The mandolin may not be as popular as, say, guitar or piano, but that’s all the more reason to learn how to play it. The truth is, the world needs more mandolin players to remind the rest of us what a beautiful and versatile instrument it is.
As you’ll soon find out, there are many different types of mandolins—they all come from the same common ancestor but have evolved in unique ways in different parts of the world.
If you’re thinking of learning how to play the mandolin, getting familiar with its history and all its different styles is a great first step. It will help you decide what kind of mandolin music you want to play and, ultimately, what kind of instrument you’ll need to look for.
What Is a Mandolin?
Some people think of mandolins as a cross between a guitar and a violin, but essentially, a mandolin is a chordophone instrument in the lute family (a chordophone is any instrument that produces sound through vibrating strings).
The mandolin has four courses of double strings that are tuned in unison, giving it eight strings in total. Because double strings are harder to play with bare fingers, the mandolin is typically played with a plectrum (pick). This also helps produce a bright, clear tone and adds more volume.
The sound of a mandolin lends itself well to classical, bluegrass, and Celtic music, though it can be heard in just about any genre.
Instruments in the lute family have existed in Asia for thousands of years, but how they traveled to other continents and evolved over time is not well documented.
A likely ancestor of the mandolin from more recent history is the mandore, a lute-like instrument popular in 16th century France. From there, the Italians came up with their own version and called it mandola. They eventually developed a smaller version of the mandola and added the diminutive -ino to create the mandolino.
What we now know as the Neapolitan or classical mandolin was developed in the 19th century by the Vinaccia family in Naples. The term mandola now refers to the alto mandolin, which is slightly larger and lower in pitch.
By the end of the 19th century, European immigrants brought the mandolin to North America, and the instrument quickly gained popularity. Orville Gibson, the same Gibson known for making guitars, soon created his own version. He borrowed design elements from the violin and gave his mandolins an arched top and back. This design gave rise to the bluegrass mandolin and, eventually, its many variations.
There are a few different instruments in the mandolin family—they differ in size, as well as their tuning.
The standard mandolin is the soprano member of the family. Its scale length (the portion of the strings that vibrates) is about 13-14 inches, and it’s tuned to the notes G-D-A-E.
Piccolo Mandolin (Sopranino mandolin)
The piccolo mandolin is about 10.5 inches in scale length and is tuned a fourth above the mandolin to C-G-D-A. It’s the rarest instrument in the mandolin family as only a few luthiers manufacture it.
Mandola (Alto Mandolin)
The mandola is about 16-17 inches in scale length and is tuned a fifth below the mandolin to C-G-D-A.
Octave Mandolin (Tenor Mandolin)
The octave mandolin is about 20 inches in scale length and is tuned a full octave below the mandolin.
Mandocello (Baritone Mandolin)
The mandocello is about 25-26 inches in scale length and is tuned a full octave below the mandola.
Mandobass (Bass Mandolin)
The mandobass is the largest instrument in the mandolin family. Unlike other mandolins, it has four single strings, which are tuned to E-A-D-G. The mandobass never became very popular, as most orchestral bass players prefer to play the double bass.
Types of Mandolins
As is evident from the mandolin’s history, mandolins evolved into a few different styles. The two main ones are the classical mandolin and the bluegrass mandolin. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail, as well as a few other variations.
Classical (Bowlback Mandolin)
The classical mandolin most closely resembles the Neapolitan mandolin and other early versions of the instrument. As the name suggests, it’s used to play classical and orchestral music.
The classical mandolin is also sometimes referred to as a bowlback mandolin. This is because it has a distinct bowl-shaped back, which gives it a deep, round tone. You may also hear it called “tater bug” because of its resemblance to the insect of the same name.
Because of the round shape of the classical mandolin’s back, the instrument is quite time-consuming and expensive to construct, meaning that it usually comes with a steep price tag. Some players also find that the round back makes the mandolin uncomfortable to hold and play.
Bluegrass (Archtop Mandolin)
The bluegrass mandolin is the American version of the mandolin, developed by Gibson and his team. It’s the go-to choice for bluegrass, country, rock, and folk musicians.
Like the violin, it has an arched top and back, which are carved from single pieces of wood. This means that the instrument is much easier and cheaper to create than the original bowlback version.
You may hear the term “flatback” used to describe archtop mandolins because they’re not nearly as round as bowlback mandolins, but their tops and backs are not truly flat. In fact, there is a separate style that has a completely flat construction, which we’ll touch on in just a moment.
Within the archtop mandolin category, there are two distinct styles: A-style and F-style. They can also be further differentiated by the type of soundhole the instrument has.
F-style vs. A-style
The differences between these two styles are purely cosmetic.
