Great Vintage Mandolins Under $1,000

By Mandolin Cafe
March 18, 2012 - 11:15 am

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Some Gibsons in this article were built in the same factory and same time as those that fetch six figures. Some Gibsons in this article were built in the same factory and same time as those that fetch six figures.

"What's the best mandolin under $1,000?"

"I have a budget of around $750. What's available to me?"

"What kind of mandolin can I expect to get for $500 or less?"

Internet forums are full of people seeking information about the most affordable instrument available to them. No one should have to spend a lot of money to get a very good mandolin, and here's the deal: you don't have to. Great choices abound new and old.

While the advice is plentiful, most of it bypasses the great instruments in the vintage arena without a mention. The reason might involve preference, experience and availability. But much of it can be attributed to marketing. Being able to examine the new models by price and feature on multiple web sites has its advantages. Newly built professionally photographed models have their appeal and place in the market. A store that carries 12 instruments in one line may only have an occasional vintage instrument in the price range we'll look at.

Our intent isn't to question choice or to make a point one is better than the other. This isn't about old vs. new. Our intent is to present a broader set of opinions not often expressed.

Setup needs, issues? Sure, vintage instruments are often challenged in that fashion, but so are many newer models in this price range. It's your right to insist upon a competent set-up when purchasing a new or used instrument from a dealer.

Few things satisfy better than a great sounding instrument that's fun to play. Get it at an affordable price and that makes it even better. You may have overlooked a vintage instrument because you thought it was out of your price range or wouldn't fit your needs. Open your mind to the possibilities.

The Recommendations

Dan Beimborn
Mandolin Archive

If I was looking for a great mandolin under $1,000, I'd start right away in a quest for a Gibson A Jr. from around 1920-1924, or an A0 from the years after that. Both are no frills versions of the classic Gibson A oval hole of the time, lacking in binding on the top and back, usually just a silk-screened logo instead of a pearl inlay, and a plain brown finish. They didn't skimp anywhere else! These are great-sounding mandolins. Often times there will be cosmetically challenged A-model mandolins for sale at reduced prices too. A refinished Gibson A/A2 will often go for under $1,000. I started out caring much more about originality and repairs than I do now. A good-sounding mandolin is so much more important than a real looker.

As with all instruments, it's a good idea to try before you buy. Older Gibsons often need a few set-up tweaks here and there so it's a good idea to set aside some budget to have a luthier perform some work. If you're buying from a dealer, this is normally included!

1924 Gibson A Junior

1924 Gibson A Junior
Photo credit:

David Grisman
Acoustic Disc and Acoustic Oasis

There are many vintage mandolins* available at any given time for less than $1,000. Most of these will be available on eBay, and less frequently on your local Craig's List. Unfortunately, most of the established vintage instrument dealers don't carry very many playable instruments at this price. Many vintage mandolins in this range aren't that useful as player's instruments — for me Harmony, Kay, Belltone and Regal usually fall into this category, although there are better mandolins in the top of the line categories of these brands. I spent a little time on eBay and came up with twelve examples of good utilitarian mandolins at low prices — most of which were made before World War II. By the time this is published, many of these auctions may have ended, but undoubtedly will have been replaced by others at similar prices.

*Non bowl-back. Since (I assume) most Cafe members don't play bowl-back mandolins, they are not discussed here. Many of these vintage instruments are available at low prices on eBay and elsewhere.

Gibson - These are all A models — in today's market you probably won't find a playable vintage F model Gibson for $1,000. The good news is that they all have similar potential for sound and playability, as long as there is no structural detraction. In my opinion, the oval hole A models have more tonal bang for your buck in that they are more similar to their F model counterparts (F-2 and F-4) whereas most F-hole A models don't have the elevated fingerboards that their F model counterparts (F-5, F-12, F-10 and F-7) possess which makes a significant difference in their tone/volume.

Martin mandolin, circa 1963. Photo credit: Mass Street Music. Approximate price, $800. Martin mandolin, circa 1963. Photo credit: Mass Street Music. Approximate price, $800.

Today I found:
1912 A-2 (mistakenly called A3) with hsc - $949
1915 A-2 (no case) - $857
1930s Wards (like Kalamazoo KM-12) budget brand made by Gibson - $549
1935 A-00 with flat back, much wear and repaired cracks but a player - $177 (so far)

Martin - Martin bent-top, flatback models (style A, B, C, D and E) are well made and are suitable for styles of music that don't require too much volume or punch. They make excellent student grade instruments. The carved-top and back Martin mandolins with f-holes (model 2-15, 2-20, 2-30) are even quieter (those non-elevated fingerboards again) but very serviceable. Less common are Martin carved oval-hole models (style 15, 20) which I think are the best of the lot, however the $1K or less price range will mostly be the style A.

Today I found:
1915 Style A (with Brazilian back & sides) with ohsc - $950
1962 Style A with ohsc - $899
1948 model 2-15 with ssc - $900

Stradolin - Actually, my favorite "vintage bargain" mandolin is the Stradolin (particularly their high end models.) I actually used to play one at gigs (like when I sat in with Red Smiley at the 2nd Fincastle Bluegrass Festival in 1966.) I bought it for $50 from Richard Greene. They are loud and punchy, mostly carved-top f-hole instruments with elevated fingerboards. To me they are as good or better than many (certainly not all) Gibson f-hole A models AND they usually are below $500.

Today I found:
1940s "Master" model with f-holes and ssc - $299 ($350 Buy it Now)
1940s Jr. model with f-holes and ssc - $225 ($249 Buy it Now)
1940s - 1950s A model with f-holes and ssc - $199 (Buy it Now)

I also found:

Vega - 1920s Cylinder Back or Mando-Lute model with ohsc - $759 (no bids yet) These are fine instruments, but are known to have top sinkage issues (usually near the tailpiece). They are deep-toned throaty instruments that function well in classical and folk styles AND they are usually priced at more than $1,000.

