What are the Different Types of Mandolin?

There are a few different styles of mandolin available on the market, each of which evolved from the early musical models of the lute in the Middle Ages.

Typically players will use either an A style or F style, but there are other similar instruments invented for the purpose of mandolin orchestras, which is an orchestra that features primarily instruments from the mandolin family.

The two most commonly found mandolin types in current times include the A style and F style mandolin. You can also find the occasional antique bowl-back mandolin.

With this article we will delve into some brief history on how the different shapes emerged, as well as price points and musical styles that work best on each.

There are both bluegrass and folk mandolins. Bluegrass mandolins have differently shaped sound holes that allow the instrument to produce a good chop (chords that leave no open strings).

Folk mandolins have deeper, larger bodies with oval sound holes, as opposed to bluegrass mandolins that make use of f-shaped sound holes.

In folk mandolins, you will most often find flat tops and backs without carving.


A Style

The A style mandolin has a pear- or tear-shaped body, or A-shape, which is where it gets its name, of course. This instrument is very streamlined and simple in design, which puts it at a lower price point than F style mandolins, for example.

Due to its simple design and lower cost, the A style tends to be better for beginner players. This shape has been around since the mandolin was invented, but the instrument used to be made with a bowl back.

This rounded back lent to an interesting sound but created some difficulty for the player holding and using it. In the early 1900s, during a great peak in mandolin popularity after the Paris World Fair of 1892, Gibson redesigned the instrument.

It was also at this time the F style was invented. A style mandolins today share a similar profile with a guitar. The sleek and flat back makes them very easy to hold against the body.

A style mandolins are favoured among beginner players, but also lend nicely to folk styles and Celtic music.


F Style

F style mandolins get their name from Florentine style.

F style mandolins are favoured by bluegrass, roots and professional players. They feature fancier design work including a scroll and point, and are at a higher price point.

They may not be ideal for the beginner player on a budget, but they are beautiful instruments that add a great deal of flare to the playing experience.

The F style mandolin was designed by Gibson in the early 1900s as a top of the line instrument, incorporating traditional mandolin design and sound while giving it a flat back and scrollwork on the body.

These extra design elements to the F style put it at a higher price point that the simpler A styles.

These mandolins have, in addition to their lavish embellishments, two f-holes like a violin or a single oval hole. The extra curlycues in the body increase the body volume, which contributes to the overall sound.

This extra element also makes it easier to place the instrument on one’s thigh, so when the player is seated and playing, the instrument stays in place without much effort.


Bowl-back/Neapolitan

The bowl-back is exactly as it sounds: a fretted string instrument with a very round back that sits against the player like a bowl. It is the style of mandolin often depicted in film or television as a stereotype of the instrument.

It is also known as a taterbug or watermelon. This is a very old-fashioned style of mandolin that resembles early Italian lutes, the instrument from which the modern day mandolin evolved.

The deep bowl makes for deeper tones than the flatback styles, but they are rare to find. Often they are antique lute-violin hybrids and run a high cost.

They are less practical for playing purposes, but have undeniable strong tonal resonance.

Other Instruments in the Mandolin Family

Mandola/Tenor mandola


The mandola is tuned a fifth lower than a mandolin, and is slightly larger. It is tuned CGDA.

Bouzouki/Octave mandolin

This instrument is one octave below a mandolin, using GDAE tuning. The Bouzouki is tuned an octave below the mandolin, like an octave mandolin, but has a longer scale length.

It has pairs of strings, but the lower strings (G and D) are tuned one string an octave above the other.

Mandocello

This instrument was invented by Gibson for mandolin orchestras, tuned an octave below the mandola at CGDA. It is similar to the bouzouki but has thicker/heavier strings to produce the deep sound.

Mandobass

The mandobass only has four strings that are tuned EADG. It was invented in the early 1900s by Gibson for mandolin orchestras.

How to Tremolo Pick a Mandolin

If you are into the mandolin and have done some reading, you will have come across the word tremolo. You’ve no doubt heard the tremolo picking in a song. With this article we’ll explain the tremolo picking, its place in music and how you can master this key mandolin technique.

