In addition to being a private violin teacher, Alecia started writing music-related articles 3 years ago and has been enjoying this experience greatly. Loves quilting and scrapbooking in her free time.
Marcus has a vast experience in digital audio and sound design. Thanks to his knowledge, he actively helps musicians with technical problems, improving their audio quality and even promoting their tracks so that thousands of listeners could enjoy some really good music.
Last updated: September 19, 2021
Prime Sound is reader-supported. We may earn a commission through products purchased using links on this page. Learn more about our process here
If you like the idea of learning to play a traditional instrument, the mandolin is a great option. Unfortunately, not all mandolins are as good as described. Although there may not seem like much to a mandolin, don’t be fooled. It is important to choose your new instrument carefully to ensure that you find one that suits your requirements.
In our quest to find the best beginner mandolin, we looked at its size, the materials, thickness and other construction features. These not only impact the durability of the mandolin, but also the sound. We also considered the shape of the instrument, which determines how you play and the style of music you can accomplish. Finally, we looked at acoustic, electric and acoustic electric styles and how this impacts play.
The Hola! Music HM-3TS A-Style Mandolin is one of the best starter mandolins on our list and for this reason we have made it our editor’s pick. Hola has obviously worked hard to create a mandolin that’s portable and a good introduction to playing. A built-in strap pin allows players to strum when standing and the black ABS pickguard protects the woodwork from erratic strumming. The walnut bridge can be adjusted up or down to sculpt the sound further and it feels like an instrument that will last despite the modest price.
This is a traditionally styled eight string mandolin in maple with an attractive sunburst finish. This may not be the best mandolin on the market but it is more than good enough for learners and with a set of good strings it can be played to a high standard. Of course, you won’t get those deep and well-defined tones that you would get with an expensive mandolin but that’s not the point of this instrument.
There are a few downsides which are understandable at the price point. Firstly, this mandolin can go out of tune because the tuning heads are tricky to adjust. Next, if you are strumming hard you can experience a subtle rattling noise that you will not find on a premium grade instrument. But, if you’re just starting out and you don’t want to spend a lot of money this is an excellent option. However, if you’re not new to mandolins and you want an intermediate instrument this is not the right choice for you.
What makes it stand out? Attractive design.
Which disadvantages must you keep in mind? A subtle rattling noise when strumming hard.
The Kentucky KM-272 Artist A-Style Mandolin is a popular model from the company that is well recognized as one of the top makers of entry level mandolin instruments. If you’re not concerned about amplification and you’re looking to learn the mandolin this is an excellent choice and that’s why we’ve made it our premium pick for this list. Kentucky has made a solid reputation for their manufacturing of acoustic instruments but they are actually produced by a Californian based company and built overseas.
This is an A-style mandolin, many modern mandolins incorporate a pair of F holes for the soundboard but the KM-272 opts for a more traditional approach. Kentucky went with an oval shaped hole at the center of the instrument which many people like. This feature may contribute to the quite unique tone and the overall vintage vibe that we like about this mandolin. This is certainly a good instrument for anyone that wants a mandolin that looks and sounds a little different to other instruments in this price range.
The backs and sides are made from solid maple with a solid spruce top. The balance between bass and treble frequencies is great and this mandolin feels like a custom instrument when it’s time to play.
Why is it special? The custom feel.
What are the flaws? There could be more guidance to get used to the style.
Many new mandolin players have heard of Fender or Gibson but they may have not heard of Rogue. The best way to think of this brand is as the store brand equivalent that makes budget entry level instruments. Rogue makes many types of banjos, ukuleles, guitars and mandolins and the RM-100A is one of the cheapest ways to get started playing the mandolin.
Now, given the above introduction you may think that Rogue instruments are bad but this simply isn’t true. When you purchase the Rogue RM-100A A-Style Mandolin you will be pleasantly surprised by the quality that you get for the modest price. Many players have learned to play the mandolin on a Rogue instrument and they often pass them on to their family and friends to learn. If you’re just getting into mandolins you don’t want to break the bank until you’re convinced that it’s the right choice. With their low-cost manufacturing Rogue fills this gap in the market perfectly and the RM-100A is a great option to learn the mandolin on a budget.
However, not everything is rosy as you might imagine with a budget mandolin. For starters it can be tricky to accurately tune this instrument and the playing consistency is marred by inconsistent fret placements. The instrument has a nice thick finish but this does distract from the tone and there is no truss rod to prevent neck warping. But, the construction is study and you can always upgrade to a better mandolin later when your playing skills improve.
Why are we impressed? The nice finish.
What negatives must you be aware of? The tuning is a bit tricky.
