This article compares and explains the various types of mandolins at length, giving you a clear guide to completely understanding the differences between them.
Unless you study carefully (or with an expert or trainer’s help) when purchasing a mandolin, you may end up getting an instrument that sounds like a tin can strung with barbed wires.
Table of Contents
- How Many Types of Mandolins Are There?
- Types of Sound Holes
- Mandolin Variations: Octave, Electric, Mandocello
- Construction Methods and Wood in Mandolin
- A Brief History Of The Types Of Mandolins
How Many Types of Mandolins Are There?
There are two main types of mandolins, Classical and Bluegrass. These types are further categorized into various models based on body shapes, styles, and soundhole. Bluegrass mandolins are broken down into A-style and F-style.
#1 Classical/Bowl-Back Mandolin
These mandolins have round backs and similar features to their original Italian kinds – and also to the traditional lutes.
Since bowl-back mandolins have big, voluminous backs, they produce a rounder, deeper tone than their modern counterparts. They are a go-to for musicians who play historical kinds of music, including renaissance style, classical, and baroque.
This mandolin has a round bowl which makes it perfect to handle. Some people call it a “watermelon back.” They have deeper tones as a result of the deep bowls. Despite being traditional mandolins, their prices tend to be quite high.
#2 Bluegrass Mandolin
These mandolins were developed in America and based on classical types. They are used in a variety of musical styles, and feature two unique body styles – either the A-style or the F-style.
The two styles in bluegrass mandolins both have flat backs, which gives them a lower production cost and makes them less expensive compared to the classical bowl-back mandolins.
Bluegrass mandolins came on strong in the late 19th century in two Gibson models, the mandocello (the A-style) and the mando-bass (F-style). Many mandolists believe that F-style is a better choice due to its balance while playing.
The backs and tops of these mandolins are customarily carved from a solid wood, preferably from spruce and maple. The bluegrass mandolin comes in two styles, as shown below. The Phoenix Standard and Phoenix Neoclassical are popular choices.
Whichever style ends up grabbing your interest, don’t forget to get extra strings! They’re bound to give out on you at some point, and there’s nothing worse than not having some backups handy when that happens.
[PRO TIP: You never know when you’ll need some backup strings. Stash some away with D’Addario’s best selling set of mandolin strings.]
This style describes all other oval bodied or teardrop-shaped mandolins that are NOT either F-style or bowl-back.
This style grew after Gibson’s productions took off in the 20th century. Many come with curved tops and backs, while others have an arched back resembling a violin.
A-style models are more like guitar profiles. However, to differentiate them from the bowl-back types, we describe those with arched backs as having flatbacks. The A-style mandolins do not have scrolls, meaning they’re easier to build and less expensive.
A-style mandolins are common with Celtic musicians and with folk, Irish, and classical music.
Some examples of A-style mandolins include:
This type of mandolin has a more prominent and broader body type, and the sound hole is round. Spruce and cedar are commonly used for the top, while mahogany, rosewood, and walnut are preferred for the sides. The backs and tops are mostly flat.
The A-style mandolin derives its name from its general shape. This device has a simple design, which makes it cheaper in terms of price.
If you’re looking for a beginner-friendly option that packs some good accessories along with it, Vangoa is a good starting point.
- ✔[Outstanding Tone] AAA mahogany body provides good high-end response and plenty of warmth. Its fantastic crisp, deep and sweet tones project excellently through the f-shaped sound holes that are pretty enjoyable
This style of mandolin was first produced by Gibson in the 19th century, and was their top model. The design became known for an elegant and smooth, attractive look. In early 1925, Lloyd Loar, a Gibson acoustic engineer, designed the F-5 under Gibson’s supervision, and that became their most renowned F-style model.
Even today, the F-style mandolins with Loar’s signature are some of the most expensive and loved models. All the other modern F-style mandolins are fairly close replicas, with either two F-holes or one oval soundhole.
Also referred to as Florentine mandolins, the F-style mandolins are the preferred choice out of all the bluegrass mandolins, and are also a familiar choice with country and root players.