Levin - 1954 simple A style flat top and back. These are quality instruments made in Sweden by a company that goes back to the 1920s, very comparable to the Martin flat-backs. This example is priced at $345 but then there's shipping from Europe.

Naturally, spending a bit more money will probably yield a better mandolin, though not necessarily. There are so many individual factors that may or may not be important to any individual. I also understand the reluctance of many to buy an instrument sight unseen. Still the internet offers the greatest number of vintage instruments at any given moment. Good luck in obtaining the mandolin that's right for you.

Darryl Wolfe
F-5 Journal

My recommendations for a starter mandolin may differ from many. I believe that acquiring a well set up and sound vintage mandolin will foster curiosity and the desire to learn more about instruments.

My very own experience was with an old Stella mandolin, and then a nice Martin flat top followed by a more traditional sounding A-40 Gibson and then an A-50 Gibson. All of these instruments had a part in developing my interest in playing mandolins and their history.

My personal recommendation would be a mahogany or rosewood flat top of the Weymann or Martin style from the 20s or 30s. But, as I alluded to, these MUST BE PROPERLY SET UP FOR EASE OF PLAYING. A poor neck angle and bad setup defeats the entire reason for recommending these older mandolins. These are mandolins of the highest quality and can be obtained in outstanding condition for $250 to $850. A nice mahogany Weymann in perfect playing condition would be about $300 and a nice mahogany Martin can be had for around $500. A little more budget may yield a Style B Rosewood mandolin.

circa 1960s Stradolin, typical price range $350-500. circa 1960s Stradolin, typical price range $350-500.

I also recommend avoiding the "F-model fever" along with the "Gibson F-hole fever" until the student develops technique and a continued interest in the mandolin. At that point an instrument like a '30s A-50 would be most appropriate.

Lowell Levinger
Players Vintage Instruments

If playability and sound are the main objectives and a few scratches or crack repairs don't bother you then there are plenty of nice old good sounding mandolins available. And even if you insist on Excellent condition you can still get some great sounding and easy playing Stradolins and A-50s and Epiphone A models and such.

Stradolins often have no business sounding as good as they do. And if you can handle a bowlback, some good deals can be made on mandolins that put out a lot of sound and play like butter. Granted they don't go thump like a bluegrass mandolin. That's harder to get for under a grand without going to a Chinese product. But again, if you find the right Stradolin, you might be surprised.

Mike Marshall

I like the Vega Cylinder Backs for light playing and an A model Gibson is always sweet of course if you find a nice one. The necks are pretty big on the Gibsons but that old tone is so nice. You really feel like you are going back in time when you are around these instruments and I've gotten tons of inspiration playing them.

Stan Jay
Mandolin Brothers, Ltd.

If one searches even cursorily one might come up with any number of vintage American mandolins made in the first 69 years of the 20th century, that could, if condition, originality, playability and adjust-ability permitted, be used as an amateur-level instrument. The first brand name that comes up as being generally available and affordably priced is C.F. Martin, specifically the Style A. I did a quick eBay search and found these first three available at the time I wrote this reply but in all there were 9 Martin mandolins in total for sale, not all of them Style A. Naturally, Craig's List would be another venue to search for low-priced US-made mandolins. Keep in mind that when buying from public sources it is safe to assume that most of the pieces haven't been vetted for originality or condition, and may require remedial work in order to be usable.

Another brand that we've always liked is Strad-o-Lin. About this brand Michael Holmes of Mugwumps says: "Stradolin (also spelled Strad-O-Lin) is NOT a Gibson product, although who did make them remains a mystery. Probably several different companies were contracted over time. My best estimates (experts never guess) is Oscar Schmidt, who at that time had 7 factories turning out cheap instruments for others to label and sell. Other possibles were Harmony and Kay (KayKraft at that time). I once had a student who swore he visited the Strad-O-Lin factory in New York City in the '40s. The tailpieces, however, were a stock Waverly item and most makers used them. They are excellent student or entry level instruments, sturdy and reasonably priced."

And then there's good old reliable Harmony. As for Gibson A-Jr mandolins, in our opinion it is unlikely that, unless it is in marginal condition, this model can any longer be obtained for under $1,000. However, the Gibson Army-Navy Style DY, with its flat top and flat back, made from 1918 to 1922, is said, according to the Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide, 2012, to bring $775 to $950 today.

Tom Isenhour
Musician, collector, Monroe scholar

1939 Gibson A-50. Prices vary widely by year and condition. 1939 Gibson A-50. Prices vary widely by year and condition.

For vintage Gibson mandolins in the $750 to $1,000 range I find the A-50 model from the late 1930s to the late 1960s are a really good buy for a bluegrass picker beginner or professional. They have F holes and are made of Michigan maple backs and sides and high quality spruce tops. They are really built well with the older quality Gibson was known for.

When these Made in the USA mandolins are properly set-up they should be as professional of an A model as you could seek out in today's market of imports. When you look back in time you can find many of the bigger name pros either started out with these models or stayed with them. There were even times when Bill Monroe used the A-50 model when his F5 was out for repairs. Who can complain about the bluegrass sound of the vintage 50's A-50 in the hands of Buzz Busby?

Rich DelGrosso
Blues mandolin legend, Mandolin Magazine Columnist

At this time in my career I am totally "hooked" on the new National resonator mandolin, but I have always gravitated to the vintage style-A mandolin for its tone and action. The neck on the style A tends to be slightly wider... better for my big fingers :). Buying a vintage A can be costly, depending on its age and condition but I have some suggestions for bargains:

A student of mine had a Gibson Army-Navy mandolin. These mandolins were simple, no-frill, flat-iron style mandolins made by Gibson in the late teens-early twenties for troops to carry with them at the fronts during World War 1. They were well made and had great tone and resonance (at least the one my student played). It would be rare to find one in mint condition but several models I've seen have been refurbished, sound great and came in at less than $1,000. If you're like me you like the "hunt" and this one is worth a safari online!

