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Mandolin Glossary

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History of the Mandolin

The roots of the word "mandolin" are derived from the Italian for "little almond." Written reference to mandolin ancestors with similar name extend to the end of the 16th century.

Over the course of time, there have been a great many decidedly different instruments, string configurations, and tunings to carry the name. Many have been single strung but most have been strung in courses of paired strings, each of the pair ordinarily being tuned to the same pitch.

The earliest instruments to carry names similar to "mandolin" were soprano relatives of lutes, tuned in fourths or mostly fourths with four to six courses of gut strings attached to a fixed lute-like bridge. The earliest incarnations of the modern instrument appeared in Naples, Italy when violin tuning was hybridized with lute-like construction in the mid 18th century. If the Vinaccia family did not invent the instrument, they were certainly instrumental in its development and remained so into the early 20th century. On this new instrument, mostly metal strings (at that time brass harpsichord wire, silver-wound silk, and gut) were passed over an unattached bridge and fixed to hitch pins in the tailblock. The top was slightly bent ("canted") behind the bridge to further increase tension on the instrument's top and brighten tone.

Today, the family name is most commonly applied to plucked chordophones of varying sizes, usually with strings passing over an unattached bridge to some kind of tailpiece at the butt of the instrument, and usually with standard tuning in fifths.

Authored by: Eugene Braig

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