Examples of F-style types mandolins include:
The Ibanez M522S is really one of our favorites when it comes to F-style. The sunburst body has a beautiful look, and when you go with Ibanez you know you’re getting a long tradition of high quality. This is one we’d highly recommend.
Different mandolin “family members” have always had disputes over where exactly they land in the “family tree”, bringing a lot of confusion regarding classifications in this instrument family.
The simplest way to get a clearer answer is to check the mandolin’s scale length, which is the distance between the nut and the bridge. In other words, the length of string that can vibrate. A standard mandolin might come in around 13 or 14 inches here, while octave mandolins and mandocellos may be more like 17 to 26 inches.
Types of Sound Holes
Mandolins typically have two types of sound holes, which determine the type of sound produced. The two types are oval-shaped and F-shaped.
These mandolins’ neck joints are typically ten frets. They usually have a warmer tone, and most people describe them as tubby. Oval-shaped mandolins mostly lend themselves to folk music, as well as Celtic music.
F-shaped sound holes, on the other hand, are brighter with volume. They are mostly preferred by folk and country music mandolin players.
The rule of tuning a mandolin from bass to treble is GDAE.
There are some great multi-instrument tuners out there that work particularly well with mandolins.
[PRO TIP: Avoid tuning frustration with D’Addario’s mandolin-compatible tuner.]
Mandolin Variations: Octave, Electric, Mandocello
There are three common variations of mandolins: Electric mandolin, Octave mandolin, and Mandocello.
Electric mandolins use electronic amplification to produce sound. They typically feature metal strings, a solid body, and pickups to capture string vibrations, which are then converted into an electrical signal that can be amplified through a speaker. Electric mandolins are popular across lots of musical genres, including rock, country, and blues. They offer a distinctive, bright and cutting tone. They bring the versatility and playability of traditional acoustic mandolins, but with the added ability to control volume and tone through amplification.
This Gold Tone electric mandolin has a sweet vintage look to it, with beginner-friendly playability that Gold Tone has built a reputation for.
Octave mandolins have a longer scale length and larger body, which results in a lower pitch range. The strings on an octave mandolin are tuned to a lower octave, typically in fifths, to produce a rich, full sound that can add depth and warmth. Octave mandolins are commonly used in folk, bluegrass, and Celtic music. They are typically played with a flatpick or plectrum, and can also be strummed or fingerpicked.
Mandocellos are similar to octave mandolins, with a larger size, longer scale length, and lower pitch range. The mandocello is typically tuned to an even lower octave, and is often played in ensemble with other acoustic instruments, although it can certainly still be played as a solo instrument.
Surprise, surprise, Gold Tone is on our list again when it comes to mandocellos. This Gold Tone mandocello not only looks great with its multi-tone finish, but comes with the full package of accessories to get you started: hard case, cleaning cloth, instrument stand, and tuner. It’s a great option for someone starting from scratch.
Construction Methods and Wood in Mandolin
Most mandolin tops or soundboards use spruce wood for construction. It has dense grains and offers a beautiful and articulate response in mandolins, as it does so for violins or guitars.
Since spruce can be costly, many manufacturers use mahogany or cedar instead, which causes some deeper tone. Nonetheless, the best quality mandolins have soundboards hand-carved from spruce.
Most bluegrass mandolins have arched tops, something that many players fancy.
More affordable mandolins have laminate tops with wood layers pressed together. Laminates come with thin veneer tops.
Although most professional mandolinists prefer spruce tops, a laminate top helps regulate a mandolin’s price while still producing a pleasant sound.
Mandolin fretboards are made of either ebony or rosewood. Both are hardwoods that allow for easy finger-to-fret action.
For maximum rigidity, mandolin necks are made using mahogany or maple. The neck may involve more than one wood glued together.
For intonation and playability adjustments, mandolin necks may have metal embedded in them.
Mandolin bridges involve ebony or rosewood and an electronic pickup for amplification.
