In the 1920s, the mandolin was an extremely popular instrument. While the mandolin is a member of the lute family, many hybrids also existed.
These other variants included the mandobass, the mandocello, and the mandola and there were orchestras that consisted only of this family of instruments.
The original enthusiasm with the mandolin eventually diminished until later revived with the origin of Bluegrass style music. Today, mandolins are also heard in pop, blues and old-time music.
The tuning for a mandolin is like that of a violin - GDAE - and most instruments have eight strings with two for each note. They are tuned in fifths.
The mandola is tuned in a similar fashion to the viola, and the mandocello is tuned like the cello.
Points to think on
Mandolins come in so many varieties that it can be hard to know which is the right one for you.
Before you start looking at instruments that are on sale, it is a good idea to do some research to get some basic knowledge of mandolins and the varieties that have been made.
As you look around, ask as many questions as you need. It is also a good idea to remember that cheap mandolins may not give you playability and quality.
Types of Mandolin
Each style of mandolin has its own sound and is associated with particular music forms.
The mandolin most used for the classical and baroque genres of music is the ‘bowlback’ style. This has a vaulted back, similar to a lute, and a canted, two-piece uncarved top.
If you want a great classical mandolin, the ‘bowlback’ style is the one you should consider. However, it is not a purchase you should make too quickly.
They play differently to the more modern flat back mandolins. So take your time, find out how it plays compared to other styles, and make an informed decision.
At the end of the 19th century, the arch-top style of mandolin began to supplant the European style. The design of these mandolins was inspired by the violin family of instruments.
Today, this style of mandolin is what is most commonly found in music stores. However, a great deal of variation exists in the look of the instruments, depending on the instrument’s maker.
Generally, they come as either the F-style or the A-style.
The F-style has a decorative scroll on the body near the neck and violin F-style sound holes.
The A-style has a teardrop shaped body and can have an oval sound hole directly under the strings or two F-shaped sound holes like the F-style mandolin.
The A and F-styles have no discernable differences in playing technique, although a lot of people prefer the F-style which is the style favoured by many Bluegrass music players.
However, if you are on a budget, it is perfectly fine to get the A-style.
In Ireland and Britain, flat top and back mandolins are often used.
There is also a growing following for the resonator mandolin. This variation uses one or more metal cones (resonators) to produce the sound instead of a wooden soundboard. These resonator mandolins have a distinctive appearance, a very different sound quality - in general - a truly amazing sound.
An electric mandolin is tuned and played as a regular mandolin but is amplified in a similar fashion to an electric guitar.
The difference between an electric mandolin and an acoustic one is whether they have the pick up located in the bridge or the body of the instrument.
The location makes a difference in the overall sound effect.
It is common to have a bridge pick up installed in an acoustic mandolin.
What to know about buying a new or pre-owned mandolin
A mandolin is an unusual musical instrument, in that it has eight strings on a very small body. On modern instruments, the strings are metal, and so exert more force on the instrument than the old style gut strings.
When looking to buy a new or used mandolin, be sure to check that it has a truss rod.
If you see three screws on the headstock, right beside the nut, most likely the instrument has a truss rod.
The rod, which is usually steel, runs inside the neck, under the fret board, and has a bolt that can be used to adjust its tension - a task best done by a professional.
Without the rod, the mandolin’s neck might gradually warp due to the high tension of the strings.
Mandolins differ from guitars and ukes in another way. The bridge of a mandolin is not glued in place. They need an adjustable bridge, so that a professional tuner can move the bridge until the intonation is accurate. On a mandolin, this is important. It means that the notes played on each fret are exactly right, so if the open string is G, the notes should be - G, G#, A, A#, B, etc.
When looking at an acoustic mandolin, a major consideration is whether it is laminated or made of solid wood. The latter will produce a superior sound, but the instrument will cost more. Some instruments are constructed from a mixture of laminated and solid wood.
Other important points to consider are whether the tuners work effectively, whether you get a buzzing where the body and the bottom of the metal plate meet, and the action (the height of the strings from the fret board).
A mandolin is an instrument that you need to be exacting with.
So, if you are buying one on-line, without being able to examine the actual instrument, ask questions, and ask for as many photos as possible. It is also advisable to find out if there is a return policy in place.
If a mandolin has even a slightly too high action, lacks a truss rod, or its intonation is not right, a mandolin can become too difficult to play. This is the cause of them being one of the most bought but unplayed instruments.
Once you do find a perfect mandolin, enjoy your fantastic instrument