What Exactly is a Mandolin: History, Styles of Music, Parts and Best Mandolins for Beginners

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What exactly is a mandolin, you ask? Well, this instrument belongs to the family of stringed lutes. Its rounded shape resembles a country guitar, but the sound is not like it at all. Unlike most stringed instruments, the mandolin requires a plectrum to pluck the strings for optimal sound. The uniqueness of the mandolin lies in the placement of its instruments, which are groups of two in each, for a total of four.

Below is a list of the best mandolins for beginners. These musical instruments for beginners are a great choice for those who have a limited budget, but on the other hand, you can always stretch your pockets for extra fun. Mandolins – are the unique instruments that give you an edge in your musical portfolio and would open up opportunities for you which you might not have realized earlier.

The History of the Origin of the Mandolin

The instrument we now call the mandolin first truly appeared in the workshops of Naples, Italy, in the middle of the 1700s. But similar instruments going by the names mandora, mandola, and mandore preceded the Neapolitan mandolin by centuries.

The mandora first appeared as early as the 15th century in Italy. Starting out with only four or five strings, its name probably came from the word mandorla, or almond.

With gut strings, a pear shaped body carved from a single piece of wood, and no frets, this instrument had a deeper, sweeter tone than today’s mandolins. The term mandora has since come to refer more broadly to mid-sized mandolins.

By the Baroque period (roughly 1600–1750), a new instrument had developed that was known as the mandolino, or little mandola.

It was primarily a melodic instrument, which differentiated it from the lute, which played both harmonic and melodic roles in the music of that time.

The modern mandolin, at least in the European-style roundback design still favored outside of the United States, developed from the mandolino between 1750 and 1850.

The Vinaccia family in Naples played a crucial role in this development throughout that period, and Pasquale Vinaccia (1806–82) is the man who was most responsible for establishing the standard design of the instrument.

Among the developments that differentiate the mandolin from the Baroque mandolin were a bent soundboard, a raised fret board, more frets (and therefore more notes), and 8 metal strings.

The strings are paired in sets, known as courses, of two, in which each pair of strings is tuned to the exact same pitch.

This means there are actually only four pitches represented by the eight strings. The strings are tuned to the same pitches as are the strings of a violin – G, D, A, and E, from low to high.

The mandolin’s metal strings made a new style of playing possible that was marked by the tremolo technique, in which the player rapidly moves the pick up and down on a single pair of strings, creating a rapid-fire repetition of a single pitch. In that time, picks (or plectrums, as they called them) were typically made from tortoise shell.

In the second half of the 1800s, the mandolin began to become a worldwide phenomenon. Virtuoso performers such as Carlos Munier, grandon of Pasquale Vinaccia, toured Europe and persuaded audiences that the mandolin was more than just an Italian folk instrument. And, from the 1870s onward, masses of immigrants to the United States from Italy brought their mandolins along with them.

A curious group of musicians known as the Estudiantes españolas from Spain traveled around the United States in the 1880s, creating a swirl of attention in the still young nation.

The instruments they played were similar to mandolins, called bandurrias, but the mandolin was the instrument in its family that stood the test of time.

One early maker of mandolins in the United States was the still-extant Martin Company, but even more crucial was the Gibson Company, based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Gibson had a designer named Lloyd Loar, who created two new designs for the mandolin, each with a flat back rather than the typical (to that point) round or bowl back. One of Loar’s designs is known the A-style mandolin; the other is the F-style, which has F-holes like a violin.

These new designs had a more guitar-like sound, making them better suited to strumming than their Neapolitan bowl-backed counterparts.

Some argued that the new designs sacrificed the sweeter tone of Italian mandolins. But in return, they achieved greater projection and a sharper attack, two qualities that became essential to the mandolin’s role in bluegrass music.

The mandolin’s spread in the United States was furthered by the establishment of mandolin orchestras, which encouraged large groups of people to take up the instrument together.

