The mandolin is a chordophone, producing sound from the vibration of 8 strings, which are tuned in pairs. The mandolin is one of the smaller members of the lute family, and its lineage can be traced back much older instruments around the European and Asian continent. Though it has changed in form over the years, the mandolin has adapted easily to most styles of music and as such has become a popular instrument all around the world.
TRACING THE ORIGINS OF THE MANDOLIN
Fretless lute-like instruments were played in Mesopotamia back in 2nd century BCE, and related instruments such as the barabat existed as early as the 1st century BCE in Central Asia, as well as the Islamic oud of the 7th century CE (read more here). The oud maintained its place as a central instrument in the Arabic and Ottoman musical traditions, and made its way to Spain with the Moorish conquest, and to Venice via trade routes (read more about the oud here). Crusaders then brought the instrument to other parts of Europe, where it took on new form.
By the 11th century Middle Ages, the oud had evolved in Europe to become the lute, which inspired the design of many other related instruments: the bandaline (Portugal), bouzouki (Greece), taburitza (Balkan), balalaika (Russia). A small lute called the mandora or mandola was developed for 16th century lute ensembles, and a smaller mandolino became what we know today as the mandolin. Early mandolins had 6 courses of gut strings, to be plucked by the fingers, while modern versions have 4 courses of metal strings designed to be played with a plectrum/pick. This more modern design arose in Naples around the 18th century.
The wave of Italian immigrants who moved to the U.S.A. in the 1880s brought with them the Neapolitan bowl-back mandolin (read more about this here). Along the East coast, impoverished individuals who wanted to appear more affluent would carry around mandolin cases, and most colleges had a mandolin club. With such a long and vibrant history, much early music was composed with the mandolin in mind, and the instrument was incredibly popular for classical music in the early 20th century. By the mid-20th century, tastes had shifted in America towards country, old-time, bluegrass, and folk music, and the mandolin became a popular instrument for all these genres.
GIBSON AND MODERN MANDOLIN DEVELOPMENTS
Orville Gibson (1856 - 1918) was an American luthier who founded Gibson Guitar Company in 1902, which has become world-renowned for its guitars and mandolins. Not liking the shape of the bowlback mandolins common at the time, which he compared to pesky potato bugs, Gibson favored a carved, arched solid wood top back. This resulted in a darker tone and also made it easier to mass-market the instrument (being less fragile, with less stress in forcibly bending wood into shape). Gibson made a range of mando-family instruments: mandolins (A and F series), mandola (H series), mandocello (K series) and mandobass (J series). While hugely popular in America, these flat-backed mandolins were met with mixed reviews back in Europe, with many still preferring the round-back variety.
Lloyd Allayre Loar (1886-1943) worked as a master luthier for the Gibson company, contributing many developments including the F-holes, a longer neck (with a bridge more central to the body), and a floating fingerboard over the top (rather than fused to the top). He is famous for his F5 (pear shape) and A5 (three body points and a scroll) model mandolins, which are said to be among the finest ever produced.
MEET THE MANDOLIN FAMILY
- Piccolo or Sopranino Mandolin – one octave above a mandola and a fourth above the mandolin; these were never particularly common, with a 9.5" scale length.
- Mandolin – the soprano member of the mandolin family, it is generally tuned GDAE, with a 13" scale length.
- Mandola – tuned a fifth below the mandolin (as a viola is tuned a fifth below a violin), it is generally tuned CGDA, with a 16.5" scale length.
- Octave Mandolin – is a full octave below a mandolin, tuned GDAE, with a 17-20" scale length.
- Mandocello – tuned an octave plus a fifth below the mandolin (as a cello is from a violin), tuned CGDA, with a 25" scale length (sometimes it is restrung for octave mandolin tuning, or to match the Irish bouzouki's GDAD)
- Mando-Bass – has only four single strings, not double-courses (unlike others in the mandolin family) and tuned like a double bass, EADG (with E below second low C). Though impressive in scale, mandolin orchestras often opted for a traditional stand-up bass instead of the mandolin variety, and these instruments never became particularly common.
Hybrid models also come into popularity from time to time, such as the banjo mandolin (for example this banjolin) and a mando-lute, also called a cylinder-back mandolin (read more about mandolin forms and features here). Looking at where the mandolin has come from (round-backed instruments predating the lute) and where it is today, it is fun to imagine what developments may arise in years to come.