spymandolinAcoustic instruments have come back strong. It’s only fitting, since the economy’s been lousy for several years and acoustic instruments are cheap, easy ways to entertain oneself and others without amplifiers and electric bills…or roadies lugging extra gear around!

The ukulele started this trend and, now, thanks to artists like Mumford & Sons, as well as several others in a variety of genres—they range from indie rock to C&W, Americana-folk, Celtic and beyond—we can add more instruments to this renaissance, such as the banjo, the dulcimer and, most important for this story, the mandolin.

As this Spy found out, decent mandolins can be very affordable and they’re relatively easy to play. Folks who play violin/fiddle, cello and bass could adapt to mandolin pretty easily. Guitarists used to up/down-style flatpicking would also be quick learners. Unlike ukes, which require the finger patterns for chords to shift around a bit, you can superglue your fingers into one position and move up, down, sideways and across a mandolin neck and get sufficient mandolin bluegrass-style chords.

At the turn of the 20th century, the mandolin and its family (mandolas, mandocellos, mando-bass, mandolin banjos and other hybrids) rivaled—and maybe even surpassed—guitars in their popularity. One often comes across period pictures of ensembles and orchestras of mandolin players. Although guitars were around, of course, they really did not take off in the U.S.A. until the Spanish-American War. Guitars eventually replaced fiddles, banjos and mandolins as the dominant acoustic stringed instruments, of course. But, every so often, those other instruments—mandolins included—come back.

Bill Monroe and bluegrass kicked string-band instruments into high gear in the ’40s, and he proved mandolin just as capable as fiddle or banjo for lightning-fast runs.

There was a revival of the mandolin in rock (Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May”) and C&W (Tanya Tucker’s “San Antonio Stroll,” among many more) in the 1970s. Casually listen to some of today’s hits on the radio or on YouTube and you’ll hear mandolins quite frequently in several genres of popular and folk music.

Given all that, you’d think every musical instrument retailer in the world would be embracing mandolins with at least a fraction of the enthusiasm with which they’ve embraced ukuleles. However, this Spy did not quite find that to be the case. The selection was limited, although some stores in Texas’ Tarrant County (Ft. Worth/Arlington) made up for it in enthusiasm. Others, however, missed the boat.

To narrow down my prospective list to just four stores to shop, I first checked online, and then made phone calls to case out the prospective shopping sites. Some local merchants and regional chains had mandolins on their sites, but not in their Tarrant County stores. On the other hand, some had no mention of mandolins (or virtually any acoustic fretted folk instruments) on their Web sites, but a random call to their stores revealed, “Yes, we have a couple, retailing around $199 or less….” A Web site is a customer’s first contact with a store, so it’s important that stores have sites that do their job!

My goal in my mandolin quest? To find a model for $300 or less. And if the retailer could help with a case (hard-shell or gig bag), extra strings, picks (small jazz style, if possible), tuner and strap? Well, so much the better. I did not care whether the mandolin was an A model (pear shaped) or an F model (with the scrolls and points, like the old Lloyd Loar-model Gibson that Bill Monroe played), but I preferred an arch top…round or F-shaped sound holes. I also preferred a flat back—not rounded as the old “tater bug” mandolins of Old Italy were. All models I saw were, indeed, flat-backed.

I preferred no pick guard, but, seeing as how those can usually be removed, that wasn’t a big issue one way or the other; nearly every mandolin I tried had one that was removable. Any sort of instruction book (especially with a CD or DVD) was a bonus, too. (It had been a while since I had played or owned a mandolin, so getting back in the saddle would require a little help.)
Here’s how the shopping trip went….

Guitar Center
5250 S. Hulen St.
Ft. Worth TX 76132

This chain’s Web site is, as everyone knows, about as good as it gets when it comes to finding anything musical. When I phoned to see which mandolins the store stocked, the associate mentioned a Fender FM 100 Mandolin Pack, which had a mandolin, gig bag, tuner, strap, Hal Leonard instructional book, extra set of strings and bag of picks…all for $199. He mentioned a few other models kept in stock, as well.

The store was easy to spot from the road south of the busy Hulen Mall area and the parking lot had some shade trees (in Texas, that’s a good thing on a hot day, even if grackles leave a mess on your windshield). Two associates greeted me as I entered. The second one showed me to the acoustic instrument room and the mandolins the store had: from $149 (an Ibanez A-Style model) to several at the $199 and up level. Oddly, the Fender kit was nowhere to be seen, but I started to strum a few models anyway.

