The Mandolin Family
The Mandolin Family is as confused as many others. Different members not only have disputed relationships with each other but have different names. The easiest way to define each member is to refer to its scale length. This is the distance between the bridge and the nut or the length of the string free to vibrate. Except where noted the pairs or courses of string are tuned in unison (to the same note). All except citterns have four courses, eight strings.
Standard scale length +/- 14"/36cm.
Standard tuning. GDAE from bass to treble.
The most commonly known member of the mandolin family, the mandolin itself is probably the least contentious. Its scale length varies from 13" up to about 16" (33 - 41 cm), though normally around 14". It is rarely called anything else and rarely played in alternative tunings.
Types of Mandolin
Broadly speaking three are two types of mandolin, bluegrass and folk, (leaving out the roundback (blowlback, taterbug, watermelon.. ), rarely used these days).
The Bluegrass Mandolin
The Bluegrass mandolin is based on two Gibson models introduced around the end of the 19th century. Gibson salesmen promoted mandolin orchestras that consisted of the mandolin, mandola, mandocello and the mandobass. The two main mandolin models were the A style and the F style - the A being teardrop shaped and the F having the added scroll and points (also known as Florentine) -both body shapes are available with oval or f sound holes.
The common nomenclature, following Gibson, is;
A4: A style oval hole.
A5: A style f hole.
F4:F style oval hole.
F5: F style f hole..
Of course bluegrass music hadn't begun at this time. Many take the view that the F5 is the only mandolin for bluegrass (it's what Bill Monroe played) but lots of accomplished players play A style mandolins. Contrary to popular belief the scroll adds nothing to the sound. Many say the F style is the only one that balances well for comfortable playing (the scroll is often referred to as the strap hanger).
The story with oval vs. f hole is also open to different opinions, (US dealers rarely stock modern F4s). Those advocating f hole instruments as the only bluegrass mandolin claim that it is the one that cuts through against loud guitars and banjos. Oval hole aficionados claim that the loss of cut is very little but the gain in bass, middle and sustain is great, it's all down to personal taste in the end but few oval hole mandolins have a good ‘chop’, the sound produced by a four finger chord (no open strings) and used in bluegrass for backing.
The tops and backs of these mandolins are arched in shape and carved from a single piece of wood - as opposed to pressed into shape- (cheaper factory made models often have pressed top and back). Favoured woods are spruce tops and maple backs and sides. Because of its intricate design an F style instrument is usually around 50% more than an equivalent A style. The bluegrass mandolin also works very well for folk music but the reverse is not always the case.
Old Wave A4
Weber Yellowstone A5
There is also the two point (the first Gibson A5 was a two point with a scroll headstock!).
Bluegrass two point mandolin
The Folk Mandolin
The folk mandolin tends to have a deeper and larger body and normally has a round sound hole as opposed to f holes. Many woods are used, commonly spruce and cedar for tops, rosewood, mahogany and walnut for backs and sides. Tops and backs are most often flat or slightly arched but not carved.
Trinity College Mandolin
Trinity College Mandolin - Back
AKA Tenor Mandola.
Standard scale length 16"/41cm to 17"/43cm can go to 20”/51cm.
Standard tuning. CGDA from bass to treble.
Other common tunings. ADGD GCGC GDGD
A mandola is only a little bigger that the mandolin and is tuned a fifth lower, CGDA, as a viola is to a violin. Standard scale length is 16" - 17" (41 - 43 cm), can be up to 20”. Some people call instruments with scale lengths up to 23" tuned GDAE (an octave below the mandolin) mandolas, this is an octave mandolin if tuned GDAE.
It is also called a tenor mandola by some (common on the UK), perhaps because of the tenor banjo but it seems to make more sense to name mandolins according to how they relate to the mandolin family, not to banjos. In German orchestral music the mandola is GDAE, an octave below the mandolin, this also might explain why an instrument tuned CGDA became known as a tenor mandola.
AKA Tenor Mandola/Octave mandola/Bouzouki.
Standard scale length 19"/48cm to 22"/56cm.
Standard tuning. GDAE from bass to treble (one octave below mandolin).
Other common tunings. CGDA EADG DADA DADG EADA
The octave mandolin is commonly tuned an octave below the mandolin as its name suggests so why some call it an octave mandola or tenor mandola is a bit of a mystery but very common in the UK. The term octave mandolin seems to have American origins and fits in with the mandolin, mandola, mandocello nomenclature.
At this scale length and tuned GDAE it is also at the short end of the very big range of scale lengths of the bouzouki. The octave mandolin can be tuned the same as the bouzouki but with the shorter neck is much easier to play melodies while still giving a good chord sound. It is commonly tuned in unison (both strings of the pair or course tuned to the same note).
AKA Octave mandolin.
Standard scale length 19"/48cm to 27"/69cm.
Standard tuning. GDAE. Other common tunings. CGDA EADG DADA DADG EADA
The bouzouki was developed from the Greek round backed instrument by Irish musicians. It normally has a Guitar length neck and is often tuned and octave below the mandolin, the same as the octave mandolin. Despite its origin it is effectively a larger member of the mandolin family and really the same as an octave mandolin but with a longer scale length. It is commonly tuned in octaves, the lower two notes - in standard tuning G and D - having one string an octave above the other (like a twelve string guitar).
Scale length 24"/61cm to 26"/66cm.
Standard tuning, CGDA, an octave below the Mandola.
The mandocello was developed by Gibson for its orchestras. Tuned an octave below the mandola, as its name suggests it is the cello to the viola (mandola) and violin (mandolin). In many ways it is similar to the long scale bouzouki, the only reason you can't use a bouzouki for a mandocello is that it may need a slightly wider neck to accommodate the thicker strings on the mandocello and will need wider slots in the nut and bridge, (there may also be issues with the build of the instrument with heavier strings). Until recently mandocellos were hard to get unless you could afford a vintage Gibson but many of the American makers now include them in their catalogues.
The mandobass is so ugly it becomes a thing of beauty. It's a beast with only four strings, tuned as a double bass EADG. I don't know anybody who makes one (or owns one for that matter). You can guess how they came about if you've read up to here. Scale length is 23.6 miles. TAMCO's famous mandobass has become our mascot!