I can remember the evening very well. We had just finished a long rehearsal and hadn’t got it right. We were all a bit despondent, and the drummer said, “Let’s listen to something different.” He got out an album he had just bought and put it on.
With due respect to the man, we weren’t Rod Stewart fans. We had all seen enough of him years before at the clubs in Ealing and Eel Pie Island. We struggled through it, and then came “Maggie May,” which we all knew and didn’t like.
For The Very First Time
We were on the edge of turning it off and having another go at what we were doing. And then suddenly we stopped. “Maggie” finished, and this was something different. What was that instrument?
It was the very first time I heard a mandolin properly. I had seen them in folk clubs and on TV without paying too much attention. This was different. It made that track stand out above all the others by a mile. Right then, I knew I needed an answer to the question, “What is a mandolin guitar?”
What is the Mandolin All About?
The mandolin has a long and rich history. It is a relative of the lute, and lutes have been in use in Middle Eastern countries for over 2000 years. But the genealogy of this instrument is a lot more complicated than that.
Through the Generations
It is thought that the mandolin could be a descendant of a French instrument called the Mandalore. It was thought to be French because the music that has survived for it was all written in French.
However, the Mandolin also bears a striking resemblance to a Spanish instrument called the Bandurria. This itself might have been related to an instrument called the Rebec. That was brought over by Arab armies into Spain in the 11th and 12th Centuries. Although, the Rebec is more violin than mandolin.
In the 1500s and through to the 1600s, it was widely used across Europe and even into Scotland. But gradually, it evolved, and Mandalore became the more versatile instrument we recognize today, the Mandolin.
Italy, Where Else?
The instrument we know today began to take shape in Cremona in Northern Italy. This was about the same time as the Amati family school. They were teaching Giuseppe Guarneri and a certain Antonio Stradivari how to make violins. They both did okay.
We had variant instruments, the “Mandolino” being one, as it gathered impetus through the 16th and 17th centuries. But it took its final shape in Naples, Italy, in the 1800s.
That design gave us four pairs of steel strings that were usually made from steel. It had guitar-like tuners that tuned the mandolin to violin pitches, G – D – A – and E. To project the sound, it had a pear-shaped body, with a big, deep soundbox and a neck with 17 frets.
Today there are three types of mandolins most widely used. There is the “Archtop” and the “Flatback” and the original “Neapolitan” or “Round-back mandolin.” You’ll find they each belong to specialized music circles because of the unique sound each makes.
Flatbacks are found in British and Irish folk music. The Archtop in Bluegrass and American Country music. And the Round-back mandolin is found playing the more classically oriented pieces. Of course, you can find lots of music that uses the mandolin. But, those three are musical genres that feature the mandolin as a prominent role.
Mandolin Genres Are Wider Than You Might Think
Its use has been extended beyond what most people think a mandolin is used for. Indeed, there are some famous mandolin pieces in music history. Mozart included a mandolin part in his opera “Don Giovanni” in 1787. More recently, in a Classical vein, Stravinsky included parts in his ballet production of “Agon” in 1957.
But perhaps it reached its neo-classical peak in 1725 when Vivaldi composed his “Mandolin Concerto.” A famous and well-lived mandolin piece that was used in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer.
Taking us back to where we started with the mesmerizing “Mandolin Wind” by Rod the Mod. As well as Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and a few others who made rock music with the mandolin. More recently, it was used on ‘Losing My Religion’ by REM and ‘Iris’ by The Goo Goo Dolls.
The Mandolin vs. Similar Stringed and Strummed Instruments
People will often talk about how a mandolin compares to a guitar, a ukulele, or even a banjo. That is to be expected, even if the last one is a bit of a stretch. They all have a similarly shaped body and neck, and strings constructed in much the same fashion. Furthermore, they are even made from similar woods.
But in terms of how the mandolin, guitar, and ukulele are the same ends there. If we want to answer the question “What is a mandolin guitar?” we should know the important differences between a mandolin and a guitar, along with the differences with the ukulele.
Comparing to a Guitar
There is no real comparison other than in the basic shape. The mandolin has four paired strings and is clearly much smaller. It makes a different sound, and they are used for different things musically.
There is a case for saying that the mandolin can sound a little like an acoustic guitar. But that is stretching it a bit. The mandolin is much shorter than a guitar. Therefore, the notes have a higher pitch which adds to a distinctive sound.
Furthermore, it is not an instrument that people learn to play before they learn the guitar. Conversely, learning guitar before the mandolin won’t make it any easier to do so. They are different instruments with different concepts.
Quick tip for guitar players…
However, if you are a guitarist, you may have noticed that the tuning is the same as the guitar’s four thickest strings but in reverse.
Therefore, if you think of any chord that is played using the E – A – D – G strings on a guitar and turn it upside down, you will have the mandolin version of the same chord. This isn’t always the case, and extensions and other chord shapes exist for the mandolin, but it’s a great starting point if you’ve never played a mandolin before.
Comparing to a Ukulele
Again, not the same instrument. The sizes are similar, but the number of strings is different, as is the sound. The shape of the body is different. The ukulele usually has a figure-eight shape, although there are a couple of variations to that.
The ukulele is usually played by strumming with your fingers; a mandolin is usually played with a pick. However, once again, either style can be utilized on the other instrument. One of the most fundamental differences is in the “feeling” of each instrument. Ukuleles are joyous, and mandolins are far more sensual.
A Unique Sound
The mandolin has very much its own sound. The double string idea creates a sound that has an almost “chorus” feel to it. And the notes have more sustain as the strings continue to vibrate against each other. Sound-wise you could make a remote association with the sound of a high-pitched acoustic 12-string guitar.
But I am not sure it is worth the time wondering how the mandolin compares to the ukulele or guitar. It is its own instrument. It didn’t evolve from a guitar or a ukulele. In fact, it was around way before both. It is its own instrument with its own sound.
One thing for sure is that the mandolin is a fun instrument to play. And the music you can make with one is quite unlikely to ever put anyone off. If you think you might like to learn to play, here are some suggestions.
Interested in other Stringed Instruments?
We can help find just what you’re after. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Mandolins, the Best Lanikai Ukuleles, the Best Classical Guitars, the Best 12-String Guitars, the Best Lap Steel Guitars, the Best Resonator Guitar, and the Best Cheap Acoustic Guitars Under $200 you can buy in 2021.
You might also enjoy our handy articles on How to Tune a Mandolin, How to Play The Mandolin for Beginners, What is Considered a String Instrument, Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of, and Easiest Musical Instruments for Adults to Learn for more useful information.
What is a Mandolin Guitar – Final Thoughts
Now that you know all about the mandolin, give it a try. If you already play another stringed instrument, like a guitar, you will enjoy the variations of the mandolin. The change, though, takes some getting used to. But once you have mastered some basic chords, which are different from the guitar, of course, it will be fine.
Until next time, let your music play.