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Author Topic: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?  (Read 12190 times)

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Offline river

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cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« on: Jan 28, 2009, 09:40:49 AM »
so, that other thread about mandolins got me thinking (which is always dangerous when there's a new interesting-looking instrument involved)...

Hobgoblin has these "made in China" mandolins, here, with the cheapest only 49.  of course, i wouldn't expect much at that price, but is there a chance they might be at least playable -- or is it just too good to be true?

if that's no good, what sort of price am i looking at for a reasonable "starter" mandolin?  (bear in mind i've never played one before, so i'd rather avoid spending too much, only to end up never playing it...)

Offline giannaviolins

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #1 on: Jan 28, 2009, 11:38:17 AM »
I don't know the price there, but the Kentucky KM162 / KM172 are the lowest end I'll carry.  I can get them working.

Offline Ben Armatto

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #2 on: Jan 28, 2009, 12:54:18 PM »
OK, River, my first mandolin was a "Bean Blossom" low end chinese that I bought used for $90.  It was a decent starter that I later sold to my current mandolin player who is a farmer and doesn't care one bit about how good any instrument it.  In fact he treats it like any old power tool on the farm which means it will be beat up in no time.  But the nut broke and he carved a new one out of some wood lying around in the garage and it's good as new except the strings are about and inch off the neck and play like barbed wire.  But he don't care and can play 100 times better than me already.  He hears a song once and can play it for life.  Long live the Bean Blossom.

So, after I sold him that one and taught him to play better than me I bought a $125 Old Hickory A1 model.  It's a step up from the Bean Blossom, the top hasn't caved in quite so fast but I like it and I keep it a t work to play with the aforementioned farmer with his Bean Blossom every chance I get. Of course, he always tries to play one of mine.

In fact, I liked the Old Hickory so much that I bought a better one - the A1 with sunburst top that I keep at home to annoy the wife and kids.  I think I paid about $165 for it but I could be wrong - I really don't remember - I might have traded in an old Greco flat top too.

Anyway, I like the Old Hickories for bottom end Chinese mandolins.  Now I'm probably wrong and Steve will correct me but I think there is just one factory in all of China that makes all of the (low end) mandolins and fiddles and violins and tubaronophes and slaps different labels on the top when they some out the door (all right I'm exagerating here to make a point).

Anyway, I'm going to repeat the standard line here - if you buy one from Steve who posted above you won't go wrong because you will at least get the mandolin set up right which is more important that what label it has on it.  I had to mess around and set up the three I bought which I didn't mind cause I like that sort of thing but you might not want to.

As my sister says, "So ha!..."  Ben

Offline river

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #3 on: Jan 28, 2009, 08:55:58 PM »
Anyway, I'm going to repeat the standard line here - if you buy one from Steve who posted above you won't go wrong

oh, i have no doubt about that, but i suspect that once you add in international shipping (for a fairly large item), import duty, etc., the cost would just be too high for such a low-end instrument. 

hmm, looks like the KM-162 goes for around 200 (US$286) over here... so i imagine something at 1/4 the price won't be up to much ;-)

Offline madmat

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #4 on: Jan 28, 2009, 10:54:26 PM »
Hobgoblin has these "made in China" mandolins, here, with the cheapest only 49.  of course, i wouldn't expect much at that price, but is there a chance they might be at least playable -- or is it just too good to be true?

if that's no good, what sort of price am i looking at for a reasonable "starter" mandolin?  (bear in mind i've never played one before, so i'd rather avoid spending too much, only to end up never playing it...)
The first mando I got was a Musician's Friend "Rogue" A-style mandolin, with a laminated (eg, plywood) top and back, and pretty junky wood on the ribs, for $29.95US, right around Christmas '05.

