History of the Mandolin in America

This History of the Mandolin was compiled by Daniel Coolik, a high school student from Atlanta, Georgia (1998).


History of the Mandolin in America
Daniel Coolik
November 18, 1998

What is a mandolin? A mandolin is a stringed instrument that is a cousin of the lute dating back to Italy and the 1700s. There are many different kinds of body shapes, but the one that was played in Italy is the Neapolitan mandolin. It has a deep pear shaped body, an oval sound hole, and four pairs of strings (Bronze or Steel) tuned like a violin (Mandolin). The great violin maker Antonio Stradivari even made mandolinos, which is Italian for mandolin. He had designed half a dozen different body patterns for his mandolinos (Tyler 18). In the past five years there has been an increasing interest in the mandolin. Some people might say it is a first coming of an old time instrument. Actually, this is the instrument's second coming in this century (Herndon 1). The mandolin is on the country radio stations and was featured by the popular band R.E.M in a music video on MTV (Herndon 2). In a poll taken by Acoustic Musician magazine 90% of the readers played guitar, but most surprising is that two-thirds of the readers also played mandolin (Herndon 1). There are many luthiers that build some of the finest mandolins, arguably ever. For instance, Steve Gilchrist, John Monteleone, and many others are making some of the finest handmade mandolins today and they, as well as many others, all began where Lloyd Loar left off (Herndon 4-5). Actually, this renaissance is very similar to the one around the turn of this century. In America the mandolin has had a history stemming from an Irish immigrant instrument, a classical music instrument, a lead instrument in Bluegrass music; and while in America, it has evolved in shape and style.

From the 1890s into the early years of the 20th century, America "possessed what was by now the world's largest community of Italian immigrants," and with their luggage they also brought their culture (Sparks 120). Not surprising is around this time the increasing popularity of the mandolin. Around the time of the first substantial immigration to America, the popular taste was for exotic and foreign things, such as the mandolin (Cantwell 222). The mandolin "shared the parlor with zithers, mandolas, ukuleles, and other novelties designed to amuse the increasingly leisured middle class" (Cantwell 221). The instrument was primarily used by amateurs seeking simple recreational fun. They played "waltzes, sentimental parlor songs, college songs, light classical music, and marches, as well as vaudeville-style ragtime and cakewalks" (Sparks 126). The instrument was primarily played in small spaces where it could be heard easily and sometimes accompanied by guitar or piano.

The mandolin, in the 1890s, was most popular in those "fashion-conscious eastern cites of Boston, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, and also New York" (Sparks 126). It was also popular in other cities such as Kansas City. It was so popular that, to give off a false impression that they were Society ladies, shop-girls would carry around mandolin cases. Within these cities the mandolin thrived in clubs, for almost every college had its own mandolin club (Sparks 126). It was an instrument that was taken up by both sexes for amusement, recreation, and also for serious study for a musical education. Because of its adaptability, portability, and the pleasure drawn, the mandolin stood without a rival (Sparks 126-127).

Not all of the mandolin players were amateurs; there were some professionals of importance. One of the most prominent Italians was Giuseppe Pettine, who was born in Isernia (Italy) and settled with his family in Providence, Rhode Island. Soon after his move, Pettine was touring the states as a concert mandolinist. He was also important for he published his six-volume mandolin method in 1896, which was one of the most comprehensive works to be published in America (Sparks 121).

Another important early American performer, Samuel Adelstein, who visited Italy seeking teaching, returned to America and gave a major public concert at Metropolitan Hall in his home town of San Francisco in 1891. In the 1890s, Adelstein gave the first mandolin concerts in Portland, Oregon, and Sitka, Alaska. (Sparks 121).

Another player, Valentine Abt, in Pittsburgh, studied violin and taught himself to play the mandolin. One of his most famous works was Impromptu, because it was such an advanced piece to play for unaccompanied mandolin. This new style of Abt's showed the possibilities of the solo mandolin to Americans. "In about 1908, Abt formed the first American classical plectrum quartet-two mandolins, tenor mandola, and mandocello" (Sparks 122).