What is tremolo?

Tremolo is rather simple to explain: it refers to the rapid picking of one note in an alternating picking motion (down, up, down, up). The trick to playing a good tremolo is to play as quickly as possible. It can be difficult to learn at first, as you have to maintain a steady rhythm while picking with great speed. There are two kinds of tremolo:

Free tremolo

This type of tremolo is a very expressive one that allows for varying speed in order to effectively emote through the mandolin. For example, you may speed up and then slow down to express elevated emotion, to intensify the feeling given through the music. This is a style used in music without defined or strong beat, like ballads and classical music.

Measured tremolo

As you might guess from its name, this tremolo involves a measured or steady and intentional rapid picking. For example, you will find this style used in bluegrass, where the strong beat, inspired by rock n roll, will use four strokes per beat in a fast tempo, six strokes per beat for medium tempos, and up to twelve strokes for slow tempos.

Why use tremolo

As mentioned before, tremolo is used to accentuate moments in the song to express an intense feeling. It is also a great way to showcase your talent on the mandolin. Tremolo is very useful when there is one sustained note (with long duration): it breaks up the note and accentuates it within the song. Tremolo sounds especially beautiful on the mandolin since the strings are in pairs. When you stroke down and up you create a unique ringing that has come to be known as one of the main characteristics of mandolin.

Tremolo is the only way to keep a note going on the mandolin, due to its acoustics. It is also a very effective way to express a feeling through the strings.

How to play tremolo

Tremolo is a rather difficult technique when you are new to the instrument, but with significant practice you will be able to master it soon enough.

Listen to examples of a bow on a violin: this is the effect you are going for. Rapid sound produced by picking down and up repeatedly, in order to sustain a note or intensify it.

In addition to physical practice, it is very useful to listen to audio examples of tremolo so you know what sound to produce. The trick is all in the right hand and more specifically, the wrist. The trick to good mandolin playing is keeping a very loose wrist and loose hold on the pick. Open, loose movement will allow you to play tremolo easily and without straining your muscles inappropriately. Beginner players will often anchor their right hands by setting their pinky and/or ring finger down. Remember, as you hold the pick, to curl your fingers in toward your palm. Believe it or not, this will greatly increase your wrist flexibility and help you practice the proper picking technique.

To begin, we have provided exercises that are easy on the left hand in order to focus on the right hand technique.

Select a note with your left hand anywhere on the fretboard. When you have selected your note, tap your foot to a steady beat counting 1, 2, 3, 4, or use a metronome. Pick the string down and up, down and up, going slowly at first. Try to fit 4 strokes into a single beat.

This technique will be achieved with great patience and practice. Make the note last long enough to practice by counting to four as you pick up and down. This will keep you on a steady tempo. When you reach four, move to a second note and repeat: count to four while you pick down up, down up. It helps to keep one’s pick on the strings at all times, in order to reach your next note and keep a consistent musical flow to your playing/the sound you’re producing.

Tremolo underlies many if not most mandolin compositions. Listen to any classical Italian mandolin composition and you will recognize the technique right away. It’s undeniable!

The more you practice, the more natural it will become. You will be able to move more by feeling than a concentrated application of pick to string. Tremolo is a picking method that comes from deep feeling, and is thus communicated through an organic flow: you will feel the music and flow with it.

The more you practice, the faster you will be able to go. Remember to exercise patience and work tremolo into your every practice, for it is perhaps the most crucial mandolin trick to learn.

Here is a video that should help show you how it’s done.

5 Famous Female Mandolin Players

Sierra Hull

 Sierra Hull is an American bluegrass musician. She sings and plays guitar and mandolin. She was signed to Rounder Records at the very young age of 13 and released a debut album three years later at 16, which hit #2 on the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

She is from Tennessee, where she attended high school before accepting a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music.

She began playing mandolin at the age of eight, and was surrounded by a family of music lovers who play with her and took her to bluegrass festivals. She performed with Alison Krauss at the White House in 2011.