Although it didn't have a truss rod, I went through it and set it up the best I could (new d'Addario J75's, adjusted bridge and nut slots) and found it played pretty well... it still does, and it did "break the ice" for me to the point that I played well enough to thing about buying a "better" mando. They offer them now for $49.95 and I still think they are "worth" that if they can be set up as least as well I as I did mine. The neck hasn't warped, and it still gets some play. Some guitar techs will not set up an instrument without a truss rod.

The instrument I play most now is a sunburst A-style Epiphone I picked up at Guitar Center for $149. It plays about as nice as the adjusted Rogue, and does have a truss rod. Much better looking instrument that sounds a bit nicer. I think if you spend that much, and pay for a good setup you'll be pretty happy and keep playing. It's great to sit in the back seat of a car and play quietly without worrying about stabbing someone in the eye. ;)

Be forewarned that they tend to multiply in your house if you end up liking them. :)
Not your mama, or Yo-yo Ma!

Offline Ben Armatto

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #5 on: Jan 29, 2009, 12:18:25 AM »
Yo river,

Don't worry, be happy.  Just go on down to the local music store and play a few.  Buy the one that plays and sounds best in your given price range.  If you get to really liking it you'll end up buying a better one anyway.  If you get too frustrated because it's too hard to tremolo just throw it in the river and get an accordion instead.

Good luck, Ben

Offline muttonhead

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #6 on: Jan 29, 2009, 12:31:45 AM »
By some odd cosmic twist of twisted fate I did pretty much exactly what the Matful one did. (not the first time this has happened) beginning with the same MF 'Rogue' A body mando. I spent about two hours on setup and some time sorting string gauges to balance the sound (JazzMando flatwounds) and it still 'plays out' on occasion through a $8 PVDF pickup. Using a rather thick pick was a key to it sounding OK.
I have a Kentucky 174 oval hole A body now. I do like the Oval hole sound in general. Sounds quite a bit better than the Rogue, but not 10X to match the 10X price difference...
I've had a much harder time in general playing Mando's that have the action set wrong. Tremolo however is more a function or technique and having a pick of the correct thickness and just the right tip-roundness to match your playing style and hand/fingers.


Offline Don Stackhouse

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #7 on: Jan 29, 2009, 01:22:09 PM »
Be careful. I've worked on a number of mandos that fit into this category, and some of them, including some that look very nice on the outside, turn out to be structural nightmares inside. They tend to self-destruct fairly quickly.

Problems I've seen:

Neck mounted to body with two dowels instead of a dovetail, and the dowels mounted with only a small dab of glue on their tips. The inadequate glue lets go and the neck comes loose, requiring some tricky surgery to reset it. Lots of work, probably more expensive to repair than the instrument cost to begin with unless you can do the work yourself, but once properly repaired they seem to do OK. I had one that let go after a few months, but has not had a further problem in that area since I repaired it about five years ago.

Tone bars and braces only tack-glued in place, tend to come loose at the ends, allowing the top to collapse. I've seen a lot of these. Tricky to get to for regluing and clamping without taking the top off, but possible. Works OK once fixed.

I found an ff-hole brand new mando with what amounted to "X" bracing instead of the normal tone bars. The bars were notched together in the middle, and the height of the bars in the middle 5" or so was scalloped down to less than 3/8" high to provide enough flexibility in bending to get decent volume and tone. After the notching where they intersected, that left less than 3/16" of wood in each tone bar, and one of those two was right up against the top so it had no "leverage". The strength was utterly inadequate, they cracked and split almost immediately, and the top then went into a steady free-fall over the next several months. I've been looking into some possible techniques using carbon fiber to bridge the joint, but so far that's still in the experimental stage. The other option is to pull the top off, remove the horribly flawed and compromised X bracing and replace it with two traditional tone bars running down the inside edges of the ff holes. Even if you can do the work yourself, it's going to be ugly unless you do extensive refinishing after you get the top back on, and in any case it will be far more work than this pathetic instrument can justify, even if you can do the work yourself. Avoid one of these like the Plague.

