Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

My first Mandolin?

All Ye blessed Mandolin Gurus…

I am picking out my first Mandolin and I want a good F series one… buuuut I don’t want to take out a second mortgage. I have two preferences. First I would like it to be a fairly good quality instrument and secondly I would prefer to stick around $300 or cheaper. I play a Goodtime 2 Banjo and wouldn’t trade it for the world and I did pay up near $600 for it and its accessories.

I would like it to be American made but I don’t know who is or isn’t American made. Heck, I don’t know if American made is the worst. I just want a good starter F series Mandolin for the money. I hate to waste money on a bad product.

I found an F series I would love to have but it is a little to pricey. An Eastman MD315. $800 is a bit steep for my first mandolin I feel. I need some opinions from the greater mandolin players on the forum. What would you buy and why?

-Mike Wing

Hey Mike,
Warning: what follows is just the opinion of one person…

Maybe there is a mandolin that fits your description, but if so, I am not aware of it. I bought a used mandolin in the price range you describe to see if I would like playing mandolin. It was ok, but not a good instrument by any measure. I didn’t enjoy it for very long after I bought it. It sat unused for maybe a decade. It now sits unused at my mother in law’s house. I later got interested in mandolin again and bought a nice A style and it cost me about $700 or $800. I have been playing mandolin ever since (and I even bought another one). My only regret was that I didn’t buy a nicer instrument from the start. Imagine how much fun I missed by not playing for a decade.

I don’t know if you are looking at $300 because that is all you can come up with, but if there is any way to save a bit more, you can buy a nice used mandolin for a few hundred more. The Eastman you mention is one such example. My advice is to save up and buy something you like and to buy it used. Why buy used? If mandolin is not your thing, you can sell a used one for about what you paid. It can literally cost you nothing to buy one and sell it again a year or two later. Also, personally, I wouldn’t get hung up on the F style. It adds cost to the construction for very little more than aesthetics, and in the price range you are looking, you will have many more good instruments to look at if you include A style instruments.

With all that said, if you come across a good one for $300, then congratulations!

Best of luck in your hunt.

I agree with Mike. An American Made, F-style instrument that is not junk, for $300. You’re dreaming, it doesn’t exist.

I suggest watching some youtube videos featuring Tim O’Brien and Joe Walsh. These guys are two of the finest players on the planet and they’re playing A Style instruments. Lesser guys like myself also actually prefer the look of the A, although I understand it’s a minority opinion. If you get past this then you can find a very good ‘The Loar’ or Eastman A style in the $400 dollar range. Both have excellent tone, neither is made in the US though.

If you’re still determined to get an F, then both vendors make good ones in the $800 range, and maybe you can get a used on for $600. You’re still looking at Pacific Rim instruments at this price point. US made, it’s tricky, and still sub-par quality until you move up into the $1500 range.

You should visit the Classified Section of They have a very busy section and new listings show up nearly every day. Whatever you choose, don’t rule out buying a used instrument. You’ll get the most bang for your buck there.

You all are outstanding!!!

Thank You ever so much for your help. This information you have shared has overhauled my expectations and given me a better foundation to search by. Thank You ever so much.

Next question…

Does the selection of this instrument come down to a “Ford,Chevy,Dodge” Thing or are there just plain good mandolins that a particular group of manufactures make that everybody agrees on are good? Under a thousand dollars?

I will save my money if I know I am getting a good instrument for what I am paying no matter if it is USA made or not.

Thanks Ya’ll


Others can probably address the brands better than I can.

One thing I will add, especially if you do start considering A mandolins, there are two types: flat top and carved (or arch) top. They sound a bit different. Flat tops are more bell-like and have more ring and sustain. Carved tops have more of a bark that people typically use in bluegrass. I won’t say one is better than the other, they are just different. I own one of each and enjoy both. Despite the tone differences, they play the same, so learning on either is fine. Flat tops are easier (cheaper) to build, so you can get a nice flat top A cheaper than a carved top A and both will generally be cheaper than an F style.