Her talents are recognized internationally: she has received five International Bluegrass Music Association nominations and received the Bluegrass Star Award in 2013.

This award is given to musicians who serve to advance traditional bluegrass music by bringing it to new audiences while preserving its heritage.

Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent is an American multi-instrumentalist, singing and playing mandolin, guitar and fiddle. Her career has spanned more than four decades, achieving success in the bluegrass genre in the 1970s, exhibiting progressive chord structures and multi-range vocals. In this time her peers were mostly male, and they respected her for her outstanding vocal and instrumental talents. Over the years, she has appeared on records with Dolly Parton, Alan Jackson and Tanya Tucker.

Her entire family is musical; the family sang on the Sally Mountain Show. She began playing mandolin at the age of eight, guitar at 10 and later the fiddle. She lived in a small town, but her family was full of musicians, so whenever she was home, they would all play together.

She sings bluegrass, folk and gospel, performing solo as well as with her band Rhonda Vincent & The Rage. She has won several awards from International Bluegrass Music Association and Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. She is known as the Queen of Bluegrass. 

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz is another young musical prodigy on our list. Born in Texas in 1991, she began playing mandolin at the age of 10 and released her debut album Song Up in Her Head, which she co-produced.

This album was released in 2009, and in the same year she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, graduating with a degree in Contemporary Improvisation.

To this day, she has released four studio albums, her most recent winning a Grammy award for Best Folk Album. She has seen a lot of success and has been widely received with awe and admiration at her talent.

She has been referred to as a contemporary-bluegrass prodigy and is revered as one of acoustic music’s most promising young talents.

In addition to mastering the mandolin, Sarah also plays the clawhammer banjo and octave mandolin. The octave mandolin has four pairs of strings in G, D, A and E, but is an octave below the mandolin.

She has covered many well-known songs in addition to her own written pieces, and has collaborated with many artists such as Jerry Douglas and Darrell Scott. Critics greatly anticipate what is yet to come of this young woman.

Caterina Lichtenberg

Caterina Lichtenberg was raised in Germany and graduated from the Music Conservatory in Cologne with the highest honours, where she now teaches as Professor of Classical Mandolin. Interestingly, this is the only position of its kind in the world today.

For over two decades, she has been recording, teaching and touring throughout the world including Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and South and North Americas. She is regarded as one of the most important mandolinists on the planet. She has covered pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and collaborated with Mike Marshall, American mandolinist, combining their bluegrass, classical and jazz styles.

Caterina has released 10 albums to date, all in chamber music settings. She is a specialist on early period instruments, and has recorded on a 1775 mandolin as per invitation from the Ferdinandeum Museum in Innsbruck. She has performed with many orchestras internationally, and festivals. Her talents have also landed her positions of juror and lecturer at mandolin conventions and academies.

Sharon Gilchrist

Sharon Gilchrist is an American mandolin player and instructor. She also sings and composes in the bluegrass style. She was raised in Texas and began playing mandolin when she was eight years old. At just nine years old, she and brother Troy Gilchrist played in a band together, which went on for another seven years. she had even played in this band with forming members of what would become the Dixie Chicks.

She moved to Nashville Tennessee to study mandolin after graduating high school. Since then she has performed and arranged music for several musicians. After her band Mary and Mars disbanded, she joined Uncle Earl, a team of female musicians who incorporated dance into their performances.

She plays bluegrass/Americana roots style, and is currently writing and recording music for films. She also teaches private lessons and mandolin workshops at music camps.

10 Famous Mandolin Rock Songs

Here is a song called Come With Me My Giselle that dates back to around 1300, so you can hear how mandolin originally sounded back then when played by the bards of the day.

In terms of playing, the mandolin is an instrument that requires organic movement with loose wrists.  It is a very moody sounding instrument, whether it plays a happy tune or a sad one.

Mandolins In Rock Music?  Yes, Please!

Because of its past, many people don’t expect mandolins to show up in classic and / or modern rock music.  These days, you more often hear mandolin in bluegrass bands.

