Mandolin revelation!

Mandolin revelation!

Hi all

As some of you know, I played the fiddle for quite a while before being advised to give up (at least for a coupe of years) due to shoulder problems. So I took up the flute and have been playing for about a year now with no further shoulder pain. Progress is slow but sure, but it will be a long time before I can play in a session.

Then the other day a friend lent me a a mandolin - wow! What a revelation. Maybe it’s because I already played the fiddle (tuned the same) and guitar, but I found that I very quickly got the hang of rattling through all the old tunes I used to know on the fiddle - joy!

However (isn’t there always) I think this is a cheap mando (sorry Chris!) with high action etc and the frets are worn and incredibly close together for my pudgy fingers. So I’ve been surfing and discovered that there are several instruments in the mandolin family, like mandola, octave mandolin etc. But I’m very attracted to the small size of the mandolin. Finally to my question - what would you folks in the know recommend as a compromise? I suppose what I’d really like is a ‘long-scale’ mandolin but I’m not sure if such a thing exists.

Also, my friend from Glasgow has recommended Jimmy Moon as a maker - any opinions? I thought I might give him a ring to discuss my requirements.

Meanwhile I’m still tooting away - best of both worlds!

Cheers

Rhod

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Re: Mandolin revelation!

Tenor banjo. Nice and loud. Same tuning.

Re: Mandolin revelation!

If you mean the frets are too close (as in G to G#), you might try a mandola. You can tune it to (low to high) DAEB (up a whole step from normal) using a little lighter guage strings and just shift your tunes down one string but have more room without getting significantly longer scale or bigger body. It will put the tunes an octave lower and can sound great.

If you mean the neck is too skinny, some makers offer a wider neck option or will make one on request. My Sobell mandolin has a really wide neck and feels great.

Also, a lot of cheaper mandolins are in fact shorter scale (such as the round back versions with multiple narrow boards glued next to each other - bowlbacks) so try a good quality mando to start with.

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You might find you quickly get used to it. I play guitar and bass mostly but bought a mandolin last year. At first I couldn’t figure out how you could play it as the frets were so close together but I quickly adjusted and it seems fine now. I’m sure part of it is just your body learning.

It’s still odd if I play bass guitar and then switch straight to a mandolin as the stretch between the 1st fret and 4th on the bottom string of the bass is equivalent to a stretch between the 1st fret and 9th fret on the mandolin but your body just adjusts once I switch. Muscle memory I think it’s called.

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Finger positions on mandolin are not too much tighter than a fiddle, really. Maybe you just need an instrument that’s set up a little differently. If you like the sound, stick with it a bit more. But the mandola and banjo options are good’uns, I think. Though from what I understand with banjo, some techniques like triplets get used a little more, overall the settings seem more "notey" I guess because of the short sustain - not a bad thing at all, just slightly different than fiddle. YMMV

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If you find are finding the STRINGS to close to one another and not the frets then I’d agree with zookman about the Tenor Banjo. It’s just a lot less fiddly than the mandolin. Fretting, projection and ornamentation all require less effort on the banjo.

As for Moon instruments I am a sceptic. His instruments have always seemed unnaturally bright and jangly to me. Probably great for bluegrass (or even cutting through in a trad session) but tonally a little too strident for my tastes.

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With the prospect of heading to Ireland this June with no instrument (I play HD) my compromise was also a mandolin. I had plans on purchasing a Kentucky from Elderlys in Michigan but was given a Johnson for Christmas (purchased on ebay). The bridge was busted, the neck had shrunk leaving the fret ends exposed, huge amount of action and generally sounding pretty bad. Not wanting to toss it or relegate it to hanging it on a wall I gave it to Elderlys to set up. Long story short they completely transformed this mandolin into a viable instrument. I guess what I’m trying to say is that finding a good luthier would be cheaper and you’ll be thrilled at the results. I also have big fingers. So far it hasn’t been a problem.

Re: Mandolin revelation!

Thanks for all your useful replies - I did wonder from looking at photos of people playing mandolins if this one is smaller… I measured it just now and the scale length (nut to bridge - is that right?) is 34 cm (13 3/8 inch). I’d be grateful to know how this compares with some of your instruments.

To clarify what I meant in my original post, I don’t seem to be having too much trouble with the distance between the strings - it’s the distance between the frets that’s an issue just now. However as mactavish says, maybe I’ll just get used to it. OTOH I have tried a banjo and experienced the opposite problem - there seems to be metres between the frets then, and the stretch just seems too much (I’m never happy am I? 🙂)

Thanks also for your thoughts on Moon instruments - strident tone wouldn’t suit me at all - I’d prefer mellow. Any other recommendations for makers of new mandolin family instruments in the same price range (say around £500)? As I live in the Hebrides the chances of me finding a second-hand Gibson or whatever are slim… 🙂.

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That is a short scale. The older european type instrument tends to have a shorter scale. Instruments based on the Gibson and/or Martin designes of the last century tend to have a scale around 14 1/4".