Don Julin

My pick in the vintage range would be the 1920s era Gibson A Jr. These can still be found for 1K or less if you look around and have a little patience. I still use my snakehead on most of my recordings for one simple reason: it sounds really good. The Juniors from that same era can sound just as good as the fancier A-2 and A-4 models. Great tone for blues, old time, Irish, jazz, rags and just about anything except bluegrass.

Charles Johnson
Mandolin World Headquarters

There are a number of good choices in the under $1,000 bracket. My favorites are as follows, in no particular order:

1) Used mandolins in general - If you are willing to purchase a used mandolin, you can often get a great deal. Obviously vintage mandolins are in this category, but occasionally better quality newer mandolins can be found under $1,000.

2) Stradolin - Very good A style usually with F holes. Made since the 1930s, these usually have solid tops and can be excellent bluegrass mandolins. Look for the pre-war models.

3) Martin A Style - Not a bluegrass mandolin but it works well for everything else. Build quality is on par with Martin guitars.

4) Teens/20s Gibson A - These are pushing the price limit but can still be found under $1,000. Look for post 1911 instruments with the better neck angle.

5) Teens/20s Gibson A Jr. - the plainest of the Gibson models, it's the same mandolin structurally as the higher grades, just less trim. Paddle peghead models will be in this price range.

6) Kalamazoo - The budget line for Gibson in the mid-30s. Look for the arched back models. These can be found with F holes and make excellent bluegrass mandolins. Be sure the neck is straight as they do not have adjustable truss rods.

John Hamlett
Hamlet Instruments

I've seen the mandolin market grow from very small to where it is now. In the early days of the market increase, f-hole mandolins were almost the only desired product. Bluegrass was the main driver of the increase in demand, and Bluegrass demands f-holes. As mandolins became more common, and people started to discover other music that could be made with mandolins, oval hole mandolin demand started to tick up too, and now builders and manufacturers are once again building them for the new market. With revived interest in oval hole mandolins, the old Gibsons once again have a niche to fit into. I have an oval hole mandolin in the finish stages right now. 15 or 20 years ago I'd never have guessed that I would make an oval hole mandolin or that anyone would order one.

When f-holes were the bulk of the mandolin market, all of the many surviving Gibson oval hole mandolins were of little value, except perhaps as student instruments. Gibson made so many of them, and there are so many still around, that they are still bargains considering the quality, which is pretty much top quality for manufactured instruments. Other, rarer, manufactured pre-war instruments of similar quality that are in high demand command much higher prices, so compare a Gibson oval hole mandolin to a Martin D-18 to see the influence of market demand.

quote... No one should have to spend a lot of money to get a very good mandolin, and here's the deal: you don't have to.quote

Teens and '20s Gibson A through A-4 mandolins, in less than pristine but very playable condition can be real bargains. They are manufactured instruments made at a quality level that is near the top of all manufactured instruments, but since Gibson made so many of them, they are not hard to find and good prices can still be found. They are fully suitable for players who like and use the oval hole sound for just playing or for performing.

For those who need the sound of an f-hole mandolin, they are still a bargain as a starter, student instrument, practice mandolin, or a variation in the sound on stage. When playing plugged in or over a mic, the lack of the cut associated with f-hole mandolins is not a problem.

For those players looking for a bargain f-hole mandolin, the field is smaller. High quality vintage f-hole mandolins started with the F-5, and I don't need to go into the market price of those, though build quality is similar to earlier Gibson A and F mandolins.

For someone looking for a quality f-hole mandolin at a bargain price, my main advice is to forget about points and scrolls. If a favorable price/quality ratio is the goal, all that ornamentation just doesn't fit into the situation. It is true that point-and-scroll-bearing mandolin can be found in all price ranges, but in the lower price ranges there is a trade-off for quality. As a builder, I know how much extra work goes into the ornamentation, and if asked to build the least expensive high quality f-hole mandolin that I could, I would immediately dismiss points and scrolls. first decision in the process. From there, cost cutting decisions could continue, but square one for favorable quality/price is no scroll. I cannot recommend an F in the < $1,000 range. In my opinion there is no reason to make or to buy such ornamentation in that price range because there is necessarily a quality trade off, so I just can't go there.

Perhaps the saving grace for the shopper on a budget is in used f-hole A-shaped mandolins. As players decide to upgrade to an F, sometimes good quality used A mandolins hit the market at good prices. For new mandolins, it is difficult for a maker to compete with imports on price, so the market for f-hole mandolins under $1,000 falls to the plainer offerings from a few American manufacturers and a few builders who are able to keep their "A" price near that range.

Stan Werbin
Elderly Instruments

When looking at vintage and used mandolins under $1,000 the first issue is what is available at any given moment. I am pretty partial to all of the following, which we see at Elderly Instruments fairly frequently:

Gibson Army-Navy Mandolin. Photo credit: Eldelry Instruments. Gibson Army-Navy Mandolin. Photo credit: Eldelry Instruments.

Gibson Army-Navy: just cool old mandolins which sound excellent and hold up well.

Flatiron: flat models (similar to the Army-Navy Gibsons) when they are in good condition (of course that is true of any used instrument)

Older Aria, Kentucky, Ibanez: and other similar made-in-Asia F-models and A-models which are really pretty decent for the prices they go for.

Kalamazoo: and other off-brand Gibson-made instruments, when they show up.

Gibson A-40: if you can find one for under a grand these days.

Martin A: pretty good, although they have a short scale length, so not for everybody. Ditto for old Epiphone.

Vega lute-mandolins: (that's what they called them) are good sounding instruments. Watch for structural issues but nice sound and cool looks too.

Gibson: A-Jr mandolins are a bit above the price range, but they and any old Gibson A models are fine instruments.

