One of the best things I have found about attaining an understanding of the realm of music theory is that you can transfer your knowledge from one instrument to another with fairly consistent success, albeit with some elbow grease and plenty of practice. As a bassman myself, learning scales and rhythm went a long way in helping me better understand non-stringed instruments such as the keyboard or the flute (mixed results on the latter). Although it took time for my fingers to physically play the thing, my mind already knew what I needed to do. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been featuring a few guitar alternatives such as the banjo and ukulele in order to give musicians out there a bit of encouragement towards being a mighty and respected multi-instrumentalist.
This week, we keep things going with the history and mechanical basics of the renaissance era mandolin. Although the instrument itself is well over a few hundred years in age, musicians of all genres from The Beatles to The Black Crowes have all been attracted to its unique and signature timbre. Read on and find out how this predecessor to the guitar came to be and how you can start rocking the 8 string yourself!
History of the Mandolin
Renaissance Era Lute
The mandolin first came to be as a direct variant and member of the lute family, a middle age era stringed instrument that many feel is the father of all modern plectrum instruments, although history can tell you (through cave paintings and murals) that man had been using single string instruments as far back as 15,000 BC to 8,000 BC. At about the 14th century in Europe, a new instrument was created based on the popular lute. This new instrument featured less strings and a smaller build but everything else was pretty much in line with its predecessor including its tear drop body shape and coupled strings. Four hundred years later, the modern mandolin as we know it was created in Naples, Italy as a baritone variant of the mandore, retaining its coupled string set and tear-shaped body while featuring a straight neck instead of the signature angled neck of the lute and its family.
Along the way, several iterations appeared that featured different string counts, exotic body shapes and eventually the addition of frets. Although many of these variants still exist today, the mandolin as we know it today, with its four pairs of strings and familiar body structure, was by far the most widely used and popular of all the deviations.
The Musical Mechanics of the Mandolin
As mentioned above, the modern standard mandolin consists of 8 strings coupled into four pairs exactly like a 12 string guitar has six, meaning a single finger will be responsible for holding down two strings at a time (those that have experience with this can tell you it’s nowhere near as difficult as it may sound). Along with the classic tear-drop body, most mandolins feature F-hole cutaways as resonators much like they did when they first appeared, although some manufacturers prefer a guitar styled center circle cutout.
The four pairs of strings are each tuned to the same note and unlike the 12 string guitar (with the exception of the high E), the two strings that make up a couple are identical in gauge. The most commonly used tuning for the mandolin is GDAE from low to high (or GGDDAAEE if you want to count each string, but I’m sure my point has been made about the nature of the string pairings). Those familiar with the violin will be happy to know that it uses that exact same tuning, so switching over knowledge from one instrument to another should be a synch. Another popular tuning method mimics the patterns of standard guitar tuning, making chords and fret patterns much easier to comprehend for those coming over from a six-string.
Mandolin Fretboard Structure
Time to try out the Mandolin for Yourself
Not too complicated, right? For those of you adventurous enough to go out and learn to play one of these yourselves should be happy to know that over the last decade, the mandolin has increased exponentially in popularity. Although its design and sound is undeniably baroque, several modern rock bands from all levels of success have been regularly featuring mandolin players during their performances and recording sessions. From Green Day to the White Stripes and many, many more, the mandolin is an excellent and solid choice for those looking to spice up their musical résumé. Also, for those of you currently in the market for one of your own, how about Fender's beginner pack, complete with the mandolin itself, gig bag, strap, strings, chromatic tuner, picks, and instructional material - or check out PAL’s other excellent options after the break!