Home Music & Audio Know About the Mandolin: What Exactly is a Mandolin?

Know About the Mandolin: What Exactly is a Mandolin?

by Jonathan Logtenberg

The mandolin is one of the most fascinating musical instruments you will find in any band. For individuals who are not familiar with string instruments, the mandolin is just another type of guitar. For ardent music lovers and instrumentalists, the mandolin is a unique instrument that needs to be appreciated for what it is. It is an instrument of choice when musicians are trying to spice up a record or performance with old-time flavor.

What Exactly Is a Mandolin?

Simply put, the mandolin is a stringed musical instrument that belongs to the lute family. It is a small guitar-like instrument with eight strings that is usually plucked with a plectrum and creates sound through the vibration of the strings. While the mandolin looks like the lute and similar instruments, it is unique in many ways. When the instrument is handled by an experienced player, the tune can be rapturous. Though the sound is mostly associated with folk or bluegrass music, there is no limit to the genres of music it can spice up. Over the years, the mandolin has been used in different kinds of music including jazz, rock and rock ‘n roll.

If you are interested in the mandolin, it is a good idea to know about it. Here, we will briefly summarize the most important things you need to know about the instrument.

History

As mentioned in the definition above, the mandolin belongs to the lute family. It has evolved over the years in Europe. The mandolin as we know it today appeared in the workshops of Naples, Italy in the middle of the 1700s. The predecessors, however, can be traced to as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy. These similar instruments were called different names including mandora, mandola, mandore, and gittern.

The mandora is considered one of the most prominent of the predecessors. The earliest forms started with four or five strings. The pear-shaped bodies of these instruments were mostly carved from a single piece of wood. With gut strings and no frets at all, these instruments were reputed to have deeper sweeter tone than today mandolins. Another instrument known as mandolino, or little mandola, was invented by the Baroque period. In sharp contrast to the lute, the mandolino was primarily a melodic instrument. The original lute, on the other hand, played both harmonic and melodic roles in the music of the period.

The mandolin of today, specifically the European-style roundback design, was directly developed from the mandolino between 1750 and 1850. Much of the credit for the invention goes to the Vinaccia family in Naples. Pasquale Vinaccia is well-recognized for his crucial role in establishing the standard design for the instrument. The major differences between the modern-day mandolin and the older versions of the instrument include the bent soundboard, a raised fretboard, more frets, and 8 metal strings paired in sets referred to as courses.

Different Variants of Mandolin

Though modern mandolin is distinctive in many ways, there are still different variants available. The American/Bluegrass mandolin looks different from the classical bowl-back mandolin. They share the same tuning, however, so playing both doesn’t feel too different. An experienced player can always switch between the two.

The common American/Bluegrass mandolin is also of two major parts. They are classified according to body shape into A-style and F-style mandolins. The A-style mandolins are teardrop-shaped and oval-body mandolins. F-style mandolins are very similar to A-style versions but have ‘scrolls’, an embellishment that sets them apart. While the scroll can have very little effect on the tone you will get from the instrument, it is mostly cosmetic.

Parts of the Mandolin

The mandolin is made of different parts. These parts play unique roles that bring out the sounds and make playing the instrument as convenient as possible. These are the most important parts you should know about:

  • The body

The body of the mandolin comprises of individual parts that are influential in the performance of the instrument. The top of the instrument is called the soundboard and plays the biggest role in the quality of sound produced by the instrument. The best tops are constructed from spruce wood. The sides and back of the body are also very important. They are ideally made from maple, birch, mahogany or rosewood.

  • The Neck

The neck is another special part of the instrument. It extends from the body of the instrument and plays an active role in sound quality. The neck has a metal truss rod in most instruments, allowing the user to adjust it for improved playability.

  • Sound Holes

This is the part that brings out the sound when the instrument is being played. They are either ‘O’ shaped or ‘F’ shaped.

  • Scroll

This is the embellishment in F-style mandolins. While it is mostly included for decorative purpose, it can have a slight effect on the sound.

  • Bridge

The bridge is the important wooden part that dictates the positioning of the strings. It also transfers the vibration of the string to the soundboard.

  • Tuners

These are the parts that are used to tune the strings and set up the mandolin properly.

  • Tailpiece

This is the part the strings are attached to. It is a decorative and functional part of the mandolin. The mandolin has some other parts but the above are the most important ones.

  • Fretboard/Frets 

The Fretboard is the piece of wood that is added to the neck of the mandolin. The frets are the thin metal strips that run across the fingerboard.

Types of Mandolins: Acoustic vs. Electric 

Asides from body shape, there are other ways to classify mandolins. Majorly, mandolins are classified in acoustic and electric. As the name implies, acoustic mandolins are played acoustically. They are the perfect choice for learners and individuals who will play alone most of the time.

Electric mandolins are the types that can be plugged in for sound amplification. They have the same basic specifications as acoustic mandolins but come with ‘piezoelectric’ pickup in the bridge. This is the part of the instrument that converts the vibration on the strings to electronic impulses for amplification.

You will have to choose between acoustic and electric mandolins depending on how you plan to use the instrument. You can amplify the sound from acoustic mandolin by placing a microphone in front of it. alternative options include replacing the bridge with another one that contains piezoelectric pickup or using magnetic pickup like those found in violin. There are acoustic-electric variants of mandolins too.

Conclusion

The mandolin is a fascinating instrument that produces excellent sound when handled by an experienced player. If you are interested in the instrument, it is important to know it better before picking up one. This piece is an introduction to the instrument and we hope it helps you understand it better.

You may also like