Many violinists play mandolin. Do you know all subtleties between these 2 music instruments?
The mandolin and the violin seem very different, the first one is part of the plucked string instruments and the second one of the bowed string instruments. But, they both have many similarities. Your knowledge about the violin will help you to improve very quickly your mandolin practice and vice versa. These 2 instruments combine ideally.
The mandolin can really improve your violinist performances and compositions. Let’s find out why.
The origins of the mandolin
The mandolin is a plucked-stringed musical instrument originally from Italy. It is a small short-necked lute that is used in classical, folk or traditional music. It is primarily associated with the Neapolitan song and its many serenades. For example, the well-known image of the gentleman playing and singing a serenade to seduce a young lady…
The mandolin is therefore a very old instrument that has been inherited from the lute. It has existed in dozens of different forms and tessitura. It started out having very similar shapes to the lute and then evolved into its present shape. It experienced its boom during the 18th century with the Neapolitan mandolin, which is tuned in fifths just like the violin. One of the signs of the popularity of the mandolin, and of its relationship with the violin, at that time, is the fact that Antonio Stradivari not only made violins but also mandolins.
The mandolin is played by plucking the strings with the help of a pick, also known as plectrum. It has 4 pairs of metal strings that are equivalent to those of a violin. This means that it has 2 G strings, 2 D, 2 A and lastly 2 E strings. We use the term “pairs of strings” because “each string has a twin string”. They are put together two by two and tuned together on the same frequency.
Since the mandolin has never been really standardized in terms of sizes and shapes, it can be found in many forms. Today, we can usually find mandolins with either a bowl back (Neapolitan mandolin) or a flat back (Gibson mandolin).
When it comes to classical music, Vivaldi and Beethoven are two of the most prominent mandolin concertos composers. Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas for mandolin are also very often quoted. Here below you will find an example with Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in D major featuring Julien Martineau on the mandolin, accompanied by the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France.
Vladimir Cosma, film score composer, who has also composed concertos for mandolin, explained the following on France Culture:
Why the mandolin? I am a violinist myself. Between the violin and the mandolin, there is a fundamental link. You have the same tuning among the strings. In fact, the mandolin is basically a violin without a bow, and it is played by plucking the strings. As a violinist, I have always been very attracted to plucked strings. […] The mandolin is an instrument in its own right, it is a major instrument that is entirely self-sufficient. It is part of a rich family of instruments that allows for a vast and interesting repertoire.
A very large number of violinists and mandolinists have played or play these two instruments. Niccolò Paganini, the famous genovese composer, violinist and guitarist, also started with the mandolin. French mandolinist Vincent Beer-Demander states the following:
The mandolin is easy, the same logic of the violin applies, and it has all the advantages of the guitar. Besides, you don’t have all those precision problems because you play with a pick. […] It’s an easy instrument to learn. You can easily play tunes and get very quickly to the fun part.
Differences and similarities between a violin and a mandolin
Mandolins and violins are almost similar in size and weight. However, the mandolin is slightly larger, and therefore a little heavier.
A classical violin will have modern style F-holes, just like the Gibson F-style mandolin, while the Neapolitan mandolin will have a large oval hole in the middle. In fact, the ancestors of the violin, such as the rebec, had much simpler sound holes. For instance, at first, they had simple circles, then semi-circles, and so on, until they reached the complex shape of the F-hole.
The neck and fingerboard are not necessarily identical. A mandolin has a perfectly flat neck and fingerboard, unlike a violin which has a curved neck and fingerboard.
On the other hand, both instruments have a bridge that is merely placed over the body of the instrument. This bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings.
Click on the pic to display it in hi-res
Both instruments have the same tessitura: G, D, A, E. But they have a different number of strings. The violin uses 4 strings, and the mandolin has actually 8 strings. They are arranged and paired up, and then each pair is tuned to the same note. That means that on a mandolin there are two strings in each position. This variation is partly responsible for the sound difference between the two instruments.
The mandolin is one of the predecessors of the lute, but it eventually leaned towards the violin. In fact, the mandolin as we know it today was standardized at the same time as the violin became recognized as a solo instrument, which had a major influence on its evolution.
The mandolin has frets, while the violin is fretless (except in some rare cases). It is easier to find the right chords when you have frets, especially when playing the most complex positions. Although it will feel very strange for a violinist to have to rely on frets, they actually make the learning of any instrument a lot easier. The frets themselves are a great point of reference.
Our Ambassador, Jonathan H. Warren, is also a mandolin player. He plays both instruments on stage, and can switch from one to the other without any real difficulty.
Repertoires and methods
The violin is commonly associated with classical music repertoires. However, it is actually found in all musical styles. It is just a quick shortcut that is all too often used to describe bowed string instruments. The mandolin is often found in baroque, country, folk and traditional music as well as many other styles. Moreover, both instruments are often combined in music styles such as Irish folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, among others.
We cannot fail to mention Chris Thile, who is a prominent American mandolin player, member of the Grammy Award winning bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers. He also performs as a mandolin soloist with orchestras and accompanied by different musicians to perform more contemporary music styles.
