Mandolin Family Buying Guide
We are often asked what’s a mandolin, tenor mandolin, mandola, octave mandola, tenor mandola, bouzouki, short scale bouzouki, long scale bouzouki, cittern, or mando-cello?
Eagle Music demystify and explain all the different mandolin types.
Whether you are looking to start playing Bluegrass mandolin, folk, classical music, jazz or other styles, or playing melody tunes or chord accompaniment, Eagle Music will help you to make the right choice.
Types of Mandolin and the kind of music that is played on them.
There are many types of mandolin that have been designed to suit specific kinds of music, these mandolins will in general have either eight, or ten strings. However, there are crossovers where one particular type of mandolin can be suitable for more than one genre of music. We shall try to keep explanations relatively simple and deal with each of them in the notes below.
An important point to note for beginners is that some mandolins are shaped in what is called ‘A’ style and some mandolins are called ‘F’ style. The term style refers to the shape of the mandolin. Some ‘A’ style mandolins have ‘F’ holes, some ‘A’ style mandolins have oval or round soundholes, and like wise ‘F’ style mandolins can have have ‘F’ holes, oval or round sound holes. Another point to note for beginners is that any kind of music can be played on any style of mandolin.
The text below provides simple explanations of all the popular mandolin types. In many cases you get the sound that you want with the strings that you fit, and how you tune them, relative to the scale length. We have many books, cds and dvds to take you from beginner to advanced player.
You may fancy playing mandolin but think “oh no, eight strings!” But It’s easier than that. The strings are tuned in unison pairs as follows: ‘G’ 4th pair, ‘D’ 3rd pair, ‘A’ 2nd pair, and ‘E’ 1st pair. Exactly the same tuning and fingering as the violin. When fiddle players choose to play a mandolin they just have to master the use of a plectrum. You can start by learning half a dozen simple chords (these can be played using two fingers) and progress from there with simple scales and polka type tunes. If you have already played guitar or any other stringed instrument, it’s even easier.
The mandolin is mainly chosen for playing tunes, and is picked with a plectrum. The most popular types are the ‘flat-back’ models to which the Gibson ‘A’ style is the most popular. The Gibson ‘F’ style is the one with ‘scroll’ type shoulders: you see many bluegrass mandolin players using this style. The round back ‘Neapolitan’ mandolins, however nice sounding, are more difficult to hold (They slide away from your body). They are less popular today.
Mandolin Starter Packs for Beginners
We have dedicated starter packs for Irish mandolin and you can start at a lower budget level with say a Tanglewood or Ozark Starter Pack or an excellent higher priced improver package from Eastman Strings.
Mandolins for Improvers and Professionals
We stock some of the world’s highest quality mandolins including hand built models from Jaroslav Prucha, Phil Davidson, Erin and Steve Agnew and Excellent hand built models from eastman Strings.Also excellent value master crafted models from Tanglewood and Ozark.
Folk Style Mandolin
This style of music is played on the ‘A’ style or ‘F’ style mandolin. The ‘A’ style mandolin with a round or oval sound hole will give you a mellower sound. The ‘F’ style mandolin has a brighter sound and will give you more projection. The mandolin is normally played with a flat pick, but it can be strummed for accompaniment, it is your choice.
Mandolin in other styles
Classical and Jazz mandolin This style of music is played on the ‘A’ style or ‘F’ style mandolin. The ‘A’ style mandolin with a round or oval sound hole will give you a mellower sound. The mandolin is normally played with a flatpick, but it can be strummed for accompaniment, it is your choice.
Octave Mandola - Octave Mandolin
This instrument is a larger version of the standard mandolin. The most popular way to tune it is in unison pairs. ‘G’ 4th pair, ‘D’ 3rd pair, ‘A’ 2nd pair, and ‘E’ 1st pair (This is the same tuning as the mandolin above, but an octave below. We fit heavier strings to allow for the fact that it is an octave below the mandolin and has a longer scale length).
The octave mandola is a good compromise between mandolin and bouzouki. The scale length is easy enough to master when playing tunes, but equally it’s a great sound for chord backing. There are many other ‘modal’ ways that you can tune a mandola. Selection of correct gauge strings is paramount for intonation and instrument stability. Some players ‘octave string’ the 4th and 3rd pairs (see bouzouki write up for explanation of ‘octave stringing’).
The string length of the bouzouki is even longer than the octave mandola. It’s much harder to play tunes on this instrument so the most popular use is for chord work and accompaniment. The long string length produces a ‘zingy’ sound, and to make it even more ‘zingy’ many players ‘octave string’ these instruments as follows. 4th pair of strings tuned to high ‘G’ and low ‘G’, 3rd pair of strings tuned to high ‘D’ and low ‘D’, 2nd pair tuned in unison (two ‘A’s), 1st pair tuned in unison (two ‘E’s).
Note:- A thinner plain string replaces one of the wound strings on the 4th and 3rd pairs, these thinner plain strings are tuned an octave higher. The above tuning is the normal standard tuning. Many bouzouki players tune as above but drop the first unison pair of strings down to ‘D’. Some players choose ‘modal’ tunings eg. D, A, D, A.
