Dome-Back Mandolins
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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM
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Dome-Back Mandolins

So, my penchant for learning about obscure instruments led me down another rabbit hole.

After I restored a student bowl-back mandolin to playability, I was having some fun with it, playing renaissance-style tunes on it. But it's not technically a renaissance instrument.

I started looking for mandolin precursors I could afford to restore, just in case I wanted to do a ren-fest sort of thing. Yes, there are things like bowl-backed mandolas out there, but they are hardly affordable.

My dome-back mandolin, no maker's mark, but strongly resembling Tannhauser instruments made between 1930 and 1948 in Bavaria.  Click for bigger photo.Then, on an auction site I check out more than I should, I stumbled across a wide-faced mandolin with a back made of staves. The back bulges, but nowhere near as much as a traditional bowl-back mandolin.

That said, I thought it would make a better stand-in at a ren-themed event than my other instruments. And it might have a unique tone - after all the sound chamber is half again as large as that of my arch-tops.

My dome-back mandolin, no maker's mark, but strongly resembling Tannhauser instruments made between 1930 and 1948 in Bavaria.  Click for bigger photo.I bid on it and won it. And then I researched it. Okay, that was backwards, but you know how internet auctions go.

If you didn't know any better, you might assume that it was a sort of transitional instrument between the narrow-faced, deep-back "Florentine" mandolin and the wider, shallower A-style "arch-top" (and arch-back) mandolin.

But it's not. It was probably built between 1925 and 1945, well after A-style mandolins were developed. The seller believed it might be a German-built "Tannhauser" mandolin. It had no markings, but that hint got me started down another rabbit hole. (Apologies to my German readers for leaving the umlaut off of the name "Tannhauser." Different computers read that character in different ways, and most turn it to garbage.)

Bavarian Origins -

The Tannhauser line of instruments apparently traces back to a family in Markneukirken, Germany, where dozens of other families, guilds, and companies manufactured musical instruments of all kinds for centuries. This particular family enterprise was apparently founded in 1848 by Johann Friedrich Dick. 1. Other sources describe it as being "founded" as Richard Dick Distributors in 1885. Under that name, it was described in official documents as manufacturers of woodwinds and stringed instruments as late as 1932.

According to one German source2 that I have seen quoted, but not attributed, they sold guitars and other instruments with such grandious names as "Tannhauser, " " Arion," "The Little Quiet," and " Walter vd Vogelweide." (I found one Tannhauser Meister guitar on an old auction site, so that part of the "history" has support.)

A typical mid-century dome-back mandolin, almost certainly made in Markneukirken, Germany between 1920 and 1950.  Click for a slightly bigger photo.A typical mid-century dome-back mandolin, almost certainly made in Markneukirken, Germany between 1920 and 1950.  Click for a slightly bigger photo.More to the point, the Dick company left a number of unusual mandolins in their wake, labeled Tannhauser Ges. Gesch (Ges. Gesch is German for "legally protected") One that was recently auctioned off is shown at the right. You can't see it, but "Tannhauser" is stamped near the lower right edge of the face.

On the internet, I have seen several other Tannhauser mandolins (or Tannhauser clones) dated to 1939 or 1940. Some of their owners believed theirs were made later, but I don't know any that were certainly dated after 1945.

End of the Legacy - Many Bavarian families and companies kept making musical instruments up through WWII. But after the war, the GDR attempted to meld them into one government-run organization, with, er, mixed results.

One or two of the old companies came out of the GDR era; most fell apart under GDR "management." (Starting about 1948, descendants of the Dick family who specialized in woodworking tools left to form the company that is now part of Dictum, but apparently no family members continued to make musical instruments.)

Surviving Mandolins - I have seen these instruments listed as "Italian" in orgin, and given dates after 1948. In fact mandolins of a similar design, but a with a deep flat back were made in Italy. But a closer look at dome-backed instruments always brings their origins back to Markneukirken, Germany, between 1930ish and 1948.A Tannhauser mandolin, showing the domed back.  Click for bigger photo.

They are most unusual because of their shape. Their face is flat and wide, unlike "Florentine" mandolins, which have a bend at the bridge, or A-style mandolins, which have arched tops.

Most distinctively, their backs are made with staves, like traditional "Florentine" mandolins, but they are only slightly rounded, sometimes called "dome-backed."

An unlabeled mandolin in the Tannhauser style, showing the domed back.  Click for bigger photo.
This is the back of my mandolin. You can see why they are sometimes called "arch-backs."

Both stave patterns are common. There are some that are more ornate, but those are relatively rare.

If you could trace these back to, say 1890, you might assume they were transitional models that sat somewhere between the round-back, narrow-faced Florentine mandolins and the arch-backed, wide-faced Model A-type instruments.

But, historically, they don't seem to go back that far. I'm going to guess that they were a manufacturer's attempt to make mandolins that would compete with the Model As, without offending German sensibilities too much.

According to one web page3, it's possible, if not probable that several other companies and individuals made similar instruments. Though that article talks about the quality of the builders involved, I know from previous research that several manufacturers in that region unashamedly copied their competitors' best instruments (yes it was illegal, but it happened with violins and autoharps all the time). So we have a pretty good idea of when and where these were built, but not always of who built them.

The one I have is unmarked. It may not be a Dick/Tannhauser, but scouring the internet for similar instruments, I kept coming across Tannhausers that had similar designs.

Value? - In case you're wondering, these seldom appear on internet sale or auction site, and when they do, they seldom go for much more than $100. Sadly, they don't have much of a reputation, even among mandolin fanatics. Many of the instruments I've found had problems, including one with a warped face, one with a warped neck, one with staves separating in the back, etc. But the one I found seems to be in excellent condtion.

When I get it cleaned up, conditioned, and restrung, I'll do an A/B comparison with my other mandolins and let you know the results. Early "tests" tell me that it does not seem to have the "chimey" sound of my F-hole A-style mandolins - even the student models. But I'll wait until a real mandolin player has his hands on it to make any final determination. (After all, it may project more than an F-hole mandolin, something that you need two people to test.)

I also wonder if their value is apparently low because so few people recognize them for what they are - Bavaria's best pre-war effort to produce an instrument with the projection of a bowl-back and the cavity size of an A-style.

I barely play the thing, so it's hard for me to tell whether its possible shortcomings are really my shortcomings, but I would love to do an A/B comparison with someone used to playing professional instruments.

Related Articles

  • About Mandolins- An overview of mandolin history, including musical styles and tuning conventions.

  • Mandolin for Guitarists - A guitarist's introduction to the differences and potential obstacles he or she will encounter when picking up a mandolin, as well as a method for learning the basic chords quickly.

  • Restoring Two Student Mandolins - Converting two mandolin "basket cases," one new, one over a century old, to playable instruments. Don't try this on anything worth more than $100 until you've practiced on clunkers.

  • Click to go to the Mandolin Buyers' Guide page on's Guide - To keep from filling my reference pages with product ads and recommendations, I set up an entirely separate site ( for listing products that are worth considering from vendors who are reasonably trustworthy.

    The Mandolin "Buyers' Guide" also lists supplementary information about contemporary mandolins that there wasn't really room for here. You can check it out by clicking here.

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