If you don’t play mandolin but have a buddy who does, take them shopping with you. That way you can listen while they play. Everyone’s tastes are their own. You might find you are surprised by what your ears tell you to buy.

— Begin quote from "mreisz"

My only regret was that I didn’t buy a nicer instrument from the start. Imagine how much fun I missed by not playing for a decade.

— End quote

This is a mistake so many people make and I wonder how many possible good musicians have never happened because of this over the last 100 years. Save some money and get a good, playable instrument no matter where it’s made!

Another option , if possible, is to borrow an instrument to see if you’ll like it enough to stick with it. A friend at church came to me recently and wanted to buy a starter guitar for around $300.00 to learn on. I said for $300.00 you will most likely only be frustrated and give up before you know what you can really do. So I brought my old 1981 Yamaha Jumbo to church a few weeks later (not the greatest guitar, but very playable and better than anything you’ll get today for 300.00). He’s still using it and having a good time with no money spent. It may be much harder finding someone to loan you a decent mandolin though.

I agree with buying used and also an A model. I personally don’t think there’s any difference in sound between a carved top A or an F model. The only advantage I see are cosmetics. The F’s are much prettier. Check out Greg Boyd’s House of Fine Instruments and go to the mandolin section. They have several sound samples of the instruments they sell and alot of them are A-models. I really like Chad Fadely’s playing.

One more option if you really want to stick with U.S.A. is the old Martin A models. I’ve seen several of these go for 600.00 or less even. I’ve played a few and they are really good mandolins for the price. Not sure why they go so cheap.

Good Luck Wings, hope this helps,

Thanks Mike… I don’t have any close or distant friends that play these or honestly any instrument. You all are the closest thing I have to a suggestion. I am guessing that the good Lord wants a banjo player and a mandolin player out of me before I leave this world (a long, long, long time from now) to be with him. I will do my best with ya’lls suggestions and let you know what transpires. I have found an Eastman MD-315f that I think will be my first Mandolin, I will save my pennies and get er’ purchased. Thank You again for your help and if anything jumps into your mind that you think might help please feel free to holler. I will keep my ears open.

Ohhh… by the way the mandolin Cafe website is sweet. Got me all a druel’in

JW – Thank you for the good words. You just reinforced a lot of what these guys have been saying and what I have been reading in the forums. I think ,like a lot of other things, if you don’t believe in your tools/instruments you won’t do as well at using them. I really like the Eastman MD-315f, It is one purdy instrument (besides that Ben plays one and heck if Ben plays one how wrong could a guy go). If it plays half as good as it looks, I think I will have a winner. I had not heard of “Martin.” Before I make any decisions, I will take a look see at them and what they have. Again ya’ll thanks for all of the wonderful advice. It is greatly appreciated and gratefully accepted.

-Mike Wing

I agree with everyone else. A used pac-rim from a reputable builder would be the best bang for your buck for an f-style in that price range. My first mandolin was an Eastman 515. The 315’s weren’t on the market back then. It was a very good instrument and served its purpose well. I sold it a while back to help fund one from an American builder. Sometimes wish I still had it. I think you are wise to consider an Eastman 315, especially if you can find a used one for a good price.

One more tip: whatever you get, don’t assume that it plays as easy as it can right out of the box. Most instruments benefit to some extent getting some setup work done. On some instruments it will make a huge difference. You can pay someone, have a buddy help you out or learn to set it up yourself. I think learning with some knowledgeable assistance is the best option. Usually, mandolins can be easily altered due to an adjustable bridge, but there are other things that take a little more skill and tools (frets level, nut slots cut optimally, etc.)

So I saw at the Mandolin Store an advertised new price of $699 for the Eastman MD 315.

There are three Chinese mandolin makers that have set up dedicated mandolin shops in China. These are Eastman, Kentucky and The Loar. A solid wood mandolin from these makers would be a good starting point.