Here below you will find a video from a performance featuring Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau playing the song Scarlet Town, released in 2017 as part of their eponymous duet album.
The earliest known methods and compositions for mandolin date back to the 17th century. And at that time, many of them consisted of methods for switching from the violin to the mandolin, such as Gabriel Leone’s Méthode raisonnée pour passer du Violon à la Mandoline (published in English with the title “Analytical Method for Mastering the Violin or the Mandolin”).
When the mandolin adopted the tuning in fifths, the violin was the most popular instrument, which is why it was used as a reference. As a result, dozens of methods emerged explaining the transition from bowing techniques to those involving a pick. And the pieces composed for the violin were adapted for the mandolin. It was during this period that specific playing techniques for the mandolin, such as the tremolo, were developed.
The bow and the playing techniques
The bow is the cornerstone of the violin’s sound! But it is useless on the mandolin, since this instrument is played by plucking the strings with a pick. As a result, many of the distinctive techniques and sounds of the bow will disappear in the mandolin. About this, Chris Thile told Laurie Niles, violinist.com:
There’s twice as many strings as a violin — and half as much sonic capability. But it is a fun little instrument.
Its reduced sound capacity is largely due to the absence of the bow. This tool, which is so difficult to master, is the source of the great sound diversity that violins offer. With a mandolin, sounds are produced with the help of a pick (or plectrum) held in the right hand. Therefore, the sound possibilities are limited.
With a mandolin, say goodbye to those long notes that last when you move the bow back and forth! The only way to make them last is to try and overuse tremolo techniques.
That’s why composers have replaced those long violin notes with repetitive notes that need to be played with a particular rhythm. You will find an example here below with Antonio Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C major, performed by Avi Avital on the mandolin and accompanied by the Venice Baroque Orchestra.
The tremolo also provides the possibility to play a diverse sound palette. The tremolo technique on a mandolin can actually produce very soft or very powerful sounds.
By simply plucking the strings with the pick, the note tends to fade quite quickly. And this is even more noticeable in the highest positions. The lowest-pitched string usually has more resonance, but naturally, it too will fade in a fairly short time. The tremolo can be used to generate a sound gradation that starts with a fairly soft and weak note, until it gradually builds up to a very present and powerful one.
All rhythmic techniques executed with a bow, such as chopping, can easily be performed with a mandolin. We invite you to read the article How to groove with a bow? co-written by two chop experts: Jonathan H. Warren and Tracy Silverman. Besides, in the article, Jonathan explains very clearly that this type of techniques used on violins is largely inspired by mandolins and guitars.
Another technique used in mandolin is the tapping technique, also used in the guitar. It involves performing tapping patterns using the right hand, while the left hand executes chord positions.
Slaps and slides can also be exploited to obtain new tones. In fact, most guitar techniques and tools used to produce new tones (such as capos, slides, etc.) can be used on a mandolin.
Why do most violin players try to play the mandolin?
All the similarities mentioned above are behind that fact. There is such a great degree of congruence between these two instruments that the switching from one to the other is very easy.
However, this transition is much simpler when switching from the violin to the mandolin because the techniques involving the bow no longer apply on a mandolin. Conversely, it will take a while for the mandolin player to master the bow movements required on a violin. Likewise, he/she will have to learn how to find the positions of the notes without using frets.
Every single violinist has placed his violin on his belly like a guitar at some point in order to locate some notes and melodies. It is a natural gesture that every violinist makes! But if, being in this position, you replace the violin with a mandolin, you would be ready to play that new instrument.
When a violinist grabs a mandolin, his first reaction is often to notice how easily his left hand finds the right spot on the neck. On the other hand, if the violinist has never used a guitar before, he will be a little confused by the movements of the right hand (and the lack of bow).
The fact that the violin and the mandolin share the same tessitura makes the playing very easy. The fingers of your left hand will naturally find their position on the neck. Of course, nothing is ever achieved on the first try! Just as when you go from a 4-string violin to a 5-string violin, you will have to find or identify some points of reference and sensations in order to adjust your playing and technique.
The usual sense of frustration encountered by any instrumentalist when first starting to play a new instrument will be less pronounced for a violinist starting to play the mandolin. By using his knowledge of the violin, any violinist can quickly learn how to play tunes with a mandolin.
Playing the mandolin can also help a novice violinist to mentally understand the positions of the left hand for the violin. The existence of frets makes it easier to identify the positions, which will make easier to reproduce them on the violin.
Seriously, if you are a violinist, take that step! Your technique as a violinist will definitely simplify things when learning to play the mandolin.
Tips and tricks for getting started by Jonathan
Jonathan has always been a violinist, and he chose to start learning the mandolin many years after he started playing the violin. Here are some of the main things he noticed when he started playing the mandolin, and some tips to quickly improve your skills.
