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Looking for a great mandolin?
In this guide, we look at everything from beginner and intermediate models all the way up to solid, premium options built for professionals.
Because a beginner instrument isn’t necessarily one that’s “cheap”.
Cheap instruments don’t always sound good or play well.
But if it sounds good and plays well, you’re more likely to enjoy playing the instrument.
And, that leads to you improving as a player.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you what mandolin you buy, but here we’ll be covering 20 at various price points, so there’s plenty to choose from.
Here we go.
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Best Quality Mandolins / Premium Options (Professional Quality)
Because mandolins don’t sell as well as guitars and basses, their manufacturing costs are considerably higher.
If you’re familiar with how guitars or basses are priced, and you try to apply that logic to mandolins, you’ll be in for a bit of a surprise.
The cost of a mandolin can be up to three times higher, which means if you’re doing a straight comparison, a mandolin that costs $1,800 would be equivalent to a $600 guitar.
A straight comparison isn’t always fair, but the point is that mandolins can cost more because they don’t have the benefit of economy of scale.
With that in mind, budget options are still about as cheap as guitars are.
In this guide, we’re going to start by looking at premium options, which may be out of reach for some.
These are certainly quality instruments, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll want to budget for one in this price range.
But until you know for sure you’re committed to mandolin over the long haul, we recommend checking out the intermediate and budget options listed below.
With that, let’s look at some great quality instruments.
Kentucky KM-1050 Master F-Model Mandolin
The Kentucky KM-1050 features a solid hand-carved Adirondack spruce top, solid carved flamed Michigan maple back and sides, slim one-piece flamed maple neck, radiused premium ebony fingerboard and high-gloss lacquer finish.
This master-level mandolin offers plenty of clarity and warmth, giving it a smooth and pleasant tone.
Quality woods are used in every part of its construction and customers have nothing but good things to say about this high-quality, traditional mandolin.
We don’t recommend picking up a Saga Music mandolin unless you’re a serious player with a big budget, but we can recommend this one to any mandolin player dedicated to its mastery.
Eastman MD515 F-Style Mandolin
The Eastman MD515 features all hand-carved solid aged tonewoods, including solid flamed maple back and sides and aged solid spruce top complete with a gloss lacquer finish.
It also comes with a top and neck bound maple neck with dot-inlaid ebony fingerboard, adjustable ebony bridge, heavy cast tailpiece, Schaller tuners, nickel fittings and a nylon fabric covered wood shell case with velour type interior and a suspension system.
The beautiful-looking MD515 offers plenty of projection and clarity and it’s awesome for chop, too.
For a premium level option, the Eastman is relatively affordable, which is a big plus.
Honestly, this might be a steal of a deal.
Kentucky KM-1000B Master F Model Mandolin
The Kentucky KM-1000B comes with solid hand-carved graduated select red spruce top, solid flat sawn hand-carved select Michigan flame maple back and sides, one piece maple neck with dovetail neck joint and ebony fingerboard.
It also features Ivoroid binding on all edges, rosewood peghead overlay with Kentucky script and original design Flower Pot inlaid in pearl, vintage style ebony bridge, highly polished nickel silver frets, silver plated engraved tailpiece, nickel plated Gotoh tuners and more.
Again, we find the KM1000B offers great clarity and projection.
The only difference between the KM-1000 and KM-1000B, by the way, appears to be the finish.
This master level violin is about two-thirds the cost of the KM-1050 we introduced, earlier and that might make it attractive to some advanced players.
The Loar LM-600E-VS Professional Series F-Style Mandolin
The Loar LM-600E-VS features a solid hand-carved spruce top, solid hand-carved figured maple back and sides, Fishman Nashville M-300 mandolin bridge pickup, figured maple neck with rounded “V” profile and hand-buffed Nitrocellulose lacquer sunburst finish.
Like the Eastman, this is a premium level mandolin that doesn’t carry the high price of one.
The LM-600E-VS offers plenty of cut, great intonation and good projection.
Customers also love The Loar, and we don’t think you can go wrong here.
The Loar LM-700-VS Supreme F-Style Mandolin
Here’s another Loar mandolin in a similar price range with comparable features.
