Guitars

The Best Mandolins

Mandolin Closeup blurred

The mandolin is a quintessential part of any folk music group. Whether you’re new to folk music and want to start learning on a mandolin or more likely, you’ve played guitar for several years and would like to pick up something new, the amount of mandolin options available can seem overwhelming at first.

There are all sorts of styles, hole types, base materials, and construction techniques that will affect the mandolin you choose as well as prices ranging anywhere from $45 to $10,000+.

Throughout the several hours of research on this project, we sifted through upwards of 100 different mandolins and interviewed some of the top acoustic specialists across the country from music stores including Dave’s Guitar Shop, West Music, Chicago Music Exchange, Sweetwater, The Mando Shop, Folk Musician Instruments, Sam Ash Music Stores, The Guitar Center and The Mandolin Store.

After compiling all of the expertise opinions and reviews we received, we have narrowed down our top mandolin choice:

Top Pick: Eastman MD305 A-Style Mandolin

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Not only is the sound quality excellent, but the careful craftsmanship and the antique touched satin finish makes this mandolin aesthetically beautiful.

Before Purchasing Your First Mandolin

Picking the perfect mandolin is a bit like picking out a painting. Often the beauty and quality is in the eyes (or rather, ears) of the beholder.

There are a number of different styles that set certain mandolins apart aesthetically from others, and certain tone qualities that make one mandolin distinct from another, but the qualities that make a “perfect” mandolin will differ from one mandolin player’s opinion to another.

There are particular characteristics and features that are almost always present in the top rated mandolins. You want to buy the best mandolin you can afford that will meet your needs.

Anatomy of a Mandolin

If you want to find a good quality mandolin, there are certain components that you want to pay special attention to in order to get the best sound and durability.

Strings

The tuning pegs are mounted on the headstock, which is located at the top of the neck. The strings are held by the tuning pegs and connect all the way down to the anchor-point on the tailpiece.

Because the mandolin’s strings withstand 60-100 more pounds of pressure than a guitar, it is essential that the headstock, neck, tuning pegs and tailpiece are of top quality to ensure that your mandolin will hold up to regular use and will stay in tune for you.

Look for a mandolin that contains a metal truss rod in the neck, this will add strength and allow for adjustments in intonation.

Body

Another crucial aspect of mandolin anatomy is the body. The body consists of the top, sides and back. The top, or soundboard, has the primary role in producing the mandolin’s sound.

Some models may be flat, arched (similar to a violin) or even bowl-shaped. One of the most important characteristics to look for in the body of a mandolin is the material from which it is made.

Many of the cheaper mandolins will have a body constructed out of laminate. This is not necessarily inadequate, especially if you are buying a beginners mandolin, but a body made with solid wood makes the nicest sound and stays in tune longer.

If you are looking for a quality mandolin with optimal resonance, look for a model that boasts of a solid wood construction, preferably of spruce or maple.

Many of the other features of a mandolin that are advertised as unique from model to model are most likely adding simply to the aesthetic appeal of the instrument, not the sound. It may be a good idea to try out a number of different models, listening to the intonations and resonance of each specific mandolin, before making your decision on the best fit for you.

A-Style or F-Style

Two main styles of mandolins exist in the folk world: A-style and F-style. An A-style mandolin has a tear or oval shape to the body. Because the A-styles don’t have the fancy scrolls, points and other ornate traits found on the F-style, they are somewhat easier to build and are usually less costly to buy. A-style models are most popular with classical, folk and Celtic musicians.

F-style mandolins tend to be more popular than the A-styles, and as stated earlier, are usually more expensive because of the delicate body scroll and other embellished features.

Most F-style mandolins have a point on the lower side of the body that will have a very subtle influence on the tone, but can provide a convenient resting point on the seated musician’s leg. F-style mandolins are used most frequently among bluegrass, country and roots-music musicians.

When we asked the acoustic specialists what their opinion was on which style was best, almost all of them said that the style made very little difference on the sound quality of the instrument.

The inclination toward an A-style or F-style model rests mostly on aesthetic preference. Most of the models chosen as our top favorites are A-style because of their greater affordability, but almost all brands offer an F-style equivalent (or near equivalent) to the A-style version.

F-Hole or Oval-Hole

The F-hole or oval-hole distinction refers to the shape of the hole that releases the sound on the soundboard of the mandolin. A mandolin with an F-hole generally has two f-shaped holes on either side of the soundboard, and the oval-hole has one oval shaped hole located on the soundboard near the neck of the instrument.

Unlike the F-style vs. A-style distinction, the type of hole on a mandolin will affect the sound considerably. A mandolin with an oval-hole will have a warmer, richer and softer sound.

