An incredibly versatile instrument, the mandolin is often played in bluegrass and American folk music, but they have been used in classical, jazz, and even rock ‘n’ roll! It’s clear to see why the mandolin has become such a popular instrument in recent times.
In this post, we’re going to look at the lives and music of 15 famous mandolin players and if you don’t already play the mandolin, we think you’ll be wanting to have a go by the end. Let’s get started.
1. Vince Gill
American country singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist Vincent (“Vince”) Gill rose to fame as a member of Pure Prairie League before setting out as a solo artist in 1983.
His discography includes over 20 studio albums and 40 Billboard singles, and he’s received 18 CMA rewards for his music.
Gill’s father, a lawyer who moonlighted in a country music band, encouraged him to pursue a music career himself.
His instrumental studies began with the banjo and guitar, but he later picked up the bass, fiddle, Dobro, and mandolin.
Today, Gill is the co-lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, and background and co-lead vocalist for the Eagles.
He began touring with the band in 2017, following the death of Glenn Frey.
2. Marty Stuart
Like many famous mandolin players on this list, Marty Stuart began learning mandolin and guitar as a child and had joined a band by the time he was 12.
As a teenager, he became a regular touring member of Lester Flatt’s band, and his musical career took off.
After Flatt retired, Marty played independently and then with Johnny Cash before embarking on a remarkable solo music career.
His discography includes countless CMA, Grammy, and other superlative awards.
3. John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin bassist and keyboardist, bought a mandolin in a thrift shop in Indiana to learn some Fairport Convention songs.
As it turned out, he enjoyed playing it, and the fans enjoyed hearing it, so he decided to travel with it everywhere.
It was a vast departure from their typical sound, but the fan base was already well established by that point.
Since then, in addition to playing the mandolin on several Led Zeppelin songs, Jones plays mandolin for other musicians, as on Foo Fighters’ song, “Another Round.”
4. Ricky Skaggs
At the age of five, Ricky Skaggs was given his first mandolin and played on stage with the legendary Bill Monroe when he was six.
By the time he was a teenager, he’d already played with more top musical names than most musicians would dream of in their lifetime.
In his country career since 1980, Skaggs has won 8 CMA Awards and 8 ACM awards.
When he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry two years later, he was the youngest person ever to do so.
Throughout his career, Skaggs played various genres of music but eventually returned to bluegrass in the later years of his career.
He received the National Medal of the Arts from Donald Trump in 2021.
5. Tim O’Brien
American country and bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien was inspired to take up music when he first heard his sister play a Bob Dylan record.
He spent most of his teens teaching himself to play mandolin, guitar, and violin.
O’Brien’s career includes numerous duets with his sister, a singer, and several years with the band Hot Rize.
That band would come to be known as one of the most innovative bluegrass bands in the United States.
6. Rhonda Vincent
Rhonda Vincent started her musical career as a child with The Sally Mountain Show, a family band.
She was discovered by Grand Ole Opry star Jim Ed Brown, who introduced her to huge Nashville names.
Vincent has earned countless awards throughout her career, including several Female Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Association and Best Bluegrass Album from the Grammy Awards.
7. Bill Monroe
American mandolin player Bill Monroe is known as the Father of Bluegrass because he literally invented the genre, which takes its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys.
The band, in turn, was named after the Kentucky bluegrass from their home state.
Monroe only picked up the mandolin because, as the youngest child in the family, all the other instruments were taken.
After forming several different groups throughout his early musical career, he formed the Blue Grass Boys.
When Monroe added banjo players David Akeman and Earl Scruggs, and fiddler Chubby Wise to the group, he formed the signature sound known as bluegrass today.
After a full and illustrious musical career, Monroe was inducted into the Country Music, Nashville Songwriters, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
8. Chris Thile
American mandolinist Chris Thile is best known as a member of the bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers.
He first picked up the mandolin when he was five years old, and his family formed the band Nickel Creek when he was eight.
The family band grew in popularity to the point that Thile had to attend homeschool, and he continued to tour with the band, pausing only to go to college and pursue his solo projects.
When Nickel Creek disbanded, Thile formed Punch Brothers with some friends he’d met in college.
