The Mandolin: No, It’s Not a Ukelele

Raise your hand if you have heard of a mandolin. I expect no hands. No one has heard of a mandolin. Lucky for you, though, I have! My dear father is an avid mandolin player. When I first started writing for the Spectrum, my dad requested that I write an article about a mandolin. I have put this article off again and again, but the day has come. I cannot put this article off any longer. This is the day that I will be educating the general public of NDSU on what a mandolin is, and why it matters. 

Mandolins are an 8-stringed instrument, commonly mistaken for a ukulele or “circle-guitar.” Neither of those is true. Not even close. Mandolins are much cooler. Also, circle guitars do not exist(I don’t think). Mandolins are tuned like violins, comprised of four courses of string pairs tuned G D A E. These pairs are played as if they were single strings. In a highly professional interview with my father, he explained, “Whether these strings are plucked or strummed, the combination of the mandolin’s higher timbre and dual-string arrangement produces a unique piercing resonant quality which cuts through where other plucked instruments may become lost.” Wow, Dad. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Another thing to admire about mandolins is their simplicity. Their tuning, GDAE and in fifths, makes for an elegantly symmetrical fretboard. Most chords can be played with two fingers, which not only makes learning chords fairly convenient but also makes switching between chords significantly less stressful.

Mandolins are conveniently portable. Mandolins, in A or F styles, are typically about two feet long and less than two feet wide. One of my dad’s favorite things about his mandolins is their size. My mom simply cannot get mad at him for “taking up too much space” with these instruments. They take up virtually no space, as long as you don’t collect multiple of them. Then, they might take up a good chunk of space. Sorry, Mom. Moving on, my dad also loves that the size of mandolins makes them perfect for throwing in a backseat to take to a campfire. Or anywhere else that you might need a folksy instrument.

Mandolins are a niche instrument in their own right, resulting in an uncommon bond between players. It exists in musical worlds famous for their traditions of community playing and oral traditions, such as Bluegrass and Old Time/Irish Sessions. These communities are known for being some of the most uplifting and welcoming musical communities in existence. Traditional Irish Sessions, a long-standing feature in many Irish pubs, find a similar commitment to oral tradition. Musicians at these sessions learn music by ear and pick up new tunes from each other with the hope of passing them along and keeping them alive for centuries to come.

Now that I have covered the amazing aspects of mandolins, please allow me to tell you my completely unbiased opinions of why mandolins are better than other instruments.

First, they are better than guitars because they are more conveniently sized. Who wants to carry around a guitar the size of their torso? Not me. Mandolins are the perfect size.

Second, mandolins are better than ukuleles because they have more strings. More strings equals more cool.

Third, Mandolins are better than flutes because they don’t require excessive breathing. I have asthma. Flutes were not built for me. Mandolins were.

I hope that any readers out there who were unsure of what their next instrument purchase would be have gained some clarity in the reading of this article. I would also like to acknowledge that much of the factual information in this article was retrieved from the musical encyclopedia that is my father. He is far more knowledgeable about instruments than I am. Especially mandolins. Thanks, Dad. You’re a real one. 

Once again, I hope that I have been able to persuade someone, anyone, to buy a mandolin next time they get the urge to buy an instrument. Mandolins truly have a beautiful sound and are incredibly easy to learn. Maybe even I will learn the mandolin now. Maybe we can learn together. Private lessons with my dad? I’m down. Are you?

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