What size instrument should I play? - Dec 2001
'Size' can refer to an instrument's BODY STYLE or SCALE LENGTH. Both kinds of size are important.
Differences in BODY STYLES in mandolins are greater than in guitars, banjos & violins. Four mandolin body styles are most common: Bowl-back, Army/Navy, A-Style & F-Style. The bowl- back is an old-fashioned mandolin that's difficult to build & hard to hold securely; few have survived in playable condition. The A-Style (tear-drop shape) & F-Style (scroll at the neck on the bass side of the body) mandolins emerged in the late 1800s & remain dominant today. Both the A & F-styles have convex backs & tops, but are flatter than the bowl-back. The Army/Navy model, a compact, durable mandolin originally used in the military, is a less expensive style with completely flat back & front.
A player's preference in body style depends on both aesthetics visual appeal & tonal characteristics and on how well the instrument's shape fits the player's physique. This fit is even more important in guitars in which body styles vary significantly in size.
Six flat-top body styles in guitars are most prevalent: Parlor, Double-oh, Triple-oh, Oh-M, Dreadnought & Jumbo (arch-top guitars are often Jumbos). Listed in increasing size, these styles fit different people & different styles of music.
Petite & stout people, especially those with short arms, find the smaller bodies more comfortable. Fingerstyle players generally prefer small bodies that offer easy right-hand access to the strings & greater response to fingersyle techniques. Classical guitars are Double-ohs; Eric Clapton's favorite acoustic guitar is a Triple-oh. Tall, lean players & players who play in bands with other instruments (drums, banjos, brass...) often prefer louder Dreadnought & Jumbo bodies.
Differences in banjo body styles, while subtle, are important. Open-back banjos, which produce the "plunky" sound prized in folk & old-timey styles, can have small or large heads. Open back banjos are light-weight. Closed-back banjos, with less variation in head-size, are heavy with metal parts that produce the brilliance & volume sought in country & bluegrass. Rather than size, the physical fit between player & instrument for a banjo is the weight that players can/will bear. As with all instruments, the tonal characteristics of the body style is important in the choice.
Three violin builders, Stradivarius, Guarnarius & Stainer, developed unique violin body styles that have been patterns for other builders for hundreds of years. The differences between the styles are subtle variations in the width of the bouts, arch depth & F-hole shape. The small physical differences make large tonal differences. Therefore, violinists (violists, cellists, & bassists) generally choose body style on the basis of tone rather than a fit to the player's physique, unless the player is very small 4'6" tall or under.
Because the physical fit between an instrument & a player is crucial to proper technique, small adults & children need instruments with shorter SCALE LENGTH to avoid arm contortion or over-extension. Qualified music teachers & vendors can help small players choose & get appropriately scaled instruments in most styles.