Zarh Myron Bickford and Aubrey Stauffer left their mark for other performers. Zarh Myron Bickford contributed his four-volume Bickford Mandolin Method as well as many intelligently written pieces. "Aubrey Stauffer, from Denver, Colorado, left some 300 solo compositions and transcriptions that testify to a truly astonishing technique" (Sparks 123).

Most mandolinists did not play for classical music audiences but rather played in noisy vaudeville acts. Although, some performers did make their way out of cigarette butts and beer to champagne and cigars. Samuel Siegel was one performer who made it out of the vaudeville circuit. Siegel, born in Des Moines, Iowa, believed he had a leg up because unlike his contemporaries he started playing mandolin first before violin (Sparks 123). He believed this helped because most of the other players were used to bowing a violin and not used to a plectrum (or pick), and "to this I attribute the fact that I understand the right hand far better than some great players" (Sparks 124). "In 1900, Siegel became the first mandolinist to record on Emile Berliner's newly invented sic system. 'Nearer my God to Thee', the first of several dozen recordings he made during the next few years, was performed in a solo version that displayed his technique to a full" (Sparks 125). By the end the 1890s Siegel was out of the vaudeville and was considered the best American performer. Siegel could not read music well, but had visions that the future of the mandolin could not solely base itself on violin transcriptions, but to evolve they would have to write original compositions (Sparks 124).

The mandolin was not only for the white middle class. Seth Weeks, a black man, who toured America, Canada, and Britain in the late 1890s had a technique that was arguably better than Siegel's. (Sparks 125).

Two of the many journals in America that were important for the mandolin were "the Cadenza (1894-1924, New York and Boston), published by Partee, who was also largely responsible for the founding of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists in 1902; and the Crescendo (1908-33, Boston)" (Sparks 127). Both of the journals attempted to elevate the mandolin form a cheap vaudeville instrument to one of classical status. Because of the development of the duo-style in America, the journals attested that the Americans were far ahead of their contemporaries in Europe (Sparks 127).

Many people in America demanded the serious study of musical instruments. This enthusiasm led to the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists (1902). The guild's case was "that fretted instruments were ideally suitable for schoolchildren commencing music tuition, a contention that had the full backing of USA manufactures, who saw a huge potential for increased sales" (Sparks 128).

American mandolin-manufacturing grew rapidly in the 1890s because European imports were of poor quality and the high import tariffs made American made mandolins more affordable and sought after. Lyon and Healy of Chicago were the largest manufacturers around this time, who would "recruit Italian and Spanish workmen and, by 1894, were making 7,000 mandolins annually" (Sparks 128). The well known guitar company C. F. Martin & Co. added the mandolin to their manufacturing in 1896 (Sparks 129). The mandolins were shipped all over America, especially in the rural south, by popular mail order catalogues, such as Sears and Montgomery Ward (Beimborn 3).

Most of the mandolins made before 1900 in American were the standard Neapolitan style. But Valentine Abt used one of the first American innovations on the mandolin. Abt used a particular mandolin, whose body was made from aluminum, that was made by the Aluminum Musical Instrument Company in 1897 (patented by Neil Merrill in 1896). These mandolins sold very well until the flat-backs of Orville Gibson took over (Sparks 129).

Orville Gibson, born in 1856 in Chateaugay, New York, became the American who revolutionized the mandolin. Orville began designing and making instruments around the 1880s in Kalamazoo, Michigan (Grisman 7). Gibson "believed that aged, dry wood was superior to newly cut wood, and he was known for seeking old furniture as a source of seasoned wood" (Gruhn 70). Gibson borrowed the idea of carving the top into an arch shape from violins. He was granted a patent in 1898 "not for his carved-top design that would revolutionize the mandolin and eventually the guitar. The patent was for an equally radical concept: the sides and neck are carved out of a single piece of wood, and the neck is carved partially hollow in order to increase the volume of air in the body" (Gruhn 70). Gibson's "patented design was not at all successful," but the carved-top design "quickly became and remains the industry standard" (Gruhn 69). Gibson's instruments were also deeper and longer than most of their contemporaries (Gruhn 71).

