While still a distant second in popularity to their sibling, the F hole mandolin, oval hole mandolins are slowly making a comeback. Roughy 100 years ago, oval holes were the most popular mandolin. Oval hole mandolins were even one of the most popular instruments of any kind!
Fast forward and things change. Only a fraction of mandolins offered now are of the oval hole variety, making your choices rather easy for a lack of options. This doesn’t mean that there are not good options out there!
What to look for?
Naturally the best oval hole mandolin will be built well and carved from all solid woods. You want it to sound incredible and practically play itself. These are not impossible standards, but do keep in mind that you may not get something like this for $100 or $200.
Let’s start with the favorite here at Folkmusician. The Eastman MD504. Not that it is the best Eastman mandolin made, but it hits all the features at a price most players can justify. Eastman craftsmanship is superb!
Dropping down in price, there is the Eastman MD304, which comes in at a couple of bills less without significant compromises.
Dropping down even further, you should take a look at the Kentucky KM-270 Oval hole Mandolin. These are great budget instruments that still sound good. These are still all solid and hand carved.
Check Pricing on Amazon: Kentucky KM-270 Oval Hole Mandolin
Need to spend even less? Now you are getting into compromises. Not to say you can’t get a usable mandolin in the lower price points, but there will be some corners cut.
Heading the other direction, you can checkout the higher model Eastman’s. If you are ready to get into the multiple thousands, Weber is a great choice as well.
Oval hole mandolins were traditionally not used with a strap, or rarely. In modern times, most players do use a strap. This will be tied around the headstock and then attached to the end pin. Many end pins are simply a tapered wooden dowel inserted into the bottom of the mandolin. These are not meant to be glued in and can pop out unexpectedly. Be aware!
Oval hole mandolins tend to have a more mellow, woody sound. They have more sustain and are usually more pleasing when played solo. F-hole mandolins tend to be louder with more projection. This is one of those cases where you can’t have both, or at least not 100% of both. As much as players lean toward F-hole mandolins, many that take the time to research ovals, actually prefer them.
Many Oval holes will have a shorter neck joint than an F-hole mandolin. For most players, it is of little concern. Most players will not be playing up into frets that cannot be reached on an oval hole mandolin. The shorter neck can present an issue with some cases. If the neck brace area is too far forward in the case, the headstock will rest on it. There are plenty of cases that do fit ovals, just be aware that not “every” A style case will fit.
So many players are doing themselves a disservice by dismissing the Oval hole mandolin without even trying it. Please don’t be that person. Give one a try and see how you like it. So many players would be better served by an Oval, but buy an F-hole and never give an oval a try.
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