Beginner Guide to Mandolins

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In the world of instruments, the mandolin is kind of an ugly duckling.

Ask mandolin players how they’ve ended up playing the mandolin, and chances are many of them will tell you:

Well I wanted to play in a band but there was already a guitarist and a fiddler, so I had to go with the mandolin

Others are actually guitar or banjo players who wanted to experiment a different sound, some are even violin players who wanted a cross between the violin and the guitar.

And the truth is that the mandolin is just not as popular an instrument as others…

Which is one more reason to start playing it!

And while its sound is mostly associated to folk or bluegrass music, some players became genuine virtuosos on it by playing different genres, such as rock or jazz.

So if you’re looking to learn more about the mandolin, you’ve come to the right place as I have in today’s article everything you need to know about this instrument.

Sounds good? Then let’s start.

First off…


A Little Bit of History

Like all plucked string instruments, the mandolin’s origins are ancient and scattered around the world.

However, the mandolin as we know it today is not that old and can be classified under one of these 2 categories:

  • Classical Mandolin – which was created in Naples, Italy in the 17th century and is nowadays used for classical music
  • American Mandolin – which was created in America in the late 19th century and is the typical bluegrass as well as Celtic/folk music mandolin.

And although pretty much every region in the world has its own variant of the mandolin, in this post I’ll be  focusing on the American/bluegrass mandolin.

So let’s now learn more about these 2 instruments.

First up…

Key Features of Mandolins

The most important characteristics to take into consideration when shopping for a mandolin are:

  • The type of mandolin
  • The shape of the soundholes
  • The type of wood and construction

So let’s now see all of these categories in more details, shall we?

First off…

Types of Mandolins

The very first question you should ask yourself is whether you want to play on a classical mandolin… Or a Bluegrass mandolin.

And while I’m guessing you’ll likely lean toward the Bluegrass mandolin, know that both classical and Bluegrass mandolins share the same tuning…

So you can always switch back and forth between both instruments if you feel like it.

Classical Mandolin

Sometimes called bowl back mandolin, this type of mandolin is almost exclusively used in classical music and traditional world music…

So if you want to play classical pieces, this is the mandolin you’ll need.

Mostly played in solo settings, they have a much less projecting sound with a lot less bass, compared to bluegrass mandolins.

In terms of construction, they are made of various wood staves glued together to form the back, whereas American mandolins can be carved into single pieces of wood and have a flat back.

So if you’re looking for one of these, here are the models I recommend:

  • Matsikas Round Mandolin – (Thomann)
  • Gewa Round Flathead – (Thomann)
  • Hopf Orchestra – (Thomann)

Got it? Good.

Next up…

American/Bluegrass Mandolins

Here are probably the most popular models nowadays.

In fact, when you mention the mandolin in the US, most people think of that instrument, not the classical mandolin.

So, the bluegrass mandolin – as it is sometimes called – was created by Orville Gibson (the same Gibson as the guitars’) in the US in the late 19th century…

It was actually the first instrument Gibson created and patented, even though the company is nowadays mainly famous for its guitars.

There are 2 types of bluegrass mandolins:

  • A-Style – Which are mostly used in folk and Celtic music and are cheaper
  • F-Style – Which are the typical bluegrass mandolin and are more expensive

Bluegrass mandolins, whether A-style or F-style have a flat back, making their production costs lower than a classical bowl-back mandolins.

Now, the difference between A-style and F-style models is purely cosmetic – both types are built the same and sound the same, but the F-style mandolin has more ornaments – more specifically the “scroll” on the top left side which raises its cost.

BUT, the truth is, you rarely see bluegrass mandolin players playing an A-style mandolin.

So if this is the type of mandolin you’re looking for, here are the models I recommend:



Next up…

Sound Holes

There are 2 types of sound holes:

  • F-Shaped holes – which produce a more “cut-through” sound, and…
  • Round holes – which produce a warmer and mellower sound.

That is why F-shaped holes mandolins are usually recommended for bluegrassmusic, or any other genre in which you need to play loud…

Whereas round hole mandolins are generally used in Celtic and folk music, where they need to blend in more.

Classical mandolins all have a round hole as they’re essentially meant to be played on a solo setting and don’t require as much projection.

Next up…

Types of Woods/Construction

The type of wood AND the building process define the sound of the mandolin.