I know that most people know this nowadays but it can't be said too often: When buying used or vintage and you intend to play it and not just look at it, it is critical to be sure that the instrument is in good playing condition. It should have a decent neck angle, straight neck, easy playability (but not TOO low), correct intonation, properly cut nut slots, etc. It is, after all, about playing the mandolin, and if it isn't set up to play properly (or cannot be easily made that way) then it may not be what you want. On the other hand, if the price is right then it can be worth getting a fixer-upper for either you or your favorite repair person to put into shape. As my dad used to say when he would repeat himself a lot: Well, I'm just saying!

Ted Eschliman

I love a sweet Gibson Teens vintage A body. Problem with them for me is the narrow frets/flat fingerboard. I prefer the comfort of a gently radiused board, and "banjo" fret of more recent decades. They chord easier and aren't as fatiguing.

A secret treasure that comes around is one of the circa '80s Japanese builds, like an Epiphone (or Ibanez) but it's important that it was crafted in the mid 80s when Japanese craftsmanship was at its peak — before it was farmed out to Korea and the mainland Asian countries. I used to own an Epi F-body that Jethro Burns used touring when he didn't want to travel with his premium equipment.

Kalamazoo KM-11 mandolin. Typical price range $400-700. Kalamazoo KM-11 mandolin. Typical price range $400-700.

Scott Tichenor
Mandolin Cafe

I'm a big fan of the 30s Kalamazoo mandolins, made right along side Gibson models from the same era. I've played many of these, owned a few, and think they're an outstanding bargain. Easily found on eBay in the $400-700 range. Not just affordable, they sound terrific and inspire me musically.

I agree with the recommendations for the A Jr. models. Typically when under $1,000 you're looking at a paddle-head which doesn't command as high a price as a snakehead, but don't let that deter you from looking. I hooked a pristine snakehead A Jr. in the past year for just under $1,000 on eBay (mainly due to poor images, bad description, etc.) and it was a real dandy. As part of my "catch and release" policy it turned out to be an outstanding investment as well.

Another benefit of a vintage model is what you see is what you get. An instrument that has been around for 50 years or more is likely going to look and sound the same 10-20 years from now, something you can't predict about instruments purchased new.

Bill Graham
Music Writer

I'm biased towards a couple of mandolins that can often be bought for under $1,000, the Flatiron pancake mandolins and the pre-Loar Gibson A juniors and A-0 models.

Years ago I was in the camp jam mode at the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kan., when strangers came by looking for tunes. We picked and things clicked for a good time. One gent played a Flatiron Cadet, the flat "pancake" mandolin copied from the Gibson Army-Navy model. He played very well, but his mandolin also sounded excellent, especially on fiddle tunes. I was humbled and impressed because I was playing my 1984 Flatiron F5 signed by Steve Carlson. He and his mandolin were equals, a different sound, but a nice sound.

A few years later I had a chance to buy a 1982 Flatiron Cadet for $250 with a hard case. That's extra cheap, as learned after the fact when the Internet arrived on my desktop. I was lucky. The last time I looked, these were going for $400 to $600. It's not my go-to mandolin for bluegrass. But it is one that sounds very sweet when I play it, particularly on fiddle tunes. It's a little woofy for bluegrass chops but with some practice you can ease up on the pick stroke and make it right. Some people point to them as having a fine sound for Celtic music.

Flatiron pancakes from the 1980s have very nice necks, woods, finish and frets with good intonation. They're a good-sounding stealth mandolin that's affordable for those who embrace them and play them enough to develop familiarity with their setup.

On the vintage side, a beat up Gibson A Jr or A-0 from the early 1900s can sound really strong. They're also a bit woofy when it comes to the bluegrass chop. But single notes are very full and pretty. There's a richness in the notes that I miss even in many good modern F5s or A5s. I own my grandfather's Gibson A-1 via inheritance. My brother purchased an A Jr for under a grand. Another buddy did the same with an A-0. Neither of these mandolins have the Gibson logo inlaid on the peghead. Both are very plain. Most strikingly, both have very wide-grained spruce tops, probably red spruce. Both of these mandolins have more volume and tone, to my ears, than my A-1.

Early Gibson A model that sold for $650 on Skinner Auctions recently. Early Gibson A model that sold for $650 on Skinner Auctions recently.

I suspect Gibson was saving the finer looking, narrow-grained tops for their upper level mandolins with more trim and a higher price tag, such as the A-1, A-2, A-3 or A-4. But in the guitar world, many folks will say the wider grained red spruce sounds the best. That may be true for mandolins as well. Repaired cracks and necks wouldn't scare me either if the mandolin sounds good. Many of the affordable Gibson A models, the plain or beat up ones, are deep in soul and sound.

Lynn Dudenbostel
Dudenbostel Stringed Instruments

In the under $1,000 market, in order to get the most for your money, you'll pretty much have to look exclusively at A style mandolins. I believe you really get a lot better instrument if you can give up the strap hanger/scroll. Also, think used. There are often vintage Gibson A models in this price range, although you may have to live with a few dings here and there, or some playing wear. Not only are you getting a fine sounding instrument, but they are often good investments as well.

A quality bridge can make quite a difference. There are many others out there, and since I don't deal with these on a regular basis, I'm sure I've omitted some good options. It's best to go to a retailer who may have several in stock that you can try out. When looking at used instruments, be sure to look at the condition of the frets and set-up. This can be difficult to evaluate for a novice, but that good deal on a mandolin can run into some serious money if you find it needs a fret job after you purchase it!

Ken Cartwright, AKA Mandomedic
Former Mandolin Magazine Columnist, past President of the Oregon Bluegrass Association

There are many people coming into the mandolin market who either can't afford or justify mandolins over $1,000. What can a person buy in that price range? If your search is for a F-5 Style mandolin, usually the trade off is style over tone. But a quick look on Mandolin Cafe or Craig's list just before I write this, I find some older Gibson A style mandolins both with F holes and many with oval that will do fine.

As with all mandolins in that price range, they usually need some setup or some repair. On many occasions, I have taken previously mentioned instruments, changed out the bridge, nut, tailpiece and strings, done a setup, all under $150 and turned a budget instrument into a workable solution for the budget minded musician.

