Suraj Kumar (sunson) wrote,
Suraj Kumar
sunson

A local guide to buying Mandolins

I've received several mails from people from time to time all revolving around buying mandolins. Some want to buy it because they are already professional. Some merely want to fool around with it (the way I do or maybe better than myself).

The two frequently asked questions are like:
  • Where can I buy a mandolin from $LOCATION?
  • What should I look for when I'm buying one?


    The first thing to understand is that an electric mandolin is nothing but a small version of an electric guitar. It works under the same principles of the Electric guitar. That said, the Electric mandolin isn't all that popular in the rock-circles compared to what a holy-grail thingy the Electric guitar is for Rock.

    Where can I buy a Mandolin in Bangalore / Chennai?
    Frankly, given I've been blown away by Madras Musical Craft's handi-work, I've never bothered to find out who else sells mandolins in Bangalore. Actually, I think a couple of small scale shops have mandolins in Bangalore (like shiva musicals at frazer town). In chennai, however, there are plenty and almost all of them would give you a mandolin, atleast upon order.

    Madras musical craft is like the Rolls Royce that sells at Maruti 800 prices. They custom make stuff, so the down side is that things might take time but its worth the wait, IMO! Secondly, they give pretty decent support if your instrument had to face some problems.

    The only thing that I can recommend to Bangalore vaasis (or anybody for that matter) is to spend extra time and effort in getting your mandolin from someone like Madras Musicals. Because an instrument, in the end, is your personal thing. You don't change it too often. You 'mould' yourself based on what your instrument is. So that brings us to the next question!

    Before you understand what's a mandolin, please go over the parts of a guitar and understand what means what. I'm gonna assume you know these things by the time you get to the rest of this document.

    What _is_ a good mandolin?
    I would say the following are very important in a mandolin:
    1. Right fret layout and absence of intonation.
    2. A good neck made from quality wood that won't weather.
    3. A good pick up.
    4. A smooth finger-board.

    What is Intonation?: Simply put, the Nth fret and the N+12th fret are expected to be at the same note (ie.,. Nth at frequency f and N+12th at frequency f x 2). If they are not, the instrument is said to be 'intonated'. Intonation can lead to serious pitch problems and dissonance which cannot be fixed if the frets aren't laid out right.The distance between the 'nut' and the 'bridge', the distance between each fret all have to be 'just right' to get an intonation free instrument. Since the distance between the nut and the bridge is a function, it can become a serious problem with Vintage-style bridge Mandolins because the 'vintage' style mandolin bridge is actually not held by anything. The strings merely hold it. If you have to remove all the strings, you must not be surprised to see the vintage bridge falling off! You must ensure that you know where to put the bridge back _and_ know how to check if there isn't any intonation after you've changed strings. whenever I change strings, it takes me nearly 20 minutes to get it right because the bridge can freely move on a 2D plane. While one string might be intonation free, another might start showing intonation. This is a difficult exercise for beginners because without a good ear, you won't even know if there is intonation or not! In this regard a machine-aided tuning might help. But my sincere advise would be to try and improve your listening skills. You can always find a friend or someone who can tune up if you have made enough damage beyond your ability to correct :)

    Neck and wood: Its all about physics and strength of materials. A quick search will tell you what is a strong wood. I think The Guitar Wood FAQ covers this in detail for more than what I can talk. :) What the reader must understand is that all the above items are inter-related. If the wood can 'weather' (ie.,.you keep your mandolin open near the window), after a year or so you'd see some 'bending' in the wood. The first thing that would bend is the neck and that means Enter the Intonation!

    A good pick up Worry about the pickup once you're worry-free about the wood and the maker :) Pickup is not a critical issue. If you made a bad choice, you can always change your pickup. The wood, the neck and the finger boards are the ones that become 'better' over time. For that 'authentic shrinivas tone', I would recommend using a double-rail pickup. Better, find a friend who's returning from the US and ask him to get a good one from a musical store in the US or order from one of the big brands (Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, etc., are some of the 'big brands'). Madras Musicals might not be able to get you such pickups (or they'd charge more than what its worth). So I'd say if you really want a 'good' tone, go for importing it. Allocating about 2K budget on pickups (and of course buying something that's worth the 2000 rupees) assures you of a very good tonal quality to your mandolin.

    Smooth Finger board In the end what matters is the 'feeling' of touching the mandolin. A smooth finger board is a rewarding thing that makes you play more and more. I can vouch that Madras Musicals' fingerboards are beyoootiful and you wouldn't have to worry if you bought from them.

    Accessories? Oh yeah, since an electric mandolin is much like an electric guitar, you need _atleast_ an amplifier and a guitar cable to start with. If you also want a 'tuner' you might just buy one but I'd say buy a good entry-level effects-processor (I have a Digitech RP100A). These things come with a sweet headphone jack too (some Amps don't) that lets you practice in silence without waking up the neighbours. They also have an in-built tuner so you don't have to buy a tuner. Plus you get to 'tune' your tone and that might give you the kick to get going :)

    I hope this guide gave you some clue on what to look for in your mandolin. Don't stop, read further on the web. You'll find the nitty gritty details of whether you need a two band tone control or a three band control, whether you need an inbuilt sustainiac or not, etc.,. Don't let the buzz words get to you. In the end, a mandolin is just a small electric guitar and the world has tonnes of information about electric guitars :)

    Do add a reply if you have any questions or comments.

    edit: Since many people emailed me asking Thulsi/Thulasi/Madras Musicals' contact details, here it is: they can be contacted via phone (98400-52565). They read their emails pretty regularly too - mm_craft at yahoo india (.co.in)

Tags: guide, guitar, mandolin, tips
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