Mandolins almost always use different woods for each part, but for the top (or soundboard) which in terms of sound is the most important part, spruce is used for an overwhelming majority of mandolins.

You might also encounter cedar soundboards to a lesser extent.

As for the construction process, there are 2 techniques:

  • Solid – which means the part was carved out of a single piece of wood.
  • Laminate – which means various sheets of cheap wood are placed on top of each others, usually covering one layer of more expensive wood.

Now, in terms of sound, most sources agree that solid construction is the best because a single piece of wood vibrates much more than various layers of wood glued together, thus delivering an overall better sound.

On the other hand, laminate mandolins are cheaper to build, but because of that, mandolins makers generally don’t specify the building process if it is indeed laminate.

So as a rule of thumb, just know that if you see solid spruce on the description of a mandolin, well it is what it says it is, and if you see ONLY spruce, without “solid” written before, it is most probably laminate wood.

As for the other parts, they’re usually made of one of the following woods:

  • Rosewood
  • Maple
  • Mahogany
  • Birch

Got it? Good.

Next up…

How to choose a pick

Mandolins are played using picks, even though some players play with their fingers. Generally though, and especially for beginners, most sources advise to use a pick.

Furthermore, these sources advise to use the HEAVIEST pick you can stand, and that is because if you choose a thin pick, it might bend when hitting the strings.

When the pick bends, it creates a sort of lag between what you want to play and what actually comes out of your playing, which you definitely want to avoid.

For a detailed guide about picks, check out this post:

Now, even though there technically aren’t specific mandolin picks, some brands still label some models as “mando” picks.

These picks are thicker and stiffer than guitar ones, usually ranging from 1.4mm to 2.00mm, instead of 0.40mm to 1.2mm for typical guitar picks.

So here are the picks I recommend:

Next up…

Strings and Tuning

Mandolins have 4 courses of 2 strings of the same note each and is tuned

So playing the guitar already won’t help you much there, you’ll have to learn the chords shapes all over again. On the other hand, reading tabs should be fairly easy since the mandolin only has 4 (courses of) strings.

Also, if you happen to already play the violin, like many mandolin players… You’ll have no trouble working your way around the mandolin, as both instruments share the same tuning.

Choosing strings for mandolins is essentially the same process as for guitars. You’ll have to consider gauge and material. If you want to learn more about strings, check out this article:

So here are the strings I recommend:

Mandolin Variations

The mandolin has countless variations. And among these, here are the most popular ones I want to cover next:

  • Electric mandolin
  • Octave mandolin
  • Mandocello

So let’s start off with…

Electric mandolins

Just like with guitars, there are electric, as well as acoustic-electric mandolins…

Now, some electric mandolins have single-course strings, meaning they only have 4 strings instead of 8 for regular mandolins. If you’re wondering why, well the only rationale given by constructors is for the mandolin to feel like an actual guitar.

And, indeed, many famous guitar makers make these electric mandolins, even giving them the appearance of famous guitar models.

So if you dig this sound, check out the models I recommend:

Next up…

Octave mandolins

Octave mandolins are set one octave lower than regular mandolins, making them sound closer to a guitar in term of pitch.

Here is the model I recommend:

  • Thomann Octave Mandolin – (Thomann)

Now, octave mandolins are not to be confused with mandocellos, which are tuned just like a regular cello: CGDA, whereas octave mandolins are tuned like a regular mandolin but just 1 octave lower.

The mandocello is often described as being to the mandolin what the cello is to the violin.

So if you happen to play the cello already and feel like experimenting a pluck string instrument tuned the same, here’s your chance.

Here is the model I recommend:

Next up…

5 string mandolins

Lately, some manufacturers have been making 5 string mandolins. They’re set one octave lower than regular mandolins.

And these characteristics make 5 strings mandolins actually very similar to a regular electric guitar soundwise.

So why not just play a regular guitar then?

Well it seems the popularity of this type of mandolin is due to the profile of its players…

For example, a violinist who wants to start playing the guitar will find it much more convenient to actually play the mandolin, because it is tuned the same as the violin…

And with 5 strings mandolins you also get an extended range of note. Also some people prefer the single course of strings, instead of double strings on regular mandolin.

Now, these mandolins are mostly custom made so they’re not really easy to come by. But if you still care to try one, check out one of these luthiers:

Jonathan Mann (manndolins)