If you are looking to buy a mandolin, we hope this guide will help you choose the right one for you. There are different styles and types of mandolins designed for different styles of music and we will cover that here.
Today, there are two basic styles of mandolin: A-style and F-style. The two are similar in tone, but F-style has a decorative scroll along the top of the bowl, and typically lends more to country or bluegrass music styles.
This is a very common style of mandolin that has been around since the instrument itself was invented. The “A” refers to the tear- or pear-shaped body that evolved from styles in the early 1900s. A-style mandolins today look similar to guitars in their profile. They tend to be easier to build than F-styles, since they are less decorative and more simplistic in design, which leads to a lower price point.
A-style mandolins are popular among classical players, as well as folk and Celtic musicians. They are a good choice for anyone just starting out on the mandolin, since they are less expensive.
The F-style mandolin was developed by Gibson in the early 1900s as top of the line mandolin models. He also invented the flatback. F-style mandolins feature fancy body scrollwork in the shape of a curlycue on the bass side of the neck, and other lavish embellishments. They tend to have two f-holes like a violin or a single oval sound hole.
These mandolins will typically have curly points on the lower side of the body, and these changes in shape affect the tone as well as increasing volume inside the chamber. This design feature also provides a spot for the instrument to rest upon the player’s thigh, when seated. These extra bits of aesthetic and functional design make for a higher price point.
The F-style is also known as the Florentine style. It is favoured amongst bluegrass, country and roots musicians.
The bowl-back is a very old-fashioned style of mandolin, resembling early Italian lutes, the shape of which inspired the invention of the early models of mandolin. These may also be referred to as Neapolitan mandolins, since they are so similar to the Italian/Naples mandolins played in the Middle Ages and Renaissance period. The deep bowl makes for much deeper, rounder tones than the flatback styles. You will see this style portrayed in films and television as a caricature/stereotype of mandolin. It is a lute-violin hybrid, and is less commonly found these days.
The bowl-back is less common to find, and may come with a higher price tag. You can sometimes find vintage models on the internet. Many players find them less practical for playing, though the deep bowl makes for a very nice tonal resonance.
Mandolin tops/soundboards are usually carved from spruce wood. Wood has just as much effect on tone as does the player’s touch and the shape of the bowl. Selections of wood are selected according to look, feel and sound. It is more common these days to find mahogany-top mandolins. They have been around for years but spruce is becoming more and more expensive.
If you are looking for a flatboard mandolin, make sure to check for pinstrip wood grain, rather than wider grain. This will indicate the wood is quarter-sawn.
Softer woods are used for the soundboards while hardwoods are typically used for the sides/rims and backs. In the way of classic violin design, the sides and backs of mandolins are solid maple.
Anything under the $500 is typically made of laminated wood, which is a material that looks like spruce, but isn’t. It is typically comprised of a thin layer of spruce on the outer surface, layered atop a less-expensive wood core, like mahogany. This makes for a strong piece of composite wood but of course does not perform in the same way as a solid piece of wood.
You can usually tell if the wood is solid or sandwich/laminate by looking at the opening of the sound hole. You will be able to spot the layers if it is laminate. This wood is machine-pressed into shape rather than being hand-carved.
The necks will be made of mahogany or maple, with two or more pieces laminated together for rigidity. In fact this style can be stronger than solid wood, when the maker carefully opposes the grain lines. This will result in a warp-resistant neck.
Fretboards on a less expensive mandolin may be composed of rosewood, or rosewood dyed to resemble ebony. More expensive mandolins will have an ebony fretboard, as this wood is denser. The higher density makes for a better overall one.
If you are just starting out, and looking for a mandolin to buy, a decent model will run about $300. The lowest price point is around $200, but $300 will get you a nice mandolin made of laminated wood.