The 4 Best Mandolins for the Money – Reviews 2018

best mandolin for the money, best cheap mandolin, affordable mandolin

Photo by Jacob Isleib / CC BY

Value isn’t just about paying less money—it’s about what you get for the money you pay, and how much you’d have to pay to find the same features elsewhere on the market. A professional-level mandolin that sells for only $300 would be an incredible value; an entry-level instrument selling for the same price would seem expensive. Ultimately, your goal is to find the best possible instrument that fits within your budget.

Regardless of how much you’re able to pay, you can find a mandolin that has a solid-wood construction and reliable chrome or nickel-plated hardware. These two attributes are important to the sound quality and intonation—and skimping on them is what often makes a mandolin sound like it was a bargain. Below we’ve included what we consider the 4 best mandolins for the money. Check them out!

The Loar LM-520

The LM-520 from The Loar is a professional-level F-style mandolin that sells in the intermediate price range. It’s able to deliver such excellent value by focusing on the elements that have an impact on your sound and getting rid of frills that tend to jack up the price. The instrument is hand-carved with a spruce top and maple back and sides that gives you a crystal clear high end and excellent projection.

They don’t skimp on the hardware, either. Your bridge and tuning machines determine how well your instrument stays in tune with itself. The adjustable ebony bridge and vintage-styled Grover tuning machines on the LM-520 insure consistent intonation. It’s easily among the best mandolins for the money.

Kentucky KM-500

For an A-style mandolin that’s an excellent value, check out Kentucky’s KM-500 model. It uses a very traditional design and an all solid-wood construction with spruce for the top and maple for the back and sides. This emphasis on tradition extends to the aesthetic design elements, with classic mother of pearl touches on the saddle and fretboard, a snakehead peghead, and a sunburst finish.

The neck is attached with a modified dovetail joint that makes it comfortable and very playable. Intonation is controlled by open-geared nickel-plated tuners and an adjustable rosewood bridge. The end result is an affordable mandolin (see full specs) that’s vintage-styled in both its look and sound.

Oscar Schmidt OM10E

Oscar Schmidt has been in the folk instrument business since 1886. That’s a lot of tradition to draw on, and their experience in the industry means they can deliver high-quality instruments at an amazing value. For just over $150, the OM10E is an A-style mandolin made from the same premium spruce and maple as far pricier models. The tone is rich and resonant with a powerful sustain.

The action and neck angle make it comfortable to play and responsive to your distinctive style. With its clean, polished design and chrome hardware, this mandolin both looks and sounds like it belongs on the stage. Hands down, it’s among the best mandolins for the money.

Rogue RM-100A

It’s not often you can buy a new musical instrument for less than $100. This Rogue mandolin is easily the best value for a beginner, letting you learn how to play on a well-made instrument without having to commit a whole paycheck to your new hobby. It’s consistent and playable, with steady intonation and solid nickel-plated hardware that lets you focus on honing your technique.

The tone is perfect for either bluegrass or folk styles, bright and sharp with a great projection. This means you can take this mandolin to jam sessions and even your first gigs and it’ll sound as good as it does when you’re practicing at home.

Body Shapes

There are two main body styles for the mandolin: the A-style and the F-style. A-style mandolins are teardrop-shaped and symmetrical, while F-style mandolins have a curved flourish on the top side only, keeping the high frets easy to access and adding a bit of extra style.

The simpler design of an A-style takes less labor to build, and because of that are often less expensive. A lot of people prefer the look of an F-style mandolin, especially bluegrass musicians. Sound-wise, there’s more debate over whether the body shape of the instrument makes a difference. In theory, any alteration to the shape of the body will change how the soundwaves resonate, thereby changing the character of the sound. This effect will be subtle, though, and most people who buy F-style mandolins do so for the looks.

Because the body shape is more complicated and requires more crafting, F-style mandolins are typically more expensive. If you’re going for pure value, an A-style mandolin will cost less than an F-style of equal sound quality, making them generally the shape that’s a better value. That’s not to say you can’t find affordable, professional-level F-style mandolins—the Loar model (see full specs) in the list above is likely the best mandolin for the money if you want an F-style instrument.

Construction Techniques

Another thing that will greatly influence the price is how much hand-crafting went into making the instrument. Professional mandolins are hand-crafted throughout, from the headstock down to the back and sides. The parts of entry-level models are often machine-tooled and then assembled by hand, while intermediate models may have both machine-tooled and hand-crafted components.

The advantage of getting a completely hand-carved instrument is that you know each component received individual attention and was built with care by master luthiers. The machine production process has developed to the point that consistency is less of an issue, but you still may run the risk of sub-par pieces negatively impacting the final sound of the instrument. Hand-crafted instruments also tend to be more musical, and to be made with a higher grade of components

A good rule of thumb is to get as much hand-crafting as you can afford. Though the machine-crafting process has improved over the years, it still can’t match the attention to detail afforded by hand-crafting. Having said that, it is often the labor involved in the instrument’s construction more than the materials that drives up the price of an instrument.

You can get similar tonewoods for far less money by purchasing a mandolin that’s made with a partially automated construction process than one that’s been hand-carved from top to bottom. You do have to use more caution when shopping for instruments that weren’t made by hand, however; make sure they still use an all solid-wood construction and that the neck joint and tuning pegs, especially, have been correctly constructed. The Rogue model on the list above is a good example of an instrument that uses some automation to drive down the price without sacrificing quality. With these ideas in mind, there’s no reason you can’t find the best mandolin for the money. Good luck!

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