DDV Music - Music Information and Education


Carved and round backed mandolins (front)
Carved and round backed mandolins (front)

A mandolin is a small, plucked, stringed musical instrument, descended from the mandora. It is characterized by:

  • Eight strings in four pairs (courses), normally tuned to the tones g, d', a', and e" (like the violin), that are plucked with a plectrum,
  • A body with a teardrop-shaped soundtable (i.e. face), or one that is essentially oval in shape,
  • A neck with a flat (or slightly radiused) fretted fingerboard, and a flat nut and bridge,
  • Tuning pegs inserted through the back of the neck's head, or machined metal gears and pins in lieu of the pegs,
  • A soundtable with a soundhole, or f-shaped soundholes, that are open and not latticed.

In Indian classical music and Indian light music, the mandolin is likely to be tuned to E-B-E-B. As there is no concept of absolute pitch in Indian Classical music, any convenient tuning maintaining the relative pitch between the strings to E-B-E-B can be used.

Some guitarists tune a mandolin in fourths, the same as the bottom four guitar strings (E-A-D-G) or the top four guitar strings (D-G-B-E) allowing the same fingerings as a guitar.

Like the guitar, the mandolin has relatively poor sustain; that is, the volume of a plucked string decays quickly. A note cannot be maintained for an arbitrary length of time as with a bowed note on a violin. Its small size and higher pitch makes this problem more severe than with the guitar, and the use of tremolo (rapid picking of one or more pairs of strings) is often used to create a sustained note or chords. This technique works particularly well with a mandolin's paired strings, where one of the pair is sounding while the other is being struck by the pick, giving a more rounded sound than a single coursed instrument can.

Mandolin forms

Mandolins come in several forms. The Neapolitan style, known as a round-back or bowl-back, (or tater-back or tater-bug, colloquial American), has a vaulted back made of a number of strips of wood in a bowl formation, similar to a lute, and usually a canted, two-plane, uncarved top. The Portuguese, a flat-back style, is derived from the cittern. Another form has a banjo-style body.

Other variants include the Howe-Orme guitar-shaped mandolin (manufactured by the Elias Howe Company between 1897 and roughly 1920), which featured a cylindrical bulge along the top from fingerboard end to tailpiece, and the Vega mando-lute (more commonly called a cylinder-back mandolin manufactured by the Vega Company between 1913 and roughly 1927), which had a similar longitudinal bulge but on the back rather than the front of the instrument.

Carved and round backed mandolins (back)
Carved and round backed mandolins (back)

In the early twentieth century, another new mandolin-style, with carved top and back construction inspired by violin family instruments, began to supplant the European-style bowl-back instruments, especially in the United States. This new style is credited to mandolins designed and built by Orville Gibson who founded the Gibson company in 1902. Gibson mandolins evolved into two families: the Florentine or F-style, which has a scroll near the neck and two points on the lower body; and the A-style, which is pear shaped and has no points. These styles generally have either two f-shaped soundholes like a violin, or an oval sound hole directly under the strings. Naturally, there is much variation among makers, and different styles exist as well, but these are the most common. The Gibson F-hole F5-style mandolins are considered the most typical and traditional for playing American Bluegrass music, while the A-style is generally more appropriate for Irish, folk, or classical music. The differences are more than cosmetic or aesthetic since the F5-style model is usually built to take much heavier strings and is consequently louder and "punchier" than the A-style model, making it more suited to the hard-driving percussive sound typical of bluegrass music.

Numerous modern mandolin makers build instruments that are largely replicas of the Gibson F-5 Artist models built in the early 1920s by Gibson acoustician Lloyd Loar. Original Loar-signed instruments are sought after and extremely valuable.

As with almost every other contempary string instrument, another modern variant is the electric mandolin.

Mandolin family

The mandolin is the soprano member of the mandolin family, as the violin is the soprano member of the violin family. Its scale length is typically about 13.75 inches (350mm).

Other members of the mandolin family are:

  • The mandola (US and Canada), termed the tenor mandola in Europe, Ireland and the UK, which is tuned to a fifth below the mandolin, in the same relationship as that of the viola to the violin. Some also call this instrument the "alto mandola." Its scale length is typically about 16.5 inches (420mm).
  • The octave mandolin (US and Canada), termed the octave mandola in Europe, Ireland, and the UK, which is tuned to an octave below the mandolin. Its scale length is typically about 20 inches (500mm), although instruments with scales as short as 17 inches (430mm) or as long as 21 inches (530mm) are not unknown.
  • The mandocello, which is classically tuned to an octave plus a fifth below the mandolin, in the same relationship as that of the cello to the violin. Today, it is not infrequently restrung for octave mandolin tuning or the Irish bouzouki's GDAD. Its scale length is typically about 25 inches (635 mm).
  • The piccolo or sopranino mandolin is a rare member of the family, tuned one octave above the tenor mandola and one fourth above the mandolin; the same relation as that of the piccolo or sopranino violin to the violin and viola. One model was manufactured by the Lyon & Healy company under the Leland brand. A handful of contemporary luthiers build piccolo mandolins, including Stephen Gilchrist of Australia and Jamie Wiens of Canada. Its scale length is typically about 9.5 inches (240mm).
  • The mando-bass, which has 4 single strings, rather than double courses, and is tuned like a double bass. These were made by the Gibson company in the early twentieth century, but appear to have never been very common. Reportedly, most mandolin orchestras preferred to use the ordinary double bass, rather than a specialised mandolin family instrument.
  • The Irish bouzouki is also considered a member of the mandolin family; although derived from the Greek bouzouki, it is constructed like a flat backed mandolin and uses fifth-based tunings (most often GDAD, an octave below the mandolin, sometimes GDAE, ADAD or ADAE) in place of the guitar-like fourths-and-third tunings of the four-course Greek bouzouki. Although the bouzouki's bass courses are most often tuned in unisons, on some instruments one of each pair is replaced with a lighter string and tuned in octaves, in the fashion of the 12-string guitar. Although occupying the same range as the octave mandolin/octave mandola, the Irish bouzouki is distinguished from the former instrument by its longer scale length, typically from 22 inches (560mm) to 24 inches (610 inches), although scales as long as 26 inches (660mm) are not unknown.
  • The modern cittern is also an extension of the mandolin family, being typically a five course (ten string) instrument having a scale length between 20 inches (500mm) and 22 inches (560mm). It is most often tuned to either DGDAD or GDADA, and is essentially an octave mandola with a fifth course at either the top or the bottom of its range. Some luthiers, such as Stefan Sobell also refer to the octave mandola or a shorter-scaled Irish bouzoukias a cittern, irrespective of whether it has four or five courses.

Mandolin history

Mandolins evolved from the Lute family in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the deep bowled mandolin produced particularly in Naples became a common type in the nineteenth century. The original instrument was the mandola (mandorla is "almond" in Italian, describing the instrument's body shape) and evolved in the fifteenth century from the lute. A later, smaller mandola was developed and became known as a mandolina.

Further back, single stringed instruments have been seen in cave paintings. They were bowed, struck and plucked. From these, the families of instruments developed. Single strings were long and gave a single melody line. To shorten the scale length, other strings were added with a different tension so one string took over where another left off. In turn, this led to being able to play diads and chords. The bowed family became the rabob, rebec and then the fiddle becoming the violin and modern family by 1520 (incidentally also in Naples). The plucked family led to lute-like instruments in 2000 BC Mesopotamia, and developed into the oud or ud before appearing in Spain in 711 courtesy of the Moors.

Over the next centuries, frets were added and the strings doubled to courses, leading to the first Lute appearing in the thirteenth century. The history of the lute and the mandolin are intertwined from this point. The lute gained a fifth course by the fifteenth century, a sixth a century later, and up to thirteen courses in its heyday. As early as the fourteenth century a miniature lute or mandora appeared. Similar to the mandola, it had counterparts in Assyria (pandura), the Arab countries (dambura), and Ukraine (kobza-bandura). From this, the mandolino (a small gut-strung mandola with six strings tuned g b e' a' d g sometimes called the Baroque mandolin and played with a quill, wooden plectrum or finger-style) was developed in several places in Italy. The mandolino was sometimes called a mandolin in the early eighteenth century (around 1735) Naples.

The first evidence of mandolins is from literature regarding popular Italian players who travelled through Europe teaching and giving concerts. Notable is Signor Leone and G. B. Gervasio who travelled widely between 1750 and 1810. This, with the records gleamed from the Italian Vinaccia family of luthiers in Naples, Italy, musicologists believe that the Mandolin was developed in Naples by the Vinaccia family. Gennaro Vinaccia was active circa 1710 to circa 1788, and Antonio Vinaccia was active circa 1734 to circa 1796. An early extant example of a mandolin is one built by Antonio Vinaccia in 1772 which resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. Another is by Giuseppe Vinnacia built in 1763, residing at the Kenneth G. Fiske Museum of Musical Instruments in Claremont, California. The earliest extant mandolin was built in 1744 by Gaetano Vinaccia. It resides in the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Brussels, Belgium.