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I have heard several moon mandolins none of them were strident,Fyldes are good too.
MartinFaherty [cork city]makes very good hand made mandolins.

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Re: Mandolin revelation!

Moons are fine - it is true that the flat top design gives them a bright tone, but I wouldn’t call it strident.
I suggest you look on mandolincafe.com for makers.
You could also try contacting Pete Murray at Celtic Chords in Stonehaven near Aberdeen.

http://www.celtic-chords.co.uk/cms/home.html

It is the only shop I know of in North Scotland specialising in only trad music and instruments and Pete will understand your requirements. I know this is not the place to advertise shops but I think most of us local musicians are happy to support Pete and find him helpful and his prices competitive

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Re: Mandolin revelation!

I have an octave mandolin and love it. But I mostly play backup with a few notes here and there on it. The scale is closer to a tenor banjo.
Have you tried a mandola? It’s different tuning, but the scale is in between a mandolin and an octave.

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Maybe I should have said that it’s melody that I want to play (coming from the fiddle I guess). Not that I’m knocking backing players - good backing is great - I just can’t do it.

The whole ‘octave mandola’, ‘octave mandolin’, tenor mandolin’ thing is quite confusing, but I think that what I’m looking for is an octave mandola??? Basically I’d like something slightly larger than a mandolin but tuned GDAE.

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Re: Mandolin revelation!

I think members of the dysfunctional mandolin family are called different things depending on where you live.
I don’t know if you can find something only slightly larger than a mandolin tuned GDAE. The string tension would be too much for a longer neck. You may have to go up to (what I call) an octave mandolin.
For a former fiddle player, a good quality mandolin should have and almost familiar scale lenght. Maybe you’ll get used to it after a while.

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A guy at our session plays the bouzouki instead of mandolin for the same problem you seem to have: his fingers find the fret distance too small. I don’t know anything about bouzoukis but he can play both melody and backup on it.

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Go for a mandolin, but a flat back, european style, all a bit larger. mine is closer to a viola then a violin in size. A cheap Romanian model well set up does me fine, for about100e.

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Sounds like it may be just what I’m looking for Jig - any idea where to get one in the UK?

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Sorry to answer my own question but maybe the celtic-chords shop mentioned by Bren will be able to help - I’ll give them a ring tomorrow (there’s not much info on their website just yet - looks like a work in progress).

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Yes, he has a good selection of those Romanian instruments too.

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Re: Mandolin revelation!

my Tacoma mandolin from Elderly Inst. is wonderful. it smells very nice too!

Re: Mandolin revelation!

why not consider a tenor banjo. you can get an american built tenor for a bit over £200

strings are fewer and at lower tension than mandolin family instruments, and overall volume and attack can be (but don’t have to be) bigger than mandola etc. You have the option of being heard with a banjo.

because of the short sustain, there’s better clarity if you like to play fancy ornaments.

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I also play a couple of tenor banjos. but the fingering is very different, the high B has to be reached with a position change unless it is a short scale like my Weyman.
E bay Rhod… plenty of choice, cheap, might pick up a old bargain even.

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ps, i string my mando with 4 strings, E.12. and it is heard in the session, mind you i tried every mandolin in cork for sale and i chose the loudest….. a cheap romanian job.

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That’s interesting Jig - so you just leave 4 empty spaces where the doubled strings would be I guess and you can afford to use the heavier gauge string because there is less tension from 4 than 8?

I spoke to Pete at Celtic Chords today - he’s going to send me details of the mandolins they have in stock - very helpful I must say.

Also a Hebridean forum member contacted me with details of an Ozark OMD 2000-S Octave Mandolin which I’m hoping to get to see and play later this week.

Ain’t this forum grand! (sometimes 😉)

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yeah, and I think its louder… dont know why or if it really is… perhaps someone might be able to explain?

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"tenor banjos, but the fingering is different."

This isn’t necessarily true. Lots of people (perhaps the majority?) use so-called "fiddle fingering" on the tenor banjo where the pinky is reserved for the seventh fret and above.

Others (Jig included, I suspect) use "guitar" fingering, or a combination of the two. All a matter of personal preference.

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All though the ‘mandolin fingering’ as used on the banjo is similar, the actual size of the frets make it a completely different story. I use banjo fingering not guitar or mandolin fingering, though i know what you mean.

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Hi,
If you have not heard of it before I think the instrument you are looking for is a Banjolin. If interested I would advise an internet search! its a sort of hybrid with the same fiddle tuning ect, the rest you probably know.
Lauchlan

Re: Mandolin revelation!

The impression i get is that the banjolin is the worst of both worlds. Though string it with 4 strings and maybe….. needs to be well set up though…

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As a ‘zouk player I think that people who complain they can’t make their fingers stretch to play the top notes on a tenor banjo, mandola, octave whatever, are all just wusses.
Move your hand about a bit, you guys. Show you’re proper musicians. Does Eric Clapton keep his hand in one position on the fingeboard ? I think not. Try playing on a 660mm scale instrument.