The LM-700-VS comes with solid hand-carved fully graduated AAA spruce top, solid hand-carved flame maple back and sides, one-piece maple neck with rounded “V” profile, bound ebony fretboard and hand-buffed Nitrocellulose lacquer sunburst finish.
This is another great sounding mandolin, perhaps with a little less cut and headroom than the LM-600-VS.
Yet, the two are still quite a bit alike, and this is the top of the line Loar instrument.
Loved by customers, at the advanced level, this mandolin is worth considering.
Gold Tone GM-70 F-Style Mandolin
The Gold Tone GM-70 comes with a carved solid spruce top, solid maple back and sides, maple neck, ebony fingerboard, gold-plated hardware, Abalone inlay and a gloss finish.
Each GM-70 mandolin undergoes a complete setup at the factory, so you know it’s great out of the box.
This mandolin offers a traditional bluegrass punch, playful highs and good chop.
Most customers love the Gold Tone, though some claim this is a glorified entry model with too much twang.
You can be the judge.
Best Midrange Mandolins For Beginners And Intermediate Mandolinists
If you can afford an intermediate instrument, we often find it to be one of the best options for beginners.
These instruments sound good, play nice and can even last you a long time.
A master level instrument would do the same, of course, but it’s hard to appreciate the nuances of a higher priced mandolin if you haven’t been playing for a long time.
So, here are some solid mandolins at a more attractive price point.
Gold Tone Rigel GM-110 Mandolin
The somewhat unusual looking Gold Tone Rigel GM-110 mandolin comes with a maple neck and truss rod, solid spruce top, solid maple back and sides and an ebony fingerboard.
Although this is an acoustic-electric instrument, there are no volume or tone controls, so take note.
The larger body size naturally gives this instrument more body and warmth overall.
Of course, it could take some getting used to, especially if you’re used to playing on a standard sized mandolin.
With this product, some customers have complained about issues with the finish, but if you notice anything unusual out of the box, we suggest sending back the product for a replacement.
The Gold Tone may not be for everyone, but we think it’s a cool instrument with a more well-rounded tone.
Seagull S8 Mandolin
Another odd-looking instrument, the Canadian-made Seagull S8 features a solid spruce top, maple back and sides, maple neck and a semi-gloss finish.
This mandolin offers plenty of high-end sparkle and a balanced tone overall.
It’s a great instrument for the price and could easily become a practice and performance workhorse.
If you’re not afraid to try a non-traditional looking instrument, we think you’ll like the Seagull just fine.
The Loar LM-520-VS Performer F-Style Mandolin
Based on its specs, you might assume the LM-520-VS would be a premium option, but its price says otherwise.
The Loar LM-520-VS comes with a solid hand-carved, fully graduated spruce top, solid hand-carved, fully graduated maple back, solid maple sides, maple neck with rounded “V” profile, bound rosewood fretboard and compensated adjustable ebony bridge.
The mandolin has a pleasant, cutting tone and most customers think it’s a great instrument.
There’s one critic who said the mandolin has poor craftsmanship, but we can’t make much of a judgment based on one comment.
This is worth checking out.
Kentucky KM-150 Standard A-Model Mandolin
The Kentucky KM-150 mandolin comes with a solid German spruce top, solid alpine maple back and sides, slim alpine maple neck, choice tonewood fingerboard and a high-gloss sunburst finish.
We find this mandolin to have a warm tone with good separation.
Customers love this instrument though some say it wasn’t quite right out of the box and needed to be professionally set up.
That’s not entirely uncommon with acoustic instruments and while it’s always great to get a nice playing instrument out of the box, it can be helpful to set aside a bit of money for setup in case it isn’t quite right for how you’re going to use it.
The Kentucky is a great choice for beginners and intermediates alike.
Kentucky KM-270 Artist Oval Hole A-Style Mandolin
The Kentucky KM-270 artist mandolin comes with a solid carved sitka spruce top, solid carved maple back and sides, slim maple neck, choice East Indian rosewood fingerboard and high-gloss sunburst lacquer finish.
An oval sound hole mandolin might seem like a rarity, but before 1922, this is how mandolins were made.
Of course, this gave the instrument a distinctive sound.
Vintage style instruments are still loved by mandolinists everywhere, and it’s no surprise considering most instruments still look and feel traditional.