These early mandolins are termed Neopolitan mandolins, because of their orgin from Naples. They are distinguished by a teardrop-shaped body with a bowled back that is constructed from curved strips of wood along its length. The soundtable is bent just behind the bridge, the bending achieved with a straight hot poker. This "canted" table aids the body to support a greater string tension. A hardwood fingerboard is flush with the soundtable. Ten metal or ivory frets are spaced along the neck in semitones, with additional frets glued upon the soundtable. The strings are brass except for the lowest string course which are gut or metal wound onto gut. The bridge is a moveable length of ivory placed in front of ivory pins that hold the strings. Wooden tuning pegs are inserted through the back of a flat pegboard. The mandolins have a tortoise shell pick guard below the soundhole under the strings. A quill or tortoise shell is used as a plectrum.

Other luthiers that built mandolins included Calace (1863 onwards) in Naples, Luigi Embergher (1856-1943), Ferrari family (1716 onwards, also originally mandolino makers) and De Santi (1834-1916) in Rome. The Neopolitan style of mandolin construction was adopted and developed by others, notably in Rome, giving two distinct but similar types of mandolin - Neapolitan and Roman.

The twentieth century saw the rise in popularity of the mandolin for celtic, bluegrass, jazz and classical styles. Much of the development of the mandolin from Neapolitan bowl-back to the flat-back style (actually, gently rounded) is thanks to Orville Gibson (1856-1918) and his chief designer Lloyd Loar.

Mandolin music

Mandolins have a long history and much early music was written for them. In the first half of the 20th century, they enjoyed a period of great popularity in Europe and the Americas as an easier approach to playing string music. Many professional and amateur mandolin groups and orchestras were formed to play traditional string repertory. Just as this practice was falling into disuse, the mandolin found a new niche in American country, old-time music, bluegrass and folk music. More recently, the Baroque and Classical mandolin repertory and styles have benefited from the raised awareness of and interest in Early music. Tremolo and fingerpicking methods are used while playing a mandolin.


Adoption of the mandolin in Indian Carnatic music is recent. The young prodigy U. Srinivas has been a pioneer in making the mandolin popular in India. With many soul stirring renditions over the last couple of decades U.Srinivas has made mandolin very popular in India. Many adaptations have been done to cater to the special needs of Indian Carnatic music.

The United States of America

The mandolin's popularity in the United States was spurred by the success of a group of touring young European musicians known as the Spanish Students, or in Spanish, the Estudiantes Espanoles. The group debuted in the U.S. on January 2, 1880 in New York City. Ironically, this ensemble did not play mandolins but rather bandurrias, which are also small, double-strung instruments superficially resembling the mandolin. The success of the Figaro Spanish Students spawned several groups who imitated their musical style and colorful costumes. In many cases, the players in these new musical ensembles were Italian-born Americans who had brought mandolins from their native land. Thus, the Spanish Student imitators did primarily play mandolins and helped to generate enormous public interest in an instrument that previously was relatively unknown in the United States.

Mandolins were a fad instrument from the turn of the century to the mid-twenties. Instruments were marketed by teacher-dealers, much as the title character in the popular musical The Music Man. Often these teacher-dealers would conduct mandolin orchestras: groups of 4-50 musicians who would play various mandolin family instruments together. The instrument was primarily used in an ensemble setting well into the 1930s, although the fad died out at the beginning of the 1920's; the famous Lloyd Loar Master Model from Gibson (1923) was designed to boost the flagging interest in mandolin ensembles, with little success. The true destiny of the "Loar" as the defining instrument of bluegrass music didn't appear until Bill Monroe purchased F5 S/N 73987 in a Florida barbershop in 1943 and popularized it as his main instrument.

Single mandolins were first used in southern string band music in the 1930's, most notably by brother duets such as the sedate Blue Sky Boys (Bill Bolick and Earl Bolick) and the more hard-driving Monroe Brothers (Bill Monroe and Charlie Monroe). However, the mandolin's modern popularity in country music can be directly traced to one man: Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. After the Monroe Brothers broke up in 1939, Bill Monroe formed his own group, after a brief time called the Blue Grass Boys, and completed the transition of mandolin styles from a "parlor" sound typical of brother duets to the modern "bluegrass" style. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and its powerful clear- channel broadcast signal on WSM-AM spread his style throughout the South, directly inspiring many musicians to take up the mandolin. Monroe famously played Gibson F5 mandolin, signed and dated July 9, 1923, by Lloyd Loar, chief acoustic engineer at Gibson. The F5 has since become the most imitated tonally and aesthetically by modern builders. Monroe's style involved playing lead melodies in the style of a fiddler, and also a percussive chording sound referred to as "the chop" for the sound that is made by the quickly struck and muted strings. He also perfected a sparse, percussive blues style, especially up the neck in keys that had not been used much in country music, notably B and E. He emphasized a powerful, syncopated right hand at the expense of left-hand virtuosity. Monroe's most influential follower of the second generation is Frank Wakefield and nowadays Mike Compton of the Nashville Bluegrass Band and David Long, who often tour as a duet.