And yet, once in a while, it does make an appearance in a rock song with either a cool riff or sometimes it is the featured instrument of the entire song. Doubters might question the combination of rock and mandolin.  But not to worry, it usually sounds not just good, but often great!

Popular bands you know and love like Led Zeppelin, R.E.M., and the White Stripes have employed the unique sound of this instrument in some of their best loved songs!

So, here are 10 of the most popular, famous and indeed best mandolin rock songs ever written.  They might even make you want to pick up the instrument and learn to play.  Have fun listening to these great tunes and hearing some of their backstory to boot!

Friend of the Devil – Grateful Dead

This song was released in 1970, a popular era for the use of mandolin.  Acoustic strings were widely used in rock songs of the time.

It is highly popular and to this day is covered by many musicians, for it features G scale notes and acoustic instrumentation. Definitely one of the best rock songs with mandolin out there.

The lyrics describe a man who is on the run, though his crime is never fully explained.

It says, “A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine,” though it is clear through the lyrics that the character is on the run from all the questionable choices he’s made, and the circle will never break.

And here’s a live version of Friend of the Devil, featuring famed mandolin player David Grisman playing along with Jerry Garcia.

For interest’ sake, here are the handwritten lyrics that the ‘Dead wrote themselves.


Battle of Evermore – Led Zeppelin

Released in 1971, this folk duet is about Lord of the Rings, and mandolin would be a natural choice of instrument for this one.  The Battle of Evermore is sometimes lovingly referred to as “the Led Zeppelin song with mandolin”.

Page played the mandolin for this track, although it belonged to Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.  Page once explained the writing of the song, saying “The Battle of Evermore was made up on the spot by Robert and myself. I just picked up John Paul Jones’s mandolin, never having played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting.”

The mandolin, as you may have noticed, is a rather small instrument and it’s favoured for its portability, as musicians would travel and tell stories using the instrument.  These people were called bards.  This song carries on that legend, using imagery from the popular fantasy series to create a bard-worthy tale.

There isn’t a huge amount of live Led Zeppelin footage, but here’s the band playing The Battle of Evermore back in 1977.  Interesting to see how they pull it off live, with JPJ and his crazy multi-necked guitar and unique vocal additions.

Did you know, Zep’s Going to California also features mandolin?


Maggie May – Rod Stewart

Another song from the early 1970s, this is one of Rod Stewart’s best known tracks. It describes a relationship between a boy and older woman, and is based on his personal experience.

Rod himself said that the song is about his first sexual encounter with a lady at the 1961 Beaulieu Jazz Festival.  So that’s what the song is about, but the name Maggie May was apparently “… an old Liverpudlian song about a prostitute.”  Interesting.

It was a widely regarded song, topping the UK charts not to mention the USA, Canada, and Australia back in 1971.

On the recording, the actual player of the mandolin was Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne.  Rather insultingly, Stewart’s sleevenotes for Every Picture Tells A Story read: “The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.”

Another great Rod Stewart track featuring mandolin is Mandolin Wind.


Losing My Religion – R.E.M.

This song might be tied with Battle of Evermore for having the most recognizable riff, both played on the mandolin. This is without a doubt R.E.M.’s most popular song to date.

It was released in 1991 as their first single from album Out of Time, which went on to lift the band to new heights of fame and fortune.

The guitarist, Peter Buck, had just purchased a mandolin, was learning how to play it, and recording any riffs he practiced.  He was a little sick of being associated with the guitar at the time.

Essentially this riff for Losing My Religion is what helped him learn mandolin, and ironically is one of the most popular songs the band have written to date – probably THE most popular, actually. Often the most organically formed songs become the best known.

Here’s what Buck told Guitar School in 1991: “I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind of like those “Driver 8” chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.

“We then worked it up in the studio – it was written with electric bass, drums, and mandolin. So it had a hollow feel to it. There’s absolutely no midrange on it, just low end and high end, because Mike usually stayed pretty low on the bass. This was when we decided we’d get Peter (Holsapple) to record with us, and he played live acoustic guitar on this one. It was really cool: Peter and I would be in our little booth, sweating away, and Bill and Mike would be out there in the other room going at it. It just had a really magical feel.”

