The mandolin – a fantastic opportunity to broaden your vocabulary

Once you’ve learnt how to get to grips with a guitar, learning to play a different stringed instrument is relatively straightforward, broadening your outlook in the process.

Take the mandolin, for example – a great second instrument for any guitarist. Its courses (pairs of strings) are tuned to the same pitch as the strings of a violin – g-d-a-e – which throws all your scale and chord shapes right overboard.

There are three different basic types of mandolin: the bowlback Italian mandolin is the senior member of the family, and closely related to Middle Eastern instruments, such as the saz.

The Portugese/Irish  mandolin is build with a straight back, much like a guitar, making it easier to hold and play.

The carved-top Bluegrass-mandolin is an American invention from the very last years of the 19th Century, taking its cue from the building principles behind a violin. Orville Gibson’s (1856–1918) quality mandolins laid the groundwork for what was to become the famous Gibson-brand. Renowned musician and luthier Lloyd Loar finalised the Gibson-mandolin around 1920.

My own mandolin is a Chinese-made, all solid wood Kentucky KM-630, pattered after a typical F-Style Gibson-mandolin.

It features a spruce top as well as a back and sides made from maple.

The headstock is replete with fine inlay work.

The well-applied finish really shows off the back’s figuring (flame).

The maple neck too is finished in a rich sunburst.

Gold-coloured tuners round off the picture.

When shopping for a mid-price Bluegrass-mandolin check the neck for straightness, as well as the quality of the fretting. Make sure the free-standing bridge is OK and works as it should. The relatively hard string pull, along with transport/storage in too dry a place can sometimes lead to a cracked or collapsing bridge.

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Here’s a recording featuring my KM-630:

Lucy (Frank Badenius/Martin Berka)

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Check out these links for further info:

Mandolin tuner

Mandolin chords

A genuine Gibson/Lloyd Loar -mandolin from 1923

Build your own mandolin!

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