Flat-backed mandolins became the norm in the United States, but elsewhere bowl-backed mandolins remain much more popular to this day.

Styles of music for Mandolin

The earliest music for the mandolin is found in Italian classical music and folk music. In the classical world, composers like Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) incorporated the mandolin into the orchestra.

Vivaldi himself wrote two concertos for the instrument; one for mandolin solo and one for two mandolins.

Another composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), wrote music for the mandolin in his opera Don Giovanni.

The style of Mozart’s music, however, is actually based on folk music rather than classical music – it is in fact a folk song played by a character within the classical opera.

In the Italian folk music that inspired Mozart, the mandolin was often used to accompany romantic songs and dances. This style of music is still commonly heard in the Italian countryside, in movies like The Godfather, and in Italian restaurants the world over. Its sub-genres range from fast-paced tarantellas to romantic serenades.

In the United States, of course, the mandolin is best known for its role in bluegrass music. Along with the fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass, it forms the core of the bluegrass sound.

In a bluegrass band, the mandolin often plays full chords, boisterous solos, and other techniques far beyond traditional mandolin style.

Outside of these primary genres, the mandolin has found its place within a nearly limitless array of musical styles.

American country, jazz, pop, Brazilian music, Latin music, and folk music from dozens of countries have all played host to talented mandolinists.

In part because it has the same tuning as a violin, the mandolin is particularly adaptable and has proven a resilient instrument through the twentieth century and beyond.

Parts of the Mandolin

The central part of the mandolin’s anatomy is its body, the hollow chamber that serves as an echo chamber for the sound produced by the strings.

The piece of wood on the top of the mandolin’s body is known as the soundboard. One or two sound holes are carved into the body; they allow the sound to project from the inner chamber out into the world.

F-style mandolins (and some A-style mandolins) have two f-shaped holes, which are inspired by the holes on a violin’s body, as opposed to the single, central hole of the guitar or bowl-backed mandolin.

At the bottom of the body, a tailpiece serves as the base to which the strings are attached. The strings travel from the tailpiece over the bridge.

On a mandolin, unlike on a guitar, the bridge is movable and not attached to the body. This allows for small adjustments in tuning. The bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings.

On top of a mandolin’s body you may also find a pick guard, which prevents the wood from being scratched by a pick.

The mandolin’s eight strings, paired in sets (known as courses) of two, go over the bridge and across the mandolin’s neck, which extends out from the main body of the instrument.

The mandolin has a relatively short neck comprised of two main parts: a fingerboard and frets. The fingerboard is a flat piece of wood attached to the neck, while the frets are thin pieces of metal that are hammered into channels on the fretboard.

The frets stop the vibration of the strings at a specific point along the neck of the instrument, creating a different pitch depending on the length of the string.

The strings end at the final major part of the mandolin, its head. The head is a solid piece of wood that hosts the tuners, a set of eight pegs attached to gears that are turned to tighten or loosen the strings, which in turn raises or lowers the pitch of that string.

Best Mandolins for Beginners

1. Stagg Bluegrass Mandolin with Nato Top M50E

Stagg is a company known for its amazing products that offer the user the best in sound quality, at the best in the market price. And this is also how we see the Stagg M50E. With its description so long that it’s utterly invisible to the naked eye, and one has to dig deep to find out more.

What’s great is that this mandolin comes with its very own bag, which is suitable for carrying purposes. Just the others in the list, this mandolin also has an adjustable bridge allowing for the perfect fit and tuning for the beginner mandolin players.

We would nonetheless advise caution with the strings of this mandolin to be tuned with care since it seems a trend with cheaper mandolins that they tend to break easily when tightened too much.

Of course, this is an electric rather than being a pure acoustic mandolin, which allows for a lot more variation in the sound output than what is normally the case with regular mandolins. We would give it a thumbs up, but one that’s not outrightly upright.

2. Kentucky 8-String Mandolin KM-140

This is another one from among the high-end mandolin list of instruments. You’ll find a great standard of music coming out of each strum played on this classical instrument. It has a great shape to easily hold in the arm or lap while playing since its roundish curves sit firmly.

