things being equal at birth, it would be up to the luthier to tune the cavity. I do know each top and bottom even of the same grade is different.

    Do luthier's from Collings, Eastman, and Gibson know the same things?
    It's not in their best interest to divulge the finer points. Do they all come close? That's a matter of opinion. That little "stuff" is the difference between good and great. That's my theory, worth 0.

  19. #16
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    Location
    maryland
    Posts
    1,403

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    If it's not consistancy, and it really is the luck of the draw, there sure are a lot of mandolin pickers willing to roll the dice. There are many top-notch builders who have waiting lists of people with $5,000 - $22,500 to try their luck & see if a Gilchrist will sound better than a Weber. No offense. I play a '91 Flatiron(Weber) and a Gallatin.

    Bob


    "If I call my guitar my "axe," does that mean my mandolin is my hatchet?"

    My guitar is my axe. My mandolin is my gourd. My bass is my trunk.
    re simmers

  20. #17
    Registered User Bob DeVellis's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Location
    Chapel Hill, NC
    Posts
    1,662

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I agree with Charley. A great instrument for me is one that suits me. I've played instruments that some people have considered great that didn't do that much for me.

    John is also correct that the details matter. Instruments can be dimensionally identical without sounding the same. A carefully built instrument is fabricated with a certain sound in mind and the assembly and materials are optimized for that goal. A top is graduated not merely to a specific set of dimensions but to dimensions that the builder are right for that top. Subtle details are worried over until they're as nearly perfect as possible. If instruments are being mass produced, it's hard to give the same attention to every detail or to adapt each instrument to the materials at hand as completely. The good news is that, unlike guitars, mandolins aren't being made by any one maker at the rate of over 50,000 per year. So, even instruments that are sort-of factory made (i.e., made by large companies) can get quite a bit of individual attention. The higher-priced models get more individual attention than the bottom-end ones do. All of that matters. Some instruments without attention will be spectacular purely by chance, because the graduations dialed in without specific regard for the top plate in question might be exactly right, purely by luck, for that particular top. But, on average, a smaller operation that tries to optimize each individual instrument will produce a higher proportion of really good mandolins.

    But greatness, I feel, still resides in the interaction between the instrument and the player. What is great for one person may not be for another. All players don't have the same goals. Consensual greatness results to a degree from either (a) shared tastes or (b) pressure to go along with what others think (probably more the former than the latter). While I think broader classifications (e.g., not-so-good vs good vs very good vs really good) may have some basis in objective fact, true greatness really depends on how the instrument suits the individual player making the call. Of course, as I said, where players share a common taste, their judgments of greatness will be more similar than whey they don't.
    Bob DeVellis

  21. #18
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Location
    Panama Cit
    Posts
    1,562

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Going shopping where there are several fine mandolins will tell you a lot. You might learn that you can't tell the difference between a KM-650 and a Kemnitzer Nugget. You may like the way one sounds over another but no one else likes that one. I went shopping. I found the more I played different mandolins the more I liked certain brand's sound. I found a predictability of sound & quality in different brands (Builders). There are sound variations to be sure within a certain Model by a builder. But in shopping it's difficult to tell the quality without a point of reference, like taking a mandolin that you know with you and comparing it to the new ones. I was able to do that. Did I end up with a "GREAT" mandolin? Some folks say yes some say no. But it is greater than I am at playing it. It was the one I thought sounded like I wanted at the time that I could afford. I still like it. But in playing all those other mandolins that SOMEONE bought, I learned to respect some builders and those who choose their mandolins.
    Sometimes I think people's BELIEF that 'THEIR mandolin is Great' is much more powerful than the mandolin really being great.
    I have played some mandolins that I have heard on recordings of some top names. I was mystified as to how they got that sound out of that mandolin. I couldn't get anything like that out of it, it sounded so ordinary. So there is a lot of sound in the hands playing the mandolin. It is much better to be a great player than to have a great mandolin.

  22. #19
    Isolated enthusiast Caleb's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Location
    DFW, America
    Posts
    3,284

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob DeVellis View Post
    I agree with Charley. A great instrument for me is one that suits me. I've played instruments that some people have considered great that didn't do that much for me.

