The 10 Best Mandolins
This wiki has been updated 21 times since it was first published in February of 2017. Originally developed in 18th-century Italy and adopted in various forms from Ireland to Istanbul, the mandolin has become one of the most iconic North American instruments, thanks to the USA's bluegrass culture. We ranked the choices on our list based on quality of materials, design precision, and, of course, their ability to deliver the most distinctly lovely notes. When users buy our independently chosen editorial recommendations, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best mandolin on Amazon.
A Brief History Of The Mandolin
This isn’t to say that the mandolin hadn’t already been recognized for its melodic potential prior to this.
Most commonly admired for its twangy presence in modern bluegrass music, the mandolin has a lineage that can be traced most directly to the 16th century mandora. Speaking more generally, both the mandolin and mandora are ancestors of the lute, itself likely a Europeanized adaptation of the Arabic oud, all of which belong to the broader family of stringed instruments that stretches back into the murky shadows of prehistory.
While the story of the mandolin’s creation is one of incremental tweaks to existing stringed instruments over the course of slow centuries, the first version of the mandolin we know today wasn’t created until the early 19th century by the Italian luthier Pasquale Vinaccia, whose family had a long history of innovative instrument designs, including previous adaptations of the mandora.
Prior to the Vinaccia family’s updates, the instrument lacked some of the characteristics that we recognize it for today. Vinaccia mandolins featured metal strings — specifically steel— which would have been a novel idea at the time. Pasquale Vinaccia took the innovation of his forebears a step further, adding features such as a longer fingerboard, stronger steel strings, and, perhaps most importantly, a deeper resonating body that took the shape of a bowl. This came to be known as the Neopolitan mandolin, and over time, it became quite a popular instrument.
This isn’t to say that the mandolin hadn’t already been recognized for its melodic potential prior to this. Antonio Vivaldi, for example, wrote a gorgeous mandolin concerto in 1725, and the instrument provided indispensable dulcet tones for the serenade in Mozart’s famous opera Don Giovanni in 1787.
During this period, the mandolin was instrumental in helping young men of the musical persuasion court potential mates. Of course, busking was common in the streets of Naples, then, too, so the mandolin’s tonal palette was by no means foreign to the ears of the cosmopolitan Italian of the day.
The mandolin didn't see its heyday until the beginning of the 20th century, though. During this time, its popularity skyrocketed, and it became a source of entertainment for high-society folk and commoners alike. Its influence slowly seeped into almost every genre of the day, and soon its presence was felt in such genres as folk, celtic, bluegrass, jazz, classical, rock, and even ballet.
Though Pasquale Vinaccia didn't live long enough to witness his beloved instrument's explosion into the global musical culture, he'd be pleased to know that his modernized mandolin was the progenitor of today's popular models.
Clearly, something about the instrument appeals to a huge breadth of musical tastes.
Among professional mandolinists, three distinct models reign supereme. The first of these is known as the F-style, or Florentine model. Created by Orville Gibson — yes, that Gibson — and acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar, this model is most commonly used in Americana, bluegrass, and country music. It features a carved top and back construction somewhat reminiscent of the violin. Bill Monroe took this model and went on to define the style that American mandolinists would aspire to copy for decades to come.
Next, there's the A-style mandolin, which was also built by Gibson and Loar. Like the F-style, it eschews the bowled-back of Vinaccia's Neapolitan model in favor of a carved back. It's fairly similar to the F-style, but is differentiated by its pear-shaped body. Because it's easier to build than the F-style, it's usually more affordable. It's used mostly in celtic and folk genres.
Finally, we have the deeply resonant bowl-back. This mandolin doesn't stray far from the original Neopolitan model, and the truth is that it is best suited for — and somewhat limited to — the style of music that was popular during its invention: baroque, renaissance, and other classical genres.
Clearly, something about the instrument appeals to a huge breadth of musical tastes. The genres that interest you most should dictate what style of mandolin you decide to buy.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you’ve purchased your mandolin, the real work begins. Where do you start?
Ideally, you’d begin by finding a teacher with credentials that impress you.
Ideally, you’d begin by finding a teacher with credentials that impress you. You may want an instructor with a university degree who possesses the kind of institutionally-certified knowledge you know you can rely on. On the other hand, maybe you want someone who teaches outside the realm of traditional teaching methods by taking more novel approaches. Between the two poles is an infinite variety of gradations. There is no universal path — whether or not you will respond better to the Suzuki method or any of its counterparts depends on your personality and tendencies. Only you will know what’s best for you, and the best way to find out is by making the plunge and taking a few lessons with somebody.
Although mandolin teachers aren’t as common as guitar or piano teachers, you should be able to find teachers in your area. From here, you and your teacher will work together towards developing your abilities. Remember, though, to never let schooling get in the way of your education. If your mandolin teacher is holding you back, simply find a new one.
Assuming that finding a teacher isn’t an option, though, your next option is to begin the intimidating task of self-teaching. While the journey of the autodidact can have its own especially delicious strain of self-validation, it can be equally discouraging if you get stuck without having someone there to guide you out of the mire.
The disciplined pupil will approach self-tutelage with an eye for balance. Ideally, you’re striving for a perfect harmony between enjoyment and difficulty. If you set unrealistic goals for yourself, you’ll flounder and lose your motivation in the process. If you set your sights too low, though, you’ll lose the exciting thrill of engagement that comes from challenging yourself.
Resources abound on the internet, whether in the form of instructional Youtube channels, free sheet music, or mandolin tabs, so it’s really just a matter of getting to work.
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