Mandolin vs. Lute – (What’s the Difference?)

Pro Music Vault Home Comparisons String Comparisons Mandolin vs. Lute – (What’s the Difference?)

Let’s learn more about the mandolin and the lute: the differences, similarities, and which one is easier to play. Our goal here is to give you a better understanding of which one to pick up and learn.

Both the lute and the mandolin have been popular stringed instruments for many years.

However, several features make these musical instruments differ from one another.

They both are plucked stringed instruments, but they each produce different sounds. The mandolin typically has 8 strings, while the lute may have 6 or 8, but could also have several more. The lute is also much bigger than the mandolin.

If lutes and mandolins pose a confusing conundrum for you, you are not alone. They are quite similar on the surface, but are actually played and built in distinctly different fashions.

The lute vs. mandolin decision can be a complicated one, because these instruments are often lumped together in the same category.

So, which one is better than the other, and which one should you buy as a newbie in the music industry?

I will go over the basics of each instrument, then compare them for the clearest explanation of how a lute is different than a mandolin. After that, you can make your best-informed decision.

Let’s get started!

Our Top Mandolin Pick for New Players
Our Top Lute Pick for New Players
Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin, Dark Violin Sunburst
Roosebeck 8-Course Travel Lute
Our Top Mandolin Pick for New Players
Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin, Dark Violin Sunburst
Our Top Lute Pick for New Players
Roosebeck 8-Course Travel Lute

Table of Contents

The Lute

The lute is an ancient instrument steeped in history. It was played over 500 years ago in Renaissance European cultures, and has been coined as one of the most important instruments of the time.

It was played by bards, jesters, and orchestras during festivals and gatherings, and it is one of the most well-known classical instruments of the era. It was easily the most dominant instrument in the 1500s.

The lute is the predecessor of many stringed instruments, most notably the guitar and the mandolin.

The lute’s number of strings varies by model. A lute can sometimes have anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five strings!

PRO TIP: Look for lute strings that are more lightly textured when you’re first learning the instrument. These lute strings fit the bill.

The Mandolin

The mandolin descends from the lute family, but it is a unique instrument entirely. It is played with a plucking device called a plectrum, and has four sets of double strings.

Mandolins have been adapted over the years into modern cultures, and are still often played today. They originated in the 18th century in Germany and Italy, and they flourished in the 19th century and beyond.

Mandolins have a distinct string pattern of double notes, with eight strings total. Their pattern normally consists of strings GG, DD, AA, and EE consecutively.

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Similarities Between the Lute and Mandolin

  • The mandolin is actually a descendent of the lute.
  • They both have smooth, pear or egg-shaped bodies, and a long neck.
  • They both have metal strings used for playing different notes.
  • Mandolins and lutes are both under the classification of a chordophone, which means they make music through the plucking of strings stretched against the wood.
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Differences Between the Lute and Mandolin

  • A lute is played like a guitar (with your fingers) and has frets.
  • A mandolin is similar to a violin in how it is tuned, but is played with a plectrum more often than being plucked with fingers.
  • Lutes have a different layout for their strings, and often have a completely different number of strings compared to a mandolin.
  • Mandolins have double strings, meaning they have two of each type of note. For example, strings GG, DD, AA, and EE.
  • Mandolins usually have four sets of double strings, while a lute can have as many as 24 strings total. The number of strings on a lute varies by model, much more so than mandolins.
  • A mandolin’s tuning pegs stick out to the side like a violin’s, while the lute has backward-facing tuning pegs.
  • The neck of a mandolin is straight like other common stringed instruments, while the lute is unique with a bent, L-shaped neck.
  • Lutes have one circular hole in the center of the instrument, while mandolins tend to have two f-shaped holes towards the sides, like a violin.
  • Lutes have deep, bowl-like designs. Mandolins are more streamlined and flat.
  • Lutes tend to be much larger in size than the mandolin.
  • Mandolins are used for musical genres such as bluegrass, folk, and country music. Lutes are commonly used to produce more classical, Celtic, and new-age music.