Orville Gibson made no more than a dozen instruments a year, most of which are very ornate in design, but he did impress a group of investors enough to form the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co., Ltd on November 11, 1902 (Gruhn 71). The name was changed to "simply the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co. Orville Gibson assigned his patent to the company and worked initially as a consultant" then "his contract was rewritten in 1915 so that he received a royalty" only (Gruhn 71-72). Gibson moved back to New York State and died of chronic endocarditis at a sanitarium in Ogdensburg on August 19, 1918 (Gruhn 72). The Gibson company made two styles of mandolins; each having the violin style of carved-tops and backs. The A-series mandolins had symmetrical bodies (also referred to as teardrops), and the F-series that had a scroll on the bass side and two-points on the treble side. Each of these models had either a round or oval sound hole which held true until the 1920s (Sparks 129-130).

A notable mandolin in Gibson's early history is the Gibson "3-Point" F-4 (1909). "The unique new scroll "3-point" design was a huge step forward in the development of the modern mandolin look, which has come to serve generations of bluegrass, jazz, popular, and even classical mandolinists. This new mandolin had a 'full resonant well-balanced tone' with 'great carrying power' " (Grisman 9).

Gibson had many critics during these first years of this totally new looking and sounding mandolin. The Gibson's were different from their contemporaries because they had "a larger resonation chamber, a longer fingerboard, and considerably more wood in its construction; the result is a deeper, more guitar-like tone, with a punchy, powerful attack, but fewer high harmonics and less brilliance" (Sparks 131). The mandolinists that were playing ragtime and dance tunes hailed the Gibson mandolin, but for the most part the classical mandolinist's disliked the Gibson's "considering it garish and wooden and finding that its long fingerboard made it impossible to play intricate, polyphonic Italian works" (Sparks 131).

The Gibson company paid the critics no mind and ran an aggressive marketing campaign that had leading American players endorsing a Gibson model mandolin and slandered the Neapolitan style mandolins. Gibson got Zarh Myron Bickford to endorse a model. Also, at this time Gibson's competitors including their greatest competitor Lyon and Healy were making Neapolitan style mandolins (with markings of alternate black and light brown ribs). "These markings were similar to those of the Colorado beetle, which had recently been devastating the nation's potato crop, and Gibson seized upon this visual resemblance, placing advertisements in which round-back instruments were described as 'potato bugs' or 'tater bugs', unwanted infestations to be swept away by the irresistible force of progress" (Sparks 131). They did the job they wanted to and convinced "hundreds of orchestras and thousands of smaller ensembles to equip themselves with Gibson instruments" (Sparks 131). Around the latter part of the 1910's most of Gibson's annual output of 3,500 instruments were mainly mandolins (Sparks 131). Whether it was Gibson's ad campaign or just that people liked them better it worked and "by 1910 bowl-backs would be pushed aside, and the company that made the new mandolin-Gibson-would go on to be the most pervasive force in the American fretted instrument industry in the twentieth century" (Gruhn 66).

After World War I, America's tastes in music changed toward more Jazz and ragtime, and this pushed the mandolin out of the spotlight (Sparks 153). The death of the mandolin orchestra is attributed to " 'the swinging marching songs and the trend toward boisterous spontaneity after the war' " and the need for an instrument that is "able to pick out a cutting melody line or to keep a percussive rhythm to the new sounds of the 1920's" (Gruhn 106). For this reason companies introduced the banjolin (or mandolin-banjo) which is a banjo body with mandolin tunings. The banjolin lacked the acoustic sound of the mandolin and did not take hold with Jazz-ragtime musicians, so they instead preferred the tenor banjo, which would become the central sound for ragtime and the "roaring 20's" (Sparks 154). The mandolinists actually profited form the banjo craze. They were able to profit because the tenor banjo like the mandolin is tuned in fifths, picked with a plectrum, and only has four strings (Gruhn 106). The mandolin was dying and with it went the Cadenza (in 1924) and the Crescendo (in 1933) (Sparks 154).

