The Bruce Bernhart Mandolin Webpages offers original articles, lessons, tabs and information on the history of the mandolin, buying and building mandolins, basic chord structures, the different styles of playing and the various makes and models of mandolins available on the market, presented by mandolin player/teacher Bruce Bernhart
Original articles, lessons, tabs and the "best of the web" on topics of interest to mandolin enthusiasts by mandolin player/teacher Bruce Bernhart
One of the most important things to look for is a straight fingerboard. A curved or bowed fingerboard will set you up for all kinds of trouble when you play higher notes up the neck.
Place a ruler or some other straight edge on the fingetboard and check to see that it is straight. It may not be perfect, but you'll be able to tell if the fingerboard is concave or convex. If you detect a small curve or bowing, the "buzz" test, next, will determine whether you will still able to play it OK.
Check the "action" of the strings, or in other words, the distance between the strings and the fingerboard. You want that distance to be as small as possible without any buzzing or string rattling. This is especially important for beginning mandolinists because the higher the action is, the more force it is going to take to press on the strings. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust the nut, which is the small piece that separates the strings from the peghead. Press each string from the bottom to the top of the fingerboard and make sure each note is clean without any buzzing. You might also want to insert a small piece of leather or felt under the strings just behind the nut (where the neck joins the nut). I have found that this helps dampen any secondary tones that might develop from string vibration. I'd recommend you use felt- it absorbs vibrations very well.
The bridge needs to be in its proper place. Check that the harmonics at the 12th fret are exactly the same as the fretted note at the 12th fret. Otherwise, the mandolin will not be playing in tune when fretted in the upper reaches of the neck.
When you first buy your mandolin, you should change the strings. Those strings have probably been on there for a long time and often strings that are supplied by the factory are of less quality than strings you would buy at the music store. I would recommend you start out with light strings, as it will make it easier on your fingers.
Next, buy an electronic tuner. There are plenty of good ones on the market. I like the ones that you can clip on the peghead, and you can just leave it on the peghead while you play (turn it off, of course, while you are picking!)
You might want to pick up some instrument polish and a cloth to keep it clean. The finishes on less expensive mandos are very thin, so rub lightly. Keep your mando away from substances that will harm it, such as household cleaners and mosquito repellent.
Finally, I would recommend you buy a strap. The strap will give the mando extra support when you play sitting down, and of course you'll need it whenever you play standing it.
Choose a pick that is at least 1 mm in thickness. One of the big mistakes beginners make is buying a pick that is too thin. If your pick is too thin, you will lose volume and it will be more difficult to tremelo and play at speed. I prefer picks that have a pointed corner, but many players prefer picks that are more rounded. Try each and see what you are comfortable with, but be sure the pick is at least 1 mm thick. Anything thinner and you'll start to lose volume and the ability to create a distinct "chop" against the bass.
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