Mandolin Background


The European lute, an old time stringed instrument with a neck and a round deep back, had several mutations throughout history, one of them being the mandolin. The mandolino, the Italian name for the instrument's early stage, was strung with six catgut strings, being called a mandolin in Naples during the early eighteenth century. The mandolin results as product of the search for a charming, delicate sound that was aesthetically pleasing according, for example, to the pursued "insouciance" of the Baroque period. Transition from gut strings to steel strings is recorded in literary sources regarding Italian musicians who traveled across Europe performing and teaching. Musicologists assume that the Vinaccia family of luthiers which resided in Naples, Italy, were responsible for the development of the modern steel-stringed mandolin. Gaetano Vinaccia built in 1744 what is today the oldest remaining steel-stringed mandolin - it is displayed at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Brussels, Belgium. As Naples was the birthplace of these almond-shaped and bowl-back mandolins, they're called Neapolitan mandolins, as opposed to flat-back mandolins. The flat-back mandolin was inspired by the violin family instruments and Orville Gibson, a Michigan luthier who founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., Limited, is credited to the widespread of this type of mandolin. Although there are two subtypes, the F-type and the Atype, many of the modern mandolin craftsmen replicate the Gibson F-5 Artist models made in the 1920s.

The mandolin was considered an accessible way to approach stringed-instrument playing. Thus, several groups and orchestras formed by mandolins interpreted lighter classical music, making the instrument very popular in the early 20th century. The instrument was then strongly adopted by bluegrass, country and folk musicians, becoming essential in defining those genres until nowadays: American Bill Monroe helped define the bluegrass music genre by taking up the mandolin as his main instrument; the AM radio was important in the dissemination of country and Monroe's bluegrass music through the southern United States, inspiring many musicians to adopt the mandolin. Decades later, during the 60s, many artists also adopted the mandolin as folk revival bands emerged and blossomed into psychedelic fusions and progressive styles. North-American rock artists known to play the mandolin at the time are David Grisman (Grateful Dead) and Canadian Levon Helm (The Band). Other accomplished American mandolinists include Jeff Austin (Yonder Montain String Band), Kenneth C. "Jethro" Burns (Homer and Jethro), David Immergluck (Counting Crows) and Frank Wakefield.

Scotland and England's traditional music has the mandolin as one of its defining elements. As a result of the multiple folk revivals during the 60s and 70s, many rock bands also adopted the mandolin to further enrich their sound spectrum. The best selling UK album of 1972 and 73, "Fog on the Tyne" by the British band Lindisfarne, had two members on the mandolin. The supergroup Led Zeppelin had several songs with mandolin riffs and accompaniment, some of them being "That's the Way", "Going to California" and the Tolkienesque "Battle of Evermore". Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones plays the mandolin with the recent hard rock group Them Crooked Vultures on one of their tracks. Other British artists and groups known for having the mandolin as part of their repertoire include The Incredible String Band, Pete Townshend (The Who), Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) and the former Beatles members George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Chris Thile is considered one of the greatest mondolin players of all time. He started playing at 4 and now releases elaborate recordings with other all-stars.

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