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
]Tone is a function of many factors, an important one being the builder's choice of materials in making a mandolin. The player's touch is at least as important: David Grisman's million-dollar right hand tremolo can coax warmth and depth out of even the chilliest, most shallow-sounding mandolin. However, if you're going to get the best mandolin value for your dollar, you should learn what woods are considered best for quality mandolin construction.
Most mandolin tops, or soundboards, are carved from spruce--a light yet very strong wood that is widely used for instrument soundboards (from guitars to grand pianos). The best luthiers carefully select soundboard wood according to its look, feel, cut, and sound--going so far as to tap-test each soundboard blank to judge its inherent resonance. I've often heard it said that close-grained spruce is preferable to wide-grained spruce, but in my own experience, neither seems to offer a big tone advantage. More important is the distinction between solid tops and laminated tops.
Laminated--or "plywood"--tops look like spruce, but aren't. Typically, a thin veneer of spruce forms the outer surface of a layered-wood "sandwich," with the core being a less-expensive wood, like certain grades of mahogany. The laminations, which usually have grain lines running at right angles to one another, make for a strong piece of composite wood, but not one that performs in the same way as does a solid piece of wood.
To tell whether a soundboard is solid or laminated, look carefully at the lip of an unbound sound hole. If the material is a laminate, you usually can spot the layers of the sandwich there.
You shouldn't pay a premium price for a mandolin with a laminated top. Laminated stock is cheaper than solid stock, and it's machine-pressed--rather than hand-carved--into shape. I've heard some very good-sounding mandolins that had laminated tops, but solid tops generally are considered to sound "better." If you're on a tight budget, though, there's no reason to avoid a laminated-top mandolin.
Some mandolins have solid tops that have been machine-pressed into shape. If made ell, they work fine; if not, they may fold up like a lawn chair. Pressed top mandolins of this kind include vintage instruments made by the Stradolin (out of business) company. You'll find a number of present-day Japanese and Korean laminated-top imports built with the same technique. Here again, a mandolin with a machine-pressed top commands a lower price than a mandolin with a hand-carved top.
Not all mandolins have arched soundboards. Some models, notably those made by the Flatiron Company, have flat soundboards, similar to the soundboards on flat-top guitars. They have a tone all their own, and many sound very good indeed. If you're considering a flat-top, look for soundboard wood that is quarter-sawn, rather than slab-sawn; in other words, the grain lines should be pretty much like neat, even pin-stripes, rather than the wide, wavy bands you'd probably find on a plank at your local lumber yard.
Luthiers sometimes use woods other than spruce in mandolin tops. Cedar is popular now with certain European builders, since good spruce is getting increasingly expensive and hard to find. Mahogany-top mandolins have been around for years.
While softer woods have been traditional for soundboards, certain hardwoods have long been the materials of choice for sides ("rims") and backs. Following the lead of classic violin design, the best mandolins usually have sides and backs of solid maple. That violin design was a good model: Many of the creations of early mandolin builders have survived seventy years or more of playing, attic storage, or both, to become the most sought-after mandolins around. Other woods sometimes used in place of maple include mahogany and koa.
In mandolins priced below $500.00 or so, you're more likely to find laminated sides and backs than you are to find solid wood. Likewise, the reasons are economic. Choice solid woods are less plentiful, and require more handwork. Because the top is the main resonating component of a mandolin, laminated backs and sides seem to have a less critical impact on an instrument's tone.
Necks may be made of mahogany or maple--usually two or more pieces laminated together, for extra rigidity. Here the lamination process is considered a hallmark of good construction, rather than a liability. By carefully opposing the grain lines of the neck pieces, a luthier produces a neck that is more warp- or twist-resistant than solid wood.
Most fretboards are either rosewood or ebony. Ebony is the harder and denser of the two materials, and usually is found on more expensive instruments. Sometimes rosewood is dyed black to resemble ebony (often a characteristic of less-expensive mandolins). Regardless, good rosewood is a perfectly acceptable fretboard material. It's been said by some players that the greater density of ebony makes for better overall tone in a mandolin. That may be a valid point. Remember, though, that the total package is what counts; you're not just buying a fretboard.
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