The oval-hole is generally used for classical or folk music, where quieter instrumentation, often paired with a solo singer, is preferred. An F-hole mandolin will produce a louder, brighter and punchier sound.

This style is used most often with bluegrass and other kinds of upbeat music where a mandolin that can produce more sound is needed.

The F-hole tends to be more popular amongst mandolin musicians. Most of the popular F-hole models have an oval-hole model equivalent for those interested in this more specialized sound.

The Troublesome Set-up

Many times, especially when ordered from larger companies, mandolins will arrive with the bridge and strings unattached. If it doesn’t say, “set-up included,” it’s probably not. Having a properly strung mandolin is crucial for correct sound and you want it done right.

If you would like to receive a ready-to-play mandolin, try calling around to local music stores to see if they include set-up with their purchases, many do. If you do purchase a mandolin that is not already set-up, you have two options.

You can either take it to a local music store to get it put together for you (this usually costs around $50-100), or you can try to do it yourself. Preparing a mandolin to play requires much more time and expertise than with a guitar.

According to one of the acoustic experts we talked to, setting up a mandolin usually takes him 45-60 minutes, and he’s a professional! If you would like to attempt to prepare your mandolin yourself, here is a helpful video to teach you how:

Mandolin Accessories

When figuring out your price point for your mandolin, don’t forget to think about the accessories you’ll need to care for your mandolin and enrich your playing. Here is a list of accessories to consider:

Mandolin Straps  These are essential if you ever plan to play standing up. There is a huge assortment of choices in color and material to suit your preferences.

Mandolin Capos – A capo clamps on the fretboard to allow you to increase the pitch of the mandolin and play songs in keys higher than the original key.

Case or Gig Bag –  This is important for protecting your mandolin from getting scratched or dented if you ever plan to take your mandolin on the road.

Pick Many players simply use guitar picks to play their mandolins, but you can also buy picks made specifically for mandolin strings.

Strings A fresh set of strings can rejuvenate the tone of a mandolin that seems to have lost its vitality with use. Strings are made using a diversity of materials, each suited to bring out different tonal qualities.

Try out different types and brands to find a set that works well with your mandolin. For more information on string selection, look here.

Tuner – Although many players tune their mandolins without a tuner, using a good-quality tuner will make the tuning process much easier. Some tuners even have a mode specifically designed to help tune mandolins.

The Competition

After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.

InstrumentRatingCurrent Pricing
The Eastman MD305
Antique touched satin finish makes this mandolin aesthetically beautiful$479.00
The Ibanez M510DVS
Good choice for someone who wants to keep costs down on their first mandolin$149.99
The Eastman MD505
Offers a mandolin with an appearance and sound of a high price-point instrument at a fraction of the price$699.00
Breedlove Crossover OF
Crossover is designed to make the adjustment a little easier with a string spacing that is similar to a guitar$499.00
The Loar LM400
Hand-carved construction of the solid maple back and sides with a spruce top finished with a nitrocellulose luster to the abalone/mother-of-pearl fern inlay in the headstock, this mandolin is a beauty$546.20
Ibanez M522S
Offers another great option for someone looking for an entry-level mandolin$299.99
Michael Kelly Legacy Dragonfly
Body made of solid maple and spruce with an attractive vintage finishOut of stock
Washburn M1K
Made with skilled craftsmanship and quality materials$189.00
Kentucky KM150
Excellent choice for someone looking for a beginner to intermediate mandolin that has quality sound and a beautiful finish$312.08

Our Top Recommendation: Eastman MD305

The Eastman MD305 is our top pick because it possesses the same top-notch quality found in much more expensive models, but is still available at an affordable price.

It’s the best bang for your buck if you are looking for a quality beginner to immediate mandolin. You can expect to pay anywhere from $450-500 for this instrument and it is fairly easy to find at most music stores and guitar shops.

The Eastman MD305 is an A-style mandolin with F-holes made of hand carved solid wood (maple back and sides and a spruce top). With a rosewood fingerboard and adjustable ebony bridge, this mandolin possesses the quality materials necessary to produce beautiful tones and exceptional projection.

Unlike most mandolins in this price range, each MD305 is individually handcrafted using traditional materials and “Old World” craftsmanship. It is unmatched in quality when compared to other entry-level guitars from other brands.

Not only is the sound quality superb in the Eastman MD305, but the careful craftsmanship and the antique touched satin finish makes this mandolin aesthetically beautiful as well.

As we talked with acoustic professionals, statements about Eastman’s quality and affordability kept coming up again and again. If you are looking for a top quality instrument at an entry-level price, the Eastman MD305 is your mandolin.

Best Budget Option: Ibanez M510DVS

If you are on a budget, but would still like to buy a quality mandolin, we recommend the Ibanez M510DVS.  is an A-style mandolin with F-holes and it sells for around $150.

