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Mandolin Diversity
© Frank Ford, 7/12/00; Photos by FF, 1/1/00

The oldest style mandolins had bodies made of many small staves formed into a bowl shape:

These are known as the Neapolitan, Italian, or
"bowl back" mandolins. They have a short scale length, around 13" or about the same as a violin.

The flat back cousin of the bowl back mandolin is the Portuguese style, which, like the bowl back, has a bend in the face right where the bridge sits, to accommodate the string angle over the bridge downward toward the tailpiece:

These flat instruments and the bowl backs are made of thin woods and are quite light in weight, brute strength, and tonal volume. They have a characteristic "sweet tone" frequently the choice of classical and Celtic musicians.

This mandolin has a flat face in addition to a flat back:

It is constructed as simply as possible to keep the cost reasonable, and is an ideal "starter" instrument.

Soundwise, the most powerful mandolins are the "arched" or "carved" instruments, so named because their tops and backs are contoured and carved from solid blocks of wood. The carved instruments tend to have a long scale, nearly 14 inches.

Gibson developed the carved instruments as we know them; today we use the original Gibson model designations to describe their body shapes.

The "A" body is a pear shape:

While the "A" body is often seen with an oval soundhole as above, it is also made with

The name "f-hole" refers to the shape of the soundholes, and leads to a bit of confusion with the other major body style, the "F."

The "F" body has a characteristic "scroll" on the bass side, and may be made with f-holes, as this one:

or with an oval soundhole, like this:

The most vocal and demanding group of mandolin players is the community of bluegrass musicians, who insist on the loudest and strongest possible instruments. They play the f-hole style almost exclusively. The f-hole top and more centralized bridge location allow for greater bass response than the oval hole instrument. Many musicians prefer the oval hole for different styles playing.

As a general rule if all things are equal (same maker, quality, etc.) there is no real tonal difference between the "A" and "F" body shapes. The "F" body is much more difficult to construct, and generally costs about twice as much as the equivalent "A."

The mandolin is the soprano voice in the choir. Parallel to the construction of the string orchestra, the mandolin family includes the mandolin, mandola, mandocello and even this behemoth, the mandobass:

Quite a family.

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