A great-sounding US-made flattop mandolin at an affordable price.
by Teja Gerken
November 21, 2019
In the decade since its founding in 2008, Northfield has made a name for its affordable high-quality instruments. Headquartered in Michigan, the company does most of its manufacturing in China, but it has recently set up a domestic shop to build certain models. The first line of mandolins to come out of Northfield’s Marshall, Michigan facility is the new Calhoun model, a flattop design aimed at beginning players and enthusiasts who love the sound of vintage “pancake” mandolins.” We had a chance to check out the Calhoun in the Peghead Nation video studio, where mandolin instructor Sharon Gilchrist put it through its paces.
The Northfield Calhoun takes its inspiration from flattop mandolins (such as vintage Gibson Army Navy models and the various Flatiron models offered in the 1980s and ‘90s) of the past, but its elegant design gives it an immediate distinction. One thing that separates the Calhoun from other entry-level instruments is the excellent quality of its materials. Both the spruce top and maple back and sides on our demo instrument had beautiful grain and figure of a kind you’d be more likely to find on more expensive instruments. The fingerboard and adjustable bridge are made of black walnut, which is a great alternative to the more common ebony or rosewood.
The goal of providing great tone and playability at an affordable price is reflected in the Calhoun’s architecture: A flat top is easier to build than the carved design used on A- and F- style mandolins, and the instrument has no binding, purfling, or rosette. Simple dots serve as position markers in the fretboard, and the pickguard and armrest included on our demo instrument are optional. However, just as the Calhoun is built with woods of the same grade as some of Northfield’s pricier instruments, it also has the same tailpiece and Gotoh tuners found on the company’s S- and F-series mandolins.
The Calhoun delivers the warm and dynamic voice that is often associated with flattop mandolins. “It’s a very rich, deep-sounding mandolin,” Sharon Gilchrist said. “Sometimes in a beginner mandolin, getting that deep sound is hard, but Northfield managed to do that.” Sharon also found the neck to be very playable, and agreed that it would make an excellent choice for a beginning or developing player. With a vibe and sound that belies its low cost, the Calhoun is, of course, not only of interest to beginning players, but to anyone looking for a great-sounding and easy-to-play flattop mandolin.
SPECS: Flattop mandolin with oval soundhole. Solid Italian spruce top. Figured maple back, sides, and neck. Black walnut fretboard and bridge. Adjustable truss rod. 13.9-inch scale. 1³/₃₂-inch nut width. Gotoh tuners. Cast tailpiece. Made in the USA. Starting at $795. Northfieldinstruments.com
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