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JBovier EMC Electric Mandolin Review

JBovier offers a solution for those playing mandolin in a band

Aside from having to think in fifths rather than fourths, mandolin players have two enormous obstacles: First, a great mandolin costs a small fortune. Second, acoustic mandolins are very difficult to amplify—they seldom sound anything like a mandolin once you plug them in, and you usually have to cut a hole in a beautiful instrument to install a pickup.

I have a Weber mandolin that I dearly love. It’s worth more than my car. I went in deep on my mando and its pickup after hearing a few lackluster TV playbacks where my mandolin sounded like a Tele plugged into a small transistor radio. With research and plenty of cold, hard cash, I got where I needed to be in the mando tone department and I have no regrets. I would have to sell a kidney on eBay to do it again (and I may if my Weber is ever smashed or stolen).

JBovier attempts to rectify the aforementioned mandolinist dilemmas. Company founder Jeff Cowherd began building mandolins in 2005 with the goal of putting quality instruments in the hands of budget-strapped players. JBovier mandolins have since developed a reputation for exceptional fit, finish, and value—but more importantly for their extraordinary tone and volume.

Cowherd’s electric mandolins were designed with the same principles in mind. The prototypes were first displayed at 2009 Summer NAMM, and they received numerous accolades from accomplished mando players there. Production began soon afterward, and the three models—the ELS, EMC, and EMC-5—were officially launched in early 2010.

The Specs
I test-drove an EMC in vintage cream, and the perfect finish has a subtle, vintage-ish vibe. It owes much of its design inspiration to the four-string Fender Mandocaster introduced back in 1956. However, the body is more contoured, so it’s more ergonomic than the flat Fender design. It also features individual saddles, which makes setup very easy and accurate— kind of like on a modern Tele.

The old rule that you can’t beat stock Fender pickups from the 1950s clearly does not apply to mandolins. I played a ’57 Fender Mandocaster at a recent guitar show, and it was terrible. JBovier went to considerable effort to improve on it by including a pair of new, proprietary JB-53 pickups, which are stock on all JBovier e-mandos. The JB-53s look like little active humbuckers, and they were created as distinct neck and bridge units. They’re controlled by a three-way switch, and each has a ceramic magnet and a much wider internal rail that fits four- or five-string mandolins for a very even output. In the neck and bridge positions, they function as single-coils, but they become a true humbucker in the center position. The tone of this center position can be catered to taste by raising or lowering the pickups.

Let’s Take Her for a Spin
I tested the EMC by plugging it into an L.R. Baggs direct box and then into a PA. Then I went caveman, plugging it straight into my guitar amp. My conclusion is that it’s a very cool e-mando, but that it’s probably not going to fool anybody into thinking they’re listening to a well mic’d acoustic mandolin. But that’s not the point. The EMC’s unique tones put a very cool spin on mandolin parts. I liked it best run straight into my guitar rig. The output is on par with a medium-output electric guitar, and the effects that I usually use with my electric guitars added a fun dimension. If you’re in a situation where you need to switch between electric guitar and mandolin—or if you’re primarily an electric guitarist but you’ve been looking for a way to mix things up in your band—the EMC is a very practical tool.

My favorite tone was the neck pickup, with the tone knob rolled back a bit. Although I experimented with other pickup settings, once I found that one, I didn’t move. My band’s front-of-house man liked the ease of this system because, rather than running a separate mandolin line and having to unmute the mando line when I switched, he just sat back and listened as my mandolin parts blasted from my guitar amp. I loved the ease of switching. My mandolin mix was exactly like my guitar mix, and I could control my volume for solos just like I can with my guitar. In short, the EMC eliminates many of the technical hassles guitar players face when switching between guitar and mandolin.

The Final Mojo
JBovier has taken a good idea from Fender’s heyday and made it actually work. For a gigging electric player who needs a mandolin part to cut over a loud drummer, the EMC is a practical and affordable solution. I loved it.

Buy if...
you play mandolin with a loud band.
Skip if...
you are a full-time bluegrass player.

Street $679 - JBovier -