Written on: 03/04/2013 by JHFC (2 reviews written)
I recently received a letter from the Jimi Hendrix estate complaining that Jimi had become extremely threadbare from turning in his grave every time that I murdered of his masterpieces on my guitar. They asked if I would consider giving it a rest for a few weeks whilst they finish darning his velvet trousers, as they are having trouble keeping up. How could I refuse?
It is at times like this that one turns to the mandolin. Having previously watched the video to 'Safety Dance' by Men Without Hats, I knew instantly that a mandolin would suit my style. That reminds me actually, you will probably have trouble sourcing the correct harlequin-pattern trousers, but I found that if you remove your conventional trousers it is possible to draw your own harlequin pattern directly onto your legs using felt-tip pens.
The mandolin that I chose is available from a number of online sellers, including eBay. It is marketed as the Rocket M20 Bluegrass Mandolin, and also the Stagg M20, depending on where in the world you are. My particular Rocket M20 came from Normans in Burton upon Trent, who also sell through eBay (I'm in the UK).
The first thing I thought when I saw the price of this instrument (£42.98 + £1.99 P&P) was that it is probably rubbish. Just in case though, I looked online to see what people were saying about it and the reviews were very positive. YouTube has a few videos of these instruments being played, which is quite reassuring. I thought I would risk it as if the worst came to the worst it would still make a nice ornament, or even be usable for playing table tennis.
Well, it arrived today and I am astounded. How on earth do they make these instruments and be able to sell them for this price? For the money it is absolutely superb. The finish is flawless and the fittings appear to be of a very good quality. One must bear in mind that the wood used for these instruments is of a cheap grade, so you won't get a top quality sound, BUT for the price this instrument is of exceptionally good value.
There is one very important thing to bear in mind though, and this is particularly important if you are buying one of these instruments for a beginner. The instrument will definitely need setting up properly to make it playable. If you bought one of these and gave it to someone who hadn't played a stringed instrument before, then the chances are that they would find it very difficult and become disillusioned with it, which would be a great shame. Spend an hour or two setting this instrument up for them and it will be absolutely fantastic.
If you aren't familiar with this kind of instrument, the issue with the set-up is that straight out of the box the action (that is, the height of the strings above the frets) is far too high. This is entirely understandable considering the price, so if you buy one, please persevere and get it set up properly. You will almost certainly need to take the strings off and remove some wood from under the bridge to lower the action, and also carefully file the slots in the nut to set the strings at the correct height at the head end as well. The intonation will probably need fine-tuning, and this means adjusting the fore-and-aft position of the bridge where it sits on the body. Also, straight out of the box it is tuned way too flat, which is probably done on purpose, but this is irrelevant as you'll probably be taking the strings off it anyway to get it set up properly.
To give you an idea, the action on mine is about 3.5mm at the twelfth fret on the G (lowest pitch, thickest strings) and just over 2mm on the E (highest pitch, thinnest strings). Ideally you would want the action at not much over 1.25mm or so at the twelfth fret. Tune it up to pitch before you take any measurements though, so everything is stressed and pulling at the correct tension.
For someone experienced with guitars or other similar instruments this will not be a problem to set up. Get yourself a spare set (or two) of strings, then have a look online for some mandolin set-up information before you start. Mandolin Cafe is particularly good website and has a great forum.
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