As others have said, an A will cost less for the same quality of sound. If I were going to spend $800 on an F though, I would want a pretty, Gibson like F (which the 315 is not though it does get great reviews). Check out used prices of The Loar LM 600 or LM 520, higher number Eastmans and Kentuckys (Kentucky KM1000 and KM900s are considered top notch but I think you’re looking at well over $1000 and closer to $2000 for a used KM1000).

As mreisz says, setup is really important and most of the Asian imports do not leave the factory set up. So either you need the seller to do it or you have to learn how to cut a nut (there is a primer available at the Mandolin Café). These mandolins usually have a really high cut nut so that the mandolin, as is, is very difficult to play (it is hard to keep the strings pressed down). This is just a nut problem but you do need to know what you are doing if you’re going to do it yourself.

To add to my earlier post and something bluenote said, unless you’re already set on a new Eastman 315 I’d definitely consider trying to find a used 515 or 615. I have seen plenty of those sell on the used market for around the same price of a new 315 or less. You’d get more mandolin for your money and as Mike said…

— Begin quote from "mreisz"

Why buy used? If mandolin is not your thing, you can sell a used one for about what you paid. It can literally cost you nothing to buy one and sell it again a year or two later.

— End quote

Well… I might not have heeded all of the advice as exactly as ya’ll told me but I think I will be very happy with my decision. There is one Eastman dealer near me and I went and visited. I put an MD315 on layaway to be fully purchased in the next month. I would have probably been better off purchasing a used 515 or even 315 online but when I put my hands on the only MD315 this particular dealer had, I was hooked and the scene kinda of looked a little like when the kid pulled the sword from the stone (Laugh now ha ha). I am thinking I will be one happy newbie mandolin player when I get it. I absolutely know of no one personally other than my music coach/teacher that even plays so I see a very interesting fun time ahead.

Thanks Ya’ll for your help once again and I will be using all of Ben’s lessons to help me get started as well.

-Mike Wing “Green Horn Mandolin Man”

Fantastic! I bet you will love it. When I first started playing mandolin, I played so much that my fingers got very sore. I would have been better off building up my playing gradually, but I was having too much fun.


Well you should be happy with your decision because it was a good one. We were just throwing options out there for you to consider. That 315 should be a great mandolin especially for a newbie! We’ll be looking forward to seeing a post about you bringing it home.

Well Mike are you going to leave us hanging? Let us know how you like that new Eastman!

Back in my young and stupid days, I bought a cheap mandolin… Played like a brick… I left it in a hot car… the glue melted and the neck snapped… glad I learned on a cheap instrument!
Most I paid for a mandolin… $700.
A Gibson A2… still young and foolish…
I didn’t know a thing about instruments… The frets were shot. I traded it in for a $200 loss…
If I had it today, I’d get it re-fretted.

All the best…

I have been in that dark cave, trying to decide on which starter mandolin to purchase. I have been playing the guitar and banjo since I was 16. Gosh, I guess that would be 53 years now. Whoa daddy! So, now I have a drive to learn the mandolin. I have looked on line at many mandolins creating mind blown confusion. I want an “F” model because of the esthetics and have found a used Eastman MD515 at the local music store. Does anyone have any input on this?
Poppa Smoke

Eastman makes a nice mandolin. As with everything, check out the one you looking to buy. New mandolins often need to be set up, it shouldn’t be a barrier to buying, but I’d suggest going ahead and getting it done (or doing it if you are a DIY type) right from the start. Playing a poorly setup instrument can be frustrating.

Hello Poppa. As I stated in a previous post in this thread I think a used Eastman 515 is a great choice for a first mandolin (or second or third for that matter). I usually see them sell for around $600 - $650, every once in a while even lower. If you can buy it in that price range you should be able to get your money back out of it if you ever sell it. Of course this is considering the Eastman at your local store is in good condition. Let us know if you buy it!