This mandolin offers the best of both worlds – traditional design along with quality tonewoods.
And, it has solid midrange projection and balance.
Customers are mostly happy with this model, but some say it does not have a fitted bridge.
We can’t confirm or deny that, but if necessary, take the instrument to a qualified tech for a setup.
Ibanez M522SBS F-Style Mandolin
The Ibanez M522SBS F-style mandolin comes with a mahogany neck, flamed maple back and sides, solid spruce top and gold die-cast tuners with pearloid knobs.
This mandolin offers a bright, shimmery tone that some mandolinists are sure to love.
Its strummed tone is perhaps a bit cluttered, but that is certainly a matter of opinion.
We find customers love the mandolin, though some say the construction could be better, and if that is the case, you may need to bring it to tech to get that sorted out.
At least there are options.
Ibanez often offers something great for the price.
In this case, the instrument may not be without its flaws, but we can still assert that it’s good bang for buck.
Kentucky KM-140 Standard A-Model Mandolin
The Kentucky KM-140 mandolin comes with a solid carved sitka spruce top, maple back and sides, slim maple neck, choice East Indian rosewood fingerboard, high-gloss sunburst lacquer finish, Superior Trailpak C-3760 gig bag.
We find this mandolin has a balanced tone, if somewhat generic in how it comes across.
Customer reviews are mostly glowing for the Kentucky, though some say it required setup.
This is a good-quality and affordable option.
The Loar LM-310F-BRB Honey Creek F-Style Mandolin
The LM310-F-BRB features a hand-carved solid spruce top, maple neck with thin “V” profile, maple back and sides, Grover tuners and a stain brown burst finish.
This mandolin features both a traditional tone along with some high end cut so you can still be heard in an ensemble.
We find it has both a pleasant, warm bass tone, and a nice, cutting treble.
Again, we see that plenty of buyers are happy with this product, but some have pointed out that it might need a setup before it’s ready for regular playing.
Kentucky KM-252 Artist A-Model Mandolin
The Kentucky KM-252 Artist A-model mandolin comes with a solid carved sitka spruce top, solid carved maple back and sides, slim maple neck, choice East Indian rosewood fingerboard and an attractive, transparent amber lacquer finish.
Instruments with this design harken back to 1922 when mandolin makers started innovating – the F-shaped sound holes were a revelation at the time, giving the instrument a tighter tone with more spank.
The instrument offers a clear, nicely separated tone with plenty of high end.
Customers love that it seems to offer more than expected at the price point, and that makes it another intermediate level mandolin you should check out.
Best Budget Mandolins
Budget mandolins are great for a bit of instant gratification.
Generally, they work fine as practice instruments and won’t break easy.
They are not the best sounding instruments, but they are affordable.
If you don’t have a lot to spend on a mandolin, then this is the right place to look.
Let’s look at the best cheap mandolins on the market.
Washburn M1SDLB A-Style Mandolin
The Washburn M1SDLB mandolin comes with a solid spruce top, arched maple back and sides, F holes, bound fingerboard, rosewood bridge, black/white pickguard and chrome tuners and hardware.
The oval sound hole Washburn has a balanced sound to it, though it’s a tad thin.
It’s a good piece of kit for the price and customers seem to agree.
We’d encourage you to check out the Washburn mandolin if you’re on a bit of a budget.
Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin
The Ibanez M510DVS A style mandolin comes with select spruce top, mahogany back and sides, chrome hardware and pearl dot inlay.
We think this mandolin has a good, balanced tone overall – no frequencies stand out as being too little or too much.
Customers say the instrument could use a bit of setup work out of the box and we tend to agree.
But at the price point, that shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
The Ibanez mandolin is a fun instrument to play.
Donner DML-1 A Style Mandolin
The Donner DML-1 is a traditional, eight-string A style mandolin with a glossy sunburst finish.
It comes with a mahogany body, chrome plated open gear tuners and tailpiece, adjustable truss rod and extra accessories – gig bag, strings, digital clip-on tuner, polishing cloth and guitar picks.
The manufacturer also offers a 30-day unconditional money back guarantee if you aren’t satisfied with the instrument.
For the price, it’s a nice-looking mandolin.