As an added bonus, here’s Michael Stipe talking about how the mandolin came to be part of Losing My Religion.


Little Ghost – White Stripes

This song is more recent, released in 2005. The mandolin is not commonly used by this band, but adds a great rhythm to the song and makes use of Jack White’s interest in folk songs.

Prior to this album, The White Stripes typically had a very rocky, raw sound, like garage rock.  But Jack White, ever the experimenter, was not one to shy away from mandolin when the time came.

This album had a very folk and acoustic sound. The mandolin in this song is simple and rhythmic, fast and undeniably catchy.

Here’s a great live version of Little Ghost that shows how this song could essentially have been written centuries ago and been a hit in the late 1800’s.  Jack and Meg just have that old type of soul, I guess.


Love in Vain – Rolling Stones

This song takes the Rolling Stones to the roots of down-home blues, not a sound they are known for unless you’re a dedicated Stones fan, but wonderfully refreshing and heartfelt if you give it a listen.

The acoustic instrument with slide guitar pulls on your heartstrings. The mandolin comes in at the 2-minute mark during an instrumental break to give a full roots/blues feel.

This song was released in 1969, originally written by bluesman Robert Johnson, who used a departing train as a metaphor for loss and unrequited love. On the recording, famed musician Ry Cooder steps in to do mandolin duties on the song.  An awesome piece of work!

It seems to be well known in the mandolin community that Stones’ songs and mandolin go together well.  Here is an epic cover of Paint It Black that helps prove that point, played on an “Uber-rare 1931 Kay Kraft Mandola.”


Copperhead Road – Steve Earle

Released in 1988, this album combines bluegrass with heavy metal. The songs introduce country music’s storytelling to the rhythms and chords of rock music.

The title track Copperhead Road is about a Vietnam War veteran who returns to Tennessee to sell marijuana.

Copperhead Road is a real road, and the song was so popular that the road had to be renamed to Copperhead Hollow Road to stop people stealing the street signs.

It has also been used as theme music for the TV show Moonshiners, and for line dancing.

Here’s a cool video showing how Copperhead Road is played, up close and personal.  Nice!

And here’s Moonshiners!


St. Teresa – Joan Osborne

This song is inspired by a woman who would sell drugs openly on a street corner, with her child in a stroller next to her.

Joan would see this woman from her apartment window. The mandolin is very softly strummed throughout the song but adds a poignant jangle.

St. Teresa of course was the first canonized woman/nun, a figure to whom female Catholics relate and idolize.

Here’s Joan and her band playing the tune on Letterman back in 1996.  Mandolin sounded great that time as well!


Boat on the River – Styx

This is possibly the best example of mandolin use on this list.

The mandolin is accompanied by an accordion, stand-up bass and acoustic guitar, and revives a very traditional mandolin sound with minor chords, solo picking and tremolo strumming during the instrumental bits.

Boat On The River sounds just like a medieval folk song, and it comes from their album Cornerstone.  The band themselves are probably best remembered for Mr. Roboto, a very un-folksy sounding song if you know it (who doesn’t?)

If you’re interested in learning this awesome song, here’s a great tutorial.


Rag Mama Rag – The Band

Another example of honky-tonk train blues, this song sounds just like one you’d hear a band playing when you walked into a western saloon.

It sounds like a fun loose song, but all the playing is right on point and will get you grooving.

It is one of their most famous songs: fans loved it for its toe-tapping fun. It’s so lively it could be in an old cartoon.

Hey, thanks for checking out our list, but we’re not quite done.  Here are a few more mandolin-based songs that you might know featuring Chris Cornell, the Goo Goo Dolls, and the Lumineers.  We just couldn’t leave these gems off the list.

Now we want to show you some cool mandolin covers of rock songs we came across that you might enjoy listening to.

Cool Mandolin Covers of Rock Songs