What Mandolin Should I Buy?
This is by far the question I am asked most frequently. I will give you two answers, the short answer and the long answer.
The Short Answer
You should buy the Elderly Instruments Mandolin Outfit. There are cheaper instruments out there, but I have yet to find a readily available package that offers more quality for less money. The Elderly Instruments Mandolin Outfit comes with an expertly set up mandolin, a case, an extra set of strings, an electronic clip-on tuner, two flatpicks, a string winder, a polishing cloth, and a copy of the “Absolute Beginners: Mandolin,” book/CD. Every one of these mandolins that I have played has sounded great and played easily, and give you a lifetime of enjoyment. Buy yourself a strap (or find a piece of string or a shoe lace as a substitute) and you will be ready to go! Also, buy a handful of picks in different sizes, shapes, and thicknesses to see what you like best. I find the picks that ship with the Mandolin Outfit to be a little too round for my tastes.
A Short Video
Here is a quick example of my personal KM-150. I can only offer it as an example, and make no promises to the way it compares to similar mandolins. I am using a planet waves strap and a Primetone 1.5 Triangle pick, no Tone Gard, and McClung armrest recorded in the same way that I record all of my regular lessons.
The Long Answer
Do not just go for the least expensive instrument you can find! You should buy a mandolin that sounds and plays well without breaking the bank. If you buy a cheap mandolin that is badly constructed or badly set up, you will be less apt to play it and your enjoyment, interest, and ambition will suffer. The most important part of playing an instrument is to enjoy playing music on your own and with those around you. If you are not having any fun, you won’t feel motivated to become more proficient. See my thoughts on getting a Proper Setup.
If you want to try the mandolin before you buy it, which can be a valuable learning experience, bring someone you know that plays the mandolin (or guitar or violin, so long as they have some knowledge of how a properly set up instrument should play and sound) with you when you go shopping at your local music store.
Avoid instruments under $100. These seemingly too good to be true prices will cause you more trouble than they are worth. Stick to well respected online dealers if you are unable to buy from a local shop. Quality mandolins can be had for under $100, but making an informed purchase requires that you become very accomplished identifying instrument makes and model numbers, as well as identifying any repairs that may need to be done now or in the near future. It is often best to pay a little more up front for a well set up instrument rather than to take a chance on a instrument that will need costly repair work.
Buy an A style mandolin. While there are endless debates about whether F style mandolins sound better than A style instruments over in the Mandolin Cafe Forum, I firmly believe that it depends more on the maker of the instrument then whether it has a scroll and a couple points or not. F styles tend to cost about twice as much as a similar quality A style from the same builder, and if they do sound different, the F style will not sound twice as good. That said, if you prefer F style instruments over A styles and you honestly think the F style will make you practice more, by all means, buy an F style. Playing music, having fun doing it, and avoiding hurting yourself are the important things, and all other factors should serve these three main goals.
The recommendations listed above are my personal opinions and choices, and I am in no way compensated by the companies that make or sell these products or by Elderly Instruments. I choose to buy from Elderly Instruments because I like the way they do business. Many of these products will be available in your local music store, and I encourage you to support your local economy by purchasing from your friends and neighbors.