Original articles, lessons, plus the "best of the web" on Mandolin lessons, purchase and set up by Mandolin player/teacher Bruce Bernhart
Updated January 4, 2021
THE BERNHART MANDOLIN WEBPAGES OFFER BEGINNING INSTRUCTION, EXPLORE THE HISTORY OF THE MANDOLIN, BUYING AND BUILDING MANDOLINS, BASIC CHORD STRUCTURES, THE DIFFERENT STYLES OF PLAYING AND THE VARIOUS MAKES AND MODELS OF MANDOLINS AVAILABLE ON THE MARKET
When you are first starting out, my best advice is to purchase a very inexpensive mandolin. My very first mandolin, which I bought in Michigan in 1985, cost $75. It was made in China, and looked like it was made in China. But the fingerboard was straight, there were no cracks, and the tuning pegs worked well. That's about all you can expect from an instrument that costs less than $100. To me, it's a miracle they can even make them for so little. But you don't want to spent much more. I always give my students this rule of thumb: If you practice regularly and play for at least one year, then you can start looking for a better model. If you decide the mandolin is not for you, you'll be glad you didn't spent more.
Watch for out for super cheap mandolins on ebay that sell for less than $100. I usually recommend that you buy your first mando at a music store where you can take it off the shelf, play it, feel it, inspect it, and hear it for yourself.
Mandolins come in all kinds of different shapes: bowl-backs, flat-backs, A-style, F-style, flat-tops, electrics, 8-string, 4-string, 5-string, resonator, and so on, not to mention mandola's, mandocello's, and other mandolin-family cousins. The type of mandolin you choose will be determined mostly by the kind of music you want to play. The two most popular styles are the A models and the F models. The A models have a "teardrop" shape and the F models have the fancy scroll and one or two "points" around the main body of the instrument. "A" model mandolins are less expensive than their scroll-made counterparts. You'll find A-model mandolins in bluegrass, old-time, and Irish bands, and even in rock music . A-styles are usually fine-sounding mandolins. A models are often used when playing in ensembles, and F models are widely used in bluegrass music. Gibson alone made thousands of A model mandolins earlier in this century.
F-model mandolins often come with other features and benefits that add to their cost, including more pearl inlay, gold plated tuning pegs, etc. These models are at the top of the Gibson line. You'll find both oval-sound hole and f-hole versions, and a variety of finishes and materials used.
Most top bluegrass mandolinists use F-style instruments. These models command premium prices, the most sought-after being Gibson F-5s made between 1923 and 1924 under the supervision of renowned acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar, and bearing Loar's signature on their labels. The market for these models has generated quite a few contemporary F-styles, from outright replicas of vintage classics to stylized third-generation versions. A number of companies and private luthiers make fine F-models today. For a beginner, to choose an instrument that plays easily, sounds good to you, and is affordable.
Bernhart's tips on what to know about strings:
Modern strings are a miracle of technology. They are created to exacting specifications, including precise diameters. A brand new string of good quality should have uniform diameter, winding and plating thickness along its length. Change any of these factors and nasty overtones will, not surprisingly, creep in. This makes it more difficult to tune the string and provide good intonation all the way up the fretboard. Old strings can be virtually impossible to tune. The surface becomes pitted with corrosion, covered with grease deposits and worn flat through contact with the frets. There are two morals: change your strings regularly and rub them down with a cloth (cotton is good), on top and underneath. While you have the cloth under the strings, you should also pass it over the fretboard to remove sweat and grease which would otherwise cause fret corrosion or soak into the fingerboard.
Occasionally you may change a pair of strings and find it impossible to get the new ones to fret in unison. This is because of an imperfection in one of the strings which has somehow got past the manufacturer's quality control system. Maybe there is a variation in diameter or some plating is not quite uniform. Corrosion of the surface might be a factor in a string that has been stored for a long time in damp conditions. You can try replacing just one string to see if this solves the problem.
How often to change strings? Professionals change them every day, perhaps even more frequently. If you have the time and can afford to do so, follow their example. For an average amateur once every week or two would be ideal. Personally I leave it much too long between string changes! I'm usually prompted after a month or two by - of course - tuning problems, poor intonation and lack of volume and tone. When strings begin to look "pitted" in the area where you pick, that is a good indicator that is time to change your strings
A further problem is created for the users of two-piece bridges by the tendency of the saddle (the top bit) to tilt forward under string tension. This will obviously affect intonation (and maybe tone and volume), and needs to be corrected. Lower the string tension until you can tweak the saddle back to the vertical position by applying gentle pressure.
I don't recommend trying to tweak the saddle backwards under full string tension. For the amateur there is too much risk of the whole bridge slipping and causing damage to the top of the instrument. I've also seen a suggestion that you can tweak the saddle upright under full string tension by gripping it with a pair of pliers - rather you than me!
Pull backwards, but avoid any downward force on to the top of the instrument! The best time to make this adjustment is when you do a complete string change. Detune all the strings, but keep enough tension to hold the bridge in position. Change each string in turn, lightly tensioning them to keep the bridge in place. When you have changed all the strings, tweak the saddle into the upright position, tension the strings a bit further and pull the saddle back again. Keep repeating the process until there is too much string tension for you to be able to move the saddle easily. By this stage the saddle should be retaining its vertical orientation in any case.
See Page 2 for Bruce Bernhart's discussion of various wood types.
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