Unless a free mandolin just falls in your lap, you’ll need to purchase one. When you go shopping for a mandolin, I strongly suggest that you don’t buy a cheap one off of the Internet. Most of these cheapo instruments will sound like a tin can strung with barbed wire. Instead, you should visit your local music store and get the expert advice of a knowledgeable sales person. Be sure to stress that you’re a beginner and that you need a mandolin that’s set up so it’s easy to play.
Even before you make a trip to a music store, you need to know that mandolins come in these six different body styles. 1) The Neapolitan style is called a “round-back” or “bowl-back.” In the South we call them “tater bugs.” These instruments are beautiful to look at, but are difficult to hold because of their round backs. 2) The flat-back mandolin is an improvement over the tater bugs, but generally have a soft sound. This is fine for playing at home, but it would get lost when playing with a group. 3) The teardrop-shaped mandolin with an oval soundhole is called the “A” style. It’s perfect for playing any kind of music and it projects well. 4) This mandolin has an oval soundhole and is graced with a fancy scroll and is called an F style. These mandolins sound great but can be pricey. 5) The teardrop-shaped “A” style mandolin with F holes is preferred for bluegrass music. 6) The F style mandolin with F holes is what most professional bluegrass mandolinists like Bill Monroe play.
Tip: For most beginners, I would recommend either the teardrop-shaped mandolin with an oval hole or with F holes. If you’ll be playing bluegrass, I would lean toward the F hole model. Some beginners go for the F style mandolin with a scroll, but to me they’re a tad gaudy. If you show up to a jam with an F style mandolin, people are going to assume that you’re a serious mandolin player and will expect that you can play just like Bill Monroe. Good luck with that!