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I have very fond memories of when I was a toddler visiting my gran, she had an old mandolin, strung with piano strings... sacrilege really, but to me it was a toy and like all kids I liked to make a noise, and what a noise it made. Never did I imagine than many years later I would be purchasing one to play for real.
At some point a while back, I wistfully realised that I was one of many who had once, but no longer, enjoyed the pleasures of playing a musical instrument, and regretted allowing all those precious hours of practise and years of enjoyment, slip away.
Then I got to thinking... Why not re-acquaint myself with the joys of making my own music.
I was familiar with stringed instruments and knew that mandolins were strung with the same strings, G,D,A and E, as a violin, only in duplicate, so would not be too difficult to master a few simple tunes.
I checked on Amazon and eBay and found a wide range of models and prices. I only wanted a cheap instrument to strum and discovered a new, unused one on eBay going for less than those on Amazon. Indecisive, as ever, I ummmd and ahhhd, should I, shouldn't I bid? The sale was ending that day, yet I retired still not having made any decision. Then at about midnight, just as I was dropping off to sleep, I suddenly regretted not bidding, raised myself from half-slumber and logged in to find the bidding had ended but the instrument had not had any bidders. I contacted the seller to tell him that I was interested in purchasing the mandolin at the asking price if it was still for sale... it was, so I sealed the deal there and then. I slept well that night.
Mandolins in general
Mandolins are from the Lute family of stringed instruments, made in various styles, unlike a violin, which is instantly recognisable by its unique shape.
My grandmother's mandolin was the Neapolitan style, bowl backed and teardrop shaped, very similar to lutes, with the sound hole positioned centrally, similar to that of a Spanish guitar and the bowl shaped back constructed of many, narrow strips of wood.
Then there is the A4 style, flat back, teardrop shape mandolins with oval shaped, central sound-holes; the Stagg M20, is flatback styled with two f-shaped sound-holes, like those on a violin and similarly positioned. The Stagg M50E model is the same style as the M20 but is an electro mandolin, so amplifiers are needed for this one.
The last and more expensive model, I discovered, is the F5, Weber style, larger than the previous ones described and shaped almost like a guitar, with a beautiful scroll on the body, at the base of the neck, it too, has f-cut-out sound holes.
I am sure there are many other styles of this instrument, but the ones described are the more common ones.
Even left-handed players are catered for with the left-handed models.
The Stagg M20 mandolin
The mandolin model I purchased is the Stagg M20 Bluegrass, priced around £50 to £70 new. It really does pay to shop around, for the price ranges do seem to be very varied. The colour of my instrument is called violin burst, I guess, because the finish is similar to that of a violin.
I paid £35 for mine on eBay; it was a genuine new instrument, with its pick guard still encased in its protective cover. It was set up and ready to play. The bridge on which the strings rest, is described as a floating bridge, which if all the strings are slackened too much, will shift position. If that occurs, then it will need resetting. A technique, a dear friend will be teaching me should I ever need to reset the bridge position. For beginners though it is advisable to have the mandolin set up professionally. However, when bought from new, they are usually already set up correctly.
The main body is made of basswood, which I believe is a light coloured, straight-grained wood of the lime family, giving the instrument a warm tone.
The neck is carved from Nato, which is known as Eastern mahogany, cheaper than mahogany but exhibiting the same properties of strength and stability.
The narrow bridge is made from Maple and stained black.
The fretted fingerboard is made of Rosewood and the tailpiece, of engraved nickel and the eight tuning keys and gears of nickel.
The pick guard, placed just above the lower f-hole is plastic.
Overall length : 27-inches, 66cm.
The width at its widest point : 10.5-inches, 28cm
Depth : 2-inches, 5cm
There are 8-strings: 2 G, 2-D, 2 A and 2 E strings.
The geared tuning mechanism, whereby each peg is attached to a couple of cogs, makes fine-tuning very easy.
I bought a selection of plectrums (picks) these come in all shapes, sizes and weights. These little, triangular pieces of plastic play an important part in tone production; the lighter weight picks give a mellower, sweet tone, whereas the heavier, thicker ones produce a slightly tinnier tone, so I am told.
The overall tone of my new mandolin, I found, was unexpectedly warm, I had anticipated quite a tinny sound from such an inexpensive instrument, something akin to a child's toy. I liken it to that of a harpsichord, a warm tinkling sound. The metal strings remain in tune for days and then only require very fine-tuning.
To give an idea of the sounds produced when played well you can click on the links at the end of this review and listen to two versions of the first movement of Vivaldi's Mandolin concerto.
The Mandolin is a very versatile instrument which can be played solo, in duets and orchestras, there is no limit to the genre of music that can be played, anything from country to classics. I wholeheartedly recommend this model as a first, for new comers to the stringed world.
The Stagg M20 is a perfect instrument for beginners, it is relatively inexpensive, sounds good and it does not take long to pick up the basic techniques. However, as with any instrument, to increase skills and eventually master the instrument, lots of dedicated practise is necessary.
It is advisable to purchase a battery operated, electronic tuner, which clips onto the headstock (where the tuning pegs are positioned). The tuner indicates the pitch of the string as it is plucked; a green light shows when the string is in tune. Alternatively, there is a tuning site online whereby you can select the notes and tune your instrument from there. The link for the online tuner for mandolin/violin is
It is also a good idea to purchase a shoulder strap to hold the mandolin in position and free up the hand which would normally hold the instrument, allowing it to move up and down the fingerboard more freely.
Any person who has played a violin, guitar, lute or Ukulele, will soon be able to play a tune; however, to play well, certain techniques do need to be learned, but it is fun. I have a lot more to learn before I can claim to be able to play the mandolin with any degree of skill, but I can already enjoy some of the music I used to play, albeit it simple tunes for the moment.
The links for the Vivaldi Concerto are
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StNAG4gCIxY&feature=colike mandolin orchestra
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhOOhIale6M&feature=player_detailpage mandolin duet
Listen and enjoy.