15 Fun And Interesting Facts About The Mandolin You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

A mandolin is a string instrument that a lot of people don’t know about. These instruments are usually described as a relatively smaller version of the luth with a shorter neck. A typical mandolin contains 8 strings that you strike to make a sound.

Despite its relative ambiguity, the instrument is growing rapidly in popularity due to its inclusion in various music genres.

If you want to learn more about the mandolin, you’re in for a treat! In today’s article, we’ll walk you through a brief guide with 15 awesome facts about the mandolin to help you get started with this unique instrument. Let’s jump right in! 

1. The Mandolin’s Ancestors Are Prehistoric

The mandolin’s earliest ancestors date back to thousands of years ago where paintings of men playing single-stringed instruments were found in the grottos and caves of France.

Since then, stringed music instruments have seen a lot of development, which lead to the creation of the earliest form of the modern-day mandolin in the 16th century in the Southern city of Naples in Italy.

The mandolin is believed to be derived from the lute by Pasquale Vinaccia, who is one of the most popular Luthiers in history and the appointed instrument-maker of the Queen of Italy at the time.

Like many other string instruments, the design of the mandolin revolves around a body and a neck.

2. The Mandolin Family is Vast

Not all mandolins are created equal. In fact, mandolins are considered a family of similar instruments rather than a standalone version.

The standard mandolin is considered a soprano instrument.

There are also higher-pitched sopranino mandolins that have a relatively higher pitch. 

The family of mandolins also includes the octave mandolin, mandocello, mandolone, and mandobass.

3. There are lots of Different Types of Mandolin

Not only does the mandolin come in a variety of family members, but there are also different types of mandolins out there. 

The most prominent types of mandolin are the round-backed mandolin, the flat-backed mandolin, and the carved top mandolin.

The flat back mandolin used a thin wood sheet for the back like standard guitars while other versions used a strip of wood that is curved to create a deeper bowl shape in the back.

4. Each Region Builds the Mandolin Differently 

Even within the same type of mandolin, many varieties and slight variations can exist.

For example, the Milanese, Sicilian, and Lombard mandolins are all tuned in the fourth while Brescian and Cremonese mandolins are tuned in the fifth.

Not only that, but the first group also has 6 strings while the second has only 4.

On the other hand, mandolins made in Genoa can have up to 12 strings!

Yet, the most common mandolins worldwide are the ones that originated in Naples, which use 8 strings.

5. Different Designs are Used for Completely Different Genres

Each of the previously mentioned mandolins can be used for a distinct purpose and even employed in a totally different genre.

For example, Neapolitan mandolins are commonly used in European traditional and classical music while the carved top mandolins are more significantly featured in American folk music as well as bluegrass music.

Meanwhile, the flat back mandolin is more popular among British and Irish music as well as Brazilian music.

6. Many of the Greats Played the Mandolin

There are many big names in classical music that have experimented with the mandolin since its creation in the 1500s. 

One of the most prominent names here is composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Although the composer is mainly regarded as a pianist, he used to enjoy the mandolin and had his own mandolin hung next to his piano.

Beethoven made several pieces with the mandolin, although only 4 of them survived to this day.

In addition to Beethoven, other composers of the classical era were associated with the mandolin, including Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Modern composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Igor Stravinsky also played the mandolin.

Moreover, the list of famous mandolinists includes some of the most popular musicians in history, such as: Dave Apollon, Carlo Aonzo, Chris Thile, James ‘Yank’ Rachell, Bill Monroe, David Grisman, and Jacob do Bandolim.

7. Mandolins are Composed of Various Parts

One of the most important aspects of learning the mandolin is to know more about its various parts.

Ideally, a mandolin has a wooden body, which is usually made from spruce and cedar because its sheets are easy to work with despite being hardy and durable.

In addition to the wooden body, the mandolin has many other parts, such as the tuners, headstock, fingerboard, soundholes, and more.

8. Many Mandolin Orchestras Were Founded by Salesmen

The mandolin is a fairly popular instrument when it comes to classical and folk music in the United States.

However, mandolin orchestras that are found all over the country have a unique origin story. 

Back when the mandolin was first introduced to the United States by Italian immigrants, not many Americans knew about the instrument.

In order to increase the public’s interest in mandolins, several mandolin makers hired traveling salesmen to establish mandolin orchestras in cities and small towns. 

This sales tactic has seen huge success because more and more musicians were encouraged to buy the mandolins and some of these orchestra groups remained active to this day! 

9. It’s Relatively Easy to Learn the Mandolin

If you’re a beginner who’s looking for an easy instrument to play, the mandolins can be exactly what you’re looking for.

The instrument is pretty easy to learn and can be extremely versatile.

Additionally, the instrument is relatively compact and accessible, making it a great entry-level instrument.

10. Many Modern Music Pieces Featured the Mandolin

To many people’s surprise, the mandolin is commonly used in many famous songs and music scores to this day.

The instrument is heavily associated with various music genres, such as jazz, country, classic, ethnic, and bluegrass music.

For example, in the 1980s Bruce Hornsby and the Range made a hit song back then, titled “Mandolin Rain,” which featured the mandolin.

In addition to bluegrass and jazz, mandolin tunes have been also heard in various rock music hits, such as:

  • “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, which was played by Ray Jackson
  • “The Battle of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin, which was played by Jimmy Page
  • “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths, which was played by Johnny Marr.

11. There Are Many Similar Instruments to Mandolin in Different Parts of the World

Although the mandolin is fairly unique in terms of tune, there are many similar string instruments in different parts around the world that are somewhat similar to the mandolin.

This includes the Greek Bouzouki, the Russian balalaika, the Arab dambrua, the Brazilian Bandolim, and the Puerto Rican Cuatro.

12. Mandolins are Quite Affordable 

Ibanez M510DVS Mandolin, Dark Violin Sunburst

Another reason why a mandolin is a great pick for a beginner is that it’s fairly affordable.

You can purchase an entry-level mandolin for as little as 80 to 100 bucks!

Despite that, some high-end mandolins can be ridiculously expensive and can set you back several thousand dollars.

13. Gibson’s First Instrument was a Mandolin

A Gibson Mandolin from the Metropolitan Museum

Gibson is one of the world’s largest music instruments manufacturers that was founded back in 1902 by Orville Gibson.

However, even before the company’s launch, the founder of Gibson used to build many musical instruments himself. 

In 1894, Orville Gibson built his first ever stringed instrument, which happened to be a unique mandolin that was more durable than all competitors in the market.

Today, Gibson’s company is still making world-class mandolins, with the Loar-signed F-5 model being one of the most valuable mandolins out there, not only within Gibson’s collection but among other manufacturers as well.

14. Bill Monroe had a Snake Tail Inside his Mandolin

As we all know, some musicians are known for having the weirdest habits and knacks.

Among the most bizarre artists in this aspect was “Bill Monroe”.

The Rock and Roll and Country Music Hall of Famer has reportedly kept a rattlesnake tail inside the body of his mandolin. 

The reason why he did that was to keep the rats and other critters out of the mandolin and also to absorb the moisture and extend the life and quality of the mandolin.

15. There Are Electric Mandolins Too

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In addition to the standard acoustic mandolin that we all know and love, there are electric mandolins.

This electric musical instrument is designed and tuned so that it plays like a mandolin, but since it relies on amplification, the electric mandolin ditched the design of the carved top and round-backed mandolin and opted for a design similar to flat-back ones.

Final Thoughts

This wraps it up for today’s article that walks you through 15 of the most interesting facts about the mandolin. 

In the end, we hope that this article has given you a better understanding and appreciation of this impressive and criminally underrated instrument.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.