I've also seen some where they have only one tone bar running down the middle of the top. These actually don't seem to do too bad, although I'd be worried about the top collapsing around the edges of the sound holes.

Mandos are structurally at least as bad as violins. The top has a relatively large area with marginal support, and the load on it from eight steel-core strings, with a longer VSL than a violin's, is very high. If you beef them up enough to easily deal with all of that, they are too stiff to have good tone and volume. They run right on the hairy edge of structural disaster. If you add in some manufacturing shortcuts, the result is pretty much inevitable, and usually fairly quick, with lifespan measured in months, not years.

Offline giannaviolins

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #8 on: Jan 29, 2009, 01:49:59 PM »
At the low end there's a good risk that you're not really getting what you're paying for in performance and longevity.  At about $500 for an A and $1000 for an F several brands really offer solid what you're paying for performance.  At about $3000 almost everyone does a great job.

I won't go into how many X, Y, Z known name cheapies I've seen fold up or otherwise destroy themselves.

Offline Ben Armatto

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #9 on: Jan 30, 2009, 12:00:52 AM »
Well, Don and Steve are right of course, you probably do have to pay $500 for a decent mandolin.  That said, I still firmly believe that if your mission is to get one to see if you want to learn to play, you can do OK in the $100 - $200 range if you don't mind taking a chance and doing a bit of hacking.  Again, the Bean Blossom and Old Hickories that I bought are still playable after 4, 3 and 2 years respectively so I'm not saying they are better or worse than any others, just reporting on my experience.

Best of luck to you, Ben

Offline chuck1

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #10 on: Mar 05, 2010, 09:39:37 PM »
I bought a low end Johnson mando a couple years ago for 50:00 brand new.  It has good sound no truss rod and for what I wanted to do with it fit the budget.  It stays in tune.  I did put a new set of strings on it as I would with any instrument that I buy.  I like it and it sounds as good if not better than the music store mandos I looked at.  And they cost more.  If I was really serious about mando playing I would probably go to a better instrument...but this one does me fine for now....chuck

Offline concertA

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #11 on: Mar 06, 2010, 04:44:31 PM »
My Chinese mandolin is the Rogue one mentioned above for $49.  It reminds me of my first violin--cheap and oh-so shiny  ;D with a loud unrefined, unresonant tone.  But it was a great fiddle until I realized I wanted a mellower resonant sound.  I think for the price, it's fine as a gateway drug.  I don't know if I will take to mandolin and want to continue.  So, for $49 bucks--the cost of going out to a cheaper restaurant for dinner--I can play around with it. 

I'm on my third violin now--a fine old beast that's got a lovely lovely tone.  I can't imagine what a "fine old beast" of a mandolin would be like.   :D

Offline Skillet

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #12 on: Apr 28, 2010, 05:00:39 PM »
If you're going to buy a cheap mandolin, make sure you go in a music shop now and then and play a really good one. Otherwise, you won't know that the terrible sound you're getting out of your cheap mandolin is the mandolin's fault. It's easy to get good tone out of a good mandolin. So buy your cheap mando, but upgrade as soon as you can afford to.

I started on a cheap Chinese mandolin, and after a month, the neck warped and started developing all sorts of buzzes. But it got me started. When I bought a good mandolin, I gave the cheap one to a violinist friend, and she got some good out of it. I like to keep a cheap mandolin around for playing in a canoe or on a mountain where I don't like to take my good instruments.

Offline Ben Armatto

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #13 on: Jun 08, 2010, 01:16:19 PM »
Saw an Epiphone from I'm guessing the 50s - 80s for $128 in an antique place yesterday.  It had a blonde A style body and was pretty but the top had caved in, what a shame, must have been cheap Chinese and looked too hard to take the top off and re-brace so I passed.  How rare.

Offline madmat

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Re: cheap Chinese mandolins - any use?
« Reply #14 on: Jun 15, 2010, 07:54:58 PM »
Not your mama, or Yo-yo Ma!

 




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