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A Brief History of the Mandolin

"Separate your notes, keep your timing right, and let your tones come out."--Bill Monroe

This page was compiled by Rob Meador and authored by Dan Beimborn.

Brief Index to this Guide

The Mandolin In History

The mandolin can be described as a small, short-necked lute with eight strings. A lute is a chordophone, an instrument which makes sound by the vibration of strings. As a descendent of the lute, the mandolin reaches back to some of the earliest musical instruments.

Deep in the grottos of France are beautiful cave paintings made between 15,000 BC and 8500 BC. These paintings include one of a man with what appears to be a simple one-stringed instrument that is being played with a bow. This musical bow represents the first stringed instruments man invented. They were played by plucking the string with the fingers, and later by tapping the string with a stick. An increase in volume was first gained by holding the bow in the mouth. Later, gourds were attached to the bow to act as resonators.

Lute-like chordophones appear as early as 2000 BC in Mesopotamia. These early instruments were fretless. Changes in pitch were made by pressing the strings down onto the neck of the instrument. The strings were sometimes plucked by using hard objects or plectrums rather than the fingers as the plectrums or picks produced a louder, sharper, sound than the fingers.

By the Seventh Century AD a folk lute called the oud was in use. The oud remains in use today, virtually unchanged, in the music of the Near East, particularly in Armenia and Egypt. 'Oud' is the Arabic name for wood, and the oud is a wooden lute. The oud found its way into Spain during the Moorish conquest of Spain (711- 1492), to Venice through coastal trade, and to Europe through returning Crusaders (around 1099).

In a gallery in Washington, a painting by Agnelo Gaddi (1369- 1396) depicts an angel playing a miniature lute called the mandora. The miniature lute was probably contrived to fill out the scale of 16th century lute ensembles. The Assyrians called this new instrument a Pandura, which described its shape. The Arabs called it Dambura, the Latins Mandora, the Italians, Mandola. The smaller version of the traditional mandola was called mandolina by the Italians.

The Mandolin Comes To North America

The mandolin entered the mainstream of popular American culture during the first epoch of substantial immigration from eastern and southern Europe, a period of prosperity and vulgarity, when things exotic and foreign dominated popular taste.

It was in vogue in the 1850s, when it shared the parlor with zithers, mandolas, ukuleles, and other novelties designed to amuse the increasingly leisured middle class. A marked increase in Italian immigration in the 1880s sparked a fad for the bowl-backed Neopolitan instrument that spread across the land. The mandolin was even among the first recorded instruments on Edison cylinders. In 1897, Montgomery Ward's catalog marveled at the 'phenomenal growth in our Mandolin trade'.

The Rage of the New Century

By the turn of the century, mandolin ensembles were touring the vaudeville circuit, and mandolin orchestras were forming in schools and colleges. In 1900, a company called Lyon & Healy boasted 'At any time you can find in our factory upwards of 10,000 mandolins in various stages of construction'. From the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, mandolins proliferated across the South. Attempting to beat the competition, the Gibson company sent field reps across America to encourage sales of mandolins, and to establish mandolin orchestras.

From the turn of the century through the 1940s, a handful of American virtuoso mandolinists, mostly immigrants such as Bernardo Dapace, Samuel Siegal, Dave Apollon, and Giduanni Giouale, performed, recorded, composed, and arranged for the mandolin. These artists appeared in concert halls, and vaudeville settings, performing ethnic, popular, and classical music.

By this time banjo, mandolin, and guitar clubs had become the rage among middle-class youth on college campuses and in towns and cities throughout the South, and a variety of playing styles-- some of them borrowed from guitar techniques-- were made widely available in instruction books and on the recordings of such popular urban musicians as Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman.

The Evolution Of The Modern Flat-Back Mandolin

Orville H. Gibson was born in New York in 1856, and moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan as a young man. He began designing and building instruments in the 1880s. In 1898, he was granted a patent for a new design in arch-top instruments. His early instruments were highly experimental and ornate. In 1902, a group of businessmen bought his patent, and formed the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co., where Orville remained as a consultant, but not a partner, until 1915.

The 1905 Gibson A-4 was a revolutionary instrument in its time, breaking radically away from the traditional bowl-back instruments brought to America by Italian immigrants (disparagingly referred to as 'taterbugs'). Instead of having a flat or bent top and a bowlback, Orville's new design was based on principles of violin construction, using a carved top and back. Though this design was subtly modified over the years, it clearly set the standard for what was to become the preferred style of mandolin used in American folk and popular music.