It has premium materials laced all over, with nickel-plated hardware that changes or rather enhances the sound of the mandolin considerably. The use of the standard maple on its body gives it a further exquisite sound that is distinct from a Kentucky mandolin.

Like the Loar, Kentucky is keeping its classic look and feel alive for modern generations to get the feel of. It has the distinct dark outer edges with a wooden interior finish to top off a great design, and a premium fit and finish. This might not come as a surprise, but this model is also among the bestsellers in the mandolin market. If you have the bucks to dish out then you should definitely need to get your hands on this amazing mandolin.

3. Oscar Schmidt A-Style Electric Mandolin OM10EWH-O-U

You’ll come across the same fit and finish that you’ll have seen or even felt if you own one, as the previous Oscar Schmidt we have reviewed. This mandolin continues the fine craftmanship offered by Oscar Schmidt across its entire range. This offering has a distinctive white color which gives it a remarkable finish and allows it to stand out of the crowd in a market filled with wooden textured mandolins.

This mandolin has the same versatility offered by fully electric mandolin’s which include but are not limited to, the great control over each note and tune, as well as the varying output sounds.

You’ll have to be extra careful with this mandolin though due to its high gloss finish, which is bound to get scratchy with time. Add to it the fact that this also does not come with any bags or covers, which makes it even harder to take care of it.

If you like to be daring and want the best in class sound, then this mandolin by Oscar Schmidt is a great offering. It’s shiny, acoustically accurate, and tuned, as well as has the appeal mandolins not usually enjoy in the instrumentals.

4. Savannah A-Model Mandolin SA-100

What we have here is a one of a kind mandolin that we usually recommend to our beginners. Of course, it’s one among many others which we recommend. The Savannah has a hard maple deck which makes it an exciting proposition for someone who likes to pluck hard.

This is a trait common mostly to beginners who are a bit jittery in their approach. The Savannah also comes with a bound rosewood fretboard which is ideal in scenarios that require smooth operations, and something which can be taught to beginners in allowing them to finetune their plucking.

Its craftsmanship is remarkable and does not correspond to its cheap price. You can take it for a long hauler and not worry about having the mandolin split in half.

The Savannah in addition also has an adjustable compensated bridge, meaning any amount of adjustments will be easy and swift. It’s a different story with the other mandolins in the market, and this is one feature in which the Savannah comes out on top. We still recommend this to our brooding young fan base.

5. Stagg Bluegrass Mandolin M20

This particular Stagg is an acoustic mandolin, which although doesn’t have the versatility of the electric Stagg, still manages to keep its own. This is particularly down to its uniquely refines dome-style which gives out crisper and bassy notes. This can consider a good pick for advanced beginners, those who already have some experience with playing mandolins on the cheap side.

The Stagg mandolin is all about the sound and the experience, with no corners being cut to achieve that purpose. The Stagg M20 comes with a rosewood fingerboard which translates to quality input and output. Couple that with the stylish finish of the mandolin and the basswood construction, you are left with a pretty strong contender for your money.

Its strings, like usually the case with mandolins, are pretty hard to press. This is something that beginners should be aware of before buying since it could have an impact on your initial journey. However, with the time you’ll get used to the difficulty level, especially considering that you’re getting a sexy looking piece which sounds as good as it looks. It’s a wise long-term investment.

6. The Loar Honey Creek Mandolin LM-110-BRB

With the Loar, we are entering the high-end spectrum of mandolins. These are for slightly advanced users but would suit beginners who have somewhat deep pockets. The shape of the Loar is highly distinctive, with a roundish and very fine style to it. It is immediately recognizable and anyone tugging around a Loar can boast about it as well, eyes will be definitely set upon them. But that’s not even the start of the story.

