In this part of our website we try to provide continuously improved information about the instruments you are interested in. This will include something on their construction, types and suitable playing styles, wood and sound as well as maintenance. Some links may lead you to websites with further details, discussion forums or makers. This is a newly established, growing service - reality mixed with opinion. So please understand that it is not possible to include everything from beginning on.
A-Style mandolins are "flat" mandolins (not bowl back) with a tear drop shape and usually a carved (arched) top and back. The naming of these styles follows the numbering of mandolins made by the Gibson company since the begin of the 20th century. They are used in Bluegrass, Old Time, Folk and classical music. They can have two f-shaped sound holes (so called A-5 style) or one oval shaped sound hole (A-4 style). Whereas the Bluegrass players prefer A-5īs for their "chop" in closed position chord playing Old Time and classical players prefer the A-4īs which have a more "open" sound.
Bracing: The bracing of the top of A- and F-style mandolins usually consists of 2 tone bars supporting the top running almost in parallel along the mandolin top. Sometimes they have "X-bracing". In combination with a thinner top this may lead to a stronger tone projection, easier response and louder volume. Tone bar bracing produces a very nice sound but may not result in the same power. A thicker top will generally produce more sustain but will not respond as fast as it hass more mass to be moved. These are general rules, however, and there are always exceptions depending on the specialties of a maker or the quality and age of the wood used for the top.
Wood: A-style mandolins, as well as the F-style mandolins are usually made from maple (back, sides and neck) with a spruce top. Curly or flamed maple looks certainly nicer, still need not necessarily produce a better sound. Quilted maple is beautiful, hard to get and work with and therefore usually significantly more expensive. Still, to its wood structure it produces a superior sound with a lot of warmth and clarity. Some of the best materials for mandolin (as well as guitar and violin) tops comes from Germany and Switzerland. Do not over estimate the tightness of the grain as a criterion for quality of sound. A wide grain topped mandolin may sound beautiful. The desired vibration is more a matter of the carving and specific weight versus thickness of the wood rather than of the grain width itself.
Tailpieces: These mandolins mostly have a "Gibson style" tailpiece. These tailpieces are made from thin metal, the strings are hooked on and the hooks are covered by a removable plate. Although this works well, it may be preferable to have a one piece cast bronce tailpiece. This puts some pressure on the strings and bridge which (if it is not too strong on a high bridge) may enhance volume and sustain of a mandolin.
Everything said for A-style mandolins is principally valid for F-style mandolins as well. The major difference is that F-style mandolins feature a carved scroll and more body points. Although this is mostly for looks it may affect the sound of a mandolin. Some players say its were just the most expensive strap holder you can imagine. Still, the "scroll" is strongly desired in the tradition of Bluegrass players. Some recent makers produce mandolins exhibiting rather "hooks" than scrolls, the most famous among the being John Monteleone.
Mandolas follow the principles of the mandolins. They come in various sizes the most common of which are the "viola" or "quint" Mandola with a low "C" and the "octave" mandola. The scales are not as reliably the same as with mandolins, and you may check this carefully if its suits your playing desired and hands.
Any of the A- and F- style mandolins will certainly do for Folk and also Jazz music. Still, and typically players of Irish music and other folk styles often uses comparably simple built flat mandolins without carved top or back. Despite some cheap priced and sounding examples some of these instruments are surprisingly good quality and sounding instruments and well worth a try also for those who want variety in sound.
Classic mandolins are those most frequently associated with the Italian bowl back type. They are another world in construction and sound as compared to those described above. Usually they also have a spruce top, whereas the back is made of multiple stripes consisting of maple, rosewood, Mahagoni or mixtures of these. They also feature slotted heads named "Embergher" style. When buying a used one, check carefully the integrity of the wooden bowl. Whereas minor cracks may not really affect sound or structural stability, it is very difficult and costly (or even impossible) to have them repaired.
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