The other major original bluegrass stylists, both emerging in the early 1950's and active still in 2005, are generally acknowledged to be Jesse McReynolds (of Jim and Jesse) who invented a syncopated banjo-roll style of crosspicking and Bobby Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, who is a master of clarity and sparkling single-note runs. Highly-respected and influential modern bluegrass players include Herschel Sizemore and Doyle Lawson and the multi-genre Sam Bush who is equally at home with old-time fiddle tunes, rock, reggae and jazz. Ronnie McCoury of the Del McCoury Band has won numerous awards for his Monroe-influenced playing. The late John Duffey of the original Country Gentlemen and later the Seldom Scene did much to popularize the bluegrass mandolin among folk and urban audiences, especially on the east coast and in the Washington, DC area.

Jethro Burns, best known as half of the comedy duo Homer and Jethro, was also the first important jazz mandolinist. Tiny Moore popularized the mandolin in Western swing music. He initially played an 8-string Gibson but switched after 1952 to a 5-string solidbody electric instrument built by Paul Bigsby. Modern virtuosos David Grisman, Sam Bush and Mike Marshall, among others, have worked since the early 1970s to demonstrate the mandolin's versatility for all styles of music. Chris Thile of California is the best-known of the younger generation of players; the band Nickel Creek features his virtuoso playing in its blend of traditional and pop styles.

A handful of rock musicians use mandolins. One example is Tim Brennan of the Irish-American punk rock band Dropkick Murphys. In addition to electric guitar, bass, and drums, the band uses several instruments associated with traditional Celtic music, including mandolin, tin whistle, and Great Highland bagpipes. The band explains that these instruments accentuate the growling sound they favor. Every song on Mark Heard's final album, 1992's Satellite Sky, was written on a mandolin, Heard's antique National Silvo electric mandolin was prominently featured on every track of the recording.

The United Kingdom

The mandolin has been used extensively in the traditional music of England and Scotland for generations and has recently featured in the playing Matt Bellamy in the modern band Muse, and was introduced very clearly by Vivian Stanshall on Mike Oldfield's album "Tubular Bells". It was used extensively by the British folk-rock band Lindisfarne, who featured two members on the instrument, Ray Jackson and Simon Cowe, and whose "Fog on the Tyne" was the biggest selling UK album of 1971-1972. "Maggie May" by Rod Stewart, which hit No. 1 on both the British charts and the Billboard Hot 100, also featured Jackson's playing. It has also been used by other British rock musicians, including Led Zeppelin, whose bassist John Paul Jones is an accomplished mandolin player and has recorded numerous songs on mandolin including "Going to California", "That's the Way", and "The Battle of Evermore", and McGuinness Flint, for whom Benny Gallagher played the mandolin on their most successful single, "When I'm Dead And Gone". Gallagher was also briefly a member of Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance, and played mandolin on their hit "How Come". The popular song "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" by The Smiths featured a mandolin solo played by Johnny Marr. More recently, the Glasgow-based band Sons and Daughters (band) has featured the mandolin, as played by Ailidh Lennon, on tracks such as "Fight," "Start to End," and "Medicine."


The mandolin is becoming a somewhat more common instrument amongst Irish traditional musicians. Fiddle tunes are readily accessible to the mandolin player because of the equivalent range of the two instruments and the practically identical (allowing for the lack of frets on the fiddle) left hand fingerings.

Although almost any variety of acoustic mandolin might be adequate for Irish traditional music, virtually all Irish players prefer flat-backed instruments with oval sound holes to the Italian-style bowl-back mandolins or the carved-top mandolins with f-holes favoured by bluegrass mandolinists. The former are often too soft-toned to hold their own in a session (as well as having a tendency to not stay in place on the player's lap), whilst the latter tend to sound harsh and overbearing to the traditional ear. Greatly preferred are flat-topped "Irish-style" mandolins (remniscent of the WWI-era Martin Army-Navy mandolin) and carved (arch) top mandolins with oval soundholes, such as the Gibson A-style of the 1920s. The mandolins built by British luthier Stefan Sobell are perhaps the most highly-prized for Irish traditional music, although many other makers, such as Ireland's Joe Foley, also make well-regarded mandolins.

