The Mandolin has a long history. It is an instrument that has been popular for many years. But if you want to learn to play the mandolin, there aren’t as many options as there would be for the guitar.
Learning how to play the Mandolin for beginners has its problems. But that shouldn’t put you off playing it. It is an instrument with a unique sound that can contribute to music in many ways.
Where Did It Come From?
It is a member of the lute family of instruments. Lutes are thought to have originally been used in the Middle East 2000 years ago. The mandolin, though, is a descendant of the Mandalore.
That has always been considered a French instrument. Principally because most of the music written for it that has survived was French, however, it is most likely to be related to the Spanish instrument the “Bandurria.”
This itself may have been a descendant of the Rebec brought by Arab armies in the 11th or 12th centuries. However, the Rebec is more Violin than anything. So the Mandalore may have those influences in its genes as well.
From Mandalore to Mandolin
No, I’m not talking about a planet from the Star Wars universe. The Mandalore became popular in the late 1500s to 1600s across Northern Europe and even into Scotland. It seems to have lost favor, though, but it influenced the creation of a new instrument, the mandolin.
The mandolin appeared in 16th Century Italy, about the same time as the Amati family school were teaching Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri to make their Violins. It was all part of the rush to create new instruments towards the end of the Renaissance period.
It continued to evolve through the 16th and 17th centuries, and there were other similar instruments like the “mandolino” created. But it was Pasquale Vinaccia working in Naples (1806–82) who gave us the instrument we know today.
It was given four pairs of strings, usually made from steel, that created the “Mandolin sound.” They were tuned by machine heads, very much like the Guitar. They were tuned to Violin pitch, that is, G – D – A – and E.
It was given a pear-shaped body that had a deep vault soundbox, and the neck had 17 frets. Today there are variants, of course, some with more frets. And even some instruments with five and six pairs of strings. However, the basic design has stayed basically the same.
Choosing to play this instrument puts you in esteemed company. Music has been written by some of the “Masters” that includes parts for a mandolin. The serenade in Don Giovanni, an opera by Mozart written in 1787, has a mandolin part, and in more recent years, some parts of Agon, a ballet by Stravinsky written in 1957.
But perhaps the most famous Neo-Classical composition came from Vivaldi in 1725 with his Mandolin Concerto. A dedicated virtuoso piece that has become one of the most famous mandolin pieces. It was used in the film “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
In modern music, the mandolin has been featured by Bob Dylan. And Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” from the album Every Picture Tells a Story is a great advertisement for the instrument.
Is it Easy to Learn the Mandolin?
Like all instruments, it has its technicalities you need to master. But it could be described as one of the easiest instruments to learn.
It is compact and lightweight, so you can take it just about anywhere. The acoustic design means you don’t need to amplify it. It has four pairs of strings, so playing it to some might feel like a 12 string guitar. Tuning is an important issue as there are eight strings, so make sure it is in tune.
We have already mentioned some Classical works and music by Bob Dylan and The Faces. But the mandolin has a very distinct cultural background, especially in traditional Folk music.
In Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland, it is an important fixture of their traditional musical styles. It is also an important fixture in US Country and Bluegrass music.
But it has also been extensively used in modern pop and rock music; excellent examples include “Losing My Religion” by REM and “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls.
Different musical styles will be better suited to certain mandolins
The mandolin is an instrument that can be used in a range of styles. It could be beneficial to be aware of how it is used in different genres. This could affect what sort of instrument you buy. It is true that you can play the mandolin in any style. However, some are better suited to certain genres. Let’s look at some.
Three Types of Mandolin
The three most common mandolins you will find are the Neapolitan, sometimes known as the “round-back mandolin,” the “Archtop,” and the “Flat-back.” Understanding these mandolin types makes learning how to play the mandolin for beginners a much easier task.
The “F-style” Mandolin
These are sometimes called Florentine mandolins. They are usually the best mandolin for playing Bluegrass or traditional European Folk music.
Gibson manufactured the first of the F-style mandolins in the early 1900s. They included some nice designs and good woods and gave it a rich and impressive style. The F5 Gibson Mandolin was designed by Lloyd Loar in the mid-20s. Today they are sought after and will cost you a lot of money.
Most modern F-style mandolins are copies of these 20s models with double f-holes and an oval soundhole. Some manufacturers use the F-style as a base for their designs and then add their design ideas. A great example is the Loar LM-310F-BRB Honey Creek F-Style Mandolin.