Some typical mandolins accessories include tuners and tailpieces for tuning the instrument. Also, don’t forget to get a case or gig bag if you’re buying your first mandolin. It’s an easy thing to slip your mind when you’re going through the rest of your purchasing checklist, but it’s no fun when you need to take your instrument somewhere and realize you don’t have a good way to protect it from bumps and bruises along the way.
[PRO TIP: Don’t skimp on the protection for your instrument! This mandolin gig bag takes our top pick for its unique retro denim look.]
A Brief History Of The Types Of Mandolins
Mandolins are the descendants of the lute family. Various types advanced from the classical mandolin, also referred to as the Neapolitan mandolin.
The classical style mandolins that are played even today were first developed in Naples, Italy in the 18th century, and are still popular with folk and other traditional music.
In the late 19th century, the popularity of mandolins grew, leading to the development of modern mandolins with different body shapes and designs that we still see today.
This modern development started in the USA, when luthiers designed the arched top and flatback mandolins.
Orville Gibson and Lloyd Loar, his acoustic engineer, were the key individuals credited with developing modern mandolins that are now associated with jug band, country, blues, and bluegrass music. The two are responsible for the creation of the F-style and A-style mandolins.
Prior to Gibson and Loar, though, the first “wave” in mandolin history saw the 17th century Vinnacia family design the metal string mandolin using tree brass strings, a single gut, and friction tuning pegs set on a fingerboard.
The mandolin became popular mostly in the streets, where young men used it for courting. Some musicians honed their craft enough to take it to the street concert halls.
The instrument disappeared during the Napoleonic wars of 1815. Then, in 1835, Pasquale Vinnacia did some modifications to the family’s invented device and came up with the Neapolitan Mandolin.
Second Wave/Golden Age Of Mandolins
During the 18th century, a group of 64 students from various colleges in Madrid came to tour Paris. The group had gone to Paris for Carnival, and played flutes, violins, and guitars. The first group of students received a lot of applause from Paris, arousing the second group of students who were visiting the capital.
Alongside other instruments, the mandolin was present, which confused and intrigued the latter group.
Interest in the mandolin kept growing, and a band of mandolin players from Italy toured Europe and America to popularize their instrument.
The instrument later declined during the first World War, but since many people had already learned how to play, it was able to have a comeback later.
These are just basic information and things that you will be checking anytime you go shopping for a quality mandolin.
There is no specific order to follow when shopping for a mandolin; all you need to do is know your budget and listen to people’s opinions, google information and you will be the ultimate judge.
Moreover, reading reviews from reputable sites online can give you a reliable pinpoint to lead you to the right instrument. Find the best beginner mandolins here.
We hope you found this helpful in understanding all the different types of mandolins that there are on the market.
What is a mandolin and what are they used for?
A mandolin is a stringed musical instrument that is similar to a lute. It is typically used to play folk, bluegrass, and classical music.
How many strings does a mandolin have?
A mandolin typically has 8 strings, which are played with a pick or plectrum.
What are the different types of mandolins?
There are several types of mandolins, including the A-style, F-style, and roundback mandolin.
What is the difference between an A-style and F-style mandolin?
An A-style mandolin has a rounded body shape and a symmetrical soundhole, while an F-style mandolin has a more pointed body shape and an F-shaped soundhole.
What is a roundback mandolin and what is it used for?
A roundback mandolin is a type of mandolin that has a rounded back and is typically used to play classical music.
Are there any specific brands of mandolins that are popular among musicians?
Yes, some popular brands of mandolins include Gibson, Martin, and Epiphone.
Is it possible to play electric mandolin?
Yes, there are electric mandolins available that can be plugged into an amplifier for a louder sound.
What type of material is a mandolin typically made of?
Mandolins can be made of a variety of materials, including wood, metal, and plastic.
What is the average price range for a mandolin?
The price range for a mandolin can vary greatly, from a few hundred dollars for a beginner model to several thousand dollars for a high-end instrument.
Is it necessary to have musical training in order to play the mandolin?
While musical training can be helpful, it is not necessary to have in order to play the mandolin. With dedication and practice, anyone can learn to play this instrument.