Breedlove FF and KO Mandolins1
Price: FF $2,265 (list), $1,699 (street); KO $1,999 (list), $1,499 (street)
Unlike luthiers who re-create classic designs, Kim Breedlove prefers new ideas and cutting-edge aesthetics. Breedlove’s FF and KO mandolins combine unique visual style with superb build quality. For mandolin players looking for nontraditional instruments, the Breedlove FF and KO offer welcome alternatives.
The models share several specs and features, including a big leaf maple neck, ebony fretboard, TUSQ nut, adjustable ebony bridge saddle, solid Sitka spruce top, western maple back and sides, 14″ scale-length, vintage stain, and a bolt-on neck joint. The primary differences are their body and soundhole shapes. While the FF has f-holes and a horn on the upper bout, the KO has an oval hole and lacks the FF’s horn.
Both mandolins have similarly high levels of fit and finish. They lack the multi-ply bindings and fancy scroll carving found on some traditional pro-level f-style mandolins, but make up for this with their elegant craftsmanship. The FF and KO feature solid wooden edge joints where the tops and backs meet the sides. Breedlove refers to their wood finish semi-gloss, but it’s more of a satin – thick enough to protect the wood, but much thinner than traditional gloss. Satin finishes are typically unforgiving – any and every touch up or imperfection shows – so the lack of any signs of putty or filler on the edges or seams of either of the mandolins reviewed is a tribute to the level of woodworking skill that went into the instruments. The only complaint is the lack of a pickguard on both, which would be a nice option for protecting the front lower bout and giving the player a “depth gauge” while playing.
The neck shapes of the FF and KO are similar; a moderately deep U shape rather than a V or “canoe.” Both have a satin finish with a smooth, nonstick surface that offers no resistance when sliding into upper positions. Published nut width on both instruments is 1.1875″, relatively average-sized compared to other necks. The frets are beefier than traditional mandolin frets, which gives a beefier feel and should result in longer fret life.
Intonation on both instruments as delivered from the factory was good. Both actions were somewhat on the high side, but Breedlove’s adjustable saddle, which can be altered while the instrument is fully tuned, made it easy to lower the actions. This did have some effect on overall maximum volume: as with traditional instruments, the lower action didn’t drive the Breedlove’s top quite as hard.
Traditionally, oval-hole mandolins are bassier and mellower than f-hole designs, and the KO follows suit. This extra bass, combined with sustain, produces a loud instrument that doesn’t get muddy when driven hard. Chop chords on the KO don’t have as much pop and snap as with an f-style, which is why bluegrass players usually prefer f-holes.
The FF has more midrange power and a drier, less bassy harmonic balance than the KO. Typical of an f-style, the FF also has a much more pronounced chop and a slightly nasal midrange. From a player’s position the FF doesn’t seem quite as loud as the KO. However when compared from five feet away, the sound pressure levels of the two instruments were virtually identical. This is common – a sound hole doesn’t seem as loud from the player’s perspective because more of the sound is projected away from the player.
Neither the Breedlove KO nor FF is a “traditional” mandolin design, yet both capture the archetypal sound of their body styles. If you want a U.S.-made all-solid-wood mandolin with a nontraditional shape and style, the Breedlove KO or FF could be ideal.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.