These mandolins are designed with rounded backs and resemble the original Italian instruments and early Lutes. They are often called “Neapolitan” mandolins. This is because of their closeness in design to their original Italian ancestors.
These have a much warmer, deeper, and rounded sound than the F-style instrument. This makes them popular mandolins for Classical musicians. Especially those who play music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. They tend to be very high-quality. A good example is this Bowl Back Mandolin Solid Spruce top.
The “A-style” Mandolin
The A-style tends to be a broad term that is given to mandolins that are not F-style or Bowl-back. They are usually well-made and nicely apportioned but lack some of the finer design points of the other two styles.
This makes them easier to build and, therefore, can make them a lot cheaper. Some A-style instruments have arched backs but are known as “flat-backs.” This is to ensure they are not confused with the Bowl-back design.
This design tends to the most popular mandolin for Celtic and traditional folk musicians, which you can see with this Ibanez M510EBS A-Style Mandolin.
Get a Teacher or Teach Yourself?
This is an age-old question that applies to the vast majority of instruments. With the strongest will in the world, it is very difficult to teach yourself any instrument. Good technique is vital, and when you start, you don’t fully appreciate what that is or how it impacts your playing.
My advice would be to use both methods. Take a lesson or two from a good mandolin, not a guitar, teacher. That will give you a good start on technique. Supplement that with plenty of good practice at home. You can also use the multiple online resources available these days.
Resources to teach yourself
There are plenty of books, DVDs, and CDs to help you. An example of just one is the Easy Beginner Mandolin Chords Instruction Book.
Deciding on the style you wish to play would probably also be a good idea. Depending on the genre you prefer, you may find that techniques and playing style differs.
Learning to tune
You cannot play any instrument if it is not in tune. So learning how to tune is important. This you can do at home. We’ve already said that the standard tuning of the Mandolin is from low to high, G – D – A – E, the same tuning as a Violin.
There are eight strings, tuned in pairs. By that, I mean that the first two strings are tuned to G, the second to D, etc. This will give you a tuning of G – G – D – D – A – A – E – E across all eight strings.
If you have a piano or keyboard at home, you can tune to that. Otherwise, there are plenty of cost-effective tuners available. For example, this Clip-On Guitar Tuner For All Instruments, Ukulele, Guitar, Bass, Mandolin, Violin, Banjo.
The Playing Position
For good technique on your all-important right hand (for a right-handed player), your seated position is important. Hold the Mandolin so that the headstock is pointing up at an angle of between nine and ten o’clock.
If you want to place your left foot on a footstool, that will help. It allows you to rest the instrument on your knee rather than trying to hold it in position. Doing this will also help to relax your neck and shoulder, which is important.
Your right hand, the playing hand, should be placed behind the bridge. This is to ensure that any part of your hand makes no contact with the strings. That will deaden the sound. You will need to play with a pick. This should not be gripped too tightly. However, the grip needs to be firm enough that it doesn’t fly out of your fingers when you strike the strings.
And talking about strings, you will feel some discomfort for the first few weeks (or months!). This is normal and is just the consequence of holding down pairs of steel strings.
Light gauge strings can help to reduce that. But you will lose a little bit of volume. In the early days, though, while your fingers toughen up, that doesn’t matter.
Looking for a Great Mandolin or Other Starter Instruments?
We have a nice selection to help you get started. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Mandolins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Beginner Electric Guitar Packages, the Best Acoustic Guitars For Beginners, the Best Concert Ukuleles, and the Best Ukuleles for Beginners you can buy in 2023.
And don’t miss our handy guides on How to Learn Guitar for Beginners, Best Guitar Games to Help You Learn Guitar, Easy Songs to Learn on the Electric Guitar for Beginners, and the Easiest Musical Instruments for Adults to Learn for more useful information.
How to Play The Mandolin for Beginners – Final Thoughts
Of course, the better quality of Mandolin you buy, the more expensive it will be. The price range is quite wide, but I wouldn’t go too cheap. You will want a Mandolin that sounds nice and is going to last you a while.
Set yourself a budget and make sure you take advice from someone that knows what they are talking about. And that isn’t always the assistant in the shop.
You have decided to play a very unique instrument. It is reasonably easy to start getting a tune from it, so enjoy.
Until next time, let your music play.