Lacking a pick, I asked the associate if he had any handy. He went to look and, since he never did come back with any picks during his returns to the acoustic room, he might have forgotten. Fortunately, I found one of my own, dug out of my billfold. (A hint to all stores: keep some picks handy for situations like this. If they happen to sport your logo and contact info, even better. Let the prospective customer keep it, if possible. Or, just have him or her drop it into a jar on the way out.)

Of all the models at Guitar Center, a Gretsch with a totally out of character model name, “New Yorker,” was one of the best I tried during the whole trip. A mandolin named after the city that gave us Broadway show tunes is kind of like those weird third-world country fast-food restaurants with names like “Genuine Mississippi Pizza.” Name-related quibbles aside, though, this “New Yorker” was a good little mandolin.

There were two Ibanez models, an A-Style for $199 and an F-Style for $299. A Washburn, selling for $199, had a terrible buzz after I tuned it up. Upon examining the action on it, I saw that the strings were far too low. The associate recognized this quickly and told me he’d get it fixed by having the bridge screws adjusted up. He handed it off to a technician in another part of the store.

Most of the mandolins I tried required very little tuning. A $399 Kentucky model—the most expensive one I tried at Guitar Center—had one of the D string’s tuners so tight as to need something like Vise-Grips to get it to turn one way or the other. I wasn’t going to risk breaking anything, so I hung that model back up.

I took a look around the store for other things, such as smaller jazz picks, instructional books, mandolin strings and straps. A plain thin Planet Waves strap was affordable and looked good for the job. As I was finishing up this part of the visit, the technician brought the Washburn back out and the associate to whom I’d been talking handed it to me. It sounded and felt good.

I got a card from the associate who helped me (and, might I add, who helped several others equally efficiently) and left the store feeling pretty contented.

Music Go Round
6006 Southwest Blvd.
Ft. Worth TX, 76109

The Web site for this chain of franchises allows each store to customize its own selection at its location. The drop-down options did not include “mandolins” with the other instruments, but, if you type what you want into the search bar, you get what you need. They listed several mandolins from $119 on up. All were used, of course, as that is what Music Go Round specializes in.

A quick phone call to the store connected me to an associate who elaborated that the location had several more than were shown on the site, “Mostly A-Styles and a couple that are acoustic-electric,” he said. Meaning, an ordinary-looking, hollow-body, eight-string mandolin (four sets of pairs) with active pickup systems built into the instrument. Note: an “electric mandolin,” per se, is usually a solid-body, four-string instrument. My shopping preference was for a straight-ahead acoustic instrument only.

Upon entering the store, I was greeted briefly by an associate and directed to Music Go Round’s acoustic room. He remarked, “The Morgan Monroe comes with a case…” and, with that, left me on my own. I could not tell which case this beautiful F-Style model came with, but, at more than $400, it was out of my range. I’ve heard that Music Go Round does entertain haggling a bit on pricing, but this fellow never came back to check on me. So, who knows?

There were five other mandolins on sale. Three were acoustic-electric models: a JBP A-Style model at $119, a Fender A-Style model at $199 and an Ovation that was shaped like…well…an Ovation for $299. There was a very old-looking Premier flat-top teardrop model at $199. Bridges on flat-tops are usually not adjustable, and the top looked as though it could cave in a bit, leaving the action at the bottom frets higher than desired.

Most of the mandolins required some tuning to be able to be judged. There were very few other accessories apart from strings and picks. As I was leaving, the same associate who greeted me asked if all was OK. It was…but just OK. If the Morgan Monroe was $150 cheaper, it, as the much-quoted line goes, could have been a contender.

Sword’s Music
4300 E. Lancaster Ave.
Ft. Worth TX 76103

The Web site for this local indie lists numerous used instruments, including a few mandolins. It also has links to the business’ eBay store. A smart way to have a functional Web site without hiring a webmaster for a small fortune….

When I called the store, the person who answered indicated that only two mandolins were left, but both came with hard-shell cases and ran around $350 to $399. A bit beyond my budget, but, nevertheless, I was curious. As I drove in, I easily spotted the store off a busy boulevard and parked effortlessly.

Upon walking in, I was immediately greeted. I asked where the mandolins might be, and the associate directed me around a table where two models were kept. He carried a small bag of picks and handed me one to use during the tryouts for these two mandolins. All employees at every music store on Earth ought to do this!