Its sound is beyond brash, but for the price, what do you expect?
Customers agree the Donner is a great choice for beginners.
Savannah SA-100-BK A-Model Mandolin
The Savannah SA-100-BK mandolin comes with a hard maple neck, bound rosewood fingerboard, 12th fret neck joint and adjustable compensated bridge.
It doesn’t get much cheaper than the Savannah, and honestly, it’s decent for the price.
The quality certainly isn’t what you’d expect from an instrument that costs more, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise.
If you’re not sure whether you want to play mandolin long term and just want to give it a try, the Savannah might be what you need.
Stagg M50E Acoustic-Electric Bluegrass Mandolin
The Stagg M50E comes with nato back and sides, nato neck, rosewood fingerboard and an attractive redburst finish.
This mandolin surprised us a bit, as it sounds much better than we’d expected for the price.
It still sounds more like a string attached to a soda can than strings attached to quality wood, but in the right hands it can still sound impressive.
As you can tell from the volume and tone knobs, this mandolin can also be plugged in, and its electric sound is decent, though it’s lacking in separation and grace.
Most customers are satisfied with their purchase, though some say the saddle needs to be lowered out of the box (get the help of a qualified tech to do this).
You can have a lot of fun with the Stagg mandolin.
What Should I Look For In A Mandolin?
In choosing a mandolin, you must always consider a myriad of criteria.
The most important thing you need to think about is what you’re going to be using the mandolin for and whether it works for you.
We can’t answer those questions for you, but if you start from there, you should have more success in choosing an instrument.
Once you’ve figured that out, the rest tends to fall into place.
Aside from that, here are the main factors we think are worth thinking about as you’re shopping for a mandolin.
A Tone You Like
How does the mandolin sound, and do you like it?
If you choose an instrument you like, you will play it more, which will cause you to improve and that will ultimately increase your confidence as a player too.
There’s no way of knowing what a mandolin will sound like without putting it in your hands but watching online demos and reviews can help.
There are always other important factors that come into play, but we usually find that tone is one of the top considerations of any instrumentalist.
Here are a few other things to think about with regards to tone:
- Does it have cut? You may prefer a mellower tone if you’re going to be playing the mandolin in a solo, duo or smaller group. Otherwise, treble only becomes more important, because the mandolin is a higher pitched instrument than most, and you need notes to ring out above other
- Does it chop? Players of specific genres like to “chop”, and some mandolins are better suited to this than others. If this is a consideration for you, then make it part of your hunt.
- Does it offer good separation? Generally, frequencies tend to bunch together on cheaper instruments and are better separated and therefore clearer on higher end mandolins. Separation isn’t important for every player, or for that matter, every playing style. So, determine what’s going to work for you.
- Does it project? Even if the mandolin has plenty of high end, it’s not of much use unless the instrument offers good projection.
- Is it balanced? A balanced tone isn’t necessarily what every mandolinist is looking for in an instrument but it’s nice when all the frequencies come across without any one of them being overly exaggerated. We can’t tell you what to look for in this regard – it depends on what you like.
An Instrument With The Right Build
Solid top instruments generally sound better than those featuring laminate construction.
And, they also tend to sound nicer with age.
On the other hand, laminate tends to be more durable, regardless of whether you’re dealing with bumps and knocks, weather conditions, temperature changes, humidity or otherwise.
Because of this, beginners may appreciate the strength of a laminate instrument, which won’t require meticulous care.
Meanwhile, regularly performing and recording musicians will likely find more value in solid top instruments, which offer a better sound.
The tradeoff, of course, is that solid top instruments usually cost more and may even require more care than laminate instruments.
This is a good factor to be aware of as you’re shopping around.
An Instrument With Solid Construction
This doesn’t necessarily refer to durability, as we know mandolins are small instruments.
This can make them slightly more vulnerable to bumps and dings, though they do hold up to some knocks.
So, it’s important to handle your instrument with care.
In any case, this section has more to do with how the instrument is built.
I’ll be covering the different types of mandolins a little later, so for more information you’ll want to refer to that section.
As we know, cheaper instruments are generally cheaper because the company cut some corners in manufacturing.