The Kentucky KM-150 Standard A-model Mandolin is the second Kentucky instrument on our list. It is on the expensive side for a beginner instrument and it would probably serve as a transition from a cheaper starter mandolin to something at the upper end of the scale. This mandolin is made from solid maple on the back and sides with a solid spruce top. Kentucky has installed an adjustable truss rod to protect this mandolin neck against warping over time. So, this truly is a good acoustic mandolin that many people could use when they are learning to play.
As far as the sound goes, the Kentucky KM-150 Standard A-model Mandolin has an excellent tone in the upper registers. This is an extremely playable mandolin and any player moving up to this instrument from an entry level model will certainly notice the difference. But, the lower registers are a little dull compared to other mandolins that we have tried such as the KM-272. This isn’t surprising given the price difference but it’s worth mentioning if you’re looking for a professional grade experience on a budget. The best way to describe the overall tone is conventional, which is perfectly fine when you’re learning to play well.
The Kentucky KM-150 offers excellent quality for a modest price and it is a nice mandolin to play. The overall finish is very understated and tasteful which is great if you want a classy look but it doesn’t stand out like some other mandolins in this price range.
Why are we impressed? Nice playing feel.
What negatives must you be aware of? The aesthetics.
The Loar LM-310F-BRB Honey Creek F-Style Mandolin is the best F-style starter mandolin on our list. This mandolin features a stripped-down aesthetic appeal that lends an air of authenticity with a pair of signature F-style cuts at the top and bottom of the main body. The top of the mandolin is made from hand carved solid spruce that has a superb tone when compared to a solid topped instrument. The F-style mandolin has been with us for almost 100 years and it has become a standard bearer for the modern acoustic sound. The scroll work on the body of this instrument can only be achieved with hand carving carried out by skilled craftsmen.
Loar has a strong reputation for superior build quality and this is evident in the LM-310F-BRB Honey Creek F-Style Mandolin. Every curve is simply superb and when you’re ready for a true authentic tone and you want to keep it acoustic it’s hard to fault this mandolin. Every arched top instrument made with matching pieces of solid spruce has been the key to achieving a superior tone for centuries. The hand carving process allows the mandolin maker to preserve the grain and natural fibers that really allow the strings to sing.
It is true that there are many fine mandolins with carved tops available for sale right now. But, none of them are as affordable as the LM-310F-BRB and when it comes to the sound this mandolin truly is in a league of its own at this price point.
What stands out? Nice instrument for an affordable price.
What cons did we manage to find? Set up could be easier.
If you’re more familiar with guitars Ibanez may be the first instrument brand name that you might recognize on our list. The Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin is a good entry level instrument because it has excellent build quality for a modest outlay. Ibanez were very concerned about an entry at this end of the mandoline market and they have made every effort to ensure that the construction is good. However, the only real criticism that you can level at the Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin is the string quality. Many beginners and certainly intermediate players will bemoan the lack of string response and change them shortly after purchasing this mandolin.
Once the Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin is set up correctly and the new strings are in place you may be surprised at the quality of tones that you can achieve. The sound really is excellent at this price and with the solid construction this really is a sound investment for anyone new to mandolin playing. Of course, if you get seriously into playing you’re not going to be playing the Ibanez M510DVS in 10 or even 5 years from now. But, you will learn how to play well and the tone is accurate enough to get good results.
Overall, it’s hard to fault the Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin when you consider the modest price. Ibanez are to be commended because they have managed to produce an affordable, playable and well-built mandolin. If you want to try mandolin playing before spending a whole lot more on an expensive model the Ibanez M510DVS is hard to beat.
The Washburn Americana M1-Pack with Gig Bag is the best starter mandolin set on our list and it’s our best value pick. Washburn Guitars is a well-respected brand, they have been building stringed instruments since 1883 and making mandolins since 1889. Suffice to say, Washburn knows a lot about making mandolins and the M1 is a worthy addition for new players.
The Washburn Americana M1-Pack with Gig Bag includes the Americana M1SD mandolin, a gig bag, a strap, a pitch pipe, a booklet and picks. The mandolin is made with maple and spruce and the gold hardware looks great with these wood choices. This is an A-style solid body and it weighs in at around 3½ lbs. making it extremely portable for practice. It’s a well-made instrument but as one might suspect it doesn’t have the high-quality tone that you would expect to find on a more expensive mandolin.
Like many affordable mandolins the sound of the Americana M1SD may not be the best. The finish is simple and you’re not likely to be making many heads turn when you pull it out to play. But, the tuning pegs work well, the construction is solid and you get everything to get up and running quickly. The overall sound can be improved a little with better quality strings but as a learning instrument it’s affordable and hard to beat.
