September 23, 2007

How To Select A Mandolin

By: Rom Messenger The mandolin is an eight stringed instrument that is tuned like a violin. So there are four notes, meaning that two strings of each note are tuned the same, similar to a twelve string guitar. The mandolin is popular, actually pivotal in the bluegrass genre of music. You may find mandolins rarely in classical orchestral music ensembles, probably more in baroque type chamber music, and widely used in many ethnic musical orchestras. There are even orchestras made up completely of mandolins. Pretty intense if you are new to the sound of mandolin music. There are actually two distinct styles of mandolins. The first being the "A" style. This style has either a round sound hole like a guitar or two F holes like a violin. The older models have a rounded back and a round sound hole. These were the first mandolins and the bluegrass folk call these 'tater bugs'. The later versions called the "F" style were invented much later on. The type of music played on the mandolin usually determines the style of instrument one selects. It is recommended that you select an inexpensive instrument when beginning lessons for the first time. As you progress with your playing you will develop an 'ear' for the instruments nuances. For example, you will eventually know in an instant when a string is even slightly out of tune. Until you progress to this level it would not be wise to buy an expensive instrument. Buying a mandolin by brand name and style alone is probably not a great idea. Though there are many reputable manufacturers, and many very popular brands, each instrument is unique. I have a recording of eight of the greatest bluegrass contemporaries all playing the same style mandolin, a Gibson F five all made in the same year, 1937. This was supposed to be a phenomenal instrument, the one that the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Munroe, utilized. As I listened to the recording, I heard a range of good and not so good musical qualities from the various instruments. This surprised me, as I thought a Gibson F five was the crème de le crème of mandolins. The truth is that the look and style of the great ones may be consistent, but the quality of the sound produced can vary significantly. So very many factors can affect the sound of an instrument from the nut, to the bridge, to the tail piece, to the strings, to the amount of humidity in the wood when it was made even the type of pick used. Most mandolins have spruce tops, and any of a variety of woods for the backs and sides. Rosewoods, Maples, Mahoganies, etc. The same woods are used in making guitars generally speaking. It is believed that certain woods produce certain sound qualities, from deep rich tones to sweeter highs and so on and so on. The very truth is that two mandolins manufactured one after the other using the same wood and all other variables the same, will likely not have identical sound. If you are going to spend a significant amount of money on a really fine instrument, I recommend that you play the very instrument that you will be purchasing. Whether it is an old turn of the century antique, or one fresh from the luthier, it will be played by you and only you can identify the acoustic qualities that make your instrument sound the way you think it should sound. If you are purchasing an instrument new from the manufacturer, I advise you to have an expert 'set up' the instrument for you. That is to have it aligned, cleaned up, have all the frets leveled, etc., to make the instrument playable. You will notice a big difference in the ease of producing quality music. This same method would be appropriate for guitar, violin, and any of a multitude of acoustic instruments. About the Author: Rom R. Messenger is an acoustic music aficianado and a bluegrass enthusiast. He plays the mandolin and owns Rhys Enterprises. Rom also owns and operates the web site Acoustic Holler, dedicated to 'hand made ' music. Visit his site at

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