Just because you can spend a lot of money on a mandolin doesn’t mean you have to. In fact, finding a great cheap mandolin is easier than ever. No matter how small your budget, you can find a mandolin that will get you playing your favorite bluegrass licks or Irish jigs in no time.
From the rock-bottom, no-frills Rogue RM100A to the “I can’t believe it’s not 3x the price” Loar LM520, here’s our guide to finding the best cheap mandolin for you!
Summary: A great value for solid wood and classic tone in a no-frills mandolin
Best for: Someone looking for a solid beginner instrument or a step up from a rock-bottom cheap mandolin
Kentucky has long been known for making great quality mandolins at cheap prices. Like most of their mandolins, the KM150 has a classic look and sound with a very affordable price.
Kentucky does a great job at cutting costs without cutting corners. The finish isn’t flashy, and you won’t find ornate inlays or fancy bindings. However, it’s still a good-looking mandolin. The standard dark sunburst finish gives it a traditional mandolin look without seeming cheap.
More importantly, the tone is excellent. There’s good projection, and it’s well-balanced between the high and low strings. Intonation is also quite good, and the neck feels comfortable. It could use a set-up to be made perfect, but even out of the box it’s quite playable.
The KM 150 also comes with a choice of woods. For the budget-minded, the standard model comes with laminate back and sides and a hand-carved solid spruce top. The top is the most important part of the mandolin for tone production, and having a solid wood top is great value in this price range. For a little more, you can get the whole mandolin in solid wood, with hand-carved maple back and sides. This offers even more value and better tone. Either way, you can’t go wrong!
- Solid top with option for all-solid wood
- Great projection and tone
- No-frills, plainer look
Rogue RM-100A Mandolin
Summary: A great value mandolin that doesn’t sound or feel cheap
Best for: Someone looking for a decent-sounding mandolin at a very low price
The Rogue RM-100A has a rock-bottom price tag, but is still a great option for beginners. Being made entirely out of laminate wood, it’s also a good choice for a knock-around or cheap travel mandolin. While it doesn’t quite have the same projection as more expensive instruments, it still has that classic mandolin sound.
To keep the price down, the big compromise Rogue has made is in the wood. The RM-100A is made entirely out of laminate wood, which has a slightly duller, less complex sound than solid wood. Still, given a good set-up this mandolin has a pleasing tone, with decent volume and sustain. It’s sturdily built, and the top doesn’t seem as thick as other cheap mandolins, which helps tone production.
Laminate wood does have a few advantages over solid wood. It’s less susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity, and less prone to warping overall. This make the Rogue mandolin a great choice for travel, camping, busking, or any other activity where your mandolin will be exposed to the elements.
Just about any mandolin you buy can be improved with a good set-up. This is especially true for the Rogue mandolin, which can have set-up issues out of the box. The good thing is, it’s relatively easy to bring the action up or down, adjust the bridge, and do other basic tune-ups. If you don’t know how, there are some great videos on YouTube that can walk you through the process.
- Sturdy construction
- Great value
- Less projection and slightly duller tone
The Loar LM520
Summary: An inexpensive mandolin that feels, looks, and sounds like an expensive one
Best for: Someone looking for a workhorse F-style mandolin on a budget
The Loar LM520 is at the top end of the “cheap mandolin” price range. Still, it’s an incredible value, and one of the cheapest F-style mandolins you can buy. Bluegrass mandolin players prize that distinctive scroll at the top, and the Loar LM520 looks and sounds great.
It’s probably better to say that the Loar LM520 is a “less expensive” rather than “cheap” mandolin. There’s certainly nothing cheap about its construction. The top is hand-carved fully graduated spruce, while the back and sides are hand-carved maple. The F-scroll looks superb, and overall the LM520 is a nice-looking mandolin. You won’t find the fancy inlays and bindings that you see on other mandolins, but you won’t find their price tag either!
The LM520 has plenty of volume and projection, with a nice ringing tone. It’s well-suited to being a workhorse bluegrass mandolin, and sounds great for soloing and chopping. There are some nice touches that help playability and intonation as well, including a rounded V profile to the neck and a compensated bridge.
Overall, the Loar LM520 is one of the best values in the mandolin world. It would not be out of place on a professional stage, and is a great mandolin for taking to a jam or open mic night. It’s also the perfect “step up” mandolin from one of the cheaper instruments on this list, a way to get great tone while still not breaking the bank.
- Great value for an F-style mandolin
- Incredible tone and projection
- Hand-carved front, back, and sides
- On the high end of the “cheap” mandolin price scale
Oscar Schmidt OM10E
Summary: An excellent acoustic-electric option
Best for: Someone who wants the ability to plug in without spending a lot
If you’re looking to plug in, the Oscar Schmidt OM10E is the cheap mandolin for you. It features a built-in pickup and two electric guitar-style controls. This gives it a unique look, but it still retains a classic tone.
Like the Rogue RM-100A, the Oscar Schmidt OM10E is a laminate wood mandolin. This means that it sacrifices a bit of tone and projection, but does make it a bit hardier than solid-wood mandolins. It will be a little quiet for a big jam session, but can still hold its own against more expensive mandolins. You can hear it set up against its more expensive cousins (and coming out sounding great!) here:
The OM10E comes with a under-bridge piezo pickup installed. Piezo pickups are designed to faithfully reproduce the acoustic tone of the instrument, and the OM10E sounds great when plugged in. The signal is nice and clean, and works well with an amplifier. If you plug into a PA system, a DI box might be advisable to help boost the gain a bit. The volume and tone knobs help give you a good range of control over the sound.
It’s also worth noting that the advantages of solid wood generally disappear when you plug in. The laminate sounds great when plugged in, and may be all you need if you’re mainly planning on doing plugged-in gigs. The mandolin is very easy to play, although like the Rogue Rm100A (or any mandolin, for that matter) it benefits a lot from a good set-up.
- Built-in pickup makes plugging in easy
- Great plugged-in and acoustic tone
- All laminate wood sacrifices a bit on projection and tone
Summary: A good budget option that makes customization easy
Best for: Someone who wants their beginner mandolin to play like a dream
Ibanez is a well-known name to any guitarist. Their M510 mandolin is a well-built addition to their lineup, and a very good value for a starter instrument.
Despite the cheap price, the M510 has a classic mandolin look. The dark stain version is particularly pretty to my eyes, although traditionalists will probably pick the normal sunburst. It feels like a sturdy instrument, and would be a good choice for a travel or knockaround mandolin if you already have an everyday player.
Like the Rogue RM100A, the M510 mandolin is completely made out of laminate wood. Still, it has good tone and projection, thanks to a well-constructed body. It won’t blast through a noisy jam, but it has enough projection to be heard in a band or smaller jam session.
The M510 is very playable and easy to set up. One great feature on the M510 is the truss rod. This allows you to adjust the action and helps keep the neck from warping. As with any mandolin, a set-up is essential to getting the most out of your instrument. The truss rod makes it even easier to get the neck to feel exactly the way you want it to.
- Truss rod makes action adjustment easy
- Good looks
- All-laminate construction means less projection