The mandolin still remained very popular within the close Italian community because their tastes in music would not be influenced. They played the same music from Naples and Sicily in America. Within the community mandolin orchestras and ensembles thrived (Sparks 156). By 1935, almost all of the mandolin manufacturing companies were making flat-back mandolins only. In the 1920s the Gibson plant made "what is now universally acknowledged to be the finest flat-back mandolin ever built: the F-5" (Sparks 155).

Lloyd Allayre Loar, born in 1886 in Cropsey, Illinois, joined the Gibson Company in 1919, with the reputation of being both a mandolin virtuoso and an expert on the science of acoustics (Gruhn 83). It is said that he is the mind behind the F-5 mandolin and signed about 250 mandolins, "and his magic touch has elevated this group of instruments to Holy Grail status" (Gruhn 84). Lloyd Loar began working for Gibson in 1919 (Sparks 155). "A quarter century after Orville Gibson borrowed the carved-top concept from the violin, the Style 5 family took the next logical step-to violin-style f-holes. The top of a Style 5 instrument was braced with two tone bars, versus one on the violin... The fingerboard raised off the top-a violin design concept and also a feature of some European guitars-allowed the top to vibrate more freely... The neck on the F-5 was significantly longer, with three more frets clear of the body than earlier Gibson models" (Gruhn 84).

All of the credit should not only go to Loar because Guy Hart deserves most of the design credit. "Hart was the man chiefly behind the development of the instrument line, while Loar was responsible for testing and approving" (Gruhn 84-85). It is though without a doubt that Loar should be credited with the f-hole innovation and the double-tone bar bracing system (Gruhn 85). "The result was an instrument with an extremely rich and powerful tone that Gibson were never consistently able to reproduce after Loar left the company in December of 1924" (Sparks 155).

The reason for Loars departure is that total sales of the 350 Style 5 mandolin-family instruments was not that bad, but when the cost of building the mandolin's was factored in it was not that much of a profit. Also, the mandolin boom had ended many years earlier and this made it absurd for Gibson to spend money on a forgotten instrument. "To the Gibson management, Loar must have seemed like the opposite of a visionary, focusing his efforts on not just one out-of-style instrument, but an entire family of out-of-style instruments" (Gruhn 85). For all these reasons Loar departed from Gibson.

During the "Loar-era F-5 mandolin remains the pinnacle of mandolin design, but ironically, by the time the pinnacle was reached, most manufacturers and players had forsaken the mandolin for the banjo" (Gruhn 87).

One of the most prominent players and advocates of the F-5 mandolin around this time was Dave Apollon. Dave Apollon, was born on February 23, 1897, in Kiev, Russia, to a humble Jewish family. Dave's father gave him a bowl-back mandolin which he taught himself to play, and by the age of 14 organized and played in his own ensemble at a Kiev movie theater (Apollon 6-7). Dave fought for Russia in World War I and entertained the troops at night. He arrived in San Francisco in 1919, as ragtime was in and mandolins were on the way out. From San Francisco "Apollon proceeded directly to New York City where he was reunited with an older brother, Jacob, who offered him work in his leather business" (Apollon 8). Dave wanted only to play mandolin and "when he told an agent that he was a mandolinist, the man laughed and said, 'That barber shop instrument?' (- - - 3). Dave didn't let that deter him and after the Friday morning auditions at New York's largest theater (The Palace) he found himself opening up for and accompanying a popular vaudeville act. After Dave brought the house down by playing "Gypsy Aires," he was signed to "a three-year contract with the Keith-Albee circuit and began a career in vaudeville which would span nearly 20 years" (Apollon 8). Also, this was a big accomplishment because Keith-Albee was one of the two largest vaudeville circuits.

