The mandolin is a beautiful instrument, originally from Italy. It is similar to a guitar or banjo, in that it is a fretted string instrument that is typically plucked with the fingers or a pick. Most versions have eight or four strings, though 10 and 12 string versions also exist.
They are about the size of a violin, though played more like a guitar. It has a soprano-like sound, though there are versions that exist with lower pitches such as the mandola or the octave mandolin.
With its range of uses in a variety of musical styles and its relatively low learning curve, it’s no wonder these instruments are seeing a resurgence in popularity. If you want to learn to play the mandolin, learning about the various types as well as recommended brands is the best place to start.
The Various Body Styles of Mandolin
There are several different body styles available. Three of the most common are the Neapolitan or round-backed mandolin, the carved-top or arched mandolin, and the flat-baked mandolin. Each style has its own unique sound and is typically used with a slightly different style of music.
Arched, arch top or carved top mandolins are the most popular. They are designed with bent ribs, with the top and back carved into an arch. These types of mandolins can be further divided into two different styles. The first is the “A” style, which is shaped like a teardrop and have a robust sound.
They are commonly used in bluegrass, old-timey, and Celtic music. There are mainly two kinds of models present, “F Style” and “A Style”: The “F” models are the other type, which is a bit fancier looking and heavier than the “A” style. They have a deeper, more broken up sound. F models are frequently used in jazz.
Flat mandolins share a few decorative elements with F models but have a look that is quite unique. Many jazz players enjoy using flat models because they produce a slightly deeper tone and look unlike any other instrument on stage.
Rounded-backed, Neapolitan, or bowl back mandolins are the types people commonly see used in television and movies. They are one of the earliest designs, which is why they look more like a lute than modern-day mandolins. While classical mandolin players prefer these to the other models, most modern musicians rarely use them.
Mandolin Composition and Output
Once you have selected your body style, you need to decide if you want an electric or acoustic one. You also need to choose a material. Most high-quality mandolins are made from wood, with cheaper models constructed from plastics or artificial wood.
Thankfully, it is possible to find cheap and affordable mandolins for beginners made from wood or laminate. Higher priced brands are usually made from spruce, maple, and ebony, with less pricey versions being made with mahogany or cedar. These materials give the instrument a bit of a deeper tone, but it is not typically noticeable to beginners.
When deciding between an electric or an acoustic mandolin, its intended use should guide your choice. Start by asking yourself questions about the type of music you want to play, whether you intend to play alone or with a group, and what your sound amplification needs may be.
If you have just decided to learn to play the mandolin and intend to practice on your own most of the time, an acoustic model should suit your needs. However, if you intend to play as part of a band, an electric version is ideal, as you can plug it right into an amplifier without worrying about microphone feedback.
There are ways to convert your acoustic mandolin into an electric one if your needs happen to change. For example, you can always replace your bridge with one containing an electric pick up. Alternatively, you can use a magnetic pickup, similar to those utilized by violin players.
It is possible to play an electric mandolin without plugging it in, though the type of sound the instrument produces is slightly different than that of an acoustic. If you anticipate having a need to play the instrument in both settings, you may want to invest in an acoustic/electric model, which gives you the flexibility to use whichever option works best for you at any given moment.
Mandolins range in price. Some of the best beginner mandolins are available for less than $100. These tend to be made with cheaper materials and may not have the same rich aesthetic appeal of a more expensive version, but if you are searching for a beginner instrument to give it a try, they are your best bet.
As you pick higher-quality materials and parts, the price of the instrument can increase. Mandolins made with the best materials and have a stunning, handcrafted design can easily cost you $10,000 or more.
Midrange prices vary depending on the style, model, and type you decide to buy. Before you come home with one, make sure you take the time to try a few out or at least listen to the options you are thinking of purchasing through sound clips or on YouTube. This gives you a good sense of the type of sound you are investing in.
Recommended Mandolin Brands
There are numerous Mandolin makers on the market, with more emerging every day as the instrument gains popularity. Trying to determine which is the best mandolin for the money can be difficult, especially for beginners. The following brands are highly recommended and have mandolins across a few different price ranges.
#1 Rogue Mandolins
User reviews for rogue mandolins consistently call them the best beginner mandolin for those just learning how to play. They are quite inexpensive, making them the ideal brand if you are uncertain about your level of interest. These instruments routinely cost less than $100. Replacing their strings is also relatively inexpensive.
The following are widely considered to be the best rogue mandolins in 2018:
Rogue RM-100A A-Style Mandolin Sunburst
A lightweight mandolin, making it perfect for those who travel or who want to play for extended lengths of time. The materials are a combination of wood and laminate, with chrome plated turners, providing excellent resonance and tension.
Rogue RM-100F F-Style Mandolin
Since this is an F-Style, it is constructed slightly differently from the A-style, making it a bit more expensive. Among F-Style mandolins, however, it is quite affordable. The extended neck allows for a higher range of available notes.
#2 Loar Mandolins
Loar’s mandolins are all handcrafted, with a tried and true vintage design. They have an amazing sound, chopping well and designed for easy strumming.
