View Full Version : A history of mandolin construction

Graham McDonald
Oct-19-2006, 5:22am

I have done a first draft of a History of Mandolin Construction which is available here (http://www.mcdonaldstrings.com/MandolinHistory.pdf). It started out as a brief introductory chapter on the book I am writing on building mandolins, but took on a life of its own and has ended up as 9500 words/20 pages. It is a reasonably small pdf at the moment, but I hope to have a version with pictures available in a few days. A lot of it is based on information gleaned from discussions on the Cafe, and I thank all those members who have been so generous with the information when I have raised silly questions over the past year or so. I am posting this to both the Vintage Instruments and Classical discussion area (is that OK, Scott?)

I welcome comments, criticism and suggestions for improvement.



Oct-19-2006, 8:13am
Graham- I created a link between the locations you posted this so we don't have two groups of replies

Graham McDonald
Oct-19-2006, 8:21am
Thanks Dan

I wasn't sure where best to put it as it crosses over areas covered by several of the discussion groupings. Happy reading http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif



Oct-19-2006, 8:26am
Thanks, Graham. I look forward to reading this!

Oct-19-2006, 10:43am
That's a very good start. Someone could develop the Brazilian and Portuguese sides a little. The thing insdide some Gibson mandolins is a "Virzi", not "Verzi", i think.

Darryl Wolfe
Oct-19-2006, 11:17am
Nice read. #I would revise the 1921 date for introduction of the Master Model "line". #The earliest listing is a Pricelist from August of 1922 for the F5 mandolin alone. The mid 1923 catalog N depicts the F5, but not the remainder of the lineup. #The L5, H5 ect appear on price lists in 1924. #There are a number of 1922 F5's, but if I were to simply use one date for introduction of the line I would say 1923. #Note that except for a single July 6 1923 L5, all known H5, K5, and L5's are signed in March 24 or later.

I'm not sure if you want to branch out this far or not, but since the emphasis is on construction you may want to note the myriad of "novelty" types of contructions that led to metal National reso mandolins, wood dobro mandolins, Blue Comets with edge holes and the assortment of mando-banjo, mando-bass and mando this and that instruments from various manufacturers

Neil Gladd
Oct-19-2006, 12:15pm
Why did you post this on a weekday morning? Just skimming through it made me late for work! I'll give it a more detailed reading later, but I caught an extra l in Calace as "Callace." Also, mandolins have been in America since colonial times, and there were several known performances here in the 18th century, although I seriously doubt that any were made here that early. So to be accurate, the mandolin was RE-introduced here in the 1880s.

Oct-20-2006, 8:02pm
Fantastic, Graham.

I just had a chance to read this on a pleasant Friday evening. I agree with others...this is a great seed for a full fledged book project. You can estimate from the response here how fertile the ground is for what you have done. I've forwarded your text to some guitarist friends who know doubt will enjoy the thoroughness and breadth of your investigations. As well, there are so many great resources for information here at the MC, that a book project just seems a natural. (Okay, I teach at a university, so my biases are obvious, but just the same, my enthusiasm for your work is genuine.)

You've charted the territory in a cohesive manner, and many places along the way might well (ought) be intensified if you have the desire. (Certainly, it seems as if you have the knowledge!)

IMHO illustrations are a must! If I can be of any help in this, contact me. I'm pretty apt with InDesign and other layout software (as are many here at the MC, I bet) and would be happy to help in any way, if only in encouragement.

This is a project we should rally around.


Graham McDonald
Oct-24-2006, 5:52pm
Thank you all for the kind comments and suggestions/corrections. The first half of the mandolin history is now up on the website, with some pics. I will be adding successive sections over the next week or so. It will be 12 pages in all, which makes each chunk manageable. The first part can be found here (http://www.mcdonaldstrings.com/mandohistory01.html)



Paul Hostetter
Oct-24-2006, 8:08pm
What level of suggestion do you seek? I still see numerous spelling errors and/or typos, and I am still struck by the fact that about 50% of the whole thing focuses on mandolins starting and descending from Orville Gibson.

