The mandolin is a small, handheld stringed instrument with roots dating back to the 18th century. It evolved in Europe from another instrument, the mandora. Today, the mandolin is still used—notably in bluegrass music, where it’s beloved for its mellow, warm sound.
The modern mandolin consists of a wooden body and four sets of string steels. However, there’s far more to the mandolin than that. The body consists of multiple intricate parts that all work together to create the instrument’s unique and brilliant tone.
In this article, we describe the various components of the mandolin, providing a detailed overview of the many parts that make up the instrument.
Anatomy of the Mandolin
If you’re learning how to play the mandolin, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the various parts of the instrument.
The mandolin is divided into three main sections:
- Body: The body is where the sound is produced. When you strum the strings, sound waves reverberate inside the body’s hollow chamber, creating sound. The mandolin can be made of different types of wood, including rosewood, mahogany, birch, and maple. The type of wood can impact the quality of the sound.
- Neck: The mandolin’s neck is the long piece of wood that extends from the body with the strings running up it. It allows for the strings to be stretched, creating the necessary tension to make different pitches.
- Head: The mandolin head is a wooden piece located at the end of the instrument’s neck. The head is where you fasten the tuning pegs, which helps to change how much tension is on the strings, adjusting their pitch. We go into more detail on those parts below.
These three more significant components of the mandolin hold various smaller pieces (which will discuss below).
The headstock is where you fasten the tuners when the mandolin needs to be tuned.
It may also display your mandolin’s brand.
Some musicians will customize the headstock with stickers for fun (and to recognize their instrument easily).
Tuners (Tuning Pegs)
The tuners are used to ensure the mandolin is in tune, with each string reflecting the precise pitch it’s supposed to.
As a musician, the last thing you want is an out-of-tune instrument, so make sure you know how to use your tuners!
Also called turning pegs, tuners consist of small gear-controlled pegs.
They are attached to the instrument’s strings (via the headstock).
You can then turn the tuner’s knob to change the open string’s pitch.
The nut is located at the end of the mandolin’s fingerboard.
It consists of a slender block of plastic with tiny ridges carved into it.
These ridges help hold the instrument’s strings, keeping them in place and guiding them towards the tuners.
Although modern mandolins usually use a plastic nut, older instruments may have a wooden nut.
Older nuts can also consist of other materials like mother-of-pearl or ebony.
Although pretty, these materials may increase string buzz and tend to be less practical.
If you’re a newbie to the mandolin, you undoubtedly already have a deep appreciation for your instrument’s frets.
The frets help you to determine where to place your fingers along the instrument’s neck.
They consist of thin metal strips, which are attached to the fretboard.
When you press your finger down between two frets, you are physically shortening the string.
This changes the pitch of the sound that it creates.
So, by pressing your finger down on different frets on different strings, you can create varied musical notes, allowing you to explore all the possible sounds of your mandolin.
Fret markers consist of tiny dots, which are set along the fingerboard at predefined points.
They are usually a pearl color, allowing them to contrast the darker fingerboard so that they can be seen quickly.
Fret markers are set at the fifth, seventh, tenth, and twelfth frets.
Novice mandolin players can use fret markers as a guide to figure out where to put their fingers.
Sometimes, to make them easier to see, the fret markers will be placed on the side of the neck.
This way, the player can see them immediately when they glance down.
The fretboard is a piece of thin hardwood that’s glued to the mandolin’s neck and holds the frets.
The slim pieces of steel are usually hammered or pressed into the board, which has precise grooves cut into it to host the frets.
You may also see the fretboard referred to as the fingerboard.
When you play the mandolin, you likely use a small pick to strum the strings.
While this can help safeguard your fingers, a pick can prove dangerous for the instrument, causing nicks and scratches on the body.
Enter the pickguard.
This handy accessory can protect the mandolin from damage, which is especially important when you’re playing chords and strumming vigorously.
Some players also rest their third and fourth fingers on the pickguard as they play.
If your mandolin were just a solid block of wood, it wouldn’t make much of a sound at all.
The instrument’s hollow body is what allows sound to reverberate.
The soundholes allow the resulting sound to emerge via the movement of air.
There are two different types of sound holes, and the type you have will depend on your instrument.
A round-shaped hole looks similar to the round hole of an acoustic guitar, while an f-shaped hole looks like the curly lower-case f-shape you’d see on a violin’s body.
The soundboard is at the top of the body.
It’s generally made of spruce wood (while the body itself may be made of other woods like birch or maple).
That said, there are many different types of tonewoods available, including German Spruce, Adirondack Spruce, Red Spruce, and more.
For a custom-built mandolin, the kind of wood you select can impact the sound.
The mandolin bridge is a small piece of wood with small ridges cut into it.
These help to hold and guide the strings across the instrument’s body and soundhole.
In addition to lining up the strings, the bridge has another vital purpose: It’s responsible for transferring the vibrations created by the springs to the mandolin’s soundboard.
Note that the mandolin’s bridge is held in place due to the tension applied by the strings.
If you ever change a mandolin string yourself, don’t get scared when the bridge pops right off.
This is normal and can happen to newbies!
Don’t stress—your instrument isn’t broken for good.
The tailpiece is secured to the side of the mandolin’s body.
It’s usually made of a cast or stamped piece of metal and serves to anchor the strings in place and attach them securely to the instrument.
While the bridge will fall off when you change a mandolin string, the same isn’t true for the tailpiece.
While tailpieces serve a practical purpose, they can also add to the instrument’s aesthetic appeal, featuring decorative designs to enhance its beauty.
The Florida serves as an extension of the fretboard or fingerboard.
It allows the mandolin’s strings to reach higher pitches.
However, most mandolin players don’t use the Florida, as the pitches it gets are so high, they rarely fit into any songs.
Do you know what this mandolin part is named after?
You guessed it: It resembles the shape of the state of Florida.
While you probably won’t ever use the Florida in your day-to-day mandolin playing, it’s still good to know what it’s there for.
Your mandolin may also have:
- Scroll: The scroll is a decorative piece of wood that juts out from the mandolin body. It’s a sort of curly-cue, resembling—you guessed it—a rolled scroll. This is purely for decoration and is commonly found in bowl-back or A-type mandolins.
- Points: Some mandolin bodies have points carved into the wooden body, swerving out gently from the curved side before ending in a sharp point. Some mandolin players think this makes the instrument easier to rest securely on the thigh, as it creates some extra hold. Points are more common in F-type mandolins.
- Truss rod and truss-rod cover: Another optional part of the mandolin, the truss rod consists of a slim steel rod running along the mandolin’s neck. It can help stabilize the mandolin neck and straighten a curved neck, which can prevent breakage. The rod can be adjusted using a truss rod plate and is protected by a slim cover.
Conclusion: The Parts of a Mandolin
While the mandolin may be small in stature, it requires many small parts to create its excellent sound.
Whether you play the mandolin or like to listen to it, you can surely appreciate the artistry that goes into crafting this instrument.