What made Dave an instant success in the vaudeville circuit was his thick Russian accent, and audiences found it hilarious how he struggled with the English language. After sometime Dave's virtuosity of the mandolin, enthusiasm, and boundless energy eventually led to him to become very popular in the vaudeville (Apollon 8-9). In the 1920s Dave hired a group of string players and "was one of the top bills on the Albee circuit, playing The Palace for 25-week stints" (Apollon 9).

Dave's style of mandolin playing was not based solely on Russian melodies but he drew form Latin, Russian gypsy, and even American ragtime. He also made short movies called "soundies" that were based on his vaudeville routines (Apollon 10). These "soundies" were of the first talking pictures produced, and Dave had to have been very popular to star in them. In 1937 Apollon appeared in his first "full-length American feature, Universal's Merry Go-Around of 1938" (Apollon 11). In 1946, Apollon "met and played with legendary Gypsy musician Django Reinhardt, whom he considered the greatest guitarist he had ever heard" (Apollon 13).

Dave Apollon made recordings throughout his career and even had his own label, Romance Records. In the 1950s Dave's popularity declined and he then moved his family to Hollywood where he found many musicians to play with (Apollon 14). And in the late 1950s he was offered year-round employment in Las Vegas playing at the Desert Inn with his all-string ensemble of mandolins, mandolas, and mandocello. He recorded from 1930-1956, and entertained many Americans with his foreign melodies, flawless playing, and raw drive and emotion for many decades until his death at home in Las Vegas on May 30, 1972 (Apollon 15). "At his request, his very first mandolin which he had kept through the years, was cremated with him" (Apollon 15).

Dave contributed to the revival of the mandolin. Because of Dave and the vaudeville acts that he starred in for more than 20 years, many working class people throughout the country were able to see the mandolin being played a virtuoso. He also played a style of music on the mandolin that nobody had ever heard.

Around the 1940s the mandolin was beginning to be used in a new form of country music-bluegrass. The man who coined the term was known as the father of bluegrass music, William "Bill" Monroe. He played his mandolin, a Loar F-5, "at a rapid tempo with brilliantly fast solo passages and with a pronounced blues influence" (Sparks 156).

Bill Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky, September 13, 1911. He grew up on an isolated family farm. Bill's parents were in middle age when he was born and was eight years younger than his nearest sibling. Monroe's first musical experience was due to his mother who played both fiddle and accordion and would sing ballads and folksongs around the home (Cantwell 30). When his parents died in his adolescence his uncle Pen Vandiver took him in. Uncle Pen, a traveling trader, dance fiddler, and bachelor, taught Bill how to play the mandolin (which Bill did not realize was out of style) (Cantwell 26-27).

Monroe was born with poor eye sight and because of this he was excluded from childhood sports and fun. He had to learn harmonies at church singing school by ear because of his poor eye sight (Cantwell 26-27). Instead of doing childhood things Bill's time was spent backing up Uncle Pen at square dances around Kentucky (Cantwell 26).

Besides learning music from Uncle Pen, he learned a great deal of blues from a black guitar player, Arnold Shultz (Cantwell 30). Shultz could play a jazz style of guitar that is now associated to Merle Travis and Chet Atkins (Cantwell 31). Monroe was very impressed with his style and used many of Shultz-type runs but in a Monroe way (Cantwell 32). Shultz's powerful blues, Uncle Pen's old-time fiddling, and mountain-culture is what Bill's mandolin playing is.

Bill moved to Whiting, Indiana in 1929, when was 18. Many people from Appalachia, including Bill's brothers, moved to cities for labor jobs, because farming left little for a future (Cantwell 41-42). In the thirties, Bill played music professionally with his brother's Charlie (Guitar) and Birch (Fiddle) (Monroe 7). The three brothers did what they did in Kentucky but got paid for it-playing music at local dances and parties (Cantwell 42).