Bradley Klein
Twangbox Productions, Music Related Multimedia For Public Radio And Commercial Clients

About 30 years ago, I came upon my first mandolin. It had belonged to my girlfriend's grandmother who played in a mandolin orchestra in the Bronx. I knew so little about vintage instruments back then that many weeks passed before I realized that it was NOT a mandolin at all. It was a teens black-face Gibson H-1 mandola. I had just tuned it to the pitch pipe that was in the case to C-G-D-A and started playing.

Regal - typically in the $500 - $900 range. Regal - typically in the $500 - $900 range.

Ever since, I've found that vintage instruments have an irresistible appeal to me. And they were also a great value back then. Their intrinsic worth, what it would cost to make a new one, was greater than the price they were selling for in many cases. Today vintage instruments still appeal, and prices have risen, but many remain a good value. Here's an overview of the vintage mandolin market under $1,000.

In this range, your most likely choices are: Gibson-made oval-hole A models from pre-1923, Gibson-made f-hole models like the A-50 from the 1930s onward, Martin flat-back bent-top models from any period, Regal or Harmony-made instruments of a wide variety, and the ubiquitous Strad-o-lins made for much of the 20th century. In addition there is a multitude of bowl-back models spanning a vast array of makers and time periods.

All of these can be good choices, but a few basic principles will help guide you. Bowl backs are often in need of expensive repair and only sought after by classical players, so unless that describes you it's best to pass these by. The Gibson and Martin made instruments are of very high quality construction. They remain a good value, in part, because so very many were made in the first two decades of the 20th century that supply still balances demand pretty well. As a general rule, oval-hole instruments by Gibson and Martin are valued most highly by folks who play old-time fiddle tunes. Bluegrass players may find their best value in a 1930s, Gibson-made f-hole model like the A-50, which can be surprisingly reasonable in price. (in fact they are among the few carved top f-hole vintage mandolins that can be found in this price range, and those are the construction details that lead to the sound typically favored by bluegrass players) When it comes to rock and contemporary folk music, anything goes, and many players like flat-back/flat-top instruments for their guitar-like sound.

The Regal, Harmony and Stradolins are available at a substantially lower price point, and built with much less care. These may be solid wood, plywood or some combination of both. If the tops are solid spruce, they are almost always bent or pressed into shape rather than carved. They can still sound great, but they will sound different than a carved top instrument of the same vintage and materials. Beware of loose necks, flaking finishes and sinking tops! However these companies made instruments in an endless variety and they can be a lot of fun to play and own. And at a price in the $200 to $500 range, they can represent a real bargain.

Setup Checklist For Vintage Instruments

by Roger Siminoff
Roger H. Siminoff Banjo & Mandolin Parts

Having considered the different styles and makers of mandolins, and hopefully finding one that suits your playing style and wallet, the next consideration is what to look for from a structural and playability standpoint. I'm going to assume that you would have skipped over an instrument that didn't have the sound you wanted, and that the color, finish, and any scratches that Lowell referred to are acceptable. So, here's a list of key things to check on the mandolin you are considering:

  • Do all the seams appear to be intact where the soundboard and backboard attach to the rim? Is the center seam of the soundboard and backboard intact? If not, it may be a sign that either damage has occurred or that future re-gluing of the soundboard and backboard will be necessary.
  • Does the neck appear to be well connected to the body? As shown in the photo below, a neck that has moved in its joint may show signs of the finish blistering or cracking where the neck joins the rim. If just the finish has crazed around the neck's connection, it may not pose a problem, but if the neck has moved or is loose, the repair can be significant.

Photo from Roger Siminoff

  • Is the bottom of the neck heel properly attached to the backboard? If you see a gap between the backboard and neck heel as shown in the next photo below, it may indicate that the strings' tension is pulling the neck away from the backboard. It could also indicate that the rim has been distorted and possibly pulled away from the headblock. This could be the same or similar repair to #2 above.

Photo from Roger Siminoff

  • As Darryl points out, playability is very important, and this speaks to having the proper "action." The strings should exit from the nut with just enough clearance above the fretboard for you to easily draw them to the frets. The space between each string and the first fret should be the same as the distance between that same string and the second fret when you fret the string at the first fret. Don't be terribly concerned if the strings are higher; the string slots in the nut can be adjusted by a competent luthier.
  • The "action" down the length of the neck is more important than an action problem at the nut, and there are two considerations here: a) any "hollow" or warpage in the neck, and b) the height of the bridge. Regarding neck warpage, if you fret the second string pair at the first fret and also fret that same pair at the 15th fret, is there a large gap between the strings and the frets at the 7th or 8th fret? If the gap is greater than the thickness of a business card (.006"), the truss rod may need an adjustment However, if the instrument does not have a truss rod, then you may be in for a fretboard leveling job, which might be a bit costly. Regarding bridge height, most mandolins today have or can be fitted with adjustable bridges, so it is rather easy to arrive at the correct bridge height through trial and error.
  • Some of these mandolins are fitted with rosewood or dyed-hardwood bridges, and as Lynn suggests, changing to a good ebony bridge can make a major difference in note-to-note clarity, amplitude, and overall timbre. Changing the bridge is rather simple, but the bridge feet must be properly fitted to the soundboard (search "fitting a bridge" on this site).
  • Badly worn frets are rather common on older, well-played instruments, especially at the first three or four frets. If the worn frets don't cause troublesome buzzes, then you might get along with them for a while, but do realize that somewhere down the road, if you continue to enjoy this instrument, you will probably want to have it re-fretted.
  • Do the machines turn properly, and do you see any signs of bent shafts (the stems that connect the knobs to the tuning machines)? Damaged or broken machines are rather easy to replace, with the exception of machines on some early instruments that have different post-to-post distances than the current readily-available machines.

