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The mandolin is quite an attractive instrument that seems similar to a guitar. Is this instrument essentially just a small version of a full-size guitar?
This instrument has played an iconic role throughout modern musical history. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a mandolin and a guitar, you’ve come to the right place.
Read on to discover everything you need to know about the mandolin. You just might find that you take up the instrument yourself!
What Styles Of Music Feature The Mandolin?
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever heard the mandolin, all you need to do is listen to some bluegrass. This specific music genre features the mandolin quite prominently throughout.
You can distinguish the mandolin by its high-pitched sound and somewhat boxy timbre. In a way, it almost sounds very similar to a ukulele just in terms of the boxiness.
While bluegrass is generally thought of to be the mandolin’s home, it is used elsewhere, too. In fact, if you do some digging, you can find some classical pieces with the mandolin (more on that later).
Folk, country, and rock have also featured mandolin quite frequently. This is definitely an instrument that knows no musical border.
In fact, some bands, such as The String Cheese Incident, push the mandolin beyond its traditional boundaries.
Some of the most famous mandolin players include:
- Bill Monroe
- Vince Gill
- Ricky Skaggs
- David Grisman
- Chris Thile
What Are The Similarities Between The Mandolin And Guitar?
The mandolin and guitar are fairly similar in some respects, which are mostly related to the construction. For starters, a mandolin is typically made out of wood, featuring a chambered body.
An acoustic guitar is pretty similar to a mandolin in this regard. It, too, has a chambered wooden body.
Both instruments also use strings, which must be plucked to make a sound. Along with this, both instruments are fretted to provide accurate and consistent pitches.
Depending on the specific model, both instruments have an average of 20-24 frets.
It could also be said that both instruments are acoustic instruments. Both of these can be plugged in for electric performance using a pickup.
Believe it or not, this is pretty much where the similarities between the instruments end.
What Are The Differences Between Mandolin And Guitar?
The most obvious difference between a mandolin and a guitar is its size. Mandolins are about half the size of a guitar, which is why people wonder if it is a guitar.
Because of this, mandolins have an incredibly small neck scale length, averaging around 13”-14”.
Mandolins also typically have more of a bowl-like construction compared to guitars. Both the back and the front of the instrument have a notable curve.
Of course, there are some guitars that utilize a curved front and/or back to provide a traditional look. However, just as many (if not more) do not have this curvature at all.
Mandolins produce bright tones, whereas a guitar produces pitches more pronounced in the lower EQ ranges. This is obviously due to the size differences between the two.
Another major difference comes in the fact that mandolins have 8 strings, compared to the guitar’s 6. A mandolin’s strings are actually grouped into 4 sets of 2 strings tuned to the same pitches.
Along with this, the mandolin’s strings are tuned differently, typically using (from low to high) G, B, A, and E. Believe it or not, the mandolin shares the same exact tuning as the violin (more on that later).
The guitar, on the other hand, typically uses the tuning of E Standard. This tuning uses (from low to high) E, A, D, G, B, and E.
There are a number of open tunings that are frequently used on the guitar. These include Open G and Open D, which tune the guitar to those specific chords in a completely open position.
A small difference between these instruments is that mandolins typically utilize f-shaped soundholes. While some guitars have f-holes, this is more derivative of the violin rather than the guitar.
Where Does A Mandolin Come From?
The first mandolin is thought to have been made sometime in Italy during the mid-1700s. As with most modern instruments, the mandolin seems to be derivative of other instruments that came before.
In a way, the mandolin seems to be a hybrid cross between different lutes that were popular at the time. As was common with stringed instruments in this time period, the mandolin used gut strings.
History shows that it didn’t take long for the mandolin to catch on and become popular. Musical pieces written for the mandolin have been found dating back to 1762.
The mandolin’s quick success was likely due to the fact that it is essentially a fretted version of a violin. It’s a sure bet that many violinists transitioned to the mandolin simply because of this fact.
Some of the most famous composers to have written for the mandolin include:
This short list alone should prove the fact that the mandolin was a highly respected instrument for its time. The guitar does not seem to have the same gravity, though it did come roughly a century later.
The Evolution Of The Mandolin
How then, did the mandolin become the sort of instrument that it is today? One probably wouldn’t initially think of the mandolin as an orchestral instrument used in classical music.
Consider every modern musical instrument, and you’ll find that most were used in musical contexts considered to be “classical music”. The reality is that “classical” is just a label for music that pre-dates the 20th century.
Like any music genre, classical music can be broken into different sub-genres. This specific genre’s subsets are generally dictated by time period.
Where are we going with this? It’s quite simple, really.
The mandolin, like the piano, guitar, and saxophone, has been adapted to fit today’s music styles. Or, rather, people just began to play these instruments in a way they weren’t played before.
