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Top 11 Best Mandolin Songs

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There are plenty of people who have begun playing music on a mandolin; in fact, it’s actually a superb first step on the music ladder.

For The Beginner 

It is a great instrument to learn once you have mastered the tuning. I will look at that briefly soon. What makes it so good? It is small, lightweight, and easy to handle. It is also not a problem to carry around with you wherever you go.

But, in many ways, the great thing about the mandolin is its sound. When you play certain types of music, the sound is mesmerizing and unique.

For The Experienced Player

It can be a joy. And, in today’s music world, there are plenty of opportunities to add the mandolin to all sorts of music where you might least expect it, as we will see in my list of the best mandolin songs.

Origins of the Mandolin

The mandolin evolved from the lute, which is an ancient instrument. Tube development through the 17th and 18th Centuries gave us the instrument we see today. The 19th century saw improvements to the soundboard, which gave us the sound we are now familiar with.

The Tuning

This is for those thinking about buying your first mandolin. On most mandolins, there are eight strings, although you can get instruments with ten or even twelve.

The strings are paired, so you get two strings that are the same for tuning purposes. The vast majority of mandolins are tuned the same as a violin. That is G, D, A, and E, the notes of each string rising in 5ths.

So, not like the standard tuning of a twelve-string guitar that has paired settings. That has a high E paired with E, high A with A, high D with D, high G G, and then a pair of B strings and a pair of E strings at the same pitch.

What Styles Of Music?

Best Mandolin Songs

Because it is an acoustic instrument, it makes it suitable for a variety of genres, some of which are obvious.

  • Folk.
  • And Bluegrass, where it is almost essential.

But it may surprise you to know it is also found in:

  • Rock.
  • And Classical.

Classical music could be described as the mandolin’s home. It was built to work with orchestras, especially during the Baroque period. It has evolved somewhat since then, but it is still found in classical works, as we shall see.

Versatile

That’s how you might describe the mandolin. Its ability to play melodies as well as add to the rhythmic sections allows it to fit the styles we have looked at. 

Whether it’s a primary or secondary instrument, it brings texture and a unique sound courtesy of its double-string setup. So, let’s have a look at some great songs with a mandolin.

Top 11 Best Mandolin Songs

Buffalo Gals by Pete Seeger

Let’s go back in time for this first one from Pete Seeger. This was released in 1957 on an album called American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 5.

It is a traditional song that was an old-time band tune. Very danceable and Folk and Country-inspired, it shows the mandolin in the hands of a consummate professional.

Losing My Religion by REM

This could be described as the song that put REM on the musical map. It was taken from their 1991 album, Out Of Time.

The single reached #19 in the UK and #4 in America. And it was #1 in Holland and Belgium and Top 10 in other countries.

There are plenty of little stories attached to this song… 

One of which is that the principal writer, Peter Buck, wrote it on his mandolin. More interesting is that he was still learning to play it. He was recording it, fortunately, and was watching TV as he practiced. 

When he played it back the next day, the principal riff of the song was there by accident. It was the sound that propelled the song into everyone’s consciousness.

Not About Religion At All

Many people thought this might be a song about becoming an atheist or similar. The expression “losing my religion” is a term that is often used in the south of America to describe a loss of temper and losing control.

Once again, as with other successful songs, record company “management” wasn’t sure about releasing it. A bit like Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Once again, they were proven wrong, and it became REM’s most successful song.

The orchestral arrangement was added as an extra after the song had been finished. A great song in many ways and a great advert for the input of the mandolin, which made the song.

Going to California by Led Zeppelin

I did say at the outset that the mandolin could crop up in some unlikely places, and here it is with Led Zeppelin. This is a track from their album, Led Zeppelin IV, released in 1971.

It isn’t what you might expect from them at all, and has an almost folky feel to it. But, at the time, the band was experimenting with new sounds and ideas. Unlike most of their stuff, this track is quite peaceful. They used just acoustic instruments for the backing of Robert Plant’s vocals.

There is an almost hippie feel to this song. You could easily imagine an outdoor get-together around a campfire where someone would play it. They did have the ability to be able to blend Heavy Rock and folk/mystical music on the same album and make it work.

And work it did…

The mandolin takes center stage and is impressively played by bassist John Paul Jones. That shouldn’t surprise anyone; he plays just about everything else.

The song is evidently about a visit to California when there was a small earthquake. They don’t get a lot of earthquakes in England, so it probably came as a bit of a shock.

