Thanks to acts such as the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and the Punch Brothers, the mandolin is suddenly hip again, particularly among guitarists interested in expanding their stringed horizons.
While the lower-end mando market is pretty crowded, the Ibanez M522S is one of the few F-style instruments in the price range. Certainly, pear-shaped “A-style” instruments are more common in the under-$300 category, but for folks who crave that archtop Florentine design (bringing to mind Bill Monroe and the venerable Gibson F-5), the appeal here is obvious.
The M522S has a maple body, a solid spruce top, and a mahogany neck with a 13.78″ scale. The flat, bound fingerboard is rosewood with pearloid block inlays and 24 frets (nut width is 1.18″). Look for a pearloid “flowerpot” inlay on the headstock and that old-school ’70s Ibanez logo – a nice touch. The M522S has gold hardware, including eight open-gear tuners and a tailpiece with an adjustable wood bridge. The Brown Sunburst finish of the test instrument gave it a nicely aged aura. (The M522S is also available in Dark Violin Sunburst.) The body featured cream binding and its back and sides were richly flamed.
Built in China, the M522S has the level of construction and detail one would expect for a street price of $299. Overall, our tester was well-made, though some of the binding work was crudely executed around the Florentine scroll. Its hardware was acceptable, especially compared with those very low-end mandos that are challenging to keep in tune. The low G string slipped its gear on a few occasions during tune-up, requiring more ginger peg twisting, but once there this eight-string stayed solidly in tune. On a weekend of gigs, it held like a champ, requiring only minor adjustments over two nights of performances.
In terms of playability, the M522S has a quick, flat fingerboard and nicely dressed frets, enabling fast tremolo picking, chording, and all the bluegrass pull-offs you want. Tonally, this Ibanez is typical for its class, possessing a bright, brash sound that will cut through any acoustic mix. It’s not the sweet sound of a well-aged vintage piece, but it’s also not the trebly squawk of some budget mandos we’ve heard. In fact, quite a few in the audiences at the live gigs commented favorably on the clear, chiming tone. This box added just the right amount of sparkle to folk and acoustic-rock material.
Throughout our studio and live tests, the M522S proved itself a rock-solid budget performer and possessed the kind of value for which Ibanez is known. For three bills, you get a sweet-looking F-style with a fast neck and reliable tuning. Again, we’ll note the tuning-peg issue, but you have to compare price to features.
If you’re a guitarist looking to make the mando move, we can give this entry-level model the thumbs-up. Though it should be noted Ibanez makes A-style mandolins of equal quality for even less money, such as the M510 and the electrified M510E. But again, many regard the archtop F-style as more desirable, which helps make the M522S so notable in this price category. Tune its paired strings to traditional G-D-A-E (low to high) or the more guitarist-friendly G-D-A-D, and off you go. If you want to dip your toes in the F-style pool for a very modest investment, the M522S will do the job.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.