Choosing a mandolin can be an interesting conundrum. Unlike the violin, mandolins come in many different shapes and styles with construction varying from classic bowl backs to modern carved and flat tops. The body shape has been changed and varied by different luthiers all looking to find the best shape, materials, and internal strutting to create their distinctive sound. Your choice will depend partly on the style of music you are going to play. You can of course play any style on any instrument but you probably wouldn’t find a classical musician using a Gibson F5 or a Dobro resonator, similarly you won’t find a bluegrass player playing a bowl back although I did play a bowl back in my early years in jug band music.

Classical players

Traditionally classical players would look for a good bowl back. They have a delicate sound and early instruments could only be strung with light gauge strings. Players like Alison Stephens favoured the Roman style of bowl back made by Luigi Embergher and his pupil Pasquale Pecoraro. These have a a very narrow neck and short scale length essential for small hands to tackle the complexities of duo style playing. Other players looked to the wider neck Italian style from the Calace school. These instruments would have a variety of models, the concert versions having extended finger boards to facilitate reaching much higher notes.

Many modern classical players however like Chris Acquavella and Avi Avital favour a more hybrid design with a much shallower bowl. These instruments allow players to use the same instrument to play different music styles without compromising on tone and clarity.

Bluegrass players

In the early 20th century a revolution took place in mandolin construction. Many Italians who emigrated to the Untied States took with them their bowl back mandolins but they did not fare well in the climate. At the same time they were not loud enough to be heard in the large concert halls. An American luthier called Orville Gibson started to make mandolins with carved tops and backs based on the violin. He made two styles an A model round hole and F model with f holes like the violin . These instruments became very popular and set the benchmark for mandolin construction. The Gibson f5 concert model became the mandolin of choice for Bluegrass players like Bill Munroe and was also championed by Dave Apollon the great jazz mandolinist and entertainer. The distinguishing feature of the F5 is the decorative scroll to which many players attach a strap.

Folk players

From the two styles created by Gibson folk musicians tended to favour the A model with a round hole. Many luthiers started to make these with a flat top and either a carved or flat back. Dave Swarbrick played a Gibson A model on the legendary ‘Rags Reels and Airs’ album with Martin Carthy. Many of the early blues players like Yank Rachel also favoured the flat top round hole style. Meanwhile in Brazil a pear shape flat top mandolin evolved from the Portuguese guitar to become the mainstay of Brazilian choro. music as played by Jacob do Bandolim.

Some Entry Level choices under £300

Round hole Ozark ‘Army and Navy’ mandolin also made by Kentucky is a remarkably good solid top mandolin

F Hole The Loar LM-110 Honey Creek SBB

Some Mid Range choices under £800

Round Hole Ashbury Style E Celtic Mandolin, Solid Spruce round hole designed by Phil Davidson £459

F Hole Kentucky KM-256 Deluxe A Model Mandolin. £629

Eastman MD305 All Solid Wood A Style

Some Top Range £1000 and above

Kentucky KM-1500 Master F-Model 

Hand made by UK Luthiers £3000 and above

If you are considering a handmade instrument read my guide to commissioning a mandolin

Paul Shippey 

Phil Davidson

Mike Vanden

Cas Davey

Kai Toenjes

Thomas Buchanan

Richard Osborne