A Loar mandolin is recognizable from their distinctive sound notes, which are unlike any other mandolin. This is because they have hand-carved spruce tops that give them the authentic feel and sound. It’s great for beginners because the removal of the fretboard beyond the twentieth fret has allowed for more easy-going playing.

The Loar mandolins have a distinctly early 20 th century sound and it’s been finetuned in such a manner that it cuts through even today’s concerts and orchestral pieces. If you’ve got the bucks then you’ll surely enjoy this great investment.

7. Ktone F Style Mandolin 5020SB

This is the second instrument by Ktone that we are reviewing in this article. Once again, the robust design of the Ktone pays its debt to the maple neck of the mandolin, with its sturdy finish, this is another mandolin which can bear the roughs of the rusty road.

This one coming in at 28”, is a fairly longer-sized mandolin which makes it an almost allrounder for all purposes of beginner use case scenarios. Its steel-string and 20 frets design adds to the authenticity in its musical output.

The great thing about Ktone’s is that they always have a bag along with them. This is a source of great protection for sensitive musical instruments such as a mandolin. Its rosewood fretboard provides the players with smooth plucking and is ideal for beginners, who’ll likely struggle with plucking.

This mandolin has an almost guitar-like shape, and could deceive most eyes but make no mistake, it’s a true mandolin with a distinctive style and grip. The eyes at each side of the dome are the only indication of it being a mandolin, so look out for those while buying.

8. Luna Folk Series Trinity A-Style Mandolin

Probably the strangest looking of all the mandolins reviewed in this article is the Luna Folk series mandolin. It has a distinctive four triangled soundhole which not only gives it a very unique look but also gives it the most distinct sound of all the other mandolins featured so far.

On top of the mandolin, there’s also a lunar-shaped crescent which is the logo of the company itself. You cannot miss this mandolin whether in the public or if you’re playing in an orchestra. Look to buy one of these with a premium price in your mind for this premium yet wild mandolin.

9. Washburn Americana Mandolin M1SDLB-A

We’ve kept the premium mandolins for the last and this one is another in the list of premium mandolins targeted especially towards beginners. Moreover, this is also the second Washburn to feature in this article. It has a very elegant black finish with accented edges, which are unmistakable of the Americana series of the mandolin.

This instrument is aimed at a variety of players including Celtic, bluegrass, and many more who want to add to the pallet of their sound instruments. It has a carved hand spruce top which adds to its distinct notes which are unfound of.

As much as this seems premium, it’s equally been targeted at beginner players. You’ll notice that this mandolin has an oval soundhole compared with the dual eyes of rival mandolins, and this is what makes it stand out of the crowd.

10. Oscar Schmidt Mandolin OM10ETS-O-U

These guys are known to produce high-quality and high-performance instruments but seldom do they keep their offerings for beginners at relatively modest prices. That seldom happens to have occurred in the form of the offering mentioned here.

It is a high-quality instrument aimed at beginners who want to take the mandolin learning to the next level. Each mandolin is fine-tuned by highly trained mandolin players and technicians. The moment you pluck the strings, you’ll notice deep and very clear notes with very little reverberance in the output.

It’s made with premium mahogany wood which puts it at the high end of the beginner mandolins. Its passive electronic design and the Ovangkol Fingerboard give the players maximum control over their play.

Its distinctive longhorn bullet design allows for a beautiful fit and finish, and the rigidness this provides is closely matched with high-end offerings of mandolins by Oscar Schmidt. You are bound to get astounded by the acoustics and the reliability of this beast. It’s a great long term investment considering its slightly higher than its category price.

11. Ktone A-Style Mandolin 5021RB

The Ktone comes up next with its beautiful design being amplified by its versatility in usage. The robust design of the Ktone pays its debt to the maple neck of the mandolin, with its sturdy finish, this is another mandolin which can bear the roughs of the rusty road.

Coming in at 27”, this is a fairly well-sized mandolin which makes it an allrounder for all purposes of beginner use case scenarios. Its steel-string and 20 frets design adds to the authenticity in its musical output.