They were able to effortlessly blend iconic Rock and Folk songs perfectly in their album, Led Zeppelin IV.

The Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin

Staying with Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV seems to be the album that John Paul Jones remembered he had a mandolin somewhere at home. “The Battle Of Evermore” is sometimes referred to as the Zeppelin song with the mandolin.

They surprised us at times, and this was one such occasion. It is a good song that has a very folky feel to it. And this is taken to another level when Sandy Denny joins in to make it a folk duet. 

Denny was previously with The Strawbs and the great Fairport Convention and sang the memorable song “Meet On The Ledge” with them. You wouldn’t think that Sandy Denny and Robert Plant would work together vocally, but somehow, it does. 

Mythical and Fantastical

The song was written by Page and Plant and took a lot of inspiration from Tolkien and “The Lord of the Rings,” as did the previous song I included. It is in the form of a conversation between Plant, who is narrating, and Denny, acting as the “Town Crier.” 

Page created the main part of the song while playing around with John Paul Jones’s mandolin in the studio. Although, Jones plays it in the session. It is an exceptional song that is made so much better by John Paul Jones’s mandolin part and Sandy Denny’s vocals.

At a time when some Rock bands were getting a bit “folky,” this stands out as one of the best of that style. And is one of the best mandolin songs as well.

Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver

I have included this not because there is a prominent mandolin part, though there is one there in the background. Rather, because if you are thinking about learning the instrument, it is one of the easiest mandolin songs for a beginner.

It only has four chords, G, D, C, and Em, and so is easy to learn but also great to play along with.

This a memorable song from John Denver that will light up any campfire or barbecue get-together. And, of course, perfect for the mandolin.

Friend of the Devil by The Grateful Dead

A change of style somewhat but still a song that could be termed Folk Rock. Although, I did once hear this described as “Progressive Bluegrass.” I am not sure there is such a thing but never mind. 

The Grateful Dead were always trying to push boundaries, and they achieved something with this track. Released in 1970, the mandolin part is played by one of the great modern-day players David Grisman.

Grisman plays a unique mandolin style that mixes Folk with Jazz. It takes a lot of its inspiration from the great Django Rheinhardt. The song was a track on the album American Beauty.

Possibly…

The Dead’s greatest recording and one that has stood the test of time and is still popular today. Typical of them in the 60s and 70s, it is mostly acoustic with a distinctive Jerry Garcia electric guitar riff.

Limehouse Blues by Django Reinhardt

Speaking of Django Rheinhardt inspiring people, let’s go to the man himself, the original “Gypsy Jazz” guitarist. 

If you don’t know the story of this man’s life, it is more than worth reading. To be honest, I am not sure how he survived it all. But, survive, he did and gave us some mercurial guitar pieces with only half a hand.

This is a piece that is not for the fainthearted. It is fast and furious and offers plenty of scope for some creative mandolin playing.

Going To My Hometown by Rory Gallagher

Well, we have been to some interesting ‘mandolin places,’ but maybe none quite as interesting as this. Hard-rockin’ Blues is what this guitar genius was known for. And it did not include too much of anything else. But this track finds him on the mandolin.

He came across a Martin Orchestral Mandolin, taught himself to play it, and then included it on this track. It starts like he might have his Fender Strat in his hand and is just about getting ready to let rip. Suddenly we get a foot-stomping mandolin song that screams Folk, Rock, and Blues at you. 

While it is a Blues song, I suppose that it turns folky because of the mandolin. But it is still unmistakably Rory Gallagher.

Mandolin Concerto in C Major by Vivaldi

I mentioned at the outset that we might find the Mandolin in some unlikely places. Led Zeppelin was one, Rory another, but what about Classical Music? 

As I said earlier, the early mandolins were built for working in orchestras, especially in the period we know as Baroque. That was the period that contained works by JS Bach, Handel, and Henry Purcell.

And that guy from Italy…

This concerto by Vivaldi comes from a later period and was first played in 1725. I should say that this is not a piece for a beginner.

Vivaldi was known for using the Mandolin in his works, and this beautiful piece is a great example. You can hear how he skilfully interplays the mandolin with the orchestra, almost as if in a conversation. He was Italian, so you can expect elegance and grace in this piece.

It was held in such high esteem that it was often played with his most famous work, “The Four Seasons,” at concerts and recitals. This is a piece that will let you hear the mandolin in its original setting in an orchestra. So, in a sense, it has come “home.”