Most of the above-mentioned adjustments and repairs should be carried out by an experienced luthier. On the other hand, if you did not pay a lot for the instrument and are interested in luthierie, you might consider doing some of these adjustments yourself and learning something along the way (and you can get a LOT of luthierie help here on Mandolin Cafe).

Good luck!
Roger Siminoff

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Reader Comments

March 18, 2012 12:25 PM
It's well worth reminding people that you don't have to be rich to get a rich sound. My personal fave at the moment is a WWII era A-50, and it was indeed less than $1000. BTW, Roland White told me he started out on a Stradolin, before he could afford a Gibson. He, too, said they were a really good mandolin for what you spent, even the ply ones. Too bad the bowlbacks got no love- there are still some beauties mixed in with the piles of wrecks on Ebay.
March 18, 2012 12:29 PM
Wow. What a great article! Thanks.
Scott Tichenor
March 18, 2012 12:55 PM
Quote from Schlegel: Too bad the bowlbacks got no love- there are still some beauties mixed in with the piles of wrecks on Ebay. End Quote

Good point. Let's not count out the fact that a companion look into this is possible in the future, or that there are other versions of something similar looking into other price ranges. Right now I think the $2-3K range for new and used has an incredible amount of interesting possibilities, but I'm not convinced it's necessary to go there.
March 18, 2012 04:07 PM
This place is being monitored by the mando mafia I guess.

Don't y'all feel a little scared by telling the truth? I, mean having a horse's head in your bed and all?

No more pac rim mandolins being sold for interesting prices in your local music store. A-50ies, A-75s, Army-Navy mandos, Martin A's, Kalamazoo's, (my favorite) Strad-O-Lin's etc. selling for an all time high ...

... I think this article needs to be deleted as fast as you can.

I don't know why, but the Dawg, Grandpa Banana, Stan Jay and Brad must have not taken my advice, when I had them over for tea...
March 18, 2012 04:17 PM
Quote from grassrootphilosopher: This place is being monitored by the mando mafia I guess.

Don't y'all feel a little scared by telling the truth? I, mean having a horse's head in your bed and all?

No more pac rim mandolins being sold for interesting prices in your local music store. A-50ies, A-75s, Army-Navy mandos, Martin A's, Kalamazoo's, (my favorite) Strad-O-Lin's etc. selling for an all time high ...

... I think this article needs to be deleted as fast as you can.

I don't know why, but the Dawg, Grandpa Banana, Stan Jay and Brad must have not taken my advice, when I had them over for tea... End Quote

I'm having trouble making an ounce of sense out of your post Olaf- what are you saying?
March 18, 2012 04:33 PM
All made in the good ol USA for the most part! Jus sayin'. ;)
March 18, 2012 05:39 PM
I'm a fan of the 30's Gibby F-Hole models,,some have great tone,,not much in the volume depo as compared to style 5,,but great little favorite was a 35 A-50 that I wish I still had with an elevated board!
Bill Clements
March 18, 2012 06:22 PM
This is a excellent resource for those interested in finding fine vintage mandolins in an affordable price range, as well as being very informative about mandolins in general.
Considering the collection of experts who have graciously contributed here, this is a must-read for every Cafe member!

Chris "Bucket" Thomas
March 18, 2012 06:39 PM
Excellent !
March 18, 2012 08:26 PM
I was really surprised by the number of times Stradolin was recommended. I knew they had a following but wasn't aware that they rated that high with the "experts". I was also a little surprised that the Gibson built Flatiron Performer A's weren't mentioned. All in all, it was a very well done article.
March 18, 2012 08:44 PM
Quote from danb: I'm having trouble making an ounce of sense out of your post Olaf- what are you saying? End Quote

It's code, Olaf is a well-known Strad-O-Lin fan.
March 18, 2012 08:46 PM
Anyone looking for more information and some pictures should check out the Strad-O-Lin Social Group. There is an entire genre of mandolins made by whomever built them. They weren't all labeled Strad-O-Lin but they are all easily identified.
Ron McMillan
March 18, 2012 10:53 PM
My thanks to all involved. A superb resource that I will bookmark and come back to time and again. My only 'complaint' is that it has made my deep, burning need for a mid-20s Gibson A Jr all the more difficult to suppress.

Cary Fagan
March 19, 2012 08:11 AM
A very solid article, much appreciated. What I like is the fondness that many people feel for these old mandolins, which I share. Besides their qualities, they also hold all that secret history--the people who have played and loved them before us.
Paul Cooper
March 19, 2012 08:31 AM
When I was collecting, I got about as much pleasure out of finding a great-sounding old beater for a few hundred dollars as I did buying vintage Martin guitars. This was a really fine article. My two best mandolin finds in that category were an A-style Gretsch (at least that's what the shop owner thought it was), and a Weymann Mandolute.

I'd propose taking this idea further. What about an online gallery of great-sounding beaters with pictures and sound clips?
Randi Gormley
March 19, 2012 08:42 AM
Considering how often this question comes up (on the Cafe and during an ordinary internet search by new players), this is a great resource. Many thanks!
March 19, 2012 09:25 AM
Quote from danb: I'm having trouble making an ounce of sense out of your post Olaf- what are you saying? End Quote

I think what Olaf is trying to say is that as soon as the word get out that we are now seeking these under $1000 steals, sellers will start increasing the prices so that they are no longer great deals.
March 19, 2012 09:40 AM
Quote from mandobassman: I think what Olaf is trying to say is that as soon as the word get out that we are now seeking these under $1000 steals, sellers will start increasing the prices so that they are no longer great deals. End Quote

I think it means he spent too much time in the sun at the beer garden yesterday.
Capt. E
March 19, 2012 11:10 AM
I have owned and played a number of the mandolins mentioned above. My first "good" mandolin was a "Shiro" A with ff holes made in the late 1970's (I am sure Shiro is another masthead used by Aria. The founder's name was Shiro Arai). The others I have owned under 1K that I would recommend are as follows: 1926 Martin Style B, a 1921 Gibson A (one of the first with a truss rod), a 1980's Mid-Missouri flat-top, a Flatiron flat-top and a '36/37 Gibson A-00 with carved back (sometimes mistakenly called an A-50). I still own the Shiro and the Gibson A-00 and play them often.
March 19, 2012 06:11 PM

Re: Great Vintage Mandolins Under $1,000

[QUOTE] Originally Posted by grassrootphilosopher

This place is being monitored by the mando mafia I guess.