Sound

If you’re trying to decide between a mandolin and a lute, the first thing to consider is their sound.

Mandolins are known for their bright, punchy tone that can slice through any mix, making it perfect for playing bluegrass or folk music. Its attack comes from a plectrum plucking the strings, which creates that signature sharp and percussive sound.

On the other hand, lutes have a much more delicate and refined sound. When you play a lute, you pluck the strings with your fingers, which produces a gentle and nuanced sound that’s ideal for chamber music and intimate performances.

The lute’s sound lacks the mandolin’s sharp attack, but it more than makes up for it with a warm and rounded tone that will soothe your soul.

So, what accounts for the differences in sound between these two instruments? It’s partly due to their tuning and body shape. Mandolins are usually tuned in fifths, which gives them an open and bright sound that can cut through any mix.

The lute, on the other hand, has a more complex tuning system with a mix of fifths, fourths, and other intervals, allowing for a wider range of harmonic possibilities.

The lute also has a larger, more rounded body, which gives it a more resonant and sustain-y sound. The mandolin’s smaller, compact body gives it a focused and punchy tone.

Amplification

If you’re planning on performing with your mandolin or lute, you’ll likely need to consider how to amplify your instrument. The good news is that both instruments can be amplified, but the approaches are quite different.

Mandolins are typically amplified using a piezo pickup or a magnetic pickup. These pickups can be attached to the bridge or the soundhole of the mandolin, and they capture the vibrations of the strings to produce an electric signal that can be amplified.

Some mandolin players also use microphones to amplify their sound, but this approach can be more challenging since the mandolin’s small body can make it prone to feedback.

Lutes, on the other hand, are traditionally acoustic instruments and are less commonly amplified. However, if you want to amplify your lute, the best approach is to use a microphone.

Since lutes are typically played in chamber music or solo settings, they don’t require as much amplification as a mandolin, which is often used in a band context. The main challenge with amplifying a lute is finding the right microphone placement. The microphone should be placed close to the instrument but not so close that it picks up unwanted noise or feedback.

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With a mandolin, you have more options for amplification, but you’ll also need to be aware of potential feedback issues.

With a lute, you’ll likely be relying on a microphone for amplification, but this approach can provide a natural and authentic sound that’s well-suited for chamber music or solo performances.

Tuning

A mandolin is typically tuned in fifths, which means that the strings are spaced evenly apart and produce a bright and open sound. This tuning system is similar to a violin or a viola, and it’s part of what gives the mandolin its distinctive sound.

The tuning is also what makes the mandolin easy to play for guitarists, as it’s tuned in the same intervals as the highest four strings on a guitar.

On the other hand, the lute has a more complex tuning system that involves a mix of fifths, fourths, and other intervals. This tuning system allows for a wider range of harmonic possibilities and gives the lute its rich and expressive sound.

The lute’s tuning is also what makes it a challenge to play, as it requires a good ear and a lot of practice to get the notes and intervals just right.

Another interesting aspect of the lute’s tuning is that it can vary depending on the era and the style of music being played. Renaissance lutes were often tuned in a way that allowed for easy chord playing, while Baroque lutes had a more intricate tuning system that allowed for more complex music.

The mandolin’s tuning, on the other hand, has stayed pretty consistent over the years, with only minor variations in the number of strings or the overall pitch of the instrument.

PRO TIP: Find a multi-instrument tuner that actually works well with a mandolin or a lute. This one fits the bill.

Lute vs. Mandolin: Which One Is Easier To Play?

When it comes to ease of play, the mandolin is generally considered to be more beginner-friendly. Its small size and simple construction make it easier to hold and maneuver, while the strings are tuned in fifths, which is a more intuitive tuning system than the lute’s complex tuning system.

This means that if you’re new to stringed instruments, the mandolin can be a great place to start.

That being said, the mandolin is not without its challenges. It requires a certain level of dexterity and finger strength to play, particularly when it comes to more advanced techniques such as tremolo and crosspicking. But with regular practice and proper technique, these challenges can be overcome.

