Next up in my line of FAQs is the mandolin. This quick and easy guide will answer the most commonly asked questions about this member of the string family. As always, this post is packed full of helpful information, so whether you’re looking for a mandolin for sale or just want to learn more about this fascinating instrument, keep reading.
Once again I need to thank my loyal customers for keeping me on my toes with your queries. I’m here to help! You asked, I’ve answered. If you can’t find the answer to your question below however, feel free to get in touch. Who knows, you might inspire my next FAQ!
1. What Is a Mandolin?
The mandolin is a small instrument with a pear shaped body and narrow neck, featuring eight strings that are tuned in pairs (also known as courses). It’s descended from the lute which dates back to medieval times. Today three main types of mandolin are played throughout the world – the Neapolitan (or Italian style bowl-back mandolin), the arch-top mandolin and the flat-back mandolin. Notes are played by placing your fingers on the fretboard whilst strumming or plucking the strings with a plectrum, similar to the banjo, bouzouki or guitar.
2. What Is an Irish Mandolin?
The flat back mandolin is the model most commonly played in traditional Irish music, and has become known as the Irish mandolin. Like the Irish fiddle, Irish mandolins are tuned to GDAE. In fact, the two instruments share the same note range. Irish tenor banjos are also tuned to GDAE but due to their larger size they sound an octave lower:
3. What’s the Difference Between A-Style Mandolins and F Style Mandolins?
Flat back mandolins can come in two distinct styles: Oval Hole and F-Hole, also known as A-Style and F Style.
A-style mandolins feature a pear or teardrop shaped body, with 2 oval sound holes.
F style mandolins feature an elaborate decorative scroll on the upper bout, above the neck, in addition to two F sound holes (just like those found on a violin).
Oval hole or A-Style mandolins often have a warmer, woodier tone and offer greater sustain and resonance – particularly in the lower register.
F-hole or F Style mandolins offer a brighter tone, with more volume and a stronger attack. Sometimes, they can offer a slightly more percussive sound, depending on the instrument.
Traditionally, A-Style mandolins are more commonly used to play traditional Irish music and folk music, while F Style mandolins are played in bluegrass, country, and folk rock. Of course you can play any style of music on whichever style of mandolin you prefer!
4. Is the Mandolin Hard to Play?
The mandolin is a relatively simple instrument to learn, but like any musical instrument it requires time, skill and effort to master.
Like other string instruments, mandolins require finger dexterity and hand coordination. One hand plays the notes by pressing down on the strings on the fretboard, while the other plucks or strums the strings and it can take a while to master these contrasting movements.
Time, patience and plenty of practice will help you to achieve results however.
5. Is Mandolin Easier than Guitar?
It’s tough to say really. Guitars and mandolins are played in very different styles, so while there are similarities between the two instruments it’s difficult to draw an accurate comparison.
Guitars are more commonly use to play chords, which requires the player to strum all the strings while in traditional Irish music the mandolin is typically used to play individual melody lines. This means the player needs to pluck just one string at a time, but as mandolin strings are tuned in pairs or courses, they must strum two strings at once which can take time to master.
6. What’s the Difference Between a Mandolin and a Bouzouki?
Many people think the mandolin and bouzouki are related, but the mandolin actually belongs to a different category of instruments. It’s the soprano member of the mandolin family which includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello and mandobass.
Mandolins are much smaller than bouzoukis – about half the size – typically only measuring about 13″ in length. As a result, the sound they produce is much higher. The mandolin sounds an octave higher in pitch than the bouzouki.
In Irish music, mandolins are typically tuned to GDAE like the Irish fiddle and Irish tenor banjo. Irish bouzoukis are most commonly tuned to GDAD.
7. Is a Mandolin the Same as a Ukulele?
No. These are two different instrument from two entirely different instrument families. The ukulele is a member of the lute family that, despite its strong association with Hawaii, actually originates in Portugal. While the mandolin has eight strings, the ukulele has just four. The most popular ukulele is the soprano ukulele, tuned to GCEA or ADF#B
8. Which Is Easier to Play: Ukulele or Mandolin?
Neither is necessarily easier than the other, but if you want to play traditional Irish music then the mandolin is the best choice for you. The ukulele doesn’t typically feature in Irish folk music, nor will you be welcomed at an Irish music session if you arrive with one.
9. How Much Does a Mandolin Cost?
Mandolins can range in price from as little as $150 / €150 to several thousand dollars/euro. As with any musical instrument it depends on make and model. For example, a good quality beginner mandolin will usually cost between $150 – $300/€150 – €300.
10. Where Can I Find the Best Budget Mandolin for Sale?
Right here! If you’re looking for a mandolin for sale, the McNeela Irish Mandolin is one of the best beginner mandolins on the market today, offering unbeatable value. With a spruce body and a choice of either sunburst or natural gloss finish, this is an instrument that both looks and sounds good, at a great price. It’s the perfect starter instrument for those who want to learn to play the mandolin:
Alternatively you can browse our full range of best selling acoustic mandolins – both A style and F style – in our Online Music Store. We offer quality instruments at affordable prices from top brands, including our own in-house range. Shop our wide range of folk string instruments – banjos, bouzoukis, fiddles, guitars and more. There’s something for everyone. We also stock a wide range of accessories including strings, cases, plectrums, and more. Anything a potential customer might need.
If you’re looking for more information about mandolins, make sure to check out the rest of the McNeela Irish Music Blog. It’s packed full of handy hints and tips, buyers guides, and more for musicians at every stage of their musical journey. So whether you’re just starting out or you’re a veteran musician, it’s got something for every musician and every (traditional Irish) instrument:
My brother just got a mandolin, and we both use it some. He uses a pick, and wants me to do the same, but I prefer to use my thumb. Is there anything wrong with using one's thumb for picking the strings?
Dean, that’s absolutely fine. As long as you’re enjoying the sound you produce, keep at it!