Don't y'all feel a little scared by telling the truth? I, mean having a horse's head in your bed and all?

No more pac rim mandolins being sold for interesting prices in your local music store. A-50ies, A-75s, Army-Navy mandos, Martin A's, Kalamazoo's, (my favorite) Strad-O-Lin's etc. selling for an all time high ...

... I think this article needs to be deleted as fast as you can.

I don't know why, but the Dawg, Grandpa Banana, Stan Jay and Brad must have not taken my advice, when I had them over for tea... End Quote
I'm having trouble making an ounce of sense out of your post Olaf- what are you saying? End Quote

Thanks Mike,
that's the short of what I was rambling about.

To clarify...
When I started out on the mandolin my budget was low. Where I lived I might have been in the same situation the multitude of you are. There are not many musical stores that carry mandolins. Those that do mostly have the "usual" brands. At that time when I was looking for an instrument they were Samik, Aria, Kentucky (in that price increase order). I was not satisfied with what I saw, found and played. Like many I also play another instrument so I was not totally green. I researched about mandolins as well as I could in the pre internet days. I also had the good fortune to know a good store in Hamburg. That's where I finally went and I played/tried about all the instruments they had just to find out about each instrument's advantages and drawbacks. I wanted to know how they sounded. I tried low price semi acoustic Samiks, Kentucky A-s and F-s, a multitude of different vintage Gibson A-(jr, As, 4s; no 3s and no snakeheads), a Gibson Bill Monroe F-5 (highest price with about 10.000,- DM), a very nice A-5 style mandolin that was built by Mr. Richter, the owner of the shop and finally, allmost as an afterthought I inquired about the Strad-O-Lin brand. They had one mandolin, it sounded very good, it was structurally sound (straight neck, no fret issues, intonation okay, one seam seperation properly treated). It fell into my budget. It sounded the way I wanted a mandolin to sound for what I wanted to play (that's why I didn't buy a Gibson A...). I bought it for a reasonable price and I've had nothing but great compliments about it. It is still a very nice mandolin. I only bit the bullet for a "new" mandolin because years later I found a maker that at that time for a relatively reasonable price built a highly professional mandolin. My Strad-O-Lin and my "new" mandolin compare like apples and oranges. They both have a great sound. Yet they are noticably different. Under certain circumstances I would/could be perfectly happy with just my Strad-O-Lin.

This clarification about sums up what all the contributors said about inexpensive vintage mandolins.

I chose to include those in my previous comment that specifically mentioned Strad-O-Lin mandolins as Mike (savvy guy) has understood immediately. Otherwise my original statement intended to poke a little fun, overestimate the effect of this very well conducted interview and criticise those that don't check out vintage options.

Many a thread I've read where the mandolin novice has bought himself a ...(insert all the well known names here). Never was there a mention of what the mandolin should do for that person, what the music was that would be played on the mandolin, what the setting (practice, band, performance etc.) was that the mandolin would be used for etc. That was allways sad because it left out so much. I doubt if that poster would have ever found the best choice for what they could afford and for what they'd want the mandolin for.

Red Rector played bluegrass on an A-4 (I guess) paddlehead mandolin and it sounded great. I have a Mainers Mountaineers record where the mando picker plays a Strad-O-Lin (oh... not that brand again...), Mike Compton played an A (or Ajr) on the Down From The Mountain show (also played his then Gilchrist #500 I guess too), Buzz Busby was mentioned and he is a must listen, Niles Hokkanen played an F-4 (I guess) on his instruction tapes and they all sound great. This is just the bluegrass side.

When I picked up the Tone Poems I CD in 1994 I thought about it as a labor of love towards great sounding instruments (including the SS Steward Snow Queen - we're talking mandolins). I also thought about the effect the CD would have on the vintage market (and on marketing a Gilchrist mandolin). It (and its sequels as well as the Tone Poets CD) are great statements about what tone is all about. Never would you be able to say one instrument is better than the other. They all do what they were built to do and each instrument has its special place. Listening to recordings like Traversata by Beppe Gambetta and Carlo Aonzo even widens the perspective as it includes bowl back instruments.

I know people who each have several modern mandolins that cost up to 1.900,- USD each. They claim to be looking for the differences in the sound of these mandolins. Had the people I know invested in the mandolins that have been mentioned here, A-00, A-75, A-jr, A, A-3, Kalamazoo, Army Navy, vintage Washburn, Martin A, Epiphone etc. they really would have had a wide variety of sound choices (pun intended). The mandolins that they have though sound pretty much the same to me. What's more, they lack the musical spice that only a well played (vintage) instrument can have.

Closing out I'd like to express my wish that every aspiring mandolin player ought to read this interview whenever he's on the hunt for a new mandolin. It is very well that even those with a budget that could buy a new car think about these seemingly lesser instruments once in a while - as the contributors to this interview aparently do time and again. I don't expect the interview to be the turningpoint in the (musical) evaluation of inexpensive vintage instruments though (sigh).

And I wouldn't have minded having had the people that I mentioned over for tea.
Doug Ezell
March 19, 2012 10:00 PM
Just want to add my Kudos to Scott for getting these honorable players to comment on this subject. This is what makes the Mandolin Cafe the coolest site on the net!!
March 20, 2012 03:51 AM
Quote from mandobassman: I think what Olaf is trying to say is that as soon as the word get out that we are now seeking these under $1000 steals, sellers will start increasing the prices so that they are no longer great deals. End Quote

BINGO!! A great article, but: BINGO.