By 1934, Birch had left and it was a brother duet of guitar and mandolin. They accepted full-time radio work and moved to the Carolinas (Cantwell 48-49). Around this time there were many hillbilly brother acts on the radio playing simple and pure music. The Monroe Brothers were different from the others because their speed was swifter than most with a dance tempo. Bill's mandolin playing was what really set them apart. Instead of playing what all other mandolin players were doing Bill played his mandolin with a dynamic, complex, and more textured sound than just single note soloing (Cantwell 49). At this time the radio was very popular, and through the radio many people could hear this new music being played by a redefinition of an out-of-style instrument.

Monroe's style of mandolin is aggressive for he "causes the string to vibrate openly and the whole body of the mandolin to resonate sympathetically" (Cantwell 50). The Monroe Brothers played gospel, folk, original, and songs learned from the WLS broadcasts (Cantwell 51). They recorded 60 songs for Victor (1936-1938) and many of which have become bluegrass standards (Cantwell 57). They played with "efficient, fast-moving, and frictionless" new style that helped Bill form bluegrass (Cantwell 58).

In 1938, Bill formed Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys which would be the template of the bluegrass bands to come (Monroe 8). The Blue Grass Boys were a development of the earlier string bands. Before 1945 and Bill Monroe's appearance on the Grand Ole Opry bluegrass music was nonexistent, but after his appearance it was born with a blast (Cantwell 69). By the time of the Blue Grass Boys Bill had "developed innovative techniques on the mandolin, establishing it as a virtuoso string band instrument" (Monroe 8). They played instrumental numbers, gospel quartet numbers, blues songs, and Jimmie Rodgers' yodel numbers (Cantwell 72). Bill Monroe played with his Blue Grass Boys up until his death on September 9, 1996. Bill had an impact on the pop world as well because one of Elvis Presley's first recorded number was Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky". Bill Monroe trained and worked with most of the prominent bluegrass musicians today, and taught them his high standards of the music that he fathered (Cantwell 68).

By the mid-20th century the mandolin was back in full force. Bill Monroe's mandolin was being broadcasted to a large audience on the Grand Ole Opry. Dave Apollon was playing the plush venues in Las Vegas and New York until the early 1970s. Bill Monroe and Dave Apollon influenced many young players to play the mandolin such as David Grisman. Grisman has taken the mandolin into new areas of acoustic string band music. He took elements such as jazz, latin, blues, and folk and then synthesized them into his own blend of music called 'Dawg' music. There has also been in the last two decades a resurgence appeared for classical mandolin orchestras and many have appeared in cities across America (Sparks 178). The mandolin is heading into new areas of music. America designed the mandolin that we know today and it is for a music that is to be new and evolving, just like America.

Works Cited

Apollon, Dave. Dave Apollon: The Man with the Mandolin. Notes by David Grisman. Acoustic Disc, 1997.

Beimborn, Dan (author), and Rob Meador (compiler). A Brief History of the Mandolin." Mandolin Cafe. (7 Sept. 1998).

Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Grisman, David. "Russia to Vaudeville 1897-1940." Mandozine. 1996. (29 October 1998) and Tony Rice. Tone Poems. Notes by David Grisman (mandolins), Dexter Johnson (guitars). Acoustic Disc, 1994.

Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments: A Photographic History. San Francisco, CA: GPI Books, 1993.

Herndon, John. "Tradition and Innovation: The Mandolin Renaissance." Acoustic Musician. July 1997: 8+.

Iorizzo, Luciano J., and Salvatore Mondello. The Italian Americans. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1980. "Mandolin." Microsoft (R) Encarta. 1994 ed.

Monroe, Bill and The Bluegrass Boys. Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys: Live Recordings. 1956-1969. Complied and annotated by Ralph Rinzler. Smithsonian/Folkways Records, 1993.

Sparks, Paul. The Classical Mandolin. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. Tyler, James, and Paul Sparks. The Early Mandolin. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.