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Carved and round backed mandolins (front)

A mandolin is a stringed musical instrument. At different times and in different places, the number and type of strings found on mandolins has varied. Today, the predominant configuration is that of the Neapolitan mandolin, with four courses of metal strings. Each pair of strings is tuned in unison, and are a fifth apart from adjacent pairs, giving an identical tuning to a violin (G-D-A-E low-to-high). Unlike a violin, the fingerboard of a mandolin is fretted and it is typically played with a flat pick (a plectrum).

The mandolin was first built in early 18th century, and was descended from the mandora, a small lute used in the 16th century.

Like the guitar, the mandolin is a poorly sustaining instrument. A note cannot be maintained for an arbitrary time as with a violin. Its higher pitch makes this problem more severe than with the guitar, and as a result, use of tremolo (rapid picking on a single note) is sometimes used to emulate a sustained note. This technique works particularly well with a mandolin's paired strings, where in tremelo picking one of the pair is sounding while the other is being struck by the pick, giving a more continuous sound than a single coursed instrument can.

The mandolin's popularity in the United States was spurred by the success of a group of touring European musicians known as the Figaro Spanish Students. Ironically, this ensemble did not play mandolins but rather bandurrias, which are also small, double-strung instruments superficially resembling the mandolin. The success of the Figaro Spanish Students spawned several groups who imitated their musical style and colorful costumes. In many cases, the players in these new musical ensembles were Italian-born Americans who had brought mandolins from their native land. Thus, the Spanish Student imitators did primarily play mandolins and helped to generate enormous public interest in an instrument that previously was relatively unknown in the United States.

Mandolins come in several forms. The Neapolitan style, known as a round or bowl-back, has a vaulted back made of a number of strips of wood in a bowl formation, similar to a lute and usually a canted, two-plane, uncarved top. The Portuguese, a flat-back style is derived from the cittern. Another form has a banjo-style body.
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Vega cylinder-back and Howe-Orme instruments
Other variants include the Howe-Orme guitar-shaped mandolin (manufactured by the Elias Howe Company between 1897 and roughly 1920), which featured a cylindrical bulge along the top from fingerboard end to tailpiece, and the Vega mando-lute (more commonly called a cylinder-back mandolin manufactured by the Vega Company between 1913 and roughly 1927), which had a similar longitudinal bulge but on the back rather than the front of the instrument.

Carved and round backed mandolins (back)
Carved and round backed mandolins (back)

In the early twentieth century, another new mandolin-style, with carved top and back construction as employed in violin family instruments, began to supplant the European-style bowl-back instruments, especially in the United States. This new style is credited to mandolins designed and built by Orville Gibson who founded the Gibson company in 1902. Gibson mandolins evolved into two families: the F-style, which has a scroll near the neck and two points on the right side; and the A-style, which is pear shaped and has no points. These styles generally have either two f-shaped soundholes like a violin or an oval sound hole directly under the strings. Naturally, there is much variation among makers, and different styles exist as well, but these are the most common. The F-hole, F-style mandolins are considered the most typical and traditional for bluegrass, while A-style with oval hole is generally more appropriate for Irish, folk, or classical music.

Numerous modern mandolin makers build instruments that are largely replicas of the Gibson F-5 Artist models built in the early 1920s by Gibson acoustician Lloyd Loar. Original Loar-signed instruments are sought-after and extremely valuable.

Larger versions of the mandolin are the mandola (a fifth below the mandolin, as the viola is below the violin), the octave mandolin (an octave below the mandolin), and the mandocello, which is tuned an octave plus a fifth below the mandolin (like a cello). All of these have 8 strings tuned in unison pairs. In the early part of the 20th century Gibson also made a "mando-bass, which has 4 strings and is tuned like a upright bass. Each pair (course) is played as a single string.

Mandolins have a long history and much early music was written for them. However they are now mainly heard in country, Old-time music, bluegrass and folk music.

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