The best Loar mandolins of 2018 include:
Loar LM-520-VS Performer F-Style
Thanks to its rounded V-profile, this mandolin gives its players a wide range of tones. It also features a high-gloss, vintage look, making it as attractive as it is easily played.
Loar LM-170 Hand-Carved A-Style Mandolin
This mandolin is designed beautifully, with player comfort in mind. Its neck is designed to fit into a player’s hands comfortably, allowing for easy strumming.
#3 Kentucky Mandolins
Kentucky makes low to mid-range priced mandolins, ideal for beginners and professionals alike. The wood used is thick, giving them a rich sound. In addition, each model has a classic, simple design, appealing to almost anyone’s tastes.
Among the best Kentucky mandolins of 2018 are the following:
Kentucky KM-140 A-Style Mandolin
These mandolins are durable, with a plain yet strong construction. They have great tone quality and are relatively easy to play, making them a great mid-range priced mandolin for beginners.
Kentucky KM-252 Artist A-Style Mandolin
This is another mandolin with a simple design yet a great sound output. It too has a solid spruce top, with a maple back. This particular version is perfect for Celtic and traditional music.
#4 Washburn Mandolins
Washburn is famous for manufacturing high-quality guitars, and they bring the same level of passion and craftsmanship to mandolins. They focus on fine craftsmanship as well as superior sound. As a result, many of their models are in the higher price range. However, they do have numerous mandolins that are perfect for beginners and professionals alike.
The following are a few of the best Washburn mandolins of 2018:
Washburn M1S A-Style
This is an incredibly popular mandolin due to its high-quality craftsmanship and excellent value. Constructed with a spruce top and maple sides, it was built to deliver the best possible sound for the best possible price.
If you want something that is perfect for beginners but can carry them through as them improve, this is the best mandolin for your money.
Washburn M108SWK F-Style Mandolin
This mandolin was made with the intermediate player in mind. It is an electric F-style, with volume controls and a free gig bag. It has a beautiful design and is still relatively inexpensive among other well-crafted, electric mandolins.
#5 Ibanez Mandolins
Ibanez are beautifully crafted, with spruce tops and mahogany bodies. They produce a crisp, clear sound, without being a major investment. Ibanez mandolins are very well-constructed, providing a consistently good sound for a long time.
The best Ibanez mandolins of 2018 are generally considered to be:
Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin
With a unique dark color, this is one of the few beginner models that offers a lot of style in addition to affordability. It also projects sound beautifully, thanks to its solid spruce top.
Ibanez M522 F-Style Mandolin
This is another beautifully designed mandolin geared towards those just learning how to play. Its rich tone and volume, along with its vintage-inspired design make it one of the best mandolins for the money.
#6 Michael Kelly Mandolins
Michael Kelly is another maker that appeals to professionals and beginners alike, offering high-quality and aesthetically pleasing products. Most of their designs are well-suited for Celtic music, though they do have a few models that budding jazz musicians could also enjoy.
A few of the best 2018 Michael Kelly mandolins include:
Michael Kelly MKLDFAVS Legacy Dragonfly Flame Mandolin
With a price tag of $699.99, this mandolin may not be the cheapest on the list but it is often called the best mandolin for your money. It contains the rich sound the brand is known for, along with superior craftsmanship.
Michael Kelly MKASOLIDTBS A-Solid
This is a stunning mandolin, crafted with spruce and maple for a beautiful tone. It has an upgraded design, meant to reduce rattle and make string changes faster, easier, and more seamless.
#7 Savannah Mandolins
Buyers who want a mandolin with a rustic look, but a rich sound know to start with Savannah. In addition to the vintage appeal, the brand is also well known for its fantastic sound.
Two of the best Savannah mandolins of 2018 are:
Savannah SA-100 Mandolin
This mandolin has an elegant design, featuring a hard Maple beck and a rosewood fretboard. The tuning mechanisms are made from chrome, which is ideal for precise and quick tuning.
Savannah SA-100-BK A-Model Mandolin
One of the nicest features of this mandolin is its adjustable compensated bridge, giving players excellent frequency response. The fingerboard also improves playability, with dot inlays leading to accurate fingering.
#8 Morgan Monroe Mandolins
Morgan Monroe specializes in designing unique and elegant mandolins that are unlike any others you can find. Buyers who want something with a few more features than the basic models but still want to find something affordable are typically drawn to Morgan Monroe.
A few of the best Morgan Monroe mandolins of 2018 are:
Morgan Monroe RT-FM1 Rocky Top F-Style
This is an inexpensive mandolin with a lot of features. Its truss is adjustable, so you can set up the neck to your individual preferences. The style is stunning, with a rosewood fretboard and nickel silver frets. It has a unique still and an impressive sound.
Morgan Monroe RT-M1 A-Style Mandolin
This mandolin has a stunning appearance, with rosewood, basswood, and a high gloss finish. It has also been designed for easy tuning, minimal fret noise, and a rich, deep sound.
Over to you
If you are looking for an interesting yet beautiful instrument to learn, either as a profession or a hobby, the mandolin might be for you. It is a stunning lute-like member of the string family, with frets and a short neck, making it easy to learn.
Learning more about the instrument can help you find a good beginner mandolin, to kickstart your career or a new hobby. Take a look at guide above to help you find the perfect mandolin for you.