History of the mandolin

February 25, 2017

Here we will give a brief history of the mandolin. Where did the mandolin come from? From which ancient instruments did it evolve?

mandolinIn general the evolution of today’s mandolin went something like this: Lyre – Lute – Mandola – Mandolina – Mandolin.

Mandolins evolved in Italy from the lute family of stringed musical instruments during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the deep bowled mandolin produced particularly in Naples became a common type in the nineteenth century. The original instrument was the mandola (the term mandorla means almond in Italian, which describes the instrument’s almond-like body shape) and evolved in the fifteenth century from the lute. A later, smaller mandola was developed and became known as a mandolina.

The earliest stringed musical instruments

lyre, an ancestor of the mandolinThe earliest string instrument in recorded history appears to be the lyre, believed to have been used in Ancient Mesopotamia in 2500 to 3000 BC. The lyre was a stringed instrument having a wooden body and bow; it was held against the body to be played. Lyres were probably the basis for the classical harp.

In medieval times, stringed and bowed instruments evolved around several designs; in the Middle East, the rebec used a half-pear shape and three strings for vertical playing, and was a ancestor to the violin. The fiddle also originated during this period as a three- to five-string instrument with a larger body than modern fiddles and violins. Other instruments from the medieval period include the gittern, which was a bulky, flat-bodied instrument basically consisting of a single piece of wood with four strings. The gittern was an early ancestor of the guitar.

The oud is considered to be the king of instruments in Arab history. To Arabs, the oud is considered to be the oldest stringed musical instrument. It is assumed that the name al-oud is derived from the Arabic for the wood and came from North Africa to Europe. The oud is said to have been the most central instrument in the Middle Eastern music tradition. Some say that the oud is the forebear of the ancient Persian barbat, basically a two-stringed lute. So the oud is often considered to be the ancestor of the European lute.

The lute

luteThe mandolin is a descendant of a small lute, an instrument common in the Renaissance era, generally meaning Europe in the 14th to 17th century. The lute is a descendant of the Arabian oud, a stringed instrument that found its way to Europe during the Crusades era. Lutes have a bowl-shaped body made from strips of wood, and a neck and head, or pegbox that were separate units glued together. The bridge was glued to the top of the soundboard and strings fixed to it as in today’s guitar.

In the Renaissance era, the lute was the most popular instrument in the Western world. It became the symbol of the magic and power of music. The lute was the instrument of kings and queens, playing the sublime music of great composers. The lute was heard in the theater in the incidental music of Shakespeare’s plays. And the lute was heard by common people, playing the popular tunes of the day in pubs and on street corners. — The Lute: A Brief History, by Ronn McFarlane

Baroque mandolin, or mandolino

mandolinThe musical instrument term mandore first appears in French literature in 1585, and mandola, as well as in Italian in 1589, to describe a lute-like instrument. The name is probably derived from the word mandorla which is the word for almond in Italian. Mandolino, a term first encountered in 1634, is the diminutive of mandola, meaning little mandola. Some of the oldest surviving mandolins were made by the famous violin maker Stradivarius in the late 1600s.

The development of the Gibson mandolin, including the Lloyd Loar era of the 1920, has been well documented in the existing literature, but not many players of modern instruments know much about the European ancestors that inspired them. That history alone will be sufficient inducement for a great many mando-enthiusiasts, but there is a full chapter on the F-styles as well, including a recap of the periods of revival at Gibson under Roger Siminoff and Charlie Derrington. Other A and F-style builders profited include Bruce Weber, Lynn Dudenbostel, and Steve Gilchrist.



A pegbox is the part of certain stringed musical instruments that houses the tuning pegs; these instruments include the mandolin, violin, viola, cello, double bass, lute, and some closely related stringed instruments. — Source: Tuning peg/pegbox – Wikipedia


Concerning stringed musical instruments, a course is two or more adjacent strings played as a single string. The strings in a course are that are closely spaced in relation to the other strings to make it easy to treat the two strings as one. The strings in each course are typically tuned in octaves or in unison.

A coursed instrument is any stringed instrument with at least one (multiple-string) course; an uncoursed instrument is a stringed instrument whose strings are all played individually, as in a normal acoustic guitar. — Source: Course (music) – Wikipedia

Resources: History of the mandolin

Earliest stringed instruments

The Rebec Project

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