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
The purpose of this post is to organize the available information and simplify it so it is comprehensible as a reference by even the beginner mandolinist.

 

Mandolin History

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.

Mandolinos

Mandolino instruments (in chronological order):

Gittern

Gittern is a small medieval lute-like instrument with a carved body

Mandolin History Gittern Wartburg-Laute

Mandore

Mandore or mandola (Italy)- a small lute-like instrument with a body made of staves
Mandolin History Genoese mandola

Mandolino

Mandolino or pandurine or armandolino or baroque mandolin – small slender lute-like body, 4 or 6 pair of strings

MuseuMusicaBCN 8837

Milanese mandolino (~1750s)

This is a bit larger mandolino with 6 single strings

Milanese mandolin

Lombardic mandolin (end of 19th century)

Lombardic mandolin or mandore has a more rounder body, with metal frets
Mandolin History London-Victoria and Albert Museum-Musical instrument-02

French mandore

And finally French mandore looking like the Lombardic mandolin but with different tuning.
Mandolin History WLA vanda Mandore signed Boissart (clipped)

 

Mandolins

Mandolin instruments (in chronological order):

Genuese mandolin (~1780)

Genuese mandolin is tuned like a guitar with a small lute-like body

MuseuMusicaBCN 8837

Cremona mandolin

Cremona mandolin or Brescian mandolin – small lute-like body, 4 gut strings

 

Mandolin Neapolitan

Mandolin Neapolitan has a body much deeper than the mandolino, thus bowlback, tuned as a violin
Mandoline MG 2087

Mandolin (modern)

Mandolin modern is like Neapolitan but the tuning pegs are replaced by tuning machines
Neapolitan mandolin 001

Roman mandolin

Roman mandolin see Luigi Embergher (1856-1943), Embergher.com, is still much in demand
Embergher mandolin

Mandola

Mandola or tenor mandola or tenor mandolin has longer scale than the mandolin, usually tuned 7 semitones lower, bowlback or flatback
Mandola Marino

Octave mandolin

Octave mandolin or octave mandola has tuning one octave lower than the mandolin, bowlback or flatback

Mandolin History Octave Mandolin

Octave Mandola by Richard Morgan

 

Mandocello

Mandocello or mandoloncello or liuto cantabile is tuned one octave lower than the mandola, bowlback or flatback

Mandolin History

Mandocello by Richard Morgan

 

Mando-bass

Mandobass was popular in the US. It has  teardrop shape, flat front and back, f-shaped soundholes, tuned like a bass, often played like an upright bass
Gibson Style J Mando-bass & Gibson Style F-4 Mandolin - Met Museum of Art, New York, NY

Mandriola,

Mandriola is popular in Mexico – it is a mandolin with 4 triple-string courses (12 strings in total)
Gibson-mandolin-orchestra

 

Flat back mandolin

Flat back mandolin is same size as the neapolitan mandolin but flatback, thus easier and cheaper to build
Tacoma M1 mandolin back

f-style mandolin or bluegrass mandolin

F-style mandolin or bluegrass mandolin is a special archtop type of mandolin designed in the early 20th Century by Gibson, f-hole soundholes, jazzier sound than bowlback (less bright)
Weber Fern Mandolin

A-style mandolin

A-style mandolin is another archtop design by Gibson f-type or round sound holes
Gibson A-style Mandolin

Mandolin Gelas

Mandolin Gelas is a double top French special design, oval sound hole
Mandolin History Mandolin Gelas

Mandolinetto

Mandolinetto is a guitar-like shaped instrument, strangely considered a mandolin (because it is small?)
Mandolinetto (c.1920) by S. O. Allison - MIM PHX

Mandolin banjo

Mandolin banjo has a banjo body, mandolin neck with strings in a mandolin tuning, loud sound. Concept reminds me of Teenage Ninja Turtles. Result is interesting…
Mandolin-banjo

Lyre mandolin or harp mandolin

Lyre mandolin or harp mandolin has a strange shape, probably to increase volume.
Musical instruments on display at the MIM (14165148168)

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.

 

Bowlback mandolins

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)
  • mando-cello
  • bass mandolin
  • mandolone (guitar shaped bass)

 

Flatback mandolins

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

 

See below a flat-back mandolin in action, and I mean serious action, from the amazing Chris Thile. If you think this video is not interesting, jump directly to 4:20 to see improvization in action.

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)

The source of information presented here can be found at the following reference sites:
Selected pictures from:
  • 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

 

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