This can extend to the materials the instrument is made of, whether it was hand made or machine made, whether it includes a pickup and so on.
Ironically, while solid woods cost more, they can be more vulnerable to damage.
Laminate is cheaper but is more durable.
Hand made instruments usually cost more and are of a better quality.
Machine made instruments can be mass produced and can benefit from economy of scale.
Pickups may not make that big of a difference to the overall price of an instrument, but it can increase the value of the instrument.
As you can see, there are many factors affecting the construction of the instrument and it plays a role in its price, quality, sound and more.
Ultimately, there is no better or worse – only what’s better for you.
But the above are a few important things to be mindful of.
A Playable Instrument
Because of its smaller size, it may take a while for you to feel comfortable with the mandolin, especially if you’ve played other stringed and fretted instruments like banjo, guitar or bass before.
The string configuration can also be off putting at first, because when you go to fret a note, you basically want to fret two strings at a time (because it has four courses of double metal strings tuned in unison).
This type of configuration can also be seen on instruments like the 12-string guitar.
It sounds nice but it may feel a little unusual at first.
Another factor affecting playability is string height.
Some adjustments can be made in this regard, and if you don’t know how, you can always take your instrument to a tech.
We can’t forget the neck, either, which can be thinner or thicker based on the design and may have different profiles too.
We can’t tell you which neck to pick because what feels comfortable to one may not to another.
But there is a big difference between an instrument that’s been properly set up and one that hasn’t.
It’s easy to assume “oh, this is what a mandolin feels like” when you pick it up for the first time.
But there is some variance, especially between a budget instrument and a premium instrument.
A Mandolin With The Right Features
A mandolin is a relatively simple instrument and doesn’t necessarily come with many extras.
A few considerations might be:
- Whether to get an acoustic-electric instrument. If you need the ability to plug in, this is always a nice feature to have. If you gig regularly, it would be a good idea to get an instrument with a pickup.
- Whether the mandolin comes with other extras, like a gig bag, case, tuner, picks, extra strings and so on. This can be a nice bonus for beginners who don’t know what accessories they might need.
- Whether the mandolin comes with F holes or an oval sound hole. The F holes are considered more modern while the oval hole is considered more traditional. The instrument will sound differently depending on the type of sound hole it has.
An Instrument That’s Within Your Budget
Stick to your budget when buying a mandolin.
It’s tempting to spend a little more than you have just to get a better-quality instrument.
But it’s generally better to be able to engage in your creativity without having to stress over your next credit card payment.
The other benefit of budgeting for a mandolin is that you can narrow down your options to fewer instruments.
What Types Of Mandolins Are There?
Mandolins today generally fall under one of three designs: bowl back, A-style and F-style.
This, however, does not mean that these are the only types of mandolins there are.
So, in this section, we’ll look at the various types of mandolins available and how that might impact your purchase decision.
A-style mandolins come in a teardrop shape and they don’t have a scroll, which can be found on F-style mandolins.
The scroll refers to the piece of wood that wraps around the top of the mandolin.
Beyond esthetics, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose, though it can increase the cost of the instrument.
F-style mandolins come with a scroll, but in every other regard they are the same as an A-style mandolin.
If a mandolin has a carved top, it means it’s been carved into its signature shape by hand.
A pressed top mandolin has been shaped by a machine with heat and pressure.
The process is like how the sides of an acoustic guitar are made.
Naturally, a pressed top instrument is less expensive compared to a carved top mandolin, which means it also won’t sound as good.
An arched back mandolin features an arched back, which can give your instrument more projection.
Bowl backs have a rounded back and a darker tone compared to other styles of mandolins.
You will often find these types of mandolins used for traditional and classical music.
For better or for worse, the bowl backs being manufactured today are typically of a lesser quality and are more affordable.
Even as a beginner, these qualities might make bowl back mandolins a less attractive option.
Best Mandolins For Beginner, Intermediate And Professional Mandolinists; Final Thoughts
The mandolin may not be as popular as the guitar or bass, but it’s still a fun instrument that can add a lot of flavor to your music.
Though it’s typically heard in traditional, folk, bluegrass and country music, that doesn’t make it any less usable in a host of other genres.
They key, as always, is to use it tastefully.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide and we wish you happy shopping.