I would suggest you seek out and run the text by a guy in England named Ephraim Segerman. He, above many others, could help with lines like, "The earliest surviving instrument is a Vinaccia mandola from 1744 and a mandolin dated 1753. Baines lists the 1744 mandola as having a scale length of over 77cm (30")." I don't know this guy at all, but I do know he has his facts straight and has committed most of his adult life to the organology of string instruments. I think you need some qualified fact-checkers.

Did Baines really mean mandole? 30" would necessitate tuning an octave below alto of that day.

Graham McDonald
Oct-24-2006, 8:31pm
Hello Paul,

The typos and spelling is slowly being checked, but I am the world's worst proff-reader http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif
I had meant to double-check that reference to the string-length of the Vinaccia mandola. It seemed strange to me, but another look is required!

The object of the whole exercise was to trace the evolution in the way the instruments have been built, and the radical change in the way mandolins were made a century ago in the US I would suggest was the next big step in that evolution after the Neapolitans 170 years before. Is 50% too much or too little? Down here in Australia we tend to look at things detached a little from both the US and Europe, and I have tried not to lean too much towards either stream of instruments, but look at it as a continuous evolution with occasional Great Leaps Forward.

I would welcome any suggestions (as a few people have done) on glaring errors of fact, and things I might have left out.


Nov-19-2006, 8:35am
I enjoyed reading the article. Well done, I realise a lot of work went into this.

Nov-19-2006, 10:25am
I haven't given a detailed read yet, but it is a decent start. Please keep at it.

As a scientific writer and occasional reviewer, the most glaring omission to my sensibilities is the absence of in-text formal citation: either author and year or endnote format. Sure, there are a few names dropped, but you really need to look up Galpin (largely speculative by today's state of knowledge, but still the organology classic), Tyler's multiple books and articles, Sparks' multiple books and articles, Morey, Leenen, Timmerman, Rebuffa, Evans, Bone, Baines (including his later publications), Rupa, Hambly, etc. but perhaps more importantly, you need to refer to individual publications in addition to who wrote them in the body of text. Hambly may be the only I've seen to get a near-formal citation. (I'll try to give this more attention later.)

Where there is speculation involved, you'd be best served to hedge your bets and acknowledge the speculation; e.g., rather than saying the 1744 Vinaccia (Gaetano, by the way) is the earliest surviving Neapolitan type instrument, I might say it is the earliest known surviving instrument of the type. (Also, look up Morey who puts serious doubt on the dating of this piece.) On the mandolino/mandola debate, there is at least some evidence to imply that some writers named 4- or 5-course things mandolino and upstart 6-coursers mandola (implicit but not explicit in Dalla Casa, e.g.). Timmerman discusses the mandolino Cremonese as popular in Germanic places in some contexts, but speculates the Beethoven and Mozart pieces may even have been taken on fourth-tuned mandolini fingerstyle (you might want to just ask him his thoughts directly and cite "personal communication")...and there is precious little evidence of any intended mandolin type in many cases for the mandolin works of the "major" composers.

Regarding fixing the strings to the butt of early the Neapolitan mandolin and chitarra battente, you might want to clarify "attached...with pins"; I think in most readers minds, this implies a modern, pin-bridge-type arrangement (even if the attachment is not situated at the bridge) where in actuality these were almost always hitch pins around which string ends were simply looped. Paganini and the mandolino Genovese probably deserves a mention. On modern mandolins, the names of pioneering German classical instrument builders (Seiffert, Knorr, A&M, etc.) are an obvious omission.

Again, it's a good start. Do keep at it.

Graham McDonald
Nov-19-2006, 9:21pm
Eugene, Thank you for your comments and encouragement. I would point out that I am not trying to produce an academic thesis, but more a story that explains the questions that I was asking myself when I started to think about the history of the mandolin and the hows and whys of its construction. At the same time I have wondered how much citation I should put in. Perhaps some more might be useful to keep the more scholarly readers happy. On a purely practical level, Australia is not the best part of the world to be doing this sort of research. There are a number of books which just don't seem to be available at all in this country, even though I have ready access here to both our National Library and a major university library. There is only so much time and budget available.

This is still a work-in-progress, and originally only meant as an introduction to a workshop manual and building them, though it seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own