Mandolins for Beginners

by Nicole Schmoll
Learn how to select and play a mandolin.

Learn how to select and play a mandolin. Images

The mandolin is a derivative or distant relative of the lute. The mandolin was introduced to America from eastern Europe in the 1800s. Because of its bowl-shaped back, the mandolin gained popularity as a musical instrument slowly. Near the turn of the 20th century, an instrument maker in Michigan named Orville Gibson designed a flat-backed mandolin that was easy to hold and sounded beautiful. The mandolin's popularity rose, and today it remains an enjoyable instrument to learn and play.

Mandolin Music

Mandolins have long been played in country music as a backup to a guitar and fiddle. In the 1940s Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys introduced a style of music that came to be called bluegrass, featuring the mandolin in a prominent role. Today, mandolin players can use mandolins for country, bluegrass or even gypsy jazz music, a term coined by contemporary mandolinist David Grisman.

Mandolin Types

The most commonly depicted mandolin is a bowl-back or "Neapolitan" mandolin. These instruments, also called "taturbugs," are similar in design to lutes. They also feature in mandolin orchestras. An F-style mandolin, though, is probably the most commonly used in country and bluegrass music. This type of mandolin features a flat back and curved swirl at the top of the body near the neck. It also includes a scroll-shaped cutaway on the bottom of the neck that allows a player to secure the instrument against his left leg while playing. An A-style mandolin has a flat back with no cutaway on the bottom so that straps are often required to stabilize the mandolin against the player during use. A-style mandolins tend to be a little less expensive than F-style mandolins.

Mandolin Woods

Mandolins are made by a variety of instrument makers and are sold in stores along with guitars and other stringed instruments. The price of a mandolin often comes down to its quality, brand and the type of wood it is fashioned from. Mandolins with laminated plywood tops are made from cheaper wood and, therefore, should be less expensive to purchase. Many mandolin tops are constructed from spruce, which produces a fine tone. Mandolins are also made from cedar and mahogany. Many mandolins feature harder woods, such as maple and koa, for their sides and backs. Fretboards are often made from rosewood or ebony. Expect to pay above $500 for a non-laminated, handmade mandolin and under $500 for a machine-made, laminated top mandolin.

Mandolin Playing

Hold the mandolin on your lap so that its bottom sits on your left leg, which should be slightly raised above your right leg. Brace the mandolin against your abdomen. If you have an A-style or "teardrop" mandolin, add a strap to the neck of the mandolin that you can wrap over your shoulders and around yourself to stabilize it. Hold a 1 millimeter or thicker pick loosely in your right hand between your thumb and forefinger so that the tip juts out slightly beyond your thumb. Find the sweet spot in your mandolin by gently strumming the top G string just below where the frets end. Learn how to play two strings at once, which is a basic tenet of mandolin playing, by strumming down on the top G string and up on the D string just beneath it. Continue your lesson with learning how to form basic chords on the frets of the mandolin neck and strum or pick simple songs, such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Down in the Valley." Move on to more advanced chord progressions as you grow comfortable playing the mandolin. Take in-person or video lessons with an experienced mandolin player and teacher.

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