What is a Mandolin?

Discover the history of the mandolin, and know more about its place in today’s music world. 

If you play the mandolin, it can get a bit trying when people mistake it for something else. Don’t let it aggravate you, though. You just have to accept that people may often mistake it for a ukulele, popular in Hawaii, or a banjo. So what is a mandolin exactly?

Essentially, it’s a lute instrument which means it’s a stringed guitar-like instrument with a neck and you need to pluck the strings. It’s hollow like a guitar and it has 4 pairs of steel strings (wires). To strum it you’ll need a hard plastic pick. Nowadays, there are two kinds of mandolins: the more traditional Neapolitan style with the very rounded back, and the modern Orville Gibson archtop design that’s based on the violin design.

Origins of the Mandolin

Some experts trace the original history of the mandolin from the prehistoric lutes that were used way back in 8500 BC. From this, various lute designs have been used through the years. In the 1300s, the mandora became a popular miniature lute and the mandolin (“mandolin” in Italian) is the smaller mandora.

It came to America during the early 1800s, with the coming of various immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. By 1850, it was a common instrument among the middle class. But it was the huge wave of Italian immigration during the 1880s that made the Neapolitan version the most popular of them all.

Then the iconic Orville Gibson changed the design of the mandolin and came out with his carved top and back. His designs were based on the violin, and in addition they were heavily ornate. Today, these mandolins are all collectibles.

Then Bill Monroe used the mandolin with such skill that the instrument became even more popular. Bill Monroe is widely considered as the Godfather of Bluegrass music. His playing style has influenced just about every mandolin player in America. He’s also the only person who’s been inducted in the Halls of Fame for Bluegrass, Country, and Rock and Roll.

Mandolin in Classical Music

Most people don’t usually associate the mandolin with classical music. But you can still find a mandolin orchestra in places like New York City. In fact, some of the most recognizable names in classical music wrote compositions for the mandolin. These include:

  • Vivaldi and Hummel (numerous concerti for orchestra and mandolin)
  • Handel (Alexander Balus oratorio)
  • Mozart (Canzonetta from Don Giovanni)
  • Beethoven (sonatas for mandolin and piano)
  • Verdi (Otello)
  • Stravinsky  (Agon ballet with passages with mandolin solos)

Mandolin in Modern Music

The mandolin is still a mainstay in American country music, and that’s especially true for the folk and bluegrass variety. It’s an especially compelling instrument in country music especially for those who wish for a different sound from the ubiquitous guitar. In Europe, the sound of the mandolin can be found in late 1960s British rock music, especially the acoustic music of Rod Stewart and Led Zep.

With the continuing popularity of “unplugged” music, the mandolin can still be heard. You can still hear its smooth and round classical tones, from the Celtic folk ballads of the British Isles to the nooks and crannies of the American South where bluegrass still thrives.

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