We all know what a guitar is, whether you are talking about an electric guitar or a traditional acoustic, we all have a fairly clear notion of the 6-stringed instrument that is literally heard in all genres of popular music. From country and folk to blues, hard rock and metal, the fact is that it is hard to find a popular song in any genre that has no guitar on it.
However, the same cannot be said of the mandolin. While Mandolin has enjoyed a place of prominence in traditional folk, bluegrass and country music, it has certainly not enjoyed the notoriety of its 6-string cousin. In this article we’re going to look at the ways that guitars and mandolins are both similar and different, and what those similarities and differences mean to musicians who are thinking of learning to play both instruments.
What is a Mandolin?
If you’ve ever watched the video for REM’s ‘Losing my Religion’ and have wondered what to call that small, violin-like, ukelele-guitar thing that Peter Buck is playing throughout the iconic tune, then you have probably never been properly introduced to the mandolin.
The mandolin is an old and storied member of the stringed instrument family, particularly in the family of acoustic folk instruments where it appears most prominently. In the family of stringed instruments, guitar and mandolin share a common ancestor, the lute. In fact, according to Mandolin Cafe, the mandolin is a “…small short-necked lute, with 8 strings.”
Short History of the Mandolin
The lute dates back to the 7th century, with a small, short-necked lute called the mandora or mandola becoming an essential member of lute ensembles in Renaissance Italy several centuries later.
The mandolin as we know it today — or a version that is very close — was brought to the United States in the 1850’s by European immigrants and was even one of the first musical instruments ever recorded, appearing on Thomas Edison’s earliest recorded cylinders. By 1897, mandolins, alongside guitars, were even being traded in the Montgomery Ward catalog.
After 1900, the mandolin, like the guitar, became a familiar parlor instrument. Parlor music was popular music that was usually played by small gatherings of amateur musicians in homes. Before the phonograph and the radio, families and friends would gather around the piano, pick up a guitar and mandolin, and play the day’s most popular parlor songs (sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?).
As the century went on, parlor music waned, and popular music graced the airwaves on radio and soon after, television. It was during this time that the great Bill Monroe, popularized the mandolin as a feature instrument in a fast-paced, highly technical style of country music called Bluegrass, influencing generations of great mandolin players to come like Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart (who also play the guitar).
Prior to Monroe’s flat picking prowess, mandolin was most often used as an accompanying instrument played in a soft ‘tremolo’ where the notes are picked very softly and quickly in accompanying melody lines.
Celtic, Folk and Popular Music
In fact, this tremolo accompaniment is the most common way mandolin has been used in modern times, though medieval, Scottish and Irish folk music, where country music has its roots, used mandolin much more extensively, even as a featured instrument.
A good example is the classic Led Zeppelin song ‘The Battle of Evermore.’ Many of us got our first taste of the mandolin’s shimmering ‘Celtic’ beauty on that classic Zeppelin tune, while subsequent generations would hear it most prominently featured in songs by REM like ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘Shiny Happy People’.
Today a new generation of younger mandolin players, like Chris Tile and Sierra Hull are expanding the melodic and harmonic possibilities of their respective genres.
How are the Guitar and the Mandolin Different?
Like the guitar, the mandolin is a stringed instrument with a fretted neck that comes in both acoustic and electric forms. The Mandolin, however, has 8 strings, or four pairs of strings, instead of the guitar’s 6 strings, which are grouped in two’s the way a 12-string guitar is strung.
This means that the Mandolin’s eight strings are tuned as 4 groups of two, with each group of two strings being tuned to the same tone. The mandolin is tuned in fifths, with the strings being tuned to G, D, A, and E, tuned like a violin, meaning that the two lowest strings are tuned to G, the next two are tuned to D, the next pair tuned to A, and the next pair to E, which is a departure from guitar’s standard tuning in a number of ways.
The standard guitar tuning for a six string is E, A, D, G, B and high E. You may notice that the mandolin is tuned in fifths, exactly like a violin with double strings, while a guitar is tuned mostly in perfect 4ths (the exception being the interval between the G and B strings, which is a major 3rd). This standard mandolin tuning changes all of the chord and scale fingerings on the instrument, making it generally quite difficult to transpose music from guitar to mandolin and vice versa.
Mandolins, guitars and lutes are all based on the same basic principles, but there are some differences in build and hardware that give them a different sound. While the body of each instrument is hollow, mandolins generally have smaller f-style sound holes that are smaller than an acoustic guitar’s round and centered sound hole. In fact, the f-style sound hole of a mandolin is reminiscent of those found on semi-hollow electric guitars.
The f-style sound holes are not directly beneath the strings the way the sound hole of a guitar is positioned. The mandolin also has a floating bridge instead of a fixed bridge. This combination of floating bridge and offset sound hole gives the mandolin a less resonant sound.
The Difference in Size
The main difference between playing guitar and playing mandolin is the size of the instrument. While there is an entire line of acoustic guitar sizes ranging from the smallest parlor size guitar to the largest Dreadnought, the largest octave mandolin is still substantially smaller than even a parlor size guitar.
