The mandolin is the newest member of the Lute family. It has eight steel strings tuned to the notes of G, A, E, and D. It is a descendent of the mandore which is one of the soprano members of the family. It commonly has the shape of a teardrop and has F-holes or one round sound hole.


In 15,000 BC to 8,000 BC, cave paintings and murals included single-stringed instruments. The different stringed instrument families evolved from this. In the centuries that passed, mandolins were developed to have frets and strings doubled to courses and a smaller lute called mandora emerged in the 4th century. Then, a petite gut-strung mandola called mandolino which had six strings grew in some areas in Italy. It was also referred to as a mandolin in Naples around 1735.

The literature about Italian musicians who journeyed all over Europe was the source of the very first proof of the steel-string mandolins. An example of a mandolin built in these early times was the mandolin by Giuseppe Vinaccia which is preserved in London, England. Geatano Vinaccia built the very first known mandolin in 1744. It is now preserved in Brussels, Belgium.

Because it originated from Naples, the mandolins built centuries back are called Neapolitan mandolins. These have bodies which are almond-shaped and have bowled backs. Its soundtable which is curved provides greater string tension. It has a bridge which is a movable piece of ivory or hardwood placed in front of pins holding the strings.

A few examples of those who built mandolins are the Ferrari family, Calace in Naples, and Luigi Embergher. The structure of the Neapolitan mandolin was developed by musicians in Rome which gave rise to the Roman type mandolin. The transformation of the bowl-back style of the mandolin to the flat-back is credited to Orville Gibson. In the 20th century, the mandolin was prominently used for bluegrass, classical, and jazz music.

The mandolin family

The few other members of the mandolin family are the mandola, mando-bass, octave mandolin, piccolo, mandocello, and cittern.

The mandola, also called tenor or alto mandola, is pitched a fifth under the mandolin. It has a scale length of approximately 16.5 inches. The mando-bass mandolins are tuned similar to a double bass and have four strings. Unfortunately, this instrument is quite uncommon.

The octave mandolin produces sound which is one octave under that of the mandolin. It is also referred to as mandole and has a scale length of approximately 20 inches. The sopranino or piccolo mandolin is pitched an fourth of an octave higher than the mandolin.

Mandolin styles

There are six mandolin styles – the Neapolitan bowlback, a-style flatback, f-style flatback, Maccaferi style flatback, solid body electric, and electro-acoustic mandolins.

Basics of playing

The very first step of playing the mandolin is to learn how to tune it because you cannot produce the right melody without proper tuning. Use a strap or place it on your lap when playing. For beginners, it is suggested for you to use a pick or plectrum. Lightly hold it between your thumb and pointer with its pointed end facing the strings.

You can adjust the pick angle to perform tremolo or fast triplets. Practice every note on a consecutive down-up cycle. To learn thoroughly, you should read good tutor books and watch videos online or at music shops. The difference with these two methods is that tutor books often assume that you can read music while videos teach in a follow-the-leader method.

Of course, the best way to learn is taking up lessons. It is always good to have someone oversee your development and guide you in honing your skills. Be oriented with the basics of music scales but this is usually taught in local sessions. Start with tunes you know – the simpler the better.