A traditional folk, bluegrass, country, and classical instrument, the bright, complex, and sparkling sound of the mandolin has even managed to hit the charts every now and then. This plucky little string instrument has an entirely unique sound and its own rich history.

De mandoline
Photos: Gerard Burgers

The Sound of the Mandolin

“The sound of the mandolin comes close to the sound of a guitar but has a significantly higher pitch and a more glittering sound. If a mandolin features in a band, then it’ll sit on top of everything else. You’ll hear it immediately, since it doesn’t just add distinct colour but broadens the total sound of the band. The sound of a mandolin has a little extra spice to it than a guitar, so your playing also adopts a little extra spice, and once you’ve mastered the instrument, you can play some mad solos. The mandolin is small, so the distance between the frets is also small, which pretty much demands fast playing. A well set up mandolin will have a really light and fast playing feel.” Bert Kock (music therapist and music teacher) and Hans Westerveld (fellow music therapist and guitar teacher) both play various string instruments, and the mandolin is just one of them. Hans plays mandolin in his band Bonne Route, and he and Bert are completely won over by the charm of the little instrument. “I don’t need to hear it all the time, but if it pops up every now and then in a track, it can add so much,” says Hans. “The mandolin mixes in beautifully with the guitar, but it also matches well with instruments like the accordion. It’s definitely a band instrument and when played as part of an ensemble, the sound really sings through. I think that’s when you really get the best out of it.”

Losing My Religion

Maybe the most well-known song to have featured the mandolin is ‘Losing My Religion’ by R.E.M. As you can see below, it even takes centre stage in the music video, but besides pop music, the mandolin is often used to play classical music. Plenty of composers have written entire mandolin concertos, and just like in pop music, plenty of other classical pieces include cameo appearances from the mandolin. There are even full mandolin orchestras (see further below). “The mandolin is most at home in folk music,” according to both Bert and Hans. In more modern music, the mandolin is most common in styles like Bluegrass. “Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily associate the mandolin with Bluegrass,” admits Bert, “It’s not like the banjo, which immediately makes you think of Country, Bluegrass and similar styles.”

Doubled Strings

The mandolin is a close relation of the lute, and while there are many variations, the mandolin always has a small, compact body and a set of paired or doubled strings, meaning that the two strings in a pair are tuned to the same pitch – exactly the same setup as a twelve-string guitar. The four pairs of strings have the same standard tuning as the violin: G, D, A, E, which is arranged in fifths instead of semitone intervals like the tuning of a guitar. So, is that going to be confusing for musicians who are used to playing the guitar? “It takes a little getting used to, but you’ll actually make less mistakes than you’d expect,” claims Bert and Hans. “A mandolin has a completely different feel to the guitar, so you’re immediately aware of those fifth intervals. With something like a ukulele, for example, the difference is actually a bigger stumbling block since, while the ukulele feels more like a guitar, the tuning works differently. Another big difference between a guitar and mandolin is that, with a guitar, you have a much bigger note range, especially in the lower ranges. The low G of the mandolin is the third string on the guitar, but with a guitar, you have the D, A, and E strings below that. A mandolin just can’t be tuned that low. The doubled strings of a mandolin also require a slightly different playing technique. If you play with a plectrum, you can play trills or tremolos, meaning that sound you get when you pluck two strings tuned to the same pitch in quick succession to make it sound like one long note – suggesting a sostenuto.” This technique has actually been around since the end of the 19th century.

The Mandolin: The Basics

The History of the Mandolin

The history of the mandolin stretches back through several centuries. Originating in Italy towards the end of the 17th century, the mandolin is a close relative of the lute. The chitarra morsica, an instrument that was first introduced to Southern Europe by roaming Berbers, is considered the oldest predecessor and has a similar pear-shaped body and rounded back. In the 15th century, the mandora already existed, which resembled the mandolin in name as well construction, and in the 17th century, the mandola, mandolino, and armandolino emerged – all variations of the mandolin as we know it, and all with different numbers of strings. The most popular was the mandolino, which was tuned in semitone intervals and, after 1700, was pretty much overtaken by two metal-strung mandolin-like instruments: the Roman and Neapolitan. These two new types were tuned in the same way as the modern mandolin, and unlike the mandolino which was plucked with the fingers, they were played with the shaft of a feather. While many variations have since been built, this was the birth of the mandolin as we know it today.

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Playing Technique

For a long time, the tremolo or trill was the dominant mandolin playing technique. “It’s actually a really difficult technique. You have to work hard to make it sound consistent and beautiful,” comments Hans. Over the years, other techniques have developed, or you could even say: have been recovered, since ancient playing techniques have been adopted and integrated into the common modern technique to make the most of that double-stringed sound. “That double-string sound has a rich and spacious effect to it,” says Bert. Variation in timbre is also used a lot. You can strike the strings above the sound hole, or at the fretboard or just below the nut to get a totally different colour. “You can also perform a rasgueado with a mandolin, which is that flowing strumming technique used by flamenco guitarists,” says Bert. But as brilliant as the mandolin is, both musicians admit that the guitar does have more to offer. “The guitar is a much broader instrument and makes a wider array of playing techniques possible. With a guitar, you can accompany picking patterns with droning bass notes. You just can’t do that with a mandolin. The fret technique is also broader. With a guitar you can inject a little more art with just the fingertips.”

The Mandolin: The Basics

Good to Know

The Mandolin Orchestra

Just as you can get entire harmonica, ukulele, or even kazoo orchestras, you can also get full mandolin orchestras. Since these orchestras emerged in Italy where the mandolin and guitar play a central role in folk music, they traditionally feature both the mandolin and the guitar. In around 1880, the first mandolin quartet was put together in Italy, made up of two mandolins, a mandola, and a guitar. A little later, this style of ensemble found its way to Germany and other countries, and while they were largely started by amateur musicians, professional composers began writing pieces for mandolin orchestras. You can find a number of mandolin orchestras performing in the UK right now, including the Fretful Federation (fretful-federation.co.uk) and the London Mandolin Ensemble (londonmandolinensemble.org.uk). These orchestras play everything from baroque music to more modern repertoires and traditional folk music. The contemporary mandolin orchestra is commonly made up of mandolins, mandolas, guitars, and a double bass. A notable composer who has written works exclusively for mandolin ensembles is Jurriaan Andriessen.

Ancestors of the Mandolin

Just like many other string instruments, the mandolin is a direct ancestor of the lute; an instrument that grew to prominence during the Middle Ages and was a common sight for centuries to come. Even now, the lute is more common than you might think. The lute can be single or double stringed, and descends from the oud: an instrument that’s still played in Arabic music. The mandola is like the bigger sister of the mandolin, and functions as the alto section of a mandolin orchestra, while the mandolins serve as the sopranos.

Mandolin Virtuosos

These days, you’re likely to hear the mandolin in Country and Bluegrass music more than any other genre. Bluegrass is American folk music and has strong roots in English, Irish, and Scottish folk. Bluegrass has borne a number of mandolin virtuosos, including big names like Bill Monrow and David Grisman. More contemporary masters include Chris Tile, and Avi Avital who have both managed to weave stunning crossovers with their technique and approach.

See also…

» Mandolins
» Mandolin Strings
» Mandolin Gig Bags & Cases
» Mandolin Capos
» Mandolin String Winders
» Chromatic Tuners
» Mandolin Stands
» Mandolin Straps
» Maintenance Gear
» All String Instruments & Accessories

» The Difference Between the Ukulele, Mandolin, and Banjo

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