The instrument itself generally stayed the same, but it's actually the people playing them that changed. What hasn’t changed is a musician’s penchant to push the boundaries of music itself.
This never-ending (and very human) pursuit inevitably caused new genres of music to become popular. With the advent of recording, modern genres have been able to be cemented in time for all to enjoy.
To drive the point home, here’s some food for thought to consider.
Most composers we widely recognize today lived in a completely different world compared to the average commoner. Composers typically had a role within royal courts or religious institutions, and their only job was to compose music.
These people had far more resources available to them compared to the average person. Because of this, music was written in notation, thus cementing its place in history.
It’s a safe bet that musical instruments were indeed played by average people living their daily lives. However, it’s likely that this music could have been largely forgotten over time.
This commoner music would have to be passed down from generation to generation, similarly to oral history. In a way, this is how a lot of traditional folk music has withstood the tests of time.
Eventually, resources were available to notate the melodies of the commoner’s folk music. Today’s music, especially bluegrass, is a sort of variation of this oral history of traditional music.
In fact, there are many bluegrass musicians who have learned primarily from someone in their family teaching them. It could be said that the mandolin’s utility as an instrument changed with the succession of generations.
Are There Different Types Of Mandolins?
In case you didn’t know, the mandolin actually comes from an entire family of similar musical instruments. There are actually 6 different mandolins, all pitched to different notational centers.
The mandolin itself is actually the soprano member of this family of instruments. In this way, the mandolin is also similar to the violin, reflecting not only the instrument but its family, too.
Before you buy a mandolin for yourself, you need to really do your research as there are different types. However, more discernment was needed in the past as today’s market is more suited to modern players.
With that being said, mandolins typically come in 2 different body styles:
The F-style is, perhaps, most similar to what an acoustic guitar with a cutaway is. Except, the mandolin’s shoulder has a spiral, with the bottom having decorative pointed ornamentation.
A-style, on the other hand, is much more simplistic in design. This style doesn’t have any shoulders or hips at all, rather, resembling more of a traditional lute.
Both types of mandolins are more than suitable enough for today’s music. However, the F-style does seem to have a more potent sound in terms of how it cuts through the mix.
Is Mandolin Easy For Guitarists To Learn?
The mandolin is actually a very frequent instrument for guitarists to learn. As both instruments are stringed instruments with frets, it makes it an easy transition.
This is because most of the mechanics used to play the guitar are also used on the mandolin. You’ll employ the same picking techniques and fretting notes in the same process.
Because of the mandolin’s different tuning, the finger shapes for chords are a little different. However, these chord shapes are actually fairly easy for a semi-experienced guitarist to pick up.
In a way, some of the mandolin’s chord shapes are almost reversed. Once you see the diagrams and get them under your fingers, you’ll likely find it to be a breeze.
Another major reason why many guitarists learn the mandolin is because there are far fewer mandolin players than guitarists. The guitar is one of the most popular instruments throughout the entire world.
Because of this, it’s a guarantee that there is always going to be somebody that is better than you. Of course, playing music requires more of a pure intention than letting that affect you.
Many guitarists simply learn the instrument to fill a gap where there was no mandolin player to be found. Because of this, they sort of ensure their musical place within a group compared to the millions of guitarists available.
You might find that the mandolin is far easier to play than the guitar. Its shortened scale length means that you won’t have to deal with massive finger stretches to play certain chords.
Plus, it also means that those same ridiculous stretches on the guitar allow for very complex chords on the mandolin.
Are There Any Alternatives To Playing Mandolin?
What does one do if one wants to play mandolin without abandoning the guitar altogether? Does a sort of hybrid instrument exist?
If you find yourself in these shoes, you’ll be pleased to know that hybrids do exist. These instruments retain the mandolin build but feature the guitar’s attributes.
Mandolin guitars typically have 6 strings tuned as guitars are typically tuned. This allows you to utilize your guitar knowledge to produce a mandolin sound without having to learn something new.
It should be noted that these do not have the exact same sound as a traditional mandolin. This is mostly due to the fact that the strings are not usually doubled.
These are effectively soprano guitars, which are tuned a whole octave higher than a standard guitar. You can produce the same effect on a regular guitar by placing a capo on the 12th fret.
Mandolin guitars can be a great tool for creativity, especially if you need to think outside of the box. The instrument’s extended range and shorter scale length can present some wonderful opportunities for exploration.
What Is A Mandolin? Final Thoughts
It may have come as a surprise to you that the mandolin resembles a violin more than a guitar. Sometimes, it just goes to show that your initial assumptions might not always be right on the mark.
The same could be said for somebody that thought a mandolin was only for use in the kitchen. Of course, that specific variety definitely isn’t as musical, though it is inspired by the instrument.
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