Resources: Instruments: MandolinThe mandolin is a stringed instrument in the lute family. The first mandolins that appeared in Itally in the early 1700s were characteristic of the cities in which they were made. Neapolitan mandolins with their gourd-like, pear-shaped bodies and four courses of wire strings became dominant, and are the predecessors to the moderm mandolin. The Neoplitan instruments, like modern mandolins, were tuned like violins. The highest-pitched course of strings are tuned to E, the second-highest to A, the second-lowest to D, and the lowest-pitched course of strings to G. Modern strings for the E and are usually steel; the strings for the A, D, and G are usually brass, bronze, or nickle wire wrapped around steel. The optimum string type depends on the style of music the musician wishes to play.
Players use a plectrum to pluck the strings in an alternating up/down pattern that increases playing speed and sustains tones. This technique includes a very rapid tremolo between the strings in a single course that sustains the tone, and produces a very characteristic sound that most listeners can identify as a mandolin. The strings fasten to a tailpiece, run over a carved piece of wood on the body (known as a bridge), and pass over the body and fretted fingerboard to machine-screw tuning pegs.
Modern mandolins have several construction styles. Mandolins most similar to their ancestors have round backs with flat tops that angle slightly from the bridge to the base to increase string tension and promote more brilliance of tone. These instruments generally have oval sound holes surrounded by a pick guard. Another design uses a flat front and back on a pear-shaped body; the sound hole is usually round or oval. Another design uses the pear-shaped body, but adopts the carved back and front plates common in violin-family instruments; some of these instruments have round or oval sound holes; in others, a pair of symmetrically placed, f-shaped sound holes replace the round holes. These 'A-style' instruments have more sustain than their ancestors. Yet another design known as the 'F-style' mandolin (like the one pictured here) employs a carved front and back and symmetric f-shaped sound holes and adds a Florentine scroll and other ornamental features to the mandolin body.
Early in the 20th century, mandolins became very popular, and players began to form mandolin orchestras. The orchestras (some of which still exist, including one in Baltimore) included a family of mandolins instruments, even mando-cellos and mando-basses. Mandolins became popular in folk music in the United States about the same time that mandolin orchestras were in style. The A- and F-style instruments, referred to as flat-backed (because their subtle arching front and back is very slight when compared to the round-back mandolins modeled on the Neopolitan design) have become popular in a wide range of American folk music while the F-style is very dominant in bluegrass. The A-style arched flat-backed mandolin and the truely flat pear-shaped mandolin is dominant in contemporary Celtic music that includes mandolins.
Fine modern mandolins are made from solid wood. The back and sides are made from hard wood, typically maple, sometimes walnut. The top is made from softer wood, usually spruce. The fingerboard is usually ebony. Less expensive instruments substitute high-grade plywood for the hard-wood back and sides at some sacrifice to tone and volume. Other less expensive instruments sacrifice additional tone and volume by substituting high-grade plywood for the back, sides, and front of the instrument to reduce cost.