What makes it special? It is easy to tune accurately.
What cons did we find? Needs better quality strings.
Things to Consider
A mandolin can be a great choice to learn a musical instrument. But, with so many models on the market, it can be tricky to choose the best one. So, here we’ve compiled a buying guide with features to consider and answers to common questions to help you.
What is a mandolin?
A mandolin is a variant of a lute, it has eight strings, a short neck and it can create some interesting sounds. Mandolins have a long history which makes them well suited to certain types of traditional music such as bluegrass. However, it can be tricky to choose the right mandolin to suit your needs. A mandolin can be made with a number of materials and in a wide range of styles. These and other factors can have a major impact on the tone and build quality.
Benefits of mandolins
Many people that have played a guitar or are looking to learn something different will quickly notice that a mandolin is a much smaller instrument. This makes the mandolin and other small acoustic stringed instruments such as banjos an attractive choice for those with smaller hands or less playing space. A mandolin has a smaller fretboard than a guitar and they are strung with lighter gauge strings making this an easier instrument for children to learn. Also, if you’re interested in getting back to your musical roots you may want to learn the mandolin because the pitch of the strings is higher.
Features to consider when choosing the best mandolin for beginners
There are plenty of brands, designs and styles of mandolins. Here we’ll explore the features to consider to help you to make your purchase decision.
A-style, F-style or bowl-back
Most modern mandolins are available in three basic body shapes, they are: A-style, F-style and Bowl-back. The body shape that you choose will determine the appearance and style of music that you want to play and it will affect the price.
Let’s take a closer look at each body shape in a little more detail.
A-Style: A new mandolin player will prefer either an A or F-style instrument. Both of these mandolin types date back to the 1920s when the Gibson Company employed Lloyd Loar to develop a new and an easy to build mandolin style with compromising sound quality. Most of the differences between A and F-style mandolins are purely cosmetic but they can vary a great deal in terms of tone and the variation in styles can affect how they are played. An A-style mandolin has a pear-shaped body and they are often known as “flat backed mandolins” to separate them from Bowl-back instruments. Despite this moniker, an A-style mandolin still has a slightly rounded back to the instrument. An A-style mandolin can have a pair of “F” shaped sound holes or a single “O” shaped sound hole at the center like the Kentucky KM-272 Artist Oval Hole A-Style Mandolin on our list. This type of mandolin is typically easier to build than a F-style mandolin and this makes them less expensive. Many musicians that play Celtic, Folk and classical music prefer an A-style mandolin over an F-style instrument.
F-style: An F-style mandolin usually has a more ornately carved body than an A-style instrument. Even the modern F-style mandolin designs follow the original design template of the F-5 Gibson model designed in the 1920s. Most F-style mandolins such as the Loar LM-310F-BRB Honey Creek F-Style Mandolin have a pair of “F” shaped sound holes rather than a single “O” shaped sound hole. They often have some points on the underside of the instrument to make the mandolin more comfortable to play on the lap when sitting. If you want to play country and bluegrass music the F-style mandolin is the best choice for you.
Bowl-back: The oldest and most traditional style is the bowl back mandolin and this is the best choice for classical and traditional folk music. This type of mandolin body has a very distinctive round back that harkens back to its roots in 18th century Italian music. Choosing a Bowl-back mandolin would be difficult for a new player, they may seem affordable, but the quality is typically low. This means that it can be hard to achieve a good tone with a Bowl-back mandolin and this can put beginners off learning the instrument. For this reason, we have not included any Bowl-back mandolins on our list.
Acoustic, electric or acoustic-electric
As you might imagine, an electric mandolin will cost more than an acoustic instrument because of the extra electronics and manufacturing processes. But, the intended use for your new mandolin should be the determining factor when making the final choice. As an example: if you’re learning to play the mandolin at home your needs will be very different than playing in a bluegrass band or a mandolin orchestra. If you’re very new to playing the mandolin you’re not likely to need amplification any time soon. For this reason, we have not included any acoustic electric or purely electric mandolins on our list.
However, if you do want to amplify your mandolin you can record the instrument using an instrument microphone that runs into an amplifier, mixer or audio interface. This can work well if you learn how to mic up an acoustic instrument (there are many tutorials online) but it’s a less effective method if you want to record multiple acoustic instruments. When you try to record more than one acoustic instrument at the same time with a microphone the sounds of nearby instruments tend to bleed into the recordings. This can sound good if you only have a couple of instruments playing but a full band may be a stretch without a professional sound engineer.
An acoustic-electric mandolin bridges the gap between an acoustic and electric mandolin. They have similar specifications to an acoustic mandolin and they can be played without amplification. But, they also have a piezo electric pickup installed in the bridge which allows the string vibrations to be amplified and fed into an effects pedal or other audio device.
