The mandolin originally developed from the lute, the instrument that is also the ancestor to the modern guitar. There are two types of mandolins commonly played today: the round-back style of mandolin that originated in Naples, Italy, in the eighteenth century, and the flat-back style more common in contemporary American folk music. Both instruments can play all styles of mandolin music.
Mandolins can play music written with a treble clef in the same range as the violin or flute. Music has been written for a mandolin-like instrument since around the late 1600s. There is a substantial Baroque and Late Romantic repertoire from several European countries. Folk music for mandolin or for a similar sounding instrument is well known from Italy, Russia, and several Balkan countries. The mandolin first came to the U.S. in the late 1880s and became very popular in mandolin orchestras. Today it is better known as a folk instrument in bluegrass. Mandolin orchestras flourish in the U.S. and all over the world and much music continues to be written for them.
Choosing an Instrument: Bowlback or Flatback
There is a long-standing argument in the mandolin community as to whether the flatback instruments are well-suited to Classical music and/or to the Romantic Italian style. With the larger resonating chamber, flatbacks generally have a strong voice in the bass (G and D-strings) than almost all bowlbacks. Conversely, bowlbacks are mainly stronger in the treble because the bowl shape seems to focus the sound on the E-string - particularly during a tremolo - in a way that I have rarely heard on a flatback (although I have heard this quality in cylinderbacks). I also find that with the flatbacks the oval-hole model makes a more resonant sound than the f-hole. Later Gibson and Gibson-style flatbacks have a metal truss rod in the neck to support the tense metal strings and this seems to weaken the quality of sound on the E-string still further in comparison to the sound of a bowlback. In addition, most of the American flatbacks are set up with a higher bridge and higher action (distance of the strings above the frets) to produce a strong percussive style required for bluegrass music. Lower action makes the instrument easier to play and can produce a purer note, which is better for Classical music.
Until recently, new bowlbacks were mostly made in Europe and the best ones were expensive and had to be specially ordered. Flatbacks are far more numerous in the U.S., with a wealth of choice including very well made instruments at a reasonable price.
Old, even antique, bowlbacks are easy to find but 90 percent of these are not worth buying. Many were made in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s with the mandolin craze was at its height and every city had its own mandolin orchestra. Bowlbacks are inherently weaker in their design and the tension of the strings can cause the neck to bend inwards causing the strings to be too far from the fretboard at the neck/body join, and the the soundboard to bulge outwards behind the bridge. We strongly advise you not to buy one of these with a high action (unless it is otherwise of exceptional quality) as it is difficult and generally costs more to repair than the price of the instrument. If you come across one of that rare 10 percent that is still in good condition (ideally with around a 1/16 inch, or the thickness of a quarter, between the strings and the fretbar at the octave, or 12th fret), have a good look at it, play with it, and negotiate!
The following American labels are generally of good quality and have withstood the test of time due to their superior craftsmanship: Martin, Ditson, and Vega.
In 2013, we could recommend these dealers of antique bowlbacks as often having reasonable older American, or sometimes Italian, instruments. However, you still need to ask all the right questions about the condition of the neck, soundboard, frets, and tuners. Ideally you need to play it; a soundclip is better than nothing.
Bernunzio, Rochester New York. (Dependable return policy too!)
Antebellum Instruments, Vermont. (Very knowledgeable. Restored and ready to play. Excellent prices and good makes)
Vintage Instruments, Philadelphia.
Vintage Instruments, Inverness, CA
Tall Toad, Petaluma, CA
History of the Mandolin
The mandolin – or something like it – has been around since the end of the 16th Century, although it didn’t look much like the instrument we know today. It was played widely throughout western Europe from around 1700 to 1810. In the late 1800s a stronger bowlback instrument was developed in Naples by the Vinaccia family. Known today as the Neapolitan mandolin, this instrument has a bent soundboard, moveable bridge, metal strings and is plucked with a pick.
At the end of the 1800s, the Neapolitan mandolin was popular both in Italy and throughout western Europe. It spread to the U.S. with Italian immigration. Mandolin in the U.S. today is dominated by the instrument conceived by the Gibson company in the early 1900s. Built more like a violin with carved single pieces of wood for the front and back, most modern American flatbacks are based on Gibson designs. All three of these instruments: Baroque mandolin, roundback or Neapolitan mandolin and flatback mandolin, are still played and the musical traditions from the different periods survive on all continents.
To read more about the development of the mandolin see Story of the Mandolin.