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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 double courses, each of a pair of strings ordinarily being tuned to the same pitch. The earliest incarnations of the modern instrument appeared in Naples, Italy when violin tuning was hybridized with lute-like construction in the first half of the 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 tuned in fifths; in the interest of brevity, I will confine myself to these instruments and the grossest practical generalizations of their types. Keep in mind that in discussing the resultant tone of any configuration below, we are again reduced to generalization and there are as many exceptions as there are rules.
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