Thursday, March 26, 2015

What the Hell is a Mandocaster?

That's easy - it's Eastwood Guitars' electronic mandolin. It kinda like you took a seafoam green Telecaster and put it in the dryer until it shrunk to half size.  This is precisely what I told my five yeard old nephew and he believed me. This is also precisely why I'm not allowed to see my five year old nephew often.

Eastwood is very nice to lefties, producing the greater amount of their offerings lefty, including a lefty 12-string mandocaster. I already own a Delta 6, which is pretty cool for what it is, although it suffers a hair in the quality control department, with pencil marks near the pickup route. Suffice it to say that if you know what you're ordering, you will not be disappointed. The guitars are made in China and are not designed to be Les Pauls.

Eastwood was very communicative, letting me know the shipping information. To my surprise, the 'caster was shipped from England (Britland, as the kids say). It arrived in short order, with the carrier's driver conveniently hiding it next to my front steps. To his credit, he wrapped it in plastic to avoid the nearly constant precipitation. I also ordered the custom padded gig bag, which turned out to be a great addition (although getting it monogrammed was not a listed option). And let's face it - it wouldn't fit into any of my guitar cases.

Rather than taking a picture and posting it to all of the social sites (and Reddit), I'm using the Anti-Social Network to post an actual description. In the new tradition of including goodies, I got a package with a cute little cord, some picks, and something called fudge, which, according to the package, sells for 25p (that's $495.76 US). It is not fudge as we colonists know it but it was quite enjoyable. And this is, to the best of my knowledge, not a fudge review (although the absolute best vanilla fudge I get comes from a pharmacy).

Let me start off by saying this is a really cool little axe. It has some heft to it. It also had a bowed neck, which the techs at Eastwood assisted me in straightening (yes, it has a truss rod!).


As we might know, I'm a guitar player.  The first minor hurdle is learning how to play the mandolin. As reality would have it, the instrument is not tuned like a guitar. The irony here is that it is tuned the opposite of a guitar (EADG from the high string down). An online friend observed that if I chose to string it backwards (right-handed), it would be like a guitar.  As a stubborn kinda guy, I chose to play it 'normally' (GDAE, from the low string).  As a cocky kinda guitar player (of rather a lot of years), I naturally figured I could be playing in no time.

This reminds me of my aborted attempt to play the piano. I know theory so I could assmeble chords, but I quickly discovered that you cannot apply vibrato to a key, nor can you (traditionally) bend it. I felt like I was going to break a key while trying, so thus ended my piano career, quite abruptly.

Since this is 2015, I quickly downloaded a few mandolin apps to my android phone. I learned my first chord, a G major, and was off, wanking away and trying to make vaguely musical-sounding noises.  For hilarity's sake, I tried a few individual notes, trying to be the Hendrix of mandolin.  It sounded more like the Cobain of mandolin (don't send hate mail-I calls em as I sees em). It was at roughly this point that I discovered mandolins don't operate like guitars (no, really?). Aside from there being two fewer strings, you cannot bend a note in tune, due to trying to bend a pair of strings simultaneously (like a 12 string guitar).  The other minor thing is that because of the tuning, an open string is equal to the previous string's seventh fret, not the fifth, as on a guitar.

Lazy and anxious to play some actual music, I tried picking out a few things by ear, the first being St. Teresa, by Joan Osborne. BRIEF DETOUR: Listen to some Joan Osborne. She's a really good singer, who can cover almost anything and belt out her own stuff in a very musically pleasing way. It doesn't hurt that she's attractive, althouth I could do without the nose ring. I kinda want her to come sing to me.  She's one of the few that I listen to without listening for the guitar. This song has a particularly interesting bassline, provided by a fretless bass (not a fretted one, as in the video). There's also a live version, with an actual left-handed mandolinist (? and a bloody CAPO).

The next problem is that the spacing between the frets is miniscule, especially in comparison with a guitar. My poor normal sized fingers had some difficulty, especially trying to barre chords (which apparently you don't do). The chord shapes are all wrong too :P  Next up: Led Zepplin's The Battle of Evermore. It's probably wrong but it's mine by ear.

Now ask me how it sounds plugged in.
I have no idea. It's very live acoustically so I haven't plugged it in yet [check YouTube for samples]. In fact, it sustains better than some of my guitars. The first attempt will be into a Fender Mustang I, so I can distort the hell out of it at sensible volumes. What good is an old traditional instrument if you can't use it inappropriately? And for a gag, maybe I'll email Seymour Duncan to see if he has any replacement pickups for it.  JB Mandolin anyone? It has two pickups and a Strat-style blade switch, along with one volume and one tone knob.

Should you buy one?

  • IF you're interested in an electric version - it won't sound the same as your traditional mandolin but it will behave better onstage.
  • IF you're looking for a bit of good clean fun.
  • IF six strings are too intimidating.
  • IF you have the cash.
  • IF it seems like a good idea at the time.
  • IF you like good customer service (with a British accent, even in email).
  • IF you have a thing for seafoam green (or black or sunburst).
  • IF you want to impress the mandolin groupies (IF there are mandolin groupies).
  • IF you're already a musician, looking to add to your resume.

I got a closeout model on sale. There are still lefty closeout models on the site, so you can save some money. Overall, I believe that being a (stringed) musician has already helped the process move along. I'd also like their semi-hollow 12 string, so I could do my Mike Nesmith (Monkees) impersonation. This might come into conflict with my desire for a Custom Shop Strat, so I'll blow up that bridge when I come to it.


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