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Songbob F-style or A-style mandolin? (21) RE: F-style or A-style mandolin? 03 Nov 09

It's partly history. The Gibson company had scroll models in both their mandolin and guitar lines, mostly for show. But when Lloyd Loar designed the F-5 mandolin, he used the fancy F-shape as the starting point, then did his "copy a violin even more than earlier models" experimenting. The result was a loud, very playable instrument with a distinctive tone. A deal of the tone comes from the f-holes instead of the oval sound hole of the earlier F- and A-models. So you could get an F- model with an oval soundhole, or an F-model with f-holes.

The difference, structurally, is that f-hole instruments don't have this honking big hole in the top between the bridge and neck, a hole which has to be reinforced against collapse. For this reason, A-models have either braces or a thicker top around the area of the soundhole, which cuts the volume but gives you more sustain and a little 'sweeter' tone. Most old A-models are sweet but silent (comparitively -- no good mando is 'silent'). F-models are sharper and woody in tone, and tend to be louder with less sustain.

All of these comparisons, of course, vary from instrument to instrument -- my A-model Gibson is louder than my "Loar" F-5, and the Mid-Missouri flat-top is probably louder than the Gibby.

So it comes down to the individual taste and style of music you're after playing. For string-bands, A's work well enough. In a bluegrass band, at full roar, you may need an F, and maybe even then, a pickup. For parlor music, go for the sweet, and as much volume as you can get among the sweeties. Try lots of mandos, side-by-side if you can, and expect buyer's remorse no matter what you get. I liked my "Loar" just fine till I sat in with folks playing REAL Loar mandolins, and then it sounded wimpy and thin. But then, against a real Loar (1921-1925 are the production years) nothing else has both the quality and the aging that produces a real killer instrument. You're getting into the "what will my modern instrument sound like in 50 years of playing?" territory, which is another subject entirely.

If I had to go looking for a new mandolin, without my current ones to 'fall back on,' I'd probably check out Eastman, "The Loar," plus Webber, Breedlove, and some of the one-man shops, and probably look for an A model -- maybe even an A with F-holes (Gibson A-40 or A-50 models from the 40s are like that).

Good luck.

And, no, the scroll doesn't affect the sound a whole lot, one way or another. It's just a chunk of wood glued to one side, and not much involved in the vibrating part of the instrument. The neck has more to do with the sound than the scroll.

Bob Clayton

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