The cittern has a scale similar in length to the octave mandola but usually with ten strings, not eight, and tuned modally (to a chord or drone). Strictly speaking, modern citterns are a remake of a medieval predecessor of the guitar, but musically, they really belong in this group of instruments here. It’s usually tuned to some kind of open chord either GCGCG (C chord) or GDGDG (G chord). It’s used mostly to play an accompaniment of melodic runs along with a bagpipe-type drone. Its ten strings make it very versatile for chord work or for melody playing. The strings are usually tuned in pairs, but sometimes each pair will comprise of two strings an octave apart, like the bottom four strings of a twelve-string guitar. We sell a lot of citterns to guitar players who have maybe enjoyed experimenting with open tunings.
This instrument has a scale length longer than the mandolin but shorter than the octave mandola. It is normally tuned in unison pairs as follows, ‘C’ 4th pair, ‘G 3rd pair, ‘D’ 2nd pair, and ‘A’ 1st pair.
Here we’ve provided you with some Q&A’s to further assist your buying decision.
I want to try before I buy, can I arrange a mandolin demonstration in-store?
Answer: You can visit our shop at any time during our normal opening hours. You can make yourself at home here, have a cup of Yorkshire tea or coffee and spend as long with us as you may you need to make your choice. You will be able to try various brands and different mandolin models at all price levels to help you make your choice.
We have dedicated staff that are mandolin specialists and can play all styles of mandolin. We will help you to make the right choice of mandolin and then continue to help you along your musical path after you have bought from us. We shall always be here for you at the end of the phone to help you with any technical questions.
I’m on a budget, what prices do mandolins start from?
Answer: Our mandolins start in the region of £150.00 for a beginners model. Any mandolin that you purchase from us will be set-up in our workshop by the same technicians that set-up our top end models so you will have no worries about its playability. Our ‘Starter Packs’ are exceptional value for beginners and include everything in the pack that you will need to get you started.
I’m an accomplished player and would like to move to a professional mandolin, what do you recommend?
Answer: Build quality and reliability is what defines a professional mandolin. For example: Some Tanglewood and Ozark mandolins are priced at less than £300.00 and are used by many professional players and on the other end of the spectrum many professionals play mandolins from the Eastman range starting at less than £400.00 and other hand built models by makers such as Prucha and Davidson that are priced into the thousands of pounds.
Not only do Eagle Music carry many of the World’s top brands of quality mandolins, we also have dedicated staff that play mandolin, teach mandolin and ‘gig’ on stage with mandolins! So, we are in the ideal position to give you professional advice and help you to make the right choice in upgrading your mandolin.
I want to play Irish Music, what type of mandolin is right for me?
Answer: Irish music can be played on both ‘A’ style and ‘F’ style mandolins. The most popular mandolin type for playing tunes and irish dance music eg. Jigs, Reels, Polkas etc. is a 4-string tenor banjo. The octave mandola or the bouzouki can be chosen to accompany folk songs in the folk style. You can strum along to songs or you can play the octave mandola or the bouzouki in the ‘melodic style’ with finger picks.
What about after sales and maintenance if I have any issues with my mandolin?
Answer: Here at Eagle Music we have an on-site workshop manned by mandolin technicians, we set-up and repair mandolins on a daily basis. We offer you our best service and a FREE Premier set-up when you purchase a mandolin from us. We will look after you as a valued customer after you have bought your mandolin and give you our technical support. We shall be here whenever you may need us in the future to service your mandolin and will give you our best workshop price quotation for any work that may be needed.
What sort of warranties do mandolins come with?
Answer: If you are not completely satisfied with a mandolin that you purchase from us, you can return the mandolin to us for a full refund or a replacement. Every mandolin that we sell has a warranty. Some of the lower priced mandolins we sell will have a twelve month warranty. Some of the higher end mandolins that we sell carry a lifetime guarantee against parts and workmanship.
What about accessories, does Eagle Music sell mandolin accessories too?
Answer: We carry a superb range of the highest quality accessories for all the mandolins that we sell. Our range of world class accessories includes gig bags and cases, capos, string sets, tuners, flat picks, tuition books , DVD’s etc.
What about mandolin spare parts, does Eagle Music sell mandolin spares too?
Answer: We offer you a comprehensive range mandolin spares and parts including mandolin strings tuning machines, tailpieces, bridges, pick-ups etc. We work closely with all the mandolin makers that supply us, and can also obtain any custom parts and retro-fits that may be available.
I want to play Bluegrass Music, what type of mandolin is right for me?
Answer: The choice of mandolin for playing Bluegrass music is the ‘F’ style mandolin. You will play it in the ‘Bill Monroe style’ with a flat pick. The ‘F’ style mandolin gives you the extra punch and projection of sound is the choice of most bluegrass players as the style and ‘F’ holes in the soundboard will give you the hardest driving mandolin and the most volume.
Does the country of build make much difference to the quality of a mandolin?
Answer: In short, yes it does. You have to take each instrument on its own values. Just because an instrument is made in the Far East does not mean that it is an inferior instrument. In general quality is relative to price. We choose the brands that we stock and sell very carefully, we would not ‘sell you a mandolin that does not work’. It is true that a high priced hand built mandolins will be a much higher quality than a low priced Chinese factory made mandolin. Also, we offer some mandolin brands eg. Eastman that are manufactured in China to the highest quality specification.
I want a hand built mandolin, which brand should I choose?
Answer: You can choose from Prucha, Davidson, Erin, Agnew and Eastman to mention a few of our top class makers. Each one of these World Class brands has its own unique features and characteristics within its range of mandolin models.
Can I trade in my old mandolin?
Answer: We can consider what you are wanting to trade in with us. we will offer you the best price and give you our best advice at the point of sale. In many cases you will get a better price by selling your mandolin on ebay or by private sale.