Noteworthy Irish mandolinists include Andy Irvine (who almost always tunes the E down to D), Mick Moloney, Paul Kelly, and Claudine Langille. John Sheahan and Barney McKenna, fiddle player and tenor banjo player respectively, with The Dubliners are also accomplished Irish mandolin players. The Dubliners 'Live at the Gaiety' DVD features an extensive mandolin duet of a three-tune 'set', two hornpipes and a reel. The instruments used are flat-backed, oval hole examples as described above: in this case made by UK luthier Fylde.

Continental Europe

An increased interest in bluegrass music, especially in Central European countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic, has inspired many new mandolin players and builders. These players often mix traditional folk elements with bluegrass.


The mandolin (called "bandolim") has a long and rich tradition in Brazilian folk music, especially in the style called choro. The composer and mandolin virtuoso Jacob do Bandolim did much to popularize the instrument, and his influence continues to the present day. Some contemporary mandolin players in Brazil include Jacob's disciple Deo Rian, and Armandinho (the former, a traditional choro-style player, the latter an eclectic innovator).

The mandolin came into Brazil by way of Portugal. Portuguese music has a long tradition of mandolins and mandolin-like instruments (see, for example, the Portuguese guitar).

The mandolin is used almost exclusively as a melody instrument in Brazilian folk music - the role of chordal accompanyment being taken over by the cavaquinho and nylon-strung guitar. Its popularity, therefore, has risen and fallen with instrumental folk music styles, especially choro. The later part of the 20th century saw a renaissance of choro in Brazil, and with it, a revival of the country's mandolinistic tradition.


The mandolin has been long played in the Hellenic Islands, where the Ottoman Empire did not control. Mandolin had a long tradition in the Eptanese ([Ionian Islands]) and Crete. In ionian islands and espetially in Corfu, Zakynthons (Zante) and Cefalenia it is common to see choirs accompanied by mandolin players (mantolinates) whereas the development of songs for mantolin has been a custom during the venetian rule in the Ionian Islands (kantades).

In Crete along with the lyre and the lute it represends one of the main instruments of the Cretian Music. It's appearance in Crete is dated by the age of the Venetian domination on the island. It had a big impression on the residents, it was used in different variants (e.g. mantola), as an instrument to accompany the lyre, the violin and the lute. Stelios Foustalierakis has said that the mandolin and the mpougari were accompanying the lyre in the beginning of the 20th century in the city of Rethimno. There are also reports that the mandolin was mostly a woman's musical instrument as it was the only one that the women of the island were playing. Nowadays it is played mainly by its own, in musical teams, as well as in personal and family events of residents of the Ionian Islands and Crete.

Mandolin players

Renowned modern mandolinists include Bill Monroe, David 'Dawg' Grisman, Mike Marshall, Sam Bush, Nic Zuppardi, Chris Thile, Mike Compton, Cas Davey, Simon Mayor, and Tim Ware - all of whom revolutionized the use of the instrument through the incorporation of various styles such as bluegrass, newgrass, classical, rock and jazz. U. Srinivas (popularly known as mandolin Srinivas) was a child prodigy who plays Indian Classical Music on the mandolin. Famous electric mandolin players include Canadian Nash the Slash and Todd Macdonald of art folk group The Winks.

David "Dawg" Grisman accords Dave Appollon as one of the most virtuostic mandolinists of all time.

Classical mandolinists of the past include: Samuel Adelstein, Samuel Siegel, Valentine Abt, Giuseppe Pettine, Aubrey Stauffer, and Willian Place, Jr. of the United States; Raffaele Calace; Silvio Ranieri; Laurent Fantauzzi, Carlo Munier of Italy and Hugo D'Alton of the UK.

Prominent modern mandolinists who play the classical repertoire include Carlo Aonzo of Savona, Italy; Caterina Lichtenberg born in Bulgaria but primarily based in Germany; Gertrude Weyhofen of Germany; Richard Walz of France; and Alison Stephens of the United Kingdom.

Above all, there are several virtuos clasical-mandolin players from Israel, like Jacob Reuven and Alon Sariel which play mostly violin repretoire on their special instruments (Israeli made, by Arik Kerman).


  1. Musical Instruments, A Comprehensive Dictionary, by Sibyl Marcuse (Corrected Edition 1975)
  2. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and others (2001)
  3. Embergher History
  4. CIMCIM International Directory of Musical Instrument Collections
  5. The Early Mandolin by James Tyler and Paul Sparks (1989)
  6. The Classical Mandolin by Paul Sparks (1995)

While David Grisman is known as one of today's greatest living mando-masters, his enduring legacy may be that through his Acoustic Disc label he has made available many of the world's greatest madolinists for the enjoyment and education of generations to come.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Mandolin