The Basics of Mandolin Construction, Materials and Configurations

To many, the mandolin falls firmly in the “folk instrument” category. While the bluegrass stylings of Bill Monroe certainly established the instrument as a mainstay in Americana, players ranging from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to “Dawg” master David Grisman to modern innovator Chris Thile have shown that its distinctive chime can stand up to everything from Bach to Bonham.

Crossing Over with a Mandolin

Collings MF, F-Style Mandolin

Mandolins make a good crossover choice for both guitarists and fiddlers. Like the guitar, the mandolin is a plucked instrument with a fretted fingerboard. Yet it’s also tuned, like a violin, in fifths (G D A E). That, combined with the relatively short scale of the neck, which is usually around 14", can make it a good platform for guitarists who want to get familiar with violin fingering or violinists who want to learn how to pick.

Standard mandolins have eight strings, which are tuned in unison pairs known as courses—so G D A E is actually GG DD AA EE. The unison chime contributes to the instrument’s distinct sound. However, there are other ways to string and tune the instrument; one common variation can be seen in electric mandolins, which have four strings.

Either way, the strings occupy a fairly narrow fingerboard. Typical width at the nut is usually between 1-1/16" and 1-1/8", though “wide neck” mandolins, such as the Collings MF F-Model (1 3/8"), also are available.

The Sopranos

The instrument we call a mandolin is technically the soprano member of the mandolin family, which includes instruments both higher, like the sopranino, and lower, such as the mandola, octave mandolin and mandocello, registers.

“Mandolas and octave mandolins have the same relative tuning as their smaller counterparts,” says Guitar for Dummies author Jon Chappell. “They’re often used in acoustic ensembles for added color or to fill out the sound,” he adds.

The standard G D A E mandolin is by far the most common, explains Steve Perry, founder of and co-owner of Gianna Violins, an acoustic custom shop specializing in mandolins, fiddles and guitars. “Mandola — tuned C G D A — is very nice, but its use in music is much more limited. Mandocello is really an odd duck. I suggest starting with a standard G D A E instrument and seeing where it takes you.”

Golden (Age) Arches

While the mandolin traces its roots to Italy, the most common designs of today evolved in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which many consider to be the instrument’s golden age.

It was around the turn of the century that Orville Gibson decided to build a mandolin with a violin-inspired arched body, breaking from the traditional bowl shape of classical Neapolitan instruments. The first was the teardrop-shaped A-style, which debuted in 1902. In 1910, Gibson added the F-style, which stands for Florentine, a mandolin that features an arched top and sharp cutaway. And while you can still find bowl- and flat-backed mandolins, the vast majority of today’s instruments are descended from Gibson’s A and F.

F-Style Mandolins

1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar F-5 Mandolin

Among vintage buyers, the F-5, designed and built by Gibson master luthier Lloyd Loar is considered to be the Holy Grail. This was the instrument Bill Monroe made famous and is prized by younger players like Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers’ virtuoso Thile, who reportedly plunked down $200,000 for a Loar-signed 1924 example. The modern brand known as The Loar, which makes both A- and F-style mandolins, says its instruments are inspired by Lloyd Loar’s legacy.

If you don’t have $200k under your mattress, there are plenty of current F-style derivatives made in both the U.S. and overseas. Epiphone’s MM50E Professional model, for example, draws heavily from the legacy of its corporate owner, with classic F-hole styling while adding modern electronics and a friendly price point.

According to Perry, most — but not all — bluegrass players gravitate toward the F-style. “They like the great popping ‘chop’ for rhythm chords and the ability to produce strong, clear, single-string lead lines,” he says.

A-Style Mandolins

Breedlove Premier FO Mandolin

Compared to the ornate F-style, the A might seem to stand for “A little plain.” But according to Perry, A-style instruments can offer plenty of bang for the buck.

“F-style mandolins are more expensive per ounce of performance,” Perry says. “The A-style mandolin, with its simple teardrop shape, costs less and gives excellent performance, perhaps with less percussive ‘chop’ but with a richer midrange.”

Both A- and F-style mandolins can be found with F or oval sound holes. For example, the Kentucky KM950 is an A-style with F holes, while the F-style Eastman MD814 and Breedlove Premier Series Fo both feature oval sound holes. Oval holes, Perry says, give a sweet, singing tone that blends well, while F holes give a crisp, clear tone.

Tone, Taste and Testing

Today even moderately priced instruments can have carved solid tops and tonewood (often maple) backs and necks. As mentioned earlier, because they’re more elaborate, F-style instruments tend to cost more than A-styles of similar quality, but the best choice is often a matter of musical style.

“A models yield more sustain and a mellower sound,” says Chappell. “They’re good for Irish and folk music. F-styles are louder and crisper, with more rapid decay than As, and are the instrument of choice for bluegrass players who desire a brighter sound.”

While classical and traditional players often choose bowl backs or A-styles, Perry says he is seeing more classical players with F-hole mandolins, which he prefers, adding, “They have more punch, and a sweet roundness.”

In all categories, as price goes up, the material quality generally goes up, Perry says. Higher priced instruments are more likely to be made in the United States with the carving more precisely done with an eye to acoustic performance.

The Importance of a Good Setup

Setup is critical on a mandolin, especially if you’re buying online. “Many instruments aren’t set up well,” Perry cautions. “There should be no buzzes; action should be even across the fingerboard.”

If you do get to audition the instrument, look for an even, quick response and tone character that remains balanced from low to high, Perry says. “There should be no big tone difference from string pair to string pair.” Beyond that, listen for projection and dynamic range, though he notes that some of these qualities may not be easy for beginners to discern.

“As with violins, the response characteristics, evenness, projection and ability to manipulate tone come into it. But unless one can use those characteristics, the difference in performance may not be obvious.”

Both Perry and Chappell describe some obvious danger signs, however. Avoid open seams, dead spots in response, a warped or loose fingerboard, bowed necks and sharp or poorly dressed frets.

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