By Mandolin Cafe
March 18, 2012 - 11:15 am
"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.
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!
Photo credit: mandolinarchive.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Musician, collector, Monroe scholar
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
... 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.
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.
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: 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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