When you’ve learned to play, you may find that you’re starting to plug your mandolin on a more frequent basis. At this point you may want to invest in an electric mandolin with a semi-hollow body. These instruments are the same principle as an electric guitar when compared to an acoustic guitar. A center block is installed in the mandolin that reduces feedback and tone quality when played acoustically to accommodate the electronics. Many mandolin players have multiple instruments but if you’re on a budget, you want to record and you don’t have a microphone it is possible to install a piezo electric or magnetic pickup on an acoustic mandolin.
The body shape of an F-style mandolin and an A-style model such as the Hola! Music HM-3TS A-Style Mandolin will have some effect on the tones that you can achieve. But, a greater factor on the overall sound is the materials used in the construction of the mandolin. Different areas of the instrument are placed under varying degrees of stress and most mandolins are made with different types of wood. The types of wood that are used in various parts of the mandolin will affect whether a specific mandolin will be a lower or higher quality instrument.
The soundboard or the top of the mandolin is the most important factor when it comes to the tone of the instrument. A good mandolin such as the Loar LM-310F-BRB Honey Creek F-Style Mandolin will have a light and strong top that generates a great tone. This is why spruce is always in high demand for a wide variety of acoustic instruments such as pianos and guitars. Some budget mandolins use cedar or mahogany instead which imparts a lower and duller tone that cannot cut through when playing with a band.
The least expensive mandolins have a laminate top where layers of wood are pressed together. At first glance, the top may look like spruce, but the layers underneath may be cedar or mahogany. A laminate top can be strong and durable, but each layer has weak points due to differing grains and this will affect the sound quality too. But, for most beginners this isn’t much of a problem, the focus is on learning to play and a laminate top is very affordable. Mandolins such as the Kentucky KM-150 Standard A-model Mandolin have various woods (typically maple) for various parts of the body and soundboard.
In terms of the soundboard, rosewood is a popular choice but ebony is the preferred choice for those seeking the best playing action. The wood chosen for the mandolin neck is important when it comes to the quality of the instrument. A mandolin neck can be prone to warping and bending which will affect the tuning and playability. The neck must be rigid and this is why mahogany and maple are preferred. When it comes to the mandolin neck, a laminate neck is a good choice because the layer of various wood grains can help the structure to resist warping. So, many mandolin necks are made from two or perhaps more pieces of wood that are glued and layered together. Many mandolin necks have a truss rod that allows the player to adjust the neck to get a superior sound.
The last part of the mandolin to consider is the bridge which many guitar players may be surprised to discover is a moveable piece. A mandolin bridge is usually made from rosewood or ebony which is a less common alternative. The bridge is wedged under the strings and when they are changed it must be set up again to get the correct tone. Many mandolins have a durable coated finish to protect the instrument but this can affect the sound quality considerably.
Most of the mandolins on our list don’t come with much in the way of accessories because they are at the affordable end of the price range. A notable exception is the Washburn Americana M1-Pack with Gig Bag which comes with everything that you need to get started. If you’re on a very tight budget don’t forget about spare picks, strings and a bag to protect your investment when travelling to practice.
An expensive mandolin could cost as much as $10,000 but most of us are going to learn on an instrument that’s far more modest. Some of the least expensive models on our list will cost between $50 up to $100 and they are good enough to learn how to play. Stepping up to an instrument that suits an intermediate player such as the Kentucky KM-272 Artist Oval Hole A-Style Mandolin is a great next move. Players will get a better tone, improved playability and they still don’t have to break the bank. After that, it really is up to the player, how far they want to take their hobby and how much they have to spend on a mandolin is subjective. But, many players do have more than one instrument for practice and playing live and it’s always nice to hand down the mandolin you learned on to someone else to help them get started.
Our best value pick is the Washburn Americana M1-Pack. This not only offers an affordable and durable mandolin, but a gig bag is included.
As you can see, there are some fantastic mandolin models for beginners. From the Rogue RM-100A, with its light and sturdy body, yet provides a great sound to the Kentucky KM-272. This is a great starter mandolin with solid maple sides and back and a solid spruce top that ensures a superb sound that is ideal for Celtic or traditional music.
However, the stand out as the best beginner Mandolin has to be our editor’s choice, the Hola Music HM-3TS. This is a great introduction to playing the mandolin. It has an adjustable walnut bridge and a built-in strap pin, so you can play standing up. This instrument also has a nice aesthetic with a sunburst finish and maple construction. While it may not offer the deep tones you can expect from a more expensive instrument, the strings are good enough to be able to play to a high standard.