Hi, this is Paul Race, who writes most of the articles on this site and several others. I love the kind of acoustic instruments that Folk, Americana, Bluegrass, and acoustic Blues are played on - which is a pretty wide spectrum.
I even dabble in several that I own and can play "in a pinch," but am no means proficient. One class of such instruments is the mandolin. At the moment, I own three, all student models from various periods. (The oldest one is shown at the right.)
The most helpful resource for hard questions or hard-felt opinions on mandolins is the Mandolin Cafe. That site's best feature may be its discussion forums, which have years' worth of information. Individual threads often turn up in Google searches. My only caveat is to pay attention to the dates of any thread that discusses a modern product. Product lines change, sometimes without changing the product number.
So why am I adding to the plethora of content that is already out there?
Mandolin EvolutionI'm told that many instruments have been called mandolins over the last two plus centuries. But before that, there were mandolas and other instruments that were larger. And those go back to medieval times.
The word "mandolin" means, essentially, "little mandola." So you might consider it an offshoot of a larger instrument that is now rarely played.
As I understand it, these mini-mandolas began to catch on seriously in the mid-to-late-1700s. Many variations were made, each known chiefly by the location of the builders. Italy was very well represented, with France also making a showing. Most other European countries had local manufacturers as well.
To modern eyes most of the mandolins of that era look very similar, though to a player of that era, that would be like claiming a Les Paul and Telecaster are essentially the same guitar.
Trying to find examples of mandolin precursors or variations I went down a sort of "rabbit hole" searching "renaissance mandolin painting" on Google. I found many early renaissance examples of lutes, mandolas, and related instruments, but every painting I saw that showed a mandolin, or even had "mandolin" in the title was from the mid-1800s or later.
The Pierre Charles Comte painting to the right, "Woman by a Window with a Mandolin" is no older than 1850 and is probably younger. I included it only as an example, one of dozens I found, all of which were from the mid-to-late 1800s.
During those decades, the mandolin was a popular subject for paintings, even when the "mandolin" shown might actually be another instrument. The instrument in the Comte painting, for example, seems to have six strings (or maybe six courses), and it's definitely larger than most 1800s mandolins. (Of course, people were smaller in those days . . . . )
Gradually, the most propular features of each style converged into something like the round-back mandolins we're familiar with today. Yes, bracing and materials of an 1850s mandolin may be different, but not so a casual player or audience member would notice
That's why I'm calling this section "modern mandolins." The farther you go back before, say, 1850, the more variations you'll find. After about 1850s, most mandolins use the same tuning scheme, etc. So if you already play mandolin, and you come across a late-1800s mandolin in playing condition, the only things you'd have to adjust to are the scale length and nut width.
Yes that's a vast oversimplification. If there's something you think I should add or explain better, please contact us and we'll take a look.
1850ish to 1898ish - In the United States and Western Europe, most mandolins had bodies built like lutes, with strips of wood glued together into something like an egg shape. A broad strip of wood wrapped around the lower part of the smaller strips to hold the ends in place and to provide a surface for the face to attach. The face generally bent slightly where the bridge attached. The narrow neck attached to a peg head that was geared with a worm-gear arrangement similar to that used on modern classical guitars.
In the late 1800s, both banjo and mandolin became popular instruments for amateur musicians. That was the age of "Classic banjo," and many school or community "banjo orchestras" or clubs formed, using banjos of all shapes and sizes. A few included other instruments such as guitar or upright bass.
Something very similar happened with the mandolin. "Mandolin orchestras" appeared all over Europe and in many parts of the United states. Like the "banjo orchestras," mandolin orchestras usually included other instruments, including mandolas and guitars. But it was the mandolins, with European-style "tremolo" playing, that dominated the sound.
By about 1900, the mandolin had become more popular than the banjo, and mandolin orchestras were going strong. "Beginner" instruments flooded the market, and thousands have survived. BTW, most of them won't put your kids through college, a question I am frequently asked about old student instruments. .
1898ish to 1922ish - Hoping to capitalize on this popularity, Orville Gibson began the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. Ltd. Attempting to make the mandolin louder, he introduced mandolins designed more like violins, with carved, arched back and face. (The violin-style F holes came later.)
The "A" style, shown at the right, was a simple tear-drop shape.
An F-4 is shown at the right.
Both styles had oval sound-holes until 1922.
In case you wonder if the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co. was ever "all in" on the mandolin family, check out Larry Jacobsen's photo to the right, taken at the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, South Dakota.
The front row is all mandolins, F style on the left, A style and Euro in the right. The next row has two mandolas, one F style and one A style.