Orville Gibson was apparently obsessed with ornamentation, particularly the scroll. He also emphasized the importance of machines in precision manufacture. His personal hallmark, included as an inlay on many of his early instruments, was an occult star-and-crescent.

The 1910 Gibson F-4 with its lavishly detailed flower pot headstock inlay featured a new scroll 3-point design. In general, this mandolin represented a huge step forward in the development of the modern mandolin look, one that has carried over to the present time. The new mandolin had a full resonant, well-balanced tone with great carrying power.

In 1922, Gibson, under the influence of their new acoustic engineer Lloyd Allayre Loar, refurbished their entire line of mandolins. The new versions had a number of distinguishing features including an adjustable truss-rod in the neck, adjustable two-piece ebony bridge, and a new tapering peghead contour called the 'snake-head'. Perhaps Loar's finest achievement, at least for devotees of bluegrass music, was his F-5, one of his new Master Model style-5 series. There were approximately 170 F-5s signed and dated by Lloyd Loar himself. These mandolins are in great demand, and today are often sold at astonishingly high prices.

Visit our guide to vintage Gibson A-model mandolins

The Influence of Bill Monroe

As the popularity of mandolin orchestras and the mandolin as a parlor instrument in the United States began to wane, it began to take somewhat of a back seat to other instruments. In old-time country music, the mandolin was often present, but generally only as an accompanying instrument, playing along with the ensemble.

All that changed with the emergence of Bill Monroe and the Monroe Brothers. Like most of the other brother acts of the 30's, Bill and his guitarist brother Charlie sang sacred and sentimental songs in beautiful two-part harmonies. But in contrast to the sweet, relaxed tremolo style of mandolin playing so common in the other brother duets, Bill played fiery cascades of rapid-fire notes that brought a power and urgency to the music that simply had not been there before. As Doug Green from the Country Music Foundation has noted, he '... drew his inner fire and turmoil into his music, expressing it with his mandolin...'.

Monroe fused the influences of his two childhood mentors, Uncle Pen Vandiver and Arnold Schultz. Uncle Pen played the fiddle, and had a rich repertoire of songs and melodies that Monroe was to draw from throughout his career. His fiddle-playing techniques became an intricate part of Monroe's style of mandolin playing. Arnold Schultz was a black country blues player who Monroe would see whenever he came through Rosine, Kentucky. Through his influence, Monroe spiced his playing with blue notes and blues licks. The fusion of these influences created a unique and unmistakable style.

This was also the time when radio was sweeping the country. Monroe's mandolin playing was getting to a lot of people via the radio, people who didn't know the mandolin was being used that way. People responded to the raw emotion of his playing, and the Monroe Brothers became one of the more popular brother acts of the era. Monroe later went on to create the bluegrass style (named after Monroe's band, The Bluegrass Boys), which put the mandolin securely at center stage.

The Mandolin Today

Today the mandolin continues to be a popular and vital instrument. In country music, the mandolin has made quite a comeback since the heyday of the Nashville Sound in the 60's and 70's. In the early 80's, the syrupy strings and layered vocals gave way to a powerful neo-traditionalist movement that re-introduced the mandolin to country audiences. In rock music, the mandolin has been present consistently since the late 60's. English folk-rock, the acoustic-tinged albums of Rod Stewart, and the heady acoustic ballads of Led Zepplin all made the mandolin a familiar sound to rock audiences. Today, the present interest in 'unplugged' music continues to showcase the mandolin.

There has even been somewhat of a resurgence of interest in classical mandolin. Many young artists are recording albums of classical mandolin music, and recently in New York City, a mandolin orchestra held its 70th annual Spring concert. And of course the vibrant, organic folk musics of Ireland, Scotland, England, and the American South continue unabated. Bluegrass music, while far out of the mainstream, continues to attract young players who keep the music alive and growing. And as long as there is bluegrass, there will be a place for the mandolin.

Notes:

The initial discussion of the mandolin in history was drawn primarily from "History of the Mandolin", by Charles Hunt, Mandolin World News, Vol. VI, No. III, Autumn 1981). The discussion of Orville Gibson was drawn primarily from the liner notes to Tone Poems, a 1994 Acoustic Disk release by Tony Rice and David Grisman. The rest of the discussion was synthesized from various sources, including the liner notes to the Columbia Box Set, The Essential Bill Monroe: 1945-1949, Robert Cantwell's stunning 1984 book, Bluegrass Breakdown, a roundtable discussion in the October, 1994, issue of Acoustic Musician magazine, and Bill C. Malone's recent book Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers.

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