The F-style mandolin has a decorative scroll just above the neck, as well as two sharp points on the lower side of the body.
The A-style mandolin is shaped like an oval or a teardrop and has no distinct decorative features.
Archtop mandolins have either a round soundhole (like the classical mandolin) or two f-shaped holes, like the ones you’d find on a violin.
Other Mandolin Types
Over the years, luthiers have experimented with other variations of the mandolin. Here are a few of the most popular ones.
The top and back of the flatback mandolin are made from thin, flat sheets of wood, like what you’d find on an acoustic guitar. Because of this, the instrument doesn’t project as much volume but is great for soft, mellow music and small audiences.
Double Top, Double Back
Using a second sheet of wood to create a false back within the mandolin’s body adds an extra hollow space and thus, helps the instrument produce more volume. To take advantage of this, some luthiers have experimented with creating mandolins with double backs and even double tops.
The acoustic mandolin is the most common, but you can also find electric mandolins. These were developed at around the same time as the electric guitar. Like guitar, there are solid body varieties, as well as hollow body and semi-hollow ones.
Just like the resonator guitar, the resonator mandolin relies on 1-3 metal resonators to amplify the vibrations of the strings.
As the name suggests, the mandolin-banjo is a hybrid between a mandolin and a banjo. It has the body of a banjo, but the neck, double course strings, and tuning of a mandolin. It’s not to be confused with a banjolin, which is a mandolin sized banjo with four strings.
A mandolinetto is a mandolin that looks like a mini guitar. It was popular before the more traditional bluegrass mandolins were developed.
Anatomy of a Mandolin
The mandolin anatomy is similar to that of a guitar or most other instruments in the lute family. Let’s take a look at all the mandolin parts in more detail.
This is the long piece of wood that extends from the body of the mandolin, allowing the strings to be stretched and produce different pitches.
The fingerboard is glued to the neck of the mandolin. This is where the player pressed down their fingers to change the strings’ pitch.
The frets help the player determine where to place their fingers on the fretboard. Each fret increases the string’s pitch by a semitone.
The position markers help the player figure out where they are on the fretboard.
The nut is a piece of plastic at the end of the fretboard that helps keep the mandolin’s strings in place.
The headstock houses the posts and the tuners.
The mandolin strings are wound onto posts, which are connected to the tuners.
Adjusting the tuners rotates the posts and changes the tension, and therefore the pitch, of the strings.
Truss Rod and Truss Rod Cover
The truss rod is an optional steel rod that stabilizes and strengthens the mandolin’s neck. You can lift the truss rod cover to adjust the truss rod.
The tailpiece anchors the strings to the body of the mandolin.
The bridge is a small piece of wood that keeps the strings in place and transfers their vibrations to the mandolin’s soundboard.
The top of the mandolin is also called the soundboard. It’s responsible for producing the mandolin’s sound.
The binding adds a decorative accent to the mandolin and protects it from dents and scratches.
The sound produced by the mandolin comes out of the soundhole. It can be round, oval shaped, or f-shaped.
The pick guard protects the top of the mandolin from damage caused by accidentally hitting it with the plectrum/pick.
Scroll and Points
The scroll and points are decorative accents that can be found on an F-style mandolin.
Mandolin vs. Guitar
The two key differences between the mandolin and the guitar are their size and the number of strings.
The mandolin is much smaller than the guitar, which can make it easier and more comfortable to hold. However, if you have larger hands, the small spaces between the strings and the frets can make it more difficult to play accurately.
In terms of the strings, the mandolin has eight of them, but they’re played two at a time, so it’s a bit like playing an instrument with four strings. The guitar, on the other hand, has six strings. This means that learning chord shapes is a little easier on the mandolin, but playing two strings at the same time can take some getting used to.
If you already play guitar, the strumming and picking techniques will feel familiar on the mandolin, but you’ll have to learn the chord shapes from scratch.
Mandolin vs. Ukulele
The mandolin and the ukulele can seem quite similar because of their size, but they could not be more different.
For one, the mandolin has four pairs of steel strings, while the ukulele has four nylon strings. The nylon strings, coupled with the fact that they’re just single strings, are much easier to play. The mandolin is almost always played with a plectrum/pick, while the ukulele is usually strummed with bare fingers.
If you already play the ukulele, learning the mandolin will still be a challenge. You’ll need to get used to playing two strings at the same time and learn all new chord shapes—the mandolin is tuned in fifths, while the ukulele is tuned in fourths, so their tunings are completely different.
Is the Mandolin for You?
Whether you’ve played similar instruments before, or you’re a complete beginner, you may find online mandolin classes helpful in brushing up or starting from the beginning. Give it a try!
Learn to Play the Mandolin
Mandolin Mastery From the Beginning – Learn the Mandolin from Scratch!