The Folk Mandolin

The mandolin is the most common high-end stringed instrument in an American folk band, dating back to Italy and the 1700s, and used today as a staple in many forms of folk music, and an essential part of a bluegrass music band. Mandolins evolved from the lute family, so naturally the early mandolins, called the Neopolitan mandolin, looked a lot like lutes with their characteristic rounded bowl-shaped body. But at the turn of the 19th Century, American ingenuity, particularly the innovations of Orville Gibson, revolutionized the style and sound of the mandolin. Gibson's carved-top, flat-back design quickly became and remains the industry standard today. Gibson mandolins were made primarily in two different styles: an A style, which is pear shaped and has no points to the body, and an F style or Florentine style with the carved and the spiraled edges and the pointed edges shown above. The F style or Florentine is most commonly used today in blue grass music while the A style, the pear shaped style, is more commonly found in Irish music, folk music and classical music. The instrument contains four pairs of strings which are tuned in fifths just like a violin (G D A E). The strings of each pair are tuned to the same pitch, and it is played with a flat pick. In America, the mandolin has had a history stemming from an Italian and Irish immigrant folk instrument to a lead and percussive instrument in bluegrass music. Not surprisingly, the strong popularity of the mandolin in America from the 1890s into the early 20th century coincided with the cultural influence of the large Italian immigration. The instrument was primarily played in small spaces, where it could be heard easily, and was sometimes accompanied by guitar or piano. The mandolin often shared the parlor with zithers, mandolas, and ukuleles and the instrument was primarily used by amateurs seeking simple recreational fun. The mandolin was used to play waltzes, sentimental parlor songs, college songs, light classical music, marches, and even ragtime. Because of its adaptability, portability, and the pleasure drawn, the mandolin stood without a rival until after World War I, when the ukelele was introduced and when America's tastes in music changed toward more jazz and ragtime, and this pushed the mandolin out of the spotlight. However, in the 1930s, Mr. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, introduced the mandolin to bluegrass music and it became an essential staple instrument in this new form of American country music. The fast fingering melodic breaks and the characteristic off-beat "chucking" action of the mandolin player forms the percussive basis of the bluegrass band. Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the classical mandolin and the instrument is finding its way into many different forms of new music, not to speak of its key role in the traditional Appalachian folk and bluegrass music. (Ref.: Daniel Coolik "History of the Mandolin in America" November 18, 1998.