Behind them is a bass mandolin. Yes, Gibson really made those. (They made enormous bass banjos, too, in case you wondered.)
All of these instruments, including the "harp guitar" and the sharp-cornered F. Lang "kite mandolin" on the back wall are pre-1922.
1922ish to 1940ish - According to many sources, in 1922, Gibson's chief designer Loar introduced the F5, which substituted violin-style F holes for the old oval holes.
Don't laugh, in the 1960s, engineers proved that the sound vibrating around the F holes in the violin adds a flute-like tone that makes the violin sound richer than other instruments. Loar experimented with all kinds of tops before he settled on this one.
In 1923, Loar is reported to have built the first F-hole A (teardrop) mandolin, the A5, for "Mrs. Griffith," the wife of a famous mandolin player of the era. Later, this became the most popular configuration for A-style mandolins of all brands.
At this time, almost all mandolins, round-back or arch-topped, were still played according to European styles, emphasizing the rapidly-picked "tremolo" you currently associate with, say, Venetian gondoliers.
By the 1920s, however, interest in mandolin was waning, outpaced both by ukuleles and by the new 4-string tenor banjos that supported the Jazz ("Ragtime" and "Dixieland") bands of the era.
So there was a long period of decline in mandolin sales. Fewer models were made, and according to some writers, the models that were made declined in quality. The "Roaring Twenties" and the age of Swing sounded the death-knell to the mandolin orchestra movement, and nearly to the mandolin.
1940ish to Today - The fate of the mandolin turned around once more when a distinctly American style of mandolin playing emerged. A Kentucky-born mandolin player who patterned his mandolin playing after "old-time" fiddle tunes began playing on the radio, on RCA Victor's Bluebird label, and, eventually, on the Grand Ol' Opry, as Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
Monroe had got "stuck" with mandolin in his youth, because his brothers had taken the more popular instruments, but he had spent countless hours accompanying his fiddle-playing Uncle Pendleton "Pen" Vandiver at barn dances and the like.
Never trained in the European style (with its extended vibratos, etc), he adjusted his playing to traditional "string band" music styles, many of which traced back to Celtic fiddle tunes.
Monroe played chords or flat-picked the same kind of melodies that Uncle "Pen" had fiddled. His playing style was closer to that of, say, Maybelle Carter, than it was to anything that had ever come out of Europe. It was distinctly American, and as Monroe's star rose, so did the mandolin's.
At some point in the early 1940s, Monroe acquired a Loar-signed F5, which soon became the "holy grail" of mandolins, for anyone wishing to play "string-band" or that newfangled "Bluegrass" music Monroe was pioneering. It is no wonder that so many mandolins to this date imitate the F5's scrollwork, arched top, and F holes. Few will ever approach Loar's quality, though - he hand-tuned each top before his instruments went together.
Influence on Other Genres - Like the tenor guitar and tenor banjo, the mandolin was largely ignored by the Folk Revival, which tended to use guitars and banjos (no doubt due to the influence of folks like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger).
However, the "bluegrass-flavored" mandolin has become a staple of Bluegrass, Americana, Celtic, and related genres. Many fiddlers double on the thing, aided by the fact that both instruments have the same tuning.
The mandolin has also been featured on a number of rock songs, including Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore" and Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." It's notable that the mandolin parts in all of these are more influenced by Monroe than they are by, say, the Venetian masters.
Mandolin TuningModern mandolins are almost always tuned the same as violins. That is to say that, counting downward from your chin, the string pairs are G, D, A, and E. If you're a guitar player, this may seem backwards, because your lowest four strings are E, A, D, and G. But the neck is so short, that once you get used to playing in "5ths" instead of "4ths", you'll realize that reaching an extra two frets to play your chords or scales isn't a huge problem.
The fact that violin and mandolin share the same tuning and similar scale lengths means that a lot of fiddlers can easily double on mandolin if they want a different sound or if there are too many fiddlers in the band already (don't laugh, that happens, just not in Springfield, Ohio, where fiddlers are always at a premium).
In addition, tuning in 5ths is more common than tuning in 4ths. Mandolas, Violas, Jazz tenor banos, and traditional tenor guitars are tuned in fifths, just a fifth lower: C, G, D, and A. Once you learn Mandolin scales, you can easily transition to any of those instruments; just learn to transpose.
"Octave mandolins," as well as many Irish tenor banjos, are also tuned in fifths, an octave lower than mandolins. So, back to E, A, D, and G.
In other words, don't let the mandolin's traditional tuning scare you off the instrument. Once you have learned your way around that instrument, it opens the doors to countless others.