Wish I had known in time to stock up for resale. :( Aw well......................;)
March 20, 2012 04:07 AM
I was happy to contribute to the Vintage Mandolins Under $1K feature, but I left out one bargain since they don't come around THAT often, and I'd have had to 'cheat' a little. The early 20th c. carved instruments by Lyon & Healy were made in three styles and two scale lengths, (a short scale similar to a Martin bent top and a long scale, close to Gibson). Even the most modest, the Style C was built to a level of fit and finish quite comparable to Gibson's top of the line A-4 but with a sweet tone that is all their own. Observers of the vintage market will note that these instruments in good condition sell for well over our price limit, but over the years, many have lost THIS flashy feature:

The ornate and lovely L&H tailpiece cover, which on its own sells for $4-500 dollars. So there you have it! If you happen upon a Style C in good condition, MISSING its tailpiece cover and perhaps without its original hardshell case, you may well snag it for just under four figures (a short scale C just sold on ebay for $1400, WITH tailpiece cover and a low-end case). No one would call the L&H a traditional bluegrass beast, but if you've ever heard Norman Blake play his Style B, on his old Homespun instructional tape, you know how sweet they can be! They stand comfortably alongside the top of the Gibson line as the finest carved, oval hole mandolins of the great mandolin boom of the early 20th century.
Charles E.
March 20, 2012 06:30 AM
A case in point, NFI
March 21, 2012 08:55 AM
Great article.

NFI but check out what this fellow does with vintage parlor guitars.

He fixes them up and gets them ready as players even if it means replacing an original part or three.

Someone running a mandolin version would be cool.
March 21, 2012 09:11 PM
Scott, Thank you, Thank you, for such a great article that puts some balance into the search for that great instrument.

What makes this so wonderful is how you have collected such a group of "experts" who are willing to chime in and give us their opinions on under radar finds.
March 21, 2012 09:41 PM
I love opinions from people who know their stuff. This is a fine summation of what we all hear in the trenches; it is nice to see a consensus regarding the beautiful workhorses of the past 90 years. On the Cafe we are so very lucky -- thanks to all, Doug in Vermont
March 21, 2012 11:51 PM
Great article - lots of very useful suggestions and information, the closing contribution from Roger Siminoff in particular. This should be posted in a FAQ or sticky or something where everyone thinking of buying an old instrument can easily refer to it. I was fortunate to find a teens Gibson plain A (not A Jr) on ebay for about $900 with just a couple minor imperfections four years ago - fortunate not only because it's a good instrument but also because I took a leap of faith and didn't get burned. I have since learned how lucky I was. Having a check list like this in hand when someone goes to look at a potential purchase would be an invaluable resource. Now if only someone would produce something similar for cars ... ;)
May 22, 2012 06:55 AM
I found the article an excellent and informative read. I doubt that an article dealing with used instruments over $1000 would have quite the appeal.... Those with that kind of money to spend already have some knowledge and experience with mandolins and hopefully can make informed decisions from their knowledge base. The beginner, with three to five hundred dollars to spend can often get a very decent instrument. I wish I had seen an article like this before I made my first purchase. I purchased one new but i now think (know) I could have done better with a decent used mandolin.
May 22, 2012 10:51 AM
A classic piece. It will be linked often.

It is of the same caliber of usefullness as that other often linked article on Jazz Mando about the effects of pick shape and hardness on tone.

And of course Mike Marshall's video on how to hold the darned thing.

I espeically like the format of the article. Its really magazine style. I felt like I was reading an old copy of Mandolin World News, back when a magazine was the only way to create a community feeling. Now the internet has kind of changed all that, and the cafe here has always felt like more of ummmm.... a cafe, than a magazine. But that article goes in the magazine camp, along with the other interviews, and Bill Graham's excellent columns.

I never thought of myself as particularly old fashioned, but I do really like a magazine format. And actually, it adds to the whole cafe experience. Its the stack of magazines over there by the window that you pick up and read over coffee.

Good job. Great topic.
April 18, 2013 04:46 PM
I have an Elias Howe flatback mandolin. Made in Boston. excellent condition. I think it sounds great, but I don't see any reference to them on this thread. too few of them to comment on?
April 18, 2013 05:36 PM
Even though I have no experience with Howe instruments, I think that Grandpa Banana does ( And if they are as good as Strad-O-Lins they deserve a dedicated following (

Anyone that looks for something new better look out for something old.
March 22, 2015 05:51 PM
I was discussing this vintage Cafe article this afternoon, and I'd like to amend my recommendations to include, what I think is the single best deal in vintage mandolins today. It might run slightly over a grand, but then again, it might not. A vintage Lyon & Healy C model - MISSING ITS TAILPIECE COVER. This is #113, probably sold in 1919, with neatly truncated fingerboard and a finely made replacement pickguard in ebony rather than the 'vulcanized fibre' original. It's in the longer 'Gibson' scale, important to me, but not to everybody. In VG unmodified condition, probably worth about $2K, but they come up on ebay regularly with some wear, and if they're missing that fancy hard-to-find easy-to-lose tailpiece cover, you can knock off $500! And the instrument is every inch the equal of a teens Gibson A-4 in sound and build quality, and which will generally set you back about twice as much.

Mandolin Cafe
March 18, 2017 10:09 AM
Observing the five year anniversary of the publication of this feature. Only thing that has changed is that it's our opinion many of these vintage instruments can likely be purchased for less than when published. Not unusual for prices to go up and down, and they went way, way up for a few years before heading back down.
March 31, 2017 10:04 PM
Got my first Stradolin last year, a 1940 that was played in a little church up on the TN/NC line where snake handling was a regular part of the "service". It ain't signed by Loyd Loar but it sounds better than it should and has more mojo than it should as well.
Mandolin Cafe
March 18, 2018 07:40 AM
Noting the anniversary of this feature article. It was a lot of fun to put together. A lot has changed since 2012 so maybe it's time to do another!