Mandolin history is long but can appear complicated. It is true that the instruments of the mandolin type that have been used since the mandolin type appeared, have much confusing names; I am sure that it is impossible to know all of them, so I decided to do a research and record the results here as a reference for all of you.
After creating a list of instruments in the mandolin family, including older instruments now obsolete, two groups are formed that are distinguished from the type of strings they use:
- Mandolinos, that use gut-strings
- Mandolins, that use steel strings -except the two oldest in the group
Mandolinos are now obsolete, although they may be used by musicians trying to re-create the original sound and color of the old music. Mandolinos first appeared with the gittern from the Middle Ages, and were used till the 1900s – when they more or less disappeared.
Mandolins are what we use now to play. Some earlier mandolins look exactly like mandolinos, but remember, the difference is the usage of steel strings, with the exception of the first two instruments in the group, the Genuese and the Cremona mandolin that used gut strings.
Mandolino instruments (in chronological order):
Gittern is a small medieval lute-like instrument with a carved body
Mandolino or pandurine or armandolino or baroque mandolin – small slender lute-like body, 4 or 6 pair of strings
Milanese mandolino (~1750s)
This is a bit larger mandolino with 6 single strings
Lombardic mandolin (end of 19th century)
Mandolin instruments (in chronological order):
Genuese mandolin (~1780)
Genuese mandolin is tuned like a guitar with a small lute-like body
Cremona mandolin or Brescian mandolin – small lute-like body, 4 gut strings
Roman mandolin see Luigi Embergher (1856-1943), Embergher.com, is still much in demand
Octave mandolin or octave mandola has tuning one octave lower than the mandolin, bowlback or flatback
Mandocello or mandoloncello or liuto cantabile is tuned one octave lower than the mandola, bowlback or flatback
Flat back mandolin
f-style mandolin or bluegrass mandolin
Lyre mandolin or harp mandolin
Mandolin History – Are there more?
Oh my, this is a long list… it is interesting how many instruments are included, isn’t it? Is this list complete? I am afraid not.
This task can be filled with even more instruments that appeared and then … disappeared in the history of the mandolin family. I understand the mandolin history can be … confusing to a non expert, with all these similar names used. Please refer to the links at the end of the post if you feel like you can absorb more data (I doubt it…)
Current mandolin types
Nowadays, we have two mandolin families:
- Bowlback mandolins – used mainly for classical, italian or greek music
- Flatback mandolins – used primarily in the US, for bluegrass, jazz etc.
The current bowlback mandolins are similar to mandolin (modern). Current mandolin orchestras may include any of the below organs, but usually only the bold ones:
- piccolo mandolin (rare)
- mandolin (soprano)
- altmandolin (rare)
- mandola (or tenor mandolin)
- octave mandolin (tenor mandola)
- bass mandolin
- mandolone (guitar shaped bass)
The current flatback mandolins have already been included in the mandolin list above, but I repeat it here in case you didn’t have enough already…
- flat back mandolin – same size as the neapolitan mandolin but flatback, thus easier and cheaper to build
- f-style mandolin or bluegrass mandolin – special archtop type of mandolin designed in the early 20th Century by Gibson, f-hole soundholes, jazzier sound than bowlback (less bright)
- A-style mandolin – another archtop design by Gibson f-type or round soundholes
Bowlback Embergher mandolins
Special mention to Embergher mandolin is necessary as these instruments are still very much in demand.
Instruments from Emberghers workshop included :
- quartino (c’ g’ d” a”),
- terzino (bes’ f’ c” g”),
- mandolino (g d’ a’ e”),
- mandoliola (c g d’ a’),
- mandola (G d a e’),
- mandoloncello (C G d a),
- mandolbasso (G’ D A e, or E’ A’ D G)
- and the mandolinetto (d’ a’ e” b”).
See below an Embergher in action (Preludio N°1, R. Calace, for mandolin solo, played by Ralf Leenen on an Embergher N°5, recorded: 22/04/2005)
- Museum V&A, London
- book by Alex Timmerman
- book Museum Vleeshuis, Antwerpen
- website Bingham
- website Larsonscreations.com
- website Embergher.com
- website banjolin.co.uk
- website Palmguitars.com
- website Musikalia