A Brief Overview Of Mandolins

Guitar Player, December 1976

In the past, articles in Guitar Player have been devoted solely to guitar and electric bass. As a dealer in all types of fretted instruments, I have noticed in recent years an increasing trend for musicians to branch out and play more than one instrument. It is a simple progression for a guitar player to pick up another fretted instrument, particularly mandolin or banjo. Conversely, I've found that almost all mandolin and banjo players are interested in collecting and/or playing guitar. (Incidentally, collectors take note: banjos and mandolins are as valuable as guitars.) It is hardly possible in the space of one short article to discuss everything there is to know about mandolins, but I hope to provide a brief introduction at this time.

Prior to the 1890s the mandolin was primarily a classical instrument of minor importance. It was occasionally played as a duo with guitar, and a number of classical pieces were written either for mandolin and orchestra or mandolin and piano. Mandolin orchestras became very popular around this time, promoted by such manufacturers as Regal and Gibson. Since the mandolin is tuned exactly as a violin, standard orchestral string music is suitable for such groups.

During this period Gibson also introduced a complete family of mandolins with the mandolin taking the violin part, mandola the viola part, mandocello the cello part, and the mando-bass the upright bass part. The old Gibson catalogs contain many photos of complete symphonic-type groups in which all the members of the violin family are replaced by those of the mandolin family.

Mandolin orchestras remained extremely well-liked until the mid-Twenties, at which time the popularity of this music declined drastically, and has not since recovered. Currently there are a small number of mandolin groups in existence, but what remains is but a tiny vestige of a once-large movement. While the mandolin has retained a degree of popularity throughout, mandola, mandocello, and mando-bass are only today beginning to show some revived interest.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, mandolin gained some approval with country string bands, playing old-timey mountain music. Perhaps the greatest impetus came from Bill Monroe and the founding of the bluegrass music. Mandolin is, of course, one of the major instruments used in bluegrass, and in recent years has been employed in rock, jazz, country, and pop as well. Many bluegrass players have branched out to other idioms and have continued to play mandolin, while numerous guitarists are now showing interest in mandolin as a second instrument. Since it is tuned in fifths it is highly versatile, and playing melody on it is quite simple.

Mandolins have been made in a variety of sizes and shapes which fall into three basic structural types: First, the traditional flat-top, bowl-back construction; second, the flat top with flat back; third, the carved top and back. The traditional bowl-back style is the standard European construction, the type found on almost all mandolins prior to the turn of the century, and is still the most common style in Europe. These models are built similarly to a lute, with a flat top and a segmented, bowl-shaped back. The popularity of this type in the United States has been very low since shortly after the turn of the century, and, although some are beautifully constructed, they do not have the tone most modern players prefer and as a result bring rather low prices. Their prime appeal, in fact, is decorative, rather than musical. Flat-top, flat-back mandolins are quite similar in basic construction to a flat-top guitar. They have a face like that found on the earlier European models, but also have a flat back. These mandolins have a tonal response comparable to the bowl-back instruments but are somewhat easier to hold than the bowl-back which tends to slide off one's lap. In addition, the flat-back construction requires fewer pieces of wood, and less bending is involved. These models, introduced in the 1890s, are still produced by such companies as the C.F. Martin Organisation, but their popularity isn't nearly as great as those with carved tops and backs. Carved mandolins were first introduced by Gibson during the 1890s. Their construction is similar to that okra violin, and most carved mandolins are characterized by excellent qualities of tone and volume. The traditional mandolin scale length was the same as for a violin, but for their carved models, Gibson introduced a slightly longer scale which most players do prefer.

Prior to the 1890s most mandolins used in the United States were imported from Italy or Germany and were of the bowlback variety. A number of American firms were active in producing bowl-back instruments, though, the most notable being the George Washburn Company (a division of Lyon & Healy in Chicago). Washburns are of excellent quality, and many of them are beautifully ornamented. Martin also produced a line of bowlback mandolins, but shortly after the turn of the century, both Martin and Washburn began flat-top, flat-back construction. Gibson had introduced carved model mandolins during the late 1890s, and by about 1910 their popularity had grown to the point that they virtually replaced the bowl-back and flat-back models in mandolin orchestral use. While companies such as Lyon & Healy, Martin, D'Angelico, Stromberg, and Epiphone have made arched model, carved mandolins of excellent quality, Gibson has always been the leader in this style; today their early Artist mandolins are the models sought by collectors.

Through the years Gibson has produced several different models. However, they do fall into two major categores: A models and F models. The A series, Gibson's less expensive line (but nevertheless of excellent quality), is characterized by a rounded body shape. The early models have an oval soundhole, but those produced during the mid-Thirties have f-holes, as do most of the post-World War II mandolins in this series. The F models, or Florentine mandolins, are characterized by a body with points and a curlicue scroll. These are beautifully crafted and very artistic in appearance. Like the A series, the earlier models have the oval soundhole; f-holes were introduced with the F-5 in 1922. The F-5s made during the Twenties are the most valuable of all mandolins, with prices running in the thousands of dollars.