9. Sarah Jarosz
Sarah Jarosz began studying music at an early age picking up the mandolin at age 10 and later studying the guitar, clawhammer banjo, and octave mandolin.
Her prodigal rise to fame began during her senior year of high school when she signed with Sugar Hill Records, releasing Song Up in Her Head when Jarosz was 18.
That album includes collaborations with Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan, among others.
The Austin Chronicle calls Jarosz “a songwriter of uncommon wisdom,” and NPR has described her as a contemporary bluegrass prodigy.
She is currently on tour promoting her latest album, “Blue Heron Suite.”
10. Sierra Hull
Sierra Hull, American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and mandolinist, is the definition of a musical prodigy.
He first began playing the mandolin when she was just eight years old, and by ten, she had released her first album.
Alison Krauss, herself a musical prodigy on the fiddle, began mentoring Hull at 11 years old, and in 2005, when she was just 13, she received her first record deal.
Her first studio album, Secrets, was co-produced by Krauss and Ron Block.
Hull is currently on tour, appearing in music festivals around the United States as well as teaching Bluegrass mandolin on ArtistWorks here.
11. Sam Bush
American mandolinist Sam Bush, an innovator of progressive bluegrass music, bought his first mandolin when he was 11 years old.
As a teenager, he won three junior first place titles at the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest.
He recorded an instrumental album, “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” with famous banjoist Alan Munde and guitarist Wayne Stewart.
Inspired by the New Deal String Band and their progressive bluegrass sound, Bush moved to Louisville and joined the Bluegrass Alliance, which later became the New Grass Revival.
When that band dissolved in 1989, Bush joined Emmylou Harris to tour and record with her Nash Ramblers.
Today, Bush tours extensively with his band, appearing at bluegrass festivals and small venues worldwide.
12. Doyle Lawson
Doyle Lawson, bluegrass and Southern gospel musician, first heard the mandolin played by Bill Monroe of The Blue Grass Boys.
He was so intrigued by the sound of the instrument that his father borrowed one from a family friend, and Lawson taught himself to play it.
When he was 18, Lawson went to Nashville to play with Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys.
He would eventually form Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, which released its first album, Rock My Soul, in 1981.
The band was the first bluegrass band to perform at the National Quartet Convention in 1998.
Lawson was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.
13. David Grisman
American mandolinist David Grisman is known for his unique style of music, a genre he refers to as “Dawg music.”
His signature sound combines bluegrass, folk, and jazz.
Grisman’s father, a professional trombonist, began instructing him on the piano when he was just seven years old.
He picked up the saxophone and mandolin when he was a teenager.
At New York University, he was part of the Even Dozen Jug Band and later joined the psychedelic rock band Earth Opera, through which he eventually met Jerry Garcia.
Garcia gave Grisman the name “Dawg,” which he would later use to describe his music.
14. Mike Marshall
Bluegrass mandolinist Mike Marshall began playing mandolin at a young age, and by the age of 18, had won Florida state contests on both fiddle and mandolin.
He says he admired David Grisman’s unique way of blending genres, and Grisman eventually invited Marshall to join his quartet.
Marshall’s collaborations include several groups with Darol Anger, Chris Thile, and his wife, German mandolinist Caterina Lichtenberg.
Today, he teaches mandolin with Lichtenberg through the online learning platform, ArtistWorks.
15. Caterina Lichtenberg
Caterina Lichtenberg was raised in Germany and now teaches mandolin and Soprano lute as a Professor at the Music Conservatory in Cologne.
She is considered one of the most notable classical mandolinists in the world.
Lichtenberg has released 10 albums and performed with numerous orchestras around the world.
Her first genre-bending collaboration with Mike Marshall blended classical, jazz, Brazilian, and bluegrass music.
She has taught throughout Europe, Asia, and North America for over 20 years and published several instructional books and DVDs.
She also teaches her classical mandolin course on ArtistWorks which you can see here.
Summing up our List of the Best Mandolin Players
We hope we’ve given you a new appreciation for this instrument and some insight into the mandolin players who have made it such an important part of American music.
Who is your favorite mandolin player?
Do you know any other great mandolin players who are not on our list?
We’ll be adding to this list soon so let us know which famous mandolinists we’ve missed off and we’ll add them.