Mastering your picking technique
When he first started, he noticed that he had some difficulties manipulating the pick on the strings properly. He felt that he was constantly failing to keep control of his picking motion with his right hand, especially as soon as he reached a particular tempo. He needed to observe the movement of his right hand so he could find the correct positioning. Jonathan recommends using the fingers of the right hand that are not holding the pick to touch the body of the instrument while playing. This will allow you to identify the position of your hand in relation to the mandolin and therefore to the strings. The point of reference he uses is the pickguard, which is the tortoiseshell or hardwood plate that prevents the instrument from being damaged by the picking strokes.
Adapting to the strings
The first adjustment concerns the type of string and the string pairs. First of all, the strings have a significantly different feel, which may be upsetting to some violinists. Also, since there are two strings in each position, the fingers of your left hand should get used to pressing on both strings at the same time. Your knowledge about the positions of your left hand on the violin will make your learning process much easier. Besides, the existence of frets will also greatly help you to find each position. Even if it will still take some time to be able to apply the pressure in the right place (not directly on the fret, otherwise the sound will be muffled and barely perceptible).
Focusing on a rhythmic grid
Jonathan has noticed that, at first, we tend to limit ourselves to a simple rhythm pattern consisting of plucking the strings in only one direction (usually when your right hand moves downwards). But as soon as you get a little more comfortable, and feel the need to play faster, you need to adapt this movement. Jonathan suggests staying within the same rhythmic grid by keeping the same movement but going upwards in a regular motion, from bottom to top. While only allowing the pick to touch the strings when it matches the rhythm you are trying to follow. It’s different from playing a violin with a bow. On the violin, typically, if a note is made with a down-bow stroke, the following note will be made with an up-bow stroke.
This way of playing the mandolin is related to that of the guitar. It is much more dynamic because each note will naturally be played on the beat. Moreover, it will also help you improve your technique as a violinist (see Jonathan’s article on this subject).
In order to obtain long and sustained notes, all those that are so easily achieved with a bow, Jonathan advises to use tremolo and any other creative techniques that allow you to incorporate more notes.
The perception of sound in an environment
The perception of the sound played can also be quite confusing. A violinist is used to hearing the sound in a clear and direct way. His ear is pressed against the soundboard of his violin. However, with a mandolin, he will perceive the sound in a more airy, distant and remote way. This will change the way he plays depending on his surrounding environment.
Do not hesitate to follow Jonathan’s YouTube channel. He publishes new videos regulary. They will allow you to discover and learn new violinists techniques.
Which mandolin should I choose?
The Neapolitan mandolin
The Neapolitan mandolin emerged in the middle of the 18th century. It has a very curved sound box and the sound hole in the soundboard has an oval shape.
Its neck is narrower than the other models that will be mentioned next. This mandolin is currently the most common and the most used in baroque music.
Gibson A and F model mandolins
These two mandolins are in fact an evolution of the traditional Neapolitan mandolin. They were created in the 20th century in the United States. These creations are attributed to Orville Gibson, the founder of the Gibson company, who was directly inspired by the making of bowed string instruments.
Mainly used in bluegrass and country music, these two mandolins have a slightly curved soundboard and an almost flat body. Their necks are a little wider than those of the traditional Neapolitan mandolin.
While the Gibson F model mandolin has F-holes just like a violin, the Gibson A model preserves the oval-shaped sound hole under the strings found on the Neapolitan mandolin.
They each have their own shape. The A model mandolin is an evolution of the very elongated and rounded pear shape found on the Neapolitan mandolin. The original shapes have been stretched across the width taking on the shape of an almond.
The design of the F model has absolutely nothing to do with the Neapolitan mandolin. Its curves have become a reference in mandolin making. Some people claim that the two points located at the bottom of the body were added by Gibson to improve the instrument’s stability on the player’s body.
Since then, these evolutions of shape have been adopted by many luthiers and are part of contemporary designs. The F and A models are sometimes blended together. In fact, there are now models available on the market that have the shape of the A model but with the F-holes of the F model.
The Mandola or Tenor Mandola
It is the equivalent of the viola in the bowed string instrument family. Its tessitura changes and becomes: C, G, D, A (from low to high).
Its tuning is one octave lower than the tenor mandola. As you may have guessed by now, it is the equivalent of the cello in a bowed string quartet.
As their name suggests, they are not acoustic but electric. They no longer have a sound box but a solid body coupled with a pickup that allows to transcribe the sound waves.
Traditional mandolins and other similar instruments
There are dozens of them and it would be impossible to include them all in this article because many countries and regions of the world have adopted, and adapted, the mandolin. Among them we can find the Algerian mandolin, the cetera (Corsica), the bandurria (Spain), the banjolin or mandolin-banjo (United States), the Irish mandolin, the saz or baglama (Turkey), the bouzouki (Greece), the bandolim (Portugal, Brazil), etc. These instruments are sometimes unknown to the general public since they are played almost exclusively in a very defined geographical area.
Sources and images: France Culture, violinist.com, Wikipedia, France Musique, Jonathan H. Warren, mandolins makers.