The Washburn A-Style model was $399 and, although it was aged (about 40 years, we both guessed), it really wasn’t much different from Washburns I’d seen earlier in the day. Then, there was a flat-top Sigma model, teardrop shaped, that looked intriguing; it was going for about $50 less.

That mandolin was horribly out of tune and the strings looked about as old as the instrument itself; it, too, looked like a 1970s model. I tried to tune it, but the first G string popped out of the anchor hook down on the tailpiece. That kind of killed my desire to try this one out any further. The Washburn was a bit out of tune, too. The associate confessed he didn’t know much about mandolins, but he did know they were making a comeback.

The Sigma, by the way, was likely made for Martin in Asia about 40 years ago. It had the Martin flat-top look. I don’t know the true value of a mandolin like this, nor is that the point of this report. However, seeing as it was a 1970s sub-brand of Martin, it could have been a flat-top that an arch-top man like me would have considered. I don’t know if the store realized this. It certainly would have been a good selling point in the salesman’s pitch, though.

The store carried some other mandolin accessories like D’Addario strings (most of the locations stocked this brand more so than others), plus an instructional book.

Upon leaving, I asked the associate for a card. He had none, but he gave me an ink pen with the store’s contact information. Another fellow who was seated near the entrance/exit, likely the Owner, asked me if he could make a deal to help me to buy today. I explained I was just in the initial stages and was looking more in the $200 range. The sales process here could have been helped by having the instruments tuned and in playable condition, and having the associates know a bit more about mandolins in general…and that beautiful little Sigma in particular.
Maybe it’s just me, but I like to buy from people who seem like experts in what they do, as opposed to those who seem interested in making a quick sale.

Music & Arts
1428 W. Pipeline Rd.
Hurst, TX 76053

This quiet sister chain to big brother Guitar Center also has a good, useful Web site. Numerous models of mandolins are posted online, many with an “online only” notation.

When I phoned the store, the guy at Music & Arts, like the associate at Guitar Center, mentioned the Fender FM 100 Mandolin Pack. That’s the only one the store keeps in stock, he said. But, he added, it could get others that are posted online, particularly models by Loar and Kentucky. Both of those might’ve been out of my price range anyway, though.

The store was very easily spotted on a corner of a very crowded shopping center and mall combination northeast of Ft. Worth. Parking was easy, right out front.

I was greeted immediately upon entering and, instantly, I spotted the mandolin on the right-hand wall. The associate strolled over to the area and we both sat on stools while I tried out the Fender A-Style model from the FM 100 package.
He offered me a pick, but I had my own handy. The instrument required a little tuning and, within seconds, he produced a clip-on tuner. Once the mandolin was tuned, I tried various open chords, bluegrass-style chords and lame attempts at picked melodies with some up-down trill moves. It was a comfortable little mandolin.

The associate climbed the ladder to show me the rest of the contents in the FM 100 package. It was a pleasant surprise: a decent clip-on Fender tuner, a new set of strings, a small bag of picks, a Hal Leonard instructional book, a woven cloth strap and a nice padded gig bag. All that for about the same price as most of the other mandolins I’d eyeballed earlier in the day.

The associate and I talked a bit about mandolins and their growing popularity. He did as good a job selling that package as anyone who didn’t play the instrument could. He also mentioned the Loar and Kentucky models could be stocked quickly from their distribution center if I wanted to check those out, too.

Lacking a card, he wrote down all the applicable information on a slip of paper with his name and number.

The Sale
Keep in mind that I’m only reporting on stores that were good in “All Three Areas,” as Dallas Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett would say. In football, that’s offense, defense and special teams. In MI retailing and marketing, that’s Web site, phone and in-store. Between these four contenders, it’s a tighter race than what we’ve seen out of the Cowboys for the last 20 years. But I’d have to say that Music & Arts hoists the trophy.

The Music & Arts site was very easy to use, the associate answered the phone promptly and, although the store only stocked one model, it was akin to one of those game-winning drives that gets the job done. Service was very relaxed and low pressure, which is how it should be in selling any music product…let alone an acoustic instrument with so mellow a tone. And the price wasn’t just within the goal I had set; it was a good value…which, in the long run, is far more important.

Guitar Center is a close second. (If the store had shown me the Fender FM 100 package, maybe things would have been different.) The used gear at both Music Go Round and Sword’s was the main attraction. Some very interesting instruments there…. One hopes the staff in both stores further embraces the mandolin comeback and, getting some real finds, can compete.


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