The ever-watchful eye of master luthier Michael Sanden creates magic once more with this charming little mandolin. Alun Lower gets folky…
Tanglewood is one of those companies that seem to be able to do it all. Not being content with offering some of the most enjoyable and competitive entry- and mid-level instruments that your hard-earned money can buy, they’ve also paired up with renowned luthier Michael Sanden on a number of occasions to offer higher end (but still competitive) models for all of us to drool over, too. One such instrument is the TSM M mandolin. While the mandolin market is much less crowded than that of the standard acoustic guitar, there is still plenty of competition to be had with the likes of Ortega offering some compelling, value-packed alternatives.
A purely acoustic model, the TSM M nonetheless offers a pleasing foundation of all-solid construction and a cunning eye for design. The top, back, sides, and neck are all solid Sapele, with the bridge and fingerboard fashioned from ebony and a die-cast chrome tailpiece anchoring the strings firmly in place. The Sapele is then finished vintage sunburst, accented by black plastic binding with a classy arrowhead inlay. Other than the “T” logo gliding in abalone over the upper frets you probably wouldn’t have guessed this was a Tanglewood from the first glance, giving the guitar an exclusive vibe.
While the majority of the construction and finishing is of a very high standard, the one area that does let the TSM M down ever so slightly is the glossy finish. While not bad by any stretch of the imagination, there is a bit of build up around the neck join and around certain areas of the headstock. I’ve seen other mandos in this price range with high quality satin finishes that have proved to be a little bit less obtrusive, but that’s entirely down to personal opinion, and one can’t deny that the glossy finish looks great with the sunburst Sapele.
One little surprise is the inclusion of a zero fret on the fingerboard, a really nice touch that from memory I can’t recall seeing on any other comparable mandolins in this price range. The result of this seemingly minor addition should be the benefit of truly excellent intonation, and sure enough the TSM M proves to be damn close to perfect in all positions of the neck. It’s a great performance and a serious plus point for this little charmer. Elsewhere at this end of the neck there is also a lovely set of open-gear, vintage-style tuners, which accent the look beautifully and operate as smoothly as you could possibly want. Great stuff.
I have to admit to being a little bit sceptical of the TSM, as my mind was wandering to comparable mandolins that have featured more exotic wood combinations for similar money. Sapele is often seen as a more affordable alternative to mahogany, and for some this cost-cutting measure might be a bit of a turn-off. However, all thoughts of tonal snobbery seem to dissipate the moment I strum out my first few notes.
The TSM M positively oozes character from every pore. A few quick taps on the wood ring out on a wonderfully musical way, easily projecting enough air to get the strings moving and ringing in that way that sounds like a group of violinists warming up. The Sapele has a very straightforward, mid-rich tone with very good projection in the way that full-size mahogany acoustics do. This can sometimes be to the detriment of any harmonics and overtones, but not so with the TSM M. Playing a few slow lead passages and letting the notes ring out results in some beautiful overtones that react with the wood and the other strings to create a lovely ambient reverb. It feels full, complex and lively, and let me tell you – it’s very addictive. Sustain is also very good, possibly aided by that zero fret once again. Playability in general is spot on and tuning stability everything I would have expected from a pro-quality instrument.
For what I expected to be a very straightforward and simple instrument, the TSM M really made an impression on me. In truth, there are slightly more attractive options available in terms of wood combination – but that’s usually the case with every guitar I’ve ever reviewed. The point that should be made is that this is an extremely able and adaptable mandolin that has been designed by one of the keenest eyes in the business. This is an instrument that is easy to play, great sounding and almost impossible to put down. What’s not to like about that?
Model: TSM M
Retail Price: £799
Body Size: Cutaway
Top: Solid Sapele
Back and Sides: Solid Sapele
Tuners: Vintage Open Gear
Nut Width: 38.85mm
Scale Length: 383mm
Onboard Electronics: None
Strings Fitted: Elixir Medium
Gig Bag/Case Included: Deluxe Padded Hard Case