The mandolin is not one of those instruments that you see around very much. Maybe you’ll come across one every so often in a folk club, if you’re lucky, whilst the odd specialist guitar shop will probably stock a couple. Your best bet, really, is to head to the south of Italy, where they were born – and where they still inform much of the traditional music.
If you’re thinking about learning to play this stringed instrument, you may well be onto a winner. We all know plenty of guitarists; in fact, the guitar these days is maybe a little too common. So, if you’re hoping to avoid the mainstream – if you really want to be cool – the mandolin is maybe the instrument for you. Unless you’re living in the south of Italy, of course.
Yet, in all seriousness, the mandolin is an incredibly beautiful musical instrument, with a brighter sound than the classical guitar and able to cut through a lot of texture to produce lovely melodic solo lines.
We would personally recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning less conventional musical instruments. Because whilst it is different in tone and structure to the guitar, the technique is quite similar.
Let’s see how you can start learning the mandolin. Here, we’re going to be looking at the history of the instrument, its variations, and its common techniques. We’ll also show you where you can find your own mandolin tutor too.
What is a Mandolin?
The mandolin is an Italian string instrument that developed out of the earlier form of the lute (more on this later). It is the most famous of the larger family of mandolas, and its most characteristic features are its permanent resonator – i.e. its body and soundhole –, a neck that is permanently attached, and the fact that it is played with a plectrum or pick.
Yet, you may recognise it better from the tones it produces and the styles of music in which mandolins are used.
You’ll definitely have heard it around – featuring as it does in many different genres, from classical to bluegrass music and folk music, and in traditional music from around the world. Its strings have an incredibly bright sound that is often described as ‘punchy’: it carries well over the mellow tone of the classical or acoustic guitars.
And you’ll recognise it from its look too. Smaller than a guitar, but thinner and sleeker than a ukulele, it is often made by the same luthiers as acoustic guitars.
You can find out how to learn the ukulele!
A Brief History of the Mandolin.
We’ve said that the mandolin – or, in the original lingo, the mandolino – was an Italian invention, developing out of the family of lutes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
If you want to know a bit about the history of the lute, you can check out our article on learning the lute, however our starting point here bypasses this earlier instrument.
Generally, people consider the mandolin to be one of the descendants of the mandola (the suffix -ino meaning, in Italian, small – therefore, a small mandola) that was develop in Naples by the Vinaccia family.
These guys, in a significant development, put metal strings on an instrument that previously used gut. But, given that metal required a higher tension than gut, the instruments needed to be strengthened, and so the body was deepened – which, of course, affected the sound.
But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the mandolin became popular outside of Italy. In the last two decades of that century, many Italian mandolinists started touring Europe and the US. The result was that the popularity of the mandolin boomed.
Consequently, it became popular across all of these places – influencing genres from Celtic music, bluegrass, and rock and roll.
How is a Mandolin Constructed?
So, what then are the distinguishing features of a mandolin? Sure, it sounds brighter and it harks from eighteenth-century Italy, but what is it actually like?
Well, most common mandolins these days have eight strings which come in four ‘courses’ or pairs. Like on a lute, the point in this is so that you can play two strings in unison whilst having fretted and plucked only once. These strings are tuned like the violin in intervals of perfect fifths.
There are three types of mandolin, however: the round-backed mandolin – which is the Neapolitan variety – the flat-backed, and the carved-top. These are generally put to different uses, with the Neapolitan being played in classical music, the carved-top in American bluegrass, and the flat-backed in British and Irish folk.
There are plenty of variations between different types – often varying by size. Consequently, there is a soprano, piccolo, alto, tenor, and bass mandolin. Meanwhile, if you interested in investigating the different types further, you’ll find lots of different types of instrument referred to by the names of the Italian cities in which they were made: Milanese, Cremonese, Brescian, Genovese.
Check out our article on learning the cittern!
Famous Mandolin Performances.
Mandolinists aren’t exactly the most well-known category of musician, at least not next to the big guitar players of our day.
Yet, this of course is not to say that there aren’t any of them – and that they should remain unknown to beginners. Rather, if you are hoping to learn to play the mandolin, the best place to go is to the videos, concerts, and profiles of the biggest mandolin players in the world.
Because this where inspiration comes from: inspiration for your own licks and jamming sessions, for melodies and good technique, and to see, quite simply, what can be done with the instrument.
So, if you want to see what can be done on the fretboard of a mandolin, there’s one place to start.
Bill Monroe was a member of the Blue Grass Boys, perhaps the most influential bluegrass band of all time. They featured Earl Scruggs, the banjoist who we discussed in our article on how to play the banjo.
Whilst Monroe is thought to have been a bit reluctant to play the mandolin – preferring to be a fiddle or guitar player – he soon became virtuosic at the instrument. But, honestly, it’s good that he didn’t play one of these other stringed instruments, because we’d never have managed to see him performing as well as he did on the mandolin’s fingerboard.
Find out how to learn the banjo here!
Chris Thile is one of the most accomplished of contemporary mandolinists, having played with musicians across the musical spectrum – from classical to jazz to bluegrass and pop.
He’s won four Grammy awards in the meantime and has been nominated for a further four.
Thile is best seen playing with the band, Nickel Creek, or else with Brad Mehldau on the inventively titled album, Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau.
One of the few mandolinists in Naples carrying the flame for the city’s musical past is Maura Squillante, the president of Accademia Mandolinistica Napoletana as well as a professional classical mandolinist.
How to Play the Mandolin: Some Basic Mandolin Technique.
Remember that the mandolin is played with a pick: this isn’t a fingerpicking instrument like the lute, say.
Whilst guitarists will get this immediately, playing with a plectrum is not necessarily as easy as it looks. Particularly when you have two strings to pluck with every note you play (as the mandolin has courses, remember).
So, knowing how to hold your pick correctly is an important part of playing the mandolin.
Firstly, you don’t want to play it flat against the strings. Holding the mandolin in a way in which the head is slightly raised will mean that when you move the plectrum downwards, its front edge will strike the strings through first.
Again, if you play the guitar, you’ll be familiar with this. However, you’ll need to keep going through both of the strings!
You can find out more about different types of string instruments with us!
A Brief Guide to Mandolin Lessons.
Musical instruments can be learned in many different ways, depending upon your preference and learning style. Sure, you can go self-taught and save yourself some money, or else hire a mandolin teacher.
They way you choose is up to you!
Find a Mandolin Tutor with Superprof.
There’s nothing better than a dedicated teacher to take you through your musical learning. This is particularly true if you are not a musician already – as the notation, music theory, and technique is quite a lot to handle all together.
One of the best places to find a mandolin tutor is with Superprof. We host nearly forty mandolin tutors across the UK – charging an average of £24 an hour.
Check Out Some of the Mandolin Resources Online.
There are plenty of resources to help you to play the mandolin online – from easy access tablature to video lessons, musical notation, and technique lessons.
Whilst you can surely pay for online resources, there is really no need to, as the majority are free.
For example, take a look at Chris Thile’s mandolin video lessons on YouTube.