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  • Music book contains these mandolin songs:
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  • Au Clair De La Lune
  • Bill Cheatham

The lute, on the other hand, can be a more challenging instrument to play, particularly for beginners. Its larger size and more complex tuning system can be intimidating at first, and the technique required to play it can take longer to master.

However, once you get the hang of it, the lute can be an incredibly rewarding instrument to play, with a unique sound that sets it apart from other stringed instruments.

SaleBestseller No. 1
Lute Songs of John Dowland: The Original First and Second Books Including Dowland’s Original Lute Tablature (Dover Song Collections)
  • Nadal, David (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 128 Pages – 07/10/1997 (Publication Date) – Dover Publications (Publisher)

Ultimately, the choice of instrument comes down to personal preference and your level of dedication to learning it. If you’re looking for a relatively easy instrument to start with, the mandolin is a great option.

If you’re up for a challenge and want to explore the more complex and nuanced sound of the lute, go for it! Both instruments have their own unique charm, and with enough time and practice, you can become a master of either one.

Our Top Mandolin Pick for New Players
Our Top Lute Pick for New Players
Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin, Dark Violin Sunburst
Roosebeck 8-Course Travel Lute
Our Top Mandolin Pick for New Players
Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin, Dark Violin Sunburst
Our Top Lute Pick for New Players
Roosebeck 8-Course Travel Lute
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Wrapping Up

Both the lute and the mandolin are wonderful instruments with many years of rich history. The lute was used in medieval times and brought joy to many people, while its mandolin relative is a modern adaptation of the historic instrument.

They are both great to add to your instrument collection, but ultimately it is a matter of your preference and playing style. I hope I have provided some clarity on the subject so you can decide which is best for you!

FAQs

What is a mandolin, and how is it different from a lute?

A mandolin is a stringed musical instrument that originated in Italy and is played with a plectrum. In contrast, a lute is a stringed instrument that was popular during the Renaissance era and is played with the fingers. While both instruments have similarities in terms of their shape and number of strings, they differ in their construction, tuning, and playing techniques.

How many strings does a mandolin have?

A mandolin typically has four pairs of strings, totaling eight strings in all. These strings are tuned in a specific order and can produce a wide range of sounds.

How many strings does a lute have?

A lute typically has six to eight strings, but can also have as many as fifteen to twenty-five strings, depending on the specific type of lute.

What is the sound of a mandolin like?

A mandolin has a bright and distinctive sound that is often associated with folk and bluegrass music. Its sound is produced by plucking the strings with a plectrum, which creates a sharp, percussive attack.

What is the sound of a lute like?

The sound of a lute is typically soft and delicate, with a warm and rounded tone. The strings are plucked with the fingers, producing a more subtle and nuanced sound than that of a mandolin.

Can you play the same music on a mandolin and a lute?

While there may be some overlap in the music that can be played on a mandolin and a lute, the instruments have unique playing techniques and tuning systems that make them better suited for different styles of music. Mandolins are often used in bluegrass and folk music, while lutes are more commonly associated with Renaissance and Baroque music.

What are the different types of mandolins?

There are several types of mandolins, including the Neapolitan mandolin, the bluegrass mandolin, and the mandola. Each type has its own unique sound and playing style.

What are the different types of lutes?

There are several types of lutes, including the Renaissance lute, the Baroque lute, and the theorbo. Each type has its own unique construction and playing technique, as well as a specific repertoire of music.

Are mandolins and lutes difficult to play?

Both mandolins and lutes require some degree of skill and practice to play well, but they are not necessarily more difficult than other stringed instruments. Learning the proper techniques for plucking or strumming the strings, as well as understanding the instrument’s unique tuning system, is key to mastering either instrument.

Which instrument is right for me, a mandolin or a lute?

Choosing between a mandolin and a lute ultimately depends on your personal preferences and the style of music you want to play. If you are interested in folk or bluegrass music, a mandolin may be a better choice. If you are interested in Renaissance or Baroque music, a lute may be more suitable. It’s important to try out both instruments and see which one feels more comfortable and inspiring to you.

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