The 4 Best Beginner Mandolins – Starter Mandolin Reviews 2016

best starter mandolin, best beginner mandolin

Photo by Dave Goodman / CC BY

The recent influx of bluegrass and folk-influenced bands in the popular music scene has brought a corresponding surge in the popularity of previously little known instruments like the mandolin. The mandolin is a unique instrument that can be fun to learn, whether you’re a guitarist who wants to expand his sound arsenal or a newcomer to playing music.

The quality of the materials used is going to be the most important factor in your decision. Models that are made of solid wood will give you more volume and a better overall sounds, so you should try to get as much solid wood in your instrument as you can afford. Like many stringed instruments, mandolins come in a variety of body shapes. The A-style mandolins are generally considered easier to play and tend to be the best models for beginners.

Whatever your budget and experience with music, the four models on this list can all be considered the best beginner mandolin and will start you on your way.

Michael Kelly Legacy Dragonfly

Michael Kelly mandolins are renowned for their rich tone, and with the Legacy Dragonfly you can get their top of the line design and tone at about half the price of their other models. It uses an all solid wood and hand-carved construction, with spruce for the top and flame maple on the back and sides.

It also features the same proprietary one-piece tailpiece used on the company’s professional models, improving the resonance and letting the tone really sing. The real pearl and abalone fingerboard inlay uses a unique vine design that gives each instrument a custom look. A Fishman pickup comes included for no-fuss amplification. Hands down, this is one of the best starter mandolins on the market.

Kentucky KM-150


The Kentucky KM line delivers vintage design and tone quality at an affordable price, making it an excellent choice for the discerning beginner. This A-style instrument uses an all solid-wood construction—spruce on the soundboard and maple for the back, sides, and neck, with a bound rosewood fretboard and adjustable rosewood bridge.

The dovetail joint at the neck makes it comfortable and easy to play for musicians of all experience levels. Overall, it gives you a resonant, warm tone with a good amount of dynamic power and deluxe open-geared tuners to keep your intonation on point.

Washburn M1SDL


This A-style mandolin is one of the most popular instruments in the Washburn catalogue because of its combination of deluxe craftsmanship and value. The classic design gives you a lot of power on your attack with a depth and balance to the tone unmatched at the price point. It has a maple arched back and sides, and a solid spruce top with an oval soundhole for maximum projection.

The instrument’s look is unique, as well, with white binding to contrast with the stained gloss finish, a Florentine headstock, and pearl inlays on the rosewood bridge. The gold tuning machines complete the design, giving you both precision and aesthetic appeal. It’s easily among the best beginner mandolins for the money.

Rogue RM-100A


The RM-100A from Rogue is the perfect mandolin for the beginner on a budget, giving you rugged, high-quality craftsmanship for less than $100. Its bright, clear tone is ideal for bluegrass, with aggressive attacks and good projection. It uses a traditional A-model body shape with an adjustable rosewood bridge and comfortable maple neck that’s easy to play for beginners and experienced musicians alike.

The sunburst finish and F sound holes give it a clean, traditional look, topped off with nickel-plated frets and gold tuners. Experienced string players may find the action set lower out of the box than they’re used to, but most beginners will likely find it less tiring to play as their building up their finger strength. This should easily belong on a list of the best starter mandolins.

Body Styles

There are three broad categories of mandolin body shapes. Bowl-back mandolins have a similar body shape as a traditional lute, and are most popular in classical music. F-style mandolins have an asymmetrical body shape with either twin f-holes or a single oval soundhole. First made by Gibson in the early 1900s, they’re a great choice for country and bluegrass styles. The final shape, the A-style mandolin, is the most well-known. It has a teardrop shaped body profile and two f-shaped soundholes. This is the easiest shape of mandolin to construct and because of that are less costly to build. They’re popular with musicians of all styles but are especially liked by folk musicians.

The lower cost of A-style violins is one of the reasons they’re so good for beginning players. They’re extremely versatile and tend to be the most comfortable to play, especially for beginners. A-style mandolins can have slightly arched backs, though not as pronounced a curve as the Bowl-backed models. Though they can have scrollwork and carving, they tend to be simpler in appearance than F-style mandolins, which are more fanciful in design.

Woods of the Best Beginner Mandolins

The tonewood used in the construction of the mandolin’s body has a big influence over the ultimate sound. Any instrument that uses a solid wood construction will be more musical and resonant than one made of other materials, but even between woods, there will be subtle differences in tone and timber.

Most mandolins use spruce for the top because of its bright tonal color and the clarity of its articulation. The back and sides are where you’ll see the most significant variations. Maple is a very popular tonewood for the back and sides. Compared to other tonewoods, it strikes a nice balance between the warmth of mahogany and the brightness of spruce.

When it comes to the neck, bridge, and fingerboard, the quality of the construction will be more important for your overall sound than the material used. Mahogany, maple, and rosewood are all common materials when it comes to these parts, although you may also see materials like ebony and spruce.

The material of the best starter mandolins will have some impact on the overall tone—every part of your instrument will vibrate and contribute to the sonic profile—but you should pay more attention to whether the bridge is well-seated and the alignment of the neck, as these will have a greater impact on the instrument’s playability.

If you’re not sure how to tell if the alignment is off, find an instrument repair shop and ask one of the techs to show you what to look for. Having an instrument that’s in perfect condition will make it easier to learn the correct technique and will help keep you from getting frustrated by problems with tone and intonation down the line. And with any one of these so-called best beginner mandolins, you’re more likely to find and keep that instrument in perfect condition for a long time. Good luck!

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