Maggie May by Rod Stewart

And so to finish this list of the best mandolin songs we have two from Rod Stewart. I will have to come straight out and say I am no fan of his. Actually, that is an understatement. 

However, his album, Every Picture Tells A Story, had some good tracks on it. We are going to finish with two of them, starting with possibly the most popular mandolin song of all time.

Released in 1971… 

It was a breakthrough album for Rod as a solo artist, despite still officially being a member of The Faces. The other members of the band played on the album.

The album was released in 1971, and “Maggie May” was just a B-side on the first single taken from it. The A-side was a Tim Hardin song, “Reason To Believe.”

It was “Maggie May,” though, that got the airtime and the appreciation and became the A-side. And part of that was the mandolin which is so prominent. It makes a big statement at the start and again at the end with the mandolin break and then fades out.

Remembering Ronnie

One thing about this song that is usually overlooked is Ronnie Lane’s excellent bass line. Not playing the sort of lines you would expect at all; he is playing in and out of harmony lines creating a picture of a bass line. A wonderfully talented musician and very much missed.

Back to the song…

The song was inspired by a story about a young boy who pals up with a prostitute. At the time, a taboo subject, and probably so today as well. But, this was the rebellious 70s, following on from the 60s when every issue was being questioned.

The song was written by Stewart with Martin Quittenton. He had previously played with Steamhammer in the late 60s and early 70s. Martin was a talented guitarist and an all-around nice guy. He also suffered from a similar mental health problem as Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac did.

The song was a huge success and reached #1 in the UK, America, Australia, and Canada. How much of that was the result of the Mandolin? Quite a lot, I expect.

Mandolin Wind by Rod Stewart

Did Rod Stewart go “Mandolin Crazy” on Every Picture Tells A Story? Maybe a little, but that is a good thing. Let’s finish this list with the best track from that album by a country mile. 

This is an excellent Folk ballad played acoustically nearly throughout the song. It suddenly turns into a standard Faces Rock song towards the end.

Because of the prominent mandolin… 

Comparisons are often made with “Maggie May.” But, in my opinion, “Mandolin Wind” wins hands down. The mandolin playing especially is thoughtful and creates a very emotional atmosphere.

And, while we are talking about the mandolin on these two tracks, it was played by a legend of the British Folk scene, Ray Jackson. He played and led the Folk-Rock group Lindisfarne.

The Most Heard Mandolin?

It could be, but you could also call Ray Jackson the most unheard-of musician. Stewart didn’t let the world know who played the mandolin as he seems to think it was unimportant. 

Excuse me? It was the instrument that “made” both tracks, and you think it unimportant? That speaks volumes, and I refer to my first comment when discussing Maggie May.

great song featuring the mandolin that’s often overlooked and could be the stand-out track on the album, in my view. If you are thinking about playing the mandolin, this is a great track to listen to and one you can aspire to learn.

Disclaimer

I didn’t include what is probably the most streamed song with a mandolinIris by the Goo Goo Dolls, because even though session master Tim Pearce’s mandolin playing is incredible and undoubtedly makes the song, I don’t personally like the song. Therefore, I couldn’t include it in a list of the ‘best’ songs that feature a mandolin.

Interested in the Mandolin?

If you are, take a look at our detailed articles on What is a Mandolin GuitarHow to Tune a Mandolin, and How to Play The Mandolin for Beginners for more information about this fantastic instrument.

Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Mandolins, the Best Ukuleles for Beginners, the Best Guitars For Small Hands, and the Best Acoustic Guitars For Beginners you can buy in 2023.

And, for more great music, have a look at our comprehensive articles on the Best Bluegrass Songs, the Best Banjo Songs of All Time, the Top Fingerpicking Songs, and the Best Country Love Songs.

Best Mandolin Songs – Final Thoughts

The mandolin sings to you. And so, it seems to be on these tracks. It is a stunning instrument and one that can easily cross genre boundaries. It is, of course, a standard instrument in Folk and Bluegrass music, and you will often hear it in Country music as well.

But, the most unlikely pairing is with a Rock band, yet it adds so much. It takes the music to places it could never have gone. After listening to these great mandolin songs, you are wondering if you could play one, you can. And they are not expensive for a beginner. For example:

Why wait? Go get one and see to which magical place the mandolin will take you.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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