If our previous recommendation had you drooling over its price, then the Ktone’s deal will lay you flat. It is practically the cheapest mandolin you can buy. The steel strings do tend to get out of shape especially on this model, so do keep in mind before buying the Ktone that you might very well have to replace the original strings on this model.

That aside, we don’t see any reason why you should not grab this no-brainer of a deal. The looks and the sound are well worth the money at this range.

12. Washburn A-Style Mandolin M1S-A

When you talk about a premium product at not such a premium price, the Washburn should always cross the mind. Having characteristics very much similar to the equally good Stagg series, Washburn is a fine-looking and fine-sounding piece of equipment.

Beginners would love the fact that the Washburn’s maple construction adds to weight and durability. The tuners on this thing are super easy to use, and one can quickly learn to master it. The steel Sitka bracing not only adds to the visuals of the mandolin but is key in attaining the Washburn mandolin’s acoustic superiority.

The finger placement dimples on the deck allow for beginners to easily learn the finger placements without having to wander off target too much. This also helps the teachers to better make the learner understand the positioning on a mandolin, which is key for its playback. One slight bummer is that you’ll have to buy your own casing and cover since it’s not included with the purchase.

FAQ for What Exactly is a Mandolin

What exactly is a mandolin?

Mandolin is a musical instrument that is played with a bow. It is also known as the violin or the lute.

The mandolin has been around for thousands of years, but it was not until the 19th century that it became more popular. The mandolin was originally created in China and was brought to Europe by travelers who were returning from North Africa.

In America, the mandolin became popular during the early 1900s when minstrel shows featuring African American music began to gain popularity.

How do players a mandolin?

Mandolin is a musical instrument that is made up of a bowl-shaped body, strings, and a bridge.

The player holds the mandolin in their right hand and plucks or strums the strings with their left hand. The player can also use their fingers to pluck or strums the strings while they are playing.

What are the key features of a mandolin?

Mandolins are a type of musical instrument that is typically played with a plectrum. It has been around for centuries with its earliest forms dating back to the late 18th century.

Mandolins have been used in many different cultures and styles of music, such as bluegrass, jazz, folk, classical, and rock. They are also used in the traditional Italian mandolin orchestra known as the mandolinata.

The key features of a mandolin include:

  • The body is carved from a single piece of wood
  • The strings are usually metal or nylon
  • The neck is usually made out of one piece of wood

What is the music like on a mandolin?

Mandolin is a stringed instrument that is played with a bow and has the same range as violin. The sound of the instrument is mellow, and it can be heard in various genres like bluegrass, classical music, jazz, Celtic music, and folk music.

It is also used in traditional Irish music and in country dance music such as polkas.

What is the difference between a mandolin and violin?

A mandolin is a stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body, which is the main difference between it and the violin.

A mandolin has a round body, while the violin has an elongated body. The strings are attached to a movable bridge that can be moved up and down to change the pitch of each string.

What are common types of mandolins?

Mandolins are stringed instruments that have been in use for centuries in many different countries. They are typically made of wood, but some modern ones are made of metal or plastic.

Mandolins can be divided into three main categories – bowed, fretted and chorded mandolins. Bowed mandolin is the most common type, with the strings being attached to a bow on one end and then to a bridge on the other end. Fretted mandolin has metal strings that run over a fret board instead of a bow. Chorded mandin has metal strings that run over tuning pegs instead of a bow or fretboard.

There is also an acoustic mandolin which is not strung like other types of mandolins. It features nylon strings and no bridge or tail.

Where do mandolins come from?

Mandolins come from Europe, but they also have roots in Asia and Africa. The instrument was introduced to the United States in the late 18th century by African slaves who brought it with them.

The mandolin is a stringed musical instrument that has been called a “fiddle” or “violin” because of its sound and construction. It is a member of the lute family and is typically tuned one whole step below the viola (A-D-G-B-E).

Mandolins are traditionally played with a plectrum, which is held between the thumb and index finger.

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