Which Mandolin is for you?
Choosing the right mandolin can be a surprisingly difficult decision. More than any other instrument we stock here at Gryphon, mandolins are built with wide variety of construction styles, each of which produces a distinctive tone. In general, each style is suitable for a particular type of music and a mandolin that is perfect for playing Irish fiddle tunes might not be the best instrument for playing classical music. To help you sort out the confusion, we asked a few of staff members their thoughts on the world of mandolins.
How to Choose a Mandolin
Tom Culbertson says: Here in America, the mandolin is usually associated with bluegrass music. Gibson’s F-5-style, with its elegant body shape, carved top and back, distinctive f-shaped soundholes and powerful projection has become the template for the bulk of the mandolins made in the past 50 years in the US. It is the style that comes to mind for most folks when they think of the mandolin and builders like Collings, Eastman and Kentucky all build fine mandolins in the F-5 style. By comparison, the F-5’s ancestor, the Italian bowlback, is almost extinct here in the US. But this delicate sounding mandolin has been used for centuries for classical, popular and folk music and is still commonly used in Europe. We usually have a vintage bowlback or two in stock.
In the last few years players have been experimenting with other mandolin styles. Musicians who play Celtic or other British Isles styles like instruments with a flat top and back, a construction style that produces a warm, mellow tone with more sustain. Red Valley makes some fine instruments in this style. Jazz players and old-time musicians seem to be drawn to mandolins with a carved top and back but with an oval soundhole. This style of construction produces a sweeter, mellower tone than a carved top f-hole style mandolin, but its still has lots of volume and projection. For years the only way to get a mandolin like this was to get a vintage Gibson, but Collings, Northfield and Eastman are making excellent modern versions. Additionally the mandolin’s big brother the mandola has a small but loyal following and it has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few years. Nowadays you can find a number of builders making them again.
|Bowl Back||Flat-back||A-Style, Oval Hole||F-Style, Oval Hole||F-5 Style||Flattop|
Paul Jacobs says: Bill Monroe didn’t want to play mandolin as a child but when his older brothers were given the choice of which instruments to learn, they picked the fiddle and the guitar leaving young Bill the little eight-string instrument. Happily for us, he took to the mandolin and used it to create what we now know as bluegrass. Starting in the 1940s, Bill Monroe took mandolin playing to a new level of melodic virtuosity, using the distintive tone of his Gibson F-5 to set the pace for his band the Blue Grass Boys. Interestingly, the Stanley Brothers, near contemporaries of Monroe, tended not use a mandolin, giving Bill’s band a unique sound that inspires mandolin players to this day. What did Bill play? Well, prior to 1941, he played a Gibson F-7 though he got his iconic F-5 with f-holes from a barbershop, and that was that—this is the instrument that became iconic and hand in hand with bluegrass.
Jack Tuttle says: Historically, bluegrass players have played F-5-style, f-hole mandolins, based on the Gibson design from the 1920s. These mandolins had a slightly longer scale length and more frets to the body, allowing a punchier sound and more up-the-neck playability. The last thirty year have seen these features incorporated more and more in the A style mandolins, retaining the longer scale and the F holes, resulting in a less costly design, but similar sonic and playability features. If you love the traditional bluegrass look of an F style, that’s reason enough to go with that style, but if you want the most sound per dollar, the modern A models are your best bet. Look for volume, a chord chop that has a strong bark, and strong frequency response in the low end of the spectrum, especially on the high E string.
Mandolin History Books: