When you decide to pick up a new instrument you are met with a lot of choices. You could play an instrument from any section of the Western orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboards). You could also choose one of the myriad instruments from around the world. These options are so numerous that we can not list them all here.
Most people, however, opt for a known entity. Thus, some of the most popular instruments for new players in the world are the strings, and specifically plucked instruments. There are three main groups of plucked stringed instruments that are commonly found in the Western world: banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Today we will discuss the guitar vs. the mandolin in detail to help you make the best decision for your playing style and musical goals.
No, the lute is neither a guitar nor a mandolin, so it would seem to be an odd way to begin this article. However, the lute is the predecessor from which the most common plucked stringed instruments descend. So, you can’t understand the guitar or the mandolin without first knowing a little bit about the lute.
The lute was the most popular instrument in the West in the Renaissance era (1450-1600). It’s most distinguishing features are its pear-shaped body and bent back pegbox. If you have ever seen a painting of a plucked instruments with the neck at a ninety-degree angle, then you have seen a lute.
Eventually the strings of the lute were codified as being six in number. These are tuned in this pattern, 4th, 4th, major 3rd, 4th, 4th. From the 15th century, the strings have been plucked with the finger; however, in the instrument’s early years players used a plectrum—or type of pick. Plucking with the fingers allowed for chords to be played simultaneously, an effect that could not be accomplished with the pick.
The lute remained the string instrument of choice throughout the beginning of the Baroque period (1600-1750). It was played by everyone during this time. In fact, playing the lute was seen as a sign of refinement, which meant that royalty and nobles learned to play. One of the popular genres of Western music to be written down was the “lute song.” These songs were invariable on the topic of love and allowed the lute player to sing as well as play.
The rise of the guitar and other plucked stringed instrument replaced the lute in popularity by the end of the Baroque period. Although, there are still lute players today. Even popular artists like David Bowie have recorded themselves playing the lute in recent years.
Today the most recognizable instrument in the world would probably be the guitar—with the piano coming in a close second. It would be hard to imagine most popular genres of music without the guitar in them. In fact, the electric guitar’s presence is one of the defining features of rock. It makes no wonder then that many people want to learn to play this popular instrument.
History of the Guitar
As mentioned above, the guitar evolved from the lute and first emerged in the early 16th century. Unlike the lute, which was an instrument common all over Europe, the guitar came from Spain specifically. The guitar also descended from the guitarra Latina, a Medieval plucked string instrument, and the vihuela, Spain’s version of the lute.
The guitar was originally gendered as a feminine instrument, although men could and did play it. Its gendering probably had something to do with its waisted shape. The 16th century guitar had a less pronounced waist, but that feature continued to intensify as the years progressed.
The number of strings on the guitar also changed with the changing times. At first the instrument had four courses of strings. The number of strings continued to increase, so that today modern guitars usually have six single strings—instead of the courses of the earlier models—with the standard tuning E-A-D-G-B-E.
Our modern classical guitar shape comes from the 19th century as does the use of three gut (or nylon) and three metal strings. These innovations were made by Antonio Torres in Italy in the nineteenth century.
The guitar has been only growing in popularity since it first appeared in the musical world in the 16th century. It even displaced the lute by the beginning of the 18th century. But, you could say that it wasn’t until the 20th century that the instrument really became a household name. And that has more to do with American popular music and jazz than anything else.
The guitar is here to stay. But, why should you decide to pick it up? Read on to find out more.
Types of Guitar
Throughout most of its history the guitar was an acoustic instrument. Now, to be fair, until the invention of electricity, all instruments were acoustic. But, with the invention of the electric guitar the numbers of guitars multiplied. Today there are many different types of guitar for the student to choose from.
- Acoustic (classical) Guitars
- Steel Acoustic Guitars
- Electric Guitars
- Semi-Acoustic Guitars
- Twelve-String Guitars
- Archtop Guitars
- Resonator Guitars
- Bass Guitars
- Double-Neck Guitars
- You can choose the neck width of the instrument, and thus the playing style.
- You can play a wide variety of musical styles from jazz to blues, rock to country, or even classical.
- The flexibility you have with the guitar even extends to the type of strings you use. There are an unbelievable number of different guitar strings available for purchase.
- Because guitar is such a popular instrument, it will not be hard to find a teacher or group to play in.
- The chord structure of the guitar is complex and can be hard to learn.
- Guitars are a rhythm instrument as well as a melodic one, so you will need to be proficient in all aspects of music.
- Guitar’s popularity can make it hard for your playing to stand out from the crowd.
Mandolins are not guitars. They have a completely different history and sound. So, you should not confuse the two instruments, even though they are both plucked. Mandolins are less well-known than guitars, and so you may not be as familiar with them. But, for people that want to play a mandolin vs. guitar, we have all of the information you need to know.
History of the Mandolin
Like the guitar, the mandolin developed from the lute. In fact, mandolin’s keep the lute’s pear shape, which is much different than the guitar’s waisted form.
The mandolin first appeared in the 17th-18th centuries. So, it is a much younger instrument than either the lute or the guitar. There were earlier forms of the instrument, but they were not strung with steel strings. Mandolin’s first became popular through traveling players from 1750-1810. These performers would travel around Europe.
Like the guitar, the mandolin has increased in popularity in the 20th century. It has been used in Celtic, blues, jazz, and classical music. The mandolin has also been a popular student instrument since the 1950s. Because it comes in a family (there are four sizes of the mandolin), it can be formed easily into orchestras. The first of these was created by the African-American composer James Reese in the early 20th century.
Sizes of Mandolin
Were guitars have many different types and shapes available, mandolins are closer to the string and viol families. These groups of instruments are arranged by size. The mandolin comes in four main sizes, each has a different name.
- Mandolin: The instrument that everyone thinks of when you mention a mandolin. It is the smallest of the mandolin family, just over 27 inches long.
- Mandola: The Mandola is the second smallest of the mandolins. It is less common than the other sizes of mandolin and can best be compared to the viola in the string family.
- Octave Mandolin: The name of the octave mandolin describes its difference from the mandolin. It is tuned an octave below the mandolin and is about 10 inches longer.
- Mandocello: This is the largest and deepest of the mandolins. It is tuned an octave below the mandola and is about 41 inches long.
In addition to the four sizes of mandolins, there are two types of body shapes for you to choose from: F-style and A-style. The F-style body is the most common but is also the more intricate of the two designs. The A-style does not have the intricate scrollwork, points, or headstock of the F-style body. There is not a huge difference in sound between these two styles, but the A-style is cheaper.
- In general, the mandolin is a much cheaper instrument to buy than the guitar.
- Because there are four sizes of mandolin, you can form or join a mandolin orchestra.
- The mandolin has less options, so can be less intimidating for the beginning student than the guitar
- The mandolin only has four courses of strings (so 8 strings total), where the guitar has six single-strings. This makes the mandolin much less complicated to learn.
- While you can play a variety of styles, the mandolin is primarily used in bluegrass and Celtic music. This means you will have less options in term of ensembles to play with and less music to learn.
- If you are someone that wants a lot of options, then the mandolin might not be for you. It does not have the string variety or come in a lot of different types.
Choosing a new instrument can be a tough decision. Especially if you want to learn a plucked string instrument, there are so many different types and styles that it can be extremely intimidating. The easiest thing to do would be to decide which type of music you want to play and the level of difficulty you are willing to take on.
You can also narrow down your list to the mandolin vs. guitar, as these are the two most popular plucked string instruments in the music world. You can’t go wrong with either option. Essentially, your ultimate choice will come down to your musical and playing preferences. We recommend trying either the guitar or the mandolin—or both—today.