This difference in size and the shorter scale length of the mandolin gives it a high pitched soprano sound and a smaller sonic range than the guitar. The guitar gives you access to a wider range of tones, from more bass tones on the wound strings to high treble tones at the highest register of the instrument.
The diminutive size of the mandolin makes it easier to learn to play chord shapes and to learn how to play mandolin scale shapes. The widest intervals are also easier to play on the mandolin because of its much smaller size.
Another feature of the guitar that differs greatly from the mandolin is the length and width of the neck and fretboard. Transferring chords from guitar to mandolin can actually be easy, especially for guitar players with small or average sized hands.
Chords that can be difficult to play on the guitar because of wide intervals that require a large finger span are much easier on mandolin because of the small size of the mandolin’s neck.
Sound of the Mandolin
The small size of mandolins makes it naturally less resonant than an acoustic guitar, while electric mandolins have less ability to sustain notes than electric guitars. The technique known as tremolo, where a note or series of notes, is picked very quickly for a period of time, usually to accompany a melody line, is a technique designed to give the mandolin the ability to sustain notes like a guitar.
The guitar’s ability to sustain notes gives it a generally louder and more robust sound than the mandolin. The sound of the mandolin has a characteristically staccato character that almost sounds like a muted guitar string or finger plucked pizzicato violin string.
Transferring Skills from One Stringed Instrument to the Other
The similarities between guitar and mandolin make it possible to transfer skills from one instrument to the other. While the differences in number of strings and tuning may make it difficult for guitar players to transpose a piece of music directly from one instrument to the other, there are techniques that are common to one instrument that can help you in your approach to the other.
Playing the mandolin vs guitar is actually quite a change for a guitar player. The much smaller size of the mandolin favors players with smaller hands. Guitarists of larger stature, whose hands are the perfect size for acoustic guitar or even electric guitar, are sure to have trouble forming chords and playing scales on the mandolin, while those with smaller hands who struggle to play a full size guitar will find the shorter, thinner neck and much smaller body of the mandolin perfect for their hands.
Bluegrass musicians like Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and Sierra Hull are both guitar players and masters on the mandolin, so you know that it is possible to play mandolin and guitar equally well despite the differences between the instruments.
Is mandolin difficult to learn?
Mandolin is thought to be one of the more difficult stringed instruments to learn. This is true for several reasons. First, students who have no prior background in playing stringed instruments suddenly have to manage holding down and picking two strings at once. Also, there are fewer mandolin teachers out there to take lessons from and fewer online learning resources for aspiring mandolin players.
Can you use guitar tabs for mandolin?
Possibly, if you are Alan Turing or some other incredible genius code breaker! Since the guitar is tuned Low E, A, D, G, B, High E, the guitar tabs would essentially read upside down on the bottom four strings. Notes on the B and High E strings would have to be figured out and played in higher octaves. Learning a song this way would be a lot of work!
Can you play mandolin like guitar?
Some guitarists who also play mandolin have said that taking songs from guitar to mandolin is like playing them upside down. This is because the tuning is the exact reverse of the first four strings of the guitar (G, D, A, and E). Also, the output and tonal range of the mandolin make it great for articulate picking and less good for strumming.
Do you strum or pick a mandolin?
Depending on the style of music, you can do either. Strumming is primarily for playing chords, while picking is for playing melodic lines. Traditionally, mandolin players have favored the tremolo picking technique which, while not unique to mandolin, has certainly become identified with the instrument. While the mandolin is often picked in highly technical Bluegrass music, it is also strummed in various folk traditions. Jimmy Page strums chords on the mandolin throughout the Celtic-Tolkien-inspired tune, ‘Battle of Evermore,’ while Peter Buck of REM picks and strums throughout ‘Losing My Religion.’ Good mandolin players do both with equal skill.
How do you tune a mandolin?
The mandolin’s eight strings are tuned in pairs, the two lowest G strings being tuned to the same pitch as the open G string on a guitar. The next two are tuned to D, the following two are tuned to A and the highest strings are tuned to E. Like a guitar, you would tune the mandolin using the tuning pegs on the headstock and a chromatic tuner.
Can you tune a mandolin with a guitar tuner?
If it is a chromatic tuner then I would say yes, certainly. If the guitar tuner is present to a guitar’s standard tuning then it would get more complicated but still possible.
Can you capo a mandolin?
Yes. The function of a capo is to shorten the scale length, and allow you to play the same chord shapes in new keys, higher on the neck. For instance, if you are playing an open G chord, if you place the capo on the 2nd fret and play the same chord shape, you would be playing an A chord. This would work the same way on a mandolin.
What types of music can you play on a mandolin?
In the article above we’ve tried to make the point that mandolin can and has been used in a wide array of musical genres. While the mandolin has come to be identified with Bluegrass and Country music, it has graced the stage in the hands of performers hailing from all genres of music, including Rock performers like Jimmy Page and Nancy Wilson of Heart, as well as Peter Buck of REM.
Could a mandolin be played like a bass guitar?
Probably not. While the bass has four strings, and the mandolin has four pairs of strings tuned in unison, the pitches do not match up, so, just like guitar, any bass line that you would want to transpose to mandolin would be upside down.