It is constructed with solid wood (Mahogany back and sides with a spruce top), which allows for an elegant tone despite the inexpensive price. According to user reviews, at first the fret ends may be a bit sharp on the tops and they may need to be sanded down for comfort.

There are also many reviewers who complain about the stock strings sent in the original package. Most of these reviewers said that after they upgraded to better strings, such as D’Addario J73/74 lite, the tone improved. A few said that after taking the Ibanez M510DVS in for professional set-up, the sound was even further improved.

This is a good choice for someone who wants to keep costs down on their first mandolin, but would still like a real functional instrument that will carry them through the beginning stages of learning to play.

Other Mandolins to Consider:

The Eastman MD505

The Eastman MD505 is an A-style mandolin pricing in at around $700. It is the next step up from our top pick, the MD305, but is made with slightly better materials (nickel hardware, nitrocellulose topcoat and higher quality tuners).

As with the MD305, the MD505 offers a mandolin with an appearance and sound of a high price-point instrument at a fraction of the price. If you are past the beginner stage and can afford to buy a more advanced model, we recommend the MD505.

Breedlove Crossover OF

The Breedlove Crossover OF is designed for guitarists looking to learn mandolin. Because mandolin strings are often strung closer together than on an average guitar, switching to a mandolin can be a bit of an adjustment.

The Crossover is designed to make the adjustment a little easier with a string spacing that is similar to a guitar. The fretboard has a radius, which means it is slightly curved, making it even easier to play.

Costing you around $450, the Breedlove Crossover OF is a great affordable choice for a guitarist looking for a gateway into mandolins.

The Loar LM400

Credit: The Loar

The Loar LM400, pricing in at anywhere from $520.00-600.00, is a handcrafted A-model mandolin with a crisp warm tone and excellent projection.

From the hand-carved construction of the solid maple back and sides with a spruce top finished with a nitrocellulose luster to the abalone/mother-of-pearl fern inlay in the headstock, this mandolin is a beauty.

The Loar LM400 has a special way of “speaking clearly” through a mix of instruments while still maintaining a wonderfully soft tone. If you are looking a stunning mandolin beyond the beginner level, this model may be the right fit for you.

Ibanez M522S

Costing around $300, this extremely affordable F-style mandolin offers another great option for someone looking for an entry-level mandolin.

With its solid maple body and spruce top, the Ibanez M522S is the perfect instrument for a driving bluegrass solo as it provides rich, bold tones for the player. A high gloss finish, natural wood color and gold hardware make this mandolin an aesthetically appealing choice for on or off stage.

Although there aren’t any amazing features that really make this mandolin stand out among some of our other top picks, this mandolin has high reviews and is a good quality instrument for the price.

Michael Kelly Legacy Dragonfly

If aesthetic beauty is important to you and can afford a slightly higher price point at around $700, the Michael Kelly Legacy Dragonfly may be the mandolin for you.

This is a gorgeous F-style mandolin with a body made of solid maple and spruce with an attractive vintage finish.

The radiused fingerboard is designed to match the curvature of your hand making it easier for a beginner to play and has a stunning vine inlay made of genuine pearl and abalone spiraling up the neck of the instrument.

Legacy Dragonfly’s integrated one-piece tailpiece pulls out a nice ring and produces a very pleasant sound. The Michael Kelly Legacy Dragonfly would be a sound choice for a beginner or intermediate player seeking to add to their collection.

Washburn M1K

If you are brand new to the world of mandolins and want to try out an inexpensive model before making a bigger investment, the Washburn M1K may be a good choice for you.

Most online stores selling this mandolin sell it as a kit at between $150-200, including the M1K mandolin, gig bag, mandolin strap, picks, pitch pipe and an instructional booklet to give you everything you need to learn how to play this favorite folk instrument.

As expected with a lower priced instrument, the Washburn M1K lacks many of the features and quality of other higher priced mandolins.

There have been some complaints that the tuners are sub-par and the stock strings will most likely need to be replaced with better quality strings, but overall the M1K is made with skilled craftsmanship and quality materials. This mandolin would be an excellent choice for a beginning mandolin player.

Kentucky KM150

The Kentucky KM150 is another solid wood mandolin at an affordable price. At around $250-375, this instrument is an excellent choice for someone looking for a beginner to intermediate mandolin that has quality sound and a beautiful finish.

The KM150 is a great option for a bluegrass musician as it has a good crisp bark to it that will help you be heard in the midst of folk instruments.

With a rosewood fingerboard and a traditional snakehead-shaped peghead, the KM150 has an authentic appearance as well a pleasant shape that is very playable.

According to one reviewer, this mandolin is a great choice for someone who is willing to commit time to making the proper adjustments to make this instrument shine.

Sources
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