Mandolin family buyers guide – choosing an instrument from the different mandolin types

We are often asked what’s a mandolin, tenor mandolin, mandola, octave mandola, tenor mandola, bouzouki, short scale bouzouki, long scale bouzouki, cittern, or mando-cello? Eagle Music demystify and explain all the different mandolin types.

The text below provides simple explanations of all the popular mandolin types. In many cases you get the sound that you want with the strings that you fit, and how you tune them, relative to the scale length. We have many books, cds and dvds to take you from beginner to advanced player.

There are three critical but simple decisions that you our valued customer should make when buying a Mandolin:-

Buy from a Specialist Company… that will set up the instrument correctly
Eagle Music is one of Europes leading mandolin specialist shops

Buy the Best Quality instrument… that is within your budget
Eagle Music carry a large selection of world class mandolin brands

Choose the Correct mandolin… for the kind of music that you want to play
Eagle Music’s specialist musician sales team  will ensure this for you

The notes below will help you choose the instrument from the mandolin family that is the right model for you.


Types of mandolin and the kind of Music that is Played on them


THE MANDOLIN… You may fancy playing mandolin but think “oh no, eight strings!” But It’s easier than that. The strings are tuned in unison pairs as follows: ‘G’ 4th pair, ‘D’ 3rd pair, ‘A’ 2nd pair, and ‘E’ 1st pair. Exactly the same tuning and fingering as the violin. When fiddle players choose to play a mandolin they just have to master the use of a plectrum. You can start by learning half a dozen simple chords (these can be played using two fingers) and progress from there with simple scales and polka type tunes. If you have already played guitar or any other stringed instrument, it’s even easier.
The mandolin is mainly chosen for playing tunes, and is picked with a plectrum. The most popular types are the ‘flat-back’ models to which the Gibson ‘A’ style is the most popular. The Gibson ‘F’ style is the one with ‘scroll’ type shoulders: you see many bluegrass mandolin players using this style. The round back ‘Neapolitan’ mandolins, however nice sounding, are more difficult to hold (They slide away from your body). They are less popular today.

Octave Mandola – Octave Mandolin

THE OCTAVE MANDOLA… This instrument is a larger version of the standard mandolin. The most popular way to tune it is in unison pairs. ‘G’ 4th pair, ‘D’ 3rd pair, ‘A’ 2nd pair, and ‘E’ 1st pair (This is the same tuning as the mandolin above, but an octave below. We fit heavier strings to allow for the fact that it is an octave below the mandolin and has a longer scale length). The octave mandola is a good compromise between mandolin and bouzouki. The scale length is easy enough to master when playing tunes, but equally it’s a great sound for chord backing. There are many other ‘modal’ ways that you can tune a mandola. Selection of correct gauge strings is paramount for intonation and instrument stability. Some players ‘octave string’ the 4th and 3rd pairs (see bouzouki write up for explanation of ‘octave stringing’).


THE BOUZOUKI… The string length of the bouzouki is even longer than the octave mandola. It’s much harder to play tunes on this instrument so the most popular use is for chord work and accompaniment. The long string length produces a ‘zingy’ sound, and to make it even more ‘zingy’ many players ‘octave string’ these instruments as follows. 4th pair of strings tuned to high ‘G’ and low ‘G’, 3rd pair of strings tuned to high ‘D’ and low ‘D’, 2nd pair tuned in unison (two ‘A’s), 1st pair tuned in unison (two ‘E’s). Note:- A thinner plain string replaces one of the wound strings on the 4th and 3rd pairs, these thinner plain strings are tuned an octave higher. The above tuning is the normal standard tuning. Many bouzouki players tune as above but drop the first unison pair of strings down to ‘D’. Some players choose ‘modal’ tunings eg. D, A, D, A.


THE CITTERN… Has a scale similar in length to the octave mandola but usually with ten strings, not eight, and tuned modally (to a chord or drone). Strictly speaking, modern citterns are a remake of a medieval predecessor of the guitar, but musically, they really belong in this group of instruments here. It’s usually tuned to some kind of open chord either GCGCG (C chord) or GDGDG (G chord). It’s used mostly to play an accompaniment of melodic runs along with a bagpipe-type drone. Its ten strings make it very versatile for chord work or for melody playing. The strings are usually tuned in pairs, but sometimes each pair will comprise of two strings an octave apart, like the bottom four strings of a twelve-string guitar. We sell a lot of citterns to guitar players who have maybe enjoyed experimenting with open tunings

Tenor Mandolin

THE TENOR MANDOLIN… This instrument has a scale length longer than the mandolin but shorter than the octave mandola. It is normally tuned in unison pairs as follows…. ‘C’ 4th pair, ‘G 3rd pair, ‘D’ 2nd pair, and ‘A’ 1st pair.

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