    John is also correct that the details matter. Instruments can be dimensionally identical without sounding the same. A carefully built instrument is fabricated with a certain sound in mind and the assembly and materials are optimized for that goal. A top is graduated not merely to a specific set of dimensions but to dimensions that the builder are right for that top. Subtle details are worried over until they're as nearly perfect as possible. If instruments are being mass produced, it's hard to give the same attention to every detail or to adapt each instrument to the materials at hand as completely. The good news is that, unlike guitars, mandolins aren't being made by any one maker at the rate of over 50,000 per year. So, even instruments that are sort-of factory made (i.e., made by large companies) can get quite a bit of individual attention. The higher-priced models get more individual attention than the bottom-end ones do. All of that matters. Some instruments without attention will be spectacular purely by chance, because the graduations dialed in without specific regard for the top plate in question might be exactly right, purely by luck, for that particular top. But, on average, a smaller operation that tries to optimize each individual instrument will produce a higher proportion of really good mandolins.

    But greatness, I feel, still resides in the interaction between the instrument and the player. What is great for one person may not be for another. All players don't have the same goals. Consensual greatness results to a degree from either (a) shared tastes or (b) pressure to go along with what others think (probably more the former than the latter). While I think broader classifications (e.g., not-so-good vs good vs very good vs really good) may have some basis in objective fact, true greatness really depends on how the instrument suits the individual player making the call. Of course, as I said, where players share a common taste, their judgments of greatness will be more similar than whey they don't.
    This is an excellent post. The entire second paragraph answered many of my questions. Thank you.

    And yes, as re simmers said, I also get a lot out of these threads.
    ...

  23. #20
    Henry Lawton hank's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2009
    Location
    The Present Moment
    Posts
    1,927

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?


  24. #21
    two t's and one hyphen fatt-dad's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2003
    Location
    Richmond, Virginia
    Posts
    7,328

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I think what makes a good instrument is a committment to stick with it. It's certainly what makes a great wife! A few years ago, I decided to stop my persuit for an F-style (f-hole) mandolin and just be happy with my Flatiron A5. I love it already, but kept thinking I'd find better. Knowing that it just doesn't matter and that my Flatiron is good for me, makes it a life-long instrument (for me). If you can't be happy with your woman or your mandolin, then you'll always have a wondering eye.

    Guitars too, sigh. . .

    f-d
    ¡papá gordo ain’t no madre flaca!

    '20 A3, '30 L-1, '97 914, 2012 Cohen A5, 2012 Muth A5, '14 OM28A

  25. #22
    Isolated enthusiast Caleb's Avatar
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Location
    DFW, America
    Posts
    3,284

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Quote Originally Posted by GTison View Post
    It is much better to be a great player than to have a great mandolin.
    This is wisdom. Someone should make that their sig line.
    ...

  26. #23
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Aug 2003
    Location
    Los Angeles, CA
    Posts
    552

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    Quote Originally Posted by sunburst View Post
    The details.
    This.

  27. #24
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Oct 2002
    Location
    san diego
    Posts
    1,267

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    A few years back I went into a high end shop and played a $3500 mandolin on the wall that was way more responsive and very loud than anything on the wall. The manager agreed it was a super mandolin but he felt that the sound of the Collings mandolins were much more complex whatever that means. He liked the much more quiet complex mandolins better.. Not me! I know Collings mandolins can be great mandolins also but on this day the $3500 mando beat the $7500 mando hands down. In the words of a very well known instrument repairman in San Diego..." "it's a ****shoot when buying an F type mandolin whatever the cost".
    ntriesch

  28. #25
    Capt. E Capt. E's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2008
    Location
    Austin, Texas
    Posts
    2,863

    Default Re: Good or Great Mandolins: What Makes the Difference?

    I agree that in the end it is the interaction between the player and the instrument that makes the final difference. To have an instrument that "suits" you is a great thing. It still may not be a "great" instrument, but if it gives the player great pleasure, what else do you want?
    Jammin' south of the river
    '20 Gibson A-2
    Stromberg-Voisinet Tenor Guitar
    Penny Whistle
    My albums: http://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/album.php?u=7616

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •