What’s in the glass case this week?
Well, mandolins mostly, as you can see. That’s what’s in the glass case this week. And some fine ones at that! We’re currently stocking mandolins from Eastman, Northfield, Kentucky, Trinity College and a newcomer to the scene: Rover mandolins.
The resurgent popularity of bluegrass music has seen many builders cater to traditional tastes in instrument aesthetics. These days, every maker is doing their take on the mother of all mandolins, the Lloyd Loar era Gibson F5.
Due to the complexity of building such an instrument, there is a great disparity in cost, chiefly dependent on where it’s made. The labour component of building an all solid, carved-top F5 mandolin is significant. If you’re not looking to drop $5k+ on a boutique handmade instrument, you’ll certainly want to check out some of the mandolins that Eastman, Saga and Northfield are doing right now.
For someone new to bluegrass music or the mandolin, you can do a lot worse than an Eastman MD515. With an updated tailpiece that is less prone to unpleasant overtones, this mandolin has volume and projection in abundance. It has an absurdly good tone for the price.
One thing that’s great about Eastmans in particular, is the quality of the setup straight out of the factory. The intonation is good from the get go. The nut height is spot on and the bridge is compensated accurately. It’s often the case that a competently made instrument is let down by a poor setup. Not the case with Eastman mandolins. Their pedigree in classical instruments really shines through here.
Eastman also makes higher end instruments that improve on tone, playability and aesthetic as you move up the line. They all have a characteristic Eastman sound, one which is discernible when you’ve played a few of them. The construction of these instruments closely matches golden era mandolins of the 1920’s. As such, they can be expected to age well and mature in tone.
Saga Family Instruments
Saga is the parent company of Kentucky, Rover and Trinity College. The Trinity College marque caters to the Celtic side of mandolins and bouzoukis. Predictably, Kentucky and Rover are all about American style instruments.
What’s truly impressive about what Kentucky is currently doing, is their faithfulness of designs, paired with great quality tonewoods. The KM-1500 for instance, might be one of the better Chinese made F5’s. One that on tone alone, you can bring along to any bluegrass jam with absolute confidence. It will stand up to much more expensive instruments. And at the more affordable end of the spectrum, the Kentucky KM-250 is a seriously good option to begin the journey.
The Trinity College brand is concerned with Celtic style mandolins and bouzoukis. These differentiate themselves from the American styles in tone and aesthetic. They generally favour oval holes over f-holes, a design choice that is a significant factor in the tone and acoustic behaviour of the instrument. Trinity College mandolas, mandolins and bouzoukis are an excellent choice.
This Trinity College TM-275 mandola for instance, retains the fifths tuning of the mandolin, but down a fifth to C, CGDA. If you’ve never experienced this tuning before, it’s a whole world of fun. Mandolin players usually find they enjoy the experience of playing a new instrument when they are already familiar with the chord shapes in the left hand.
Rover is a new marque in the Saga family, chiefly catering towards bluegrass musicians. The slogan ‘it barks, it bites’ features prominently on the makers sticker inside the instrument. If you like classic early bluegrass from folks like Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield or Herschel Sizemore, a Rover might be an excellent first mandolin. Either for yourself or even as a gift for a relative to get them enthused about playing. It doesn’t take much to spark a flame sometimes, and if it gets the fire burning, it can only be a good thing.
Take the Rover RM-50 Mandolin for instance: for $500 you get a nice sounding, perfectly serviceable A style instrument that doesn’t break the bank.
While these mandolins are entry level and priced accordingly, they’re a significant cut above some other budget offerings you’ll find in music stores around Melbourne. That’s why we stock them. So make sure you pick one up when you’re next in store!
Saving the best to last, Northfields are game changers insofar as serious mandolins go. Built and finished in Qingdao, they’re setup and shipped from Michigan, US. These guys are making professional level instruments at an extraordinarily low price point. You get a ‘hybrid’ spirit varnish, and the highest quality traditional tonewoods. At the same time, you get a professional standard tone, while saving a huge amount of money.
Taking advantage of the craftsmanship and talents of builders in two continents, Northfield is a truly modern company challenging ingrained attitudes towards instruments made in China. Their flagship model, the ‘Big Mon’ F5 is truly a sight to behold, and takes its rightful place amongst the Gibsons and Collings, Dudenbostels and what have you.
Have a look at some of their videos demonstrating this instrument’s potential in a musical setting.
But if bluegrass isn’t really your thing, Northfield has an interesting offering in the ‘Calhoun’ model, one of the few mandolins they make that’s entirely assembled in Michigan. The workmanship on this model is no less immaculate than on the Big Mon, and with its’s oval hole, has a versatile and round tone. It might be their affordable model, but all the components, namely the bridge, tailpiece and tuners, are top shelf.
The ‘G run’
If you’re looking to buy a new mandolin, the competitive market for manufacturing these instruments has really benefited the consumer in recent years. Do your research. But most of all, to see what’s in the glass, drop into the Guitar Gallery, play the instruments, and decide for yourself. Let your ear decide!
by Tom Kendall for the Guitar Gallery