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The Mandolin Family of Instruments

Mandocello and Mandolin comparison

Picture: Comparing the size of
a mandolin and a mandocello

The Mandolin family of instruments mirrored the violin family from the 18th century on but with frets for precision and plucked rather than bowed, hence there was:

Scale Lengths and Tunings

The Scale Length is the distance from the nut (or zero fret) to the bridge - the full length of the open string between points where it passes over a structure.

The Tuning is given as Low to High (Thickest, deepest sounding to Thinnest, highest sounding)

Instrument Tuning Scale Length


330mm - 380mm



400mm - 480mm

Tenor/Octave Mandola


480mm - 600mm

Mando Cello


600mm - 680mm

Mando Bass


1050mm - 1090mm

The tenor/octave mandola is a fairly recent invention to fill the same niche as the Irish or short scale tenor banjo, maintaining the GDAE tuning. Most instruments in the family have 4 courses as can be seen here on this Gibson mandolin, courses.jpg (6677 bytes) but there are instruments with 3 or 5 or even 6 courses. The courses (where there are 4) are tuned GDAE respectively. Since the folk revival, similar instruments have been made, but not necessarily given the same names! There is a continuous debate about the names of some members of this family, their characteristics and origins. The main characteristic of the family however is that they all have paired strings (called courses) tuned in unison or octaves.

Mandolin Types

Mandolin family instruments are made in two basic types - the bowl back or Neapolitan mandolin ('taterbug') and the flatback style originated by Orville Gibson.

Flatback mandolins and mandolas are by far the most popular style now and are made by many manufacturers around the world. The plainest have a flat soundboard and fretboard but the more expensive have a radiused (slightly curved) fretboard and a carved (again slightly curved) soundboard. The larger instruments (mandocello, mandobass) went out of favour but some luthiers will hand make them to order and a few mainstream manufacurers now make them again. Ovation, Weber, Ratliff and Moon all do Mandocellos. Very few make Mandobasses as there is only a small market so to get one, it's either vintage or a good luthier.