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Redhead Mandocello by Nevin Fahs (luthier) - 1.jpg
Redhead brand mandocello
Classification String instrument (plucked)
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.322
(Composite chordophone)
Related instruments

The mandocello (Italian : mandoloncello, Liuto cantabile, liuto moderno) is a plucked string instrument of the mandolin family. It is larger than the mandolin, and is the baritone instrument of the mandolin family. Its eight strings are in four paired courses, with the strings in each course tuned in unison. Overall tuning of the courses is in fifths like a mandolin, beginning on bass G. It can be described as being to the mandolin what the cello is to the violin. [1] [2]



Mandocello construction is similar to the mandolin: the mandocello body may be constructed with a bowl-shaped back according to designs of the 18th-century Vinaccia school, or with a flat (arched) back according to the designs of Gibson Guitar Corporation popularized in the United States in the early 20th century. The scale of the mandocello is longer than that of the mandolin. Gibson examples have a scale length of 24.75" (62.87 cm) but flat-back designs have appeared with both significantly shorter and longer scale lengths (27"/68.58 cm on some Vega mandocellos). Bowl-back instruments may have a shorter scale length, on the order of 22.5" (about 57 cm).

The internal bracing also bears some similarity to the mandolin. Gibson's mandocellos were typically constructed with a single transverse brace on the top just below the oval soundhole. Modern builders also use X-bracing.

As is typical of the mandolin family, mandocellos can be found with either a single oval soundhole or a pair of "F" soundholes.

These instruments typically have between 18 and 22 frets; concert bowl-back instruments may have more frets permitting virtuoso passage work in the upper register.

Layout of strings

The mandocello generally has four courses of two strings each. Because of the heavy gauge of the lowest course, some folk mandocello players remove one of the G strings to prevent rattling while playing fortissimo.

There is a rare 10-string/5-course mandocello, containing an additional course of strings above the 1st (highest) course, sometimes termed a liuto cantabile or liuto moderno, although these instruments remain technically mandocellos.


Like most other instruments in the mandolin family the mandocello originated in Europe. Mandolins evolved from the lute family in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries, and the bowl back mandolin, produced particularly in Naples, became common in the 19th century. It was during the Baroque period (1600-1750) that interest in the mandolin began to increase, along with its use in ensemble playing, resulting in increased interest in developing and expanding the mandolin family.

The first evidence of modern metal-string mandolins is from literature regarding popular Italian players who travelled through Europe teaching and giving concerts. Notable are Signor Gabriele Leone, Giovanni Battista Gervasio, Pietro Denis, who travelled widely between 1750 and 1810. [2] [3] This, together with the records gleaned from the Italian Vinaccia family of luthiers in Naples, Italy, has led musicologists to believe that the family of modern steel-string mandolins were developed in Naples by the Vinaccia family.

Mandolin ensembles were popular in the late Baroque period, and a number of instruments were added to the family around this time, including the mandalone a flat-backed, bass instrument, "much larger than the liuto" with "four heavy wound strings" tuned (in fourths) to A2-D3-G3-C4. This instrument may have been the direct precursor of the mandocello. [4] The popularity of mandolin ensembles began to wane during the late Classical (1750-1825) period, and after 1815 the mandolin largely transitioned to the status of a folk instrument, and the mandolone all but disappeared. [5]

It was during this decline in popularity that Pasquale Vinaccia (1806–1885) made his modifications to the instrument that his family made for generations, creating the Neapolitan mandolin. [6]

The mandolin was largely forgotten outside of Italy by that point, but the stage was set for it to become known again, starting with the Paris Exposition in 1878. Vinaccia modernized several members of the mandolin family, improving resonance, increasing ranges, and adding features. In addition to creating the Neapolitan mandolin c. 1835, he reconceived the mandalone and related instruments, which had limited range, and a much quieter tone than the treble mandolins. The Neopolitan mandocello he developed had increased volume, extended range, and effectively superseded the mandolone as the bass instrument of the mandolin family. [7]

The Mandolin "Estudiantina" of Mayenne, France around 1900 when Mandolin orchestras were at the height of their popularity Estudiantina de Mayenne.jpg
The Mandolin "Estudiantina" of Mayenne, France around 1900 when Mandolin orchestras were at the height of their popularity

Beginning with the Paris Exposition of 1878, the mandolin's popularity began to rebound. In particular, the Spanish Estudiantina Figaro, an "association of young teachers, musicians ... created and established in Madrid forming a magnificent band of guitars, bandurrias and violins" attracted widespread attention. [8]

This was followed by a wave of Italian mandolinists traveling in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, and in the United States by the mid-1880s, playing and teaching their instrument. [9] The instrument's popularity continued to increase during the 1890s and mandolin popularity was at its height in the "early years of the 20th century. Thousands were taking up the instrument as a pastime, and it became an instrument of society , taken up by young men and women. [10] Mandolin orchestras were formed worldwide, incorporating the mandolin family of instruments—mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, and even mandobasses—as well as guitars, double basses and zithers.

Around this time, the Gibson company began building mandocellos in the style of their mandolins with arched tops and backs. Gibson is known to have produced at least four models of mandocello between 1905 and the 1920s: the K-1, K-2, K-4, and K-5. Other American instrument companies also produced mandocellos.

After the 1930s the popularity of mandolin ensembles once again began to decline, though not as completely as it had in the 19th century. Mandolins continued to be produced, but production of other members of the family decreased significantly, although—with the possible exception of the mandobass—it never died out completely. [11]

Tuning and range

Usually, courses of 2 adjacent strings are doubled (tuned to the same pitch). The standard mandocello tuning of C2 C2•G2 G2•D3 D3•A3 A3 is equivalent to that of the violoncello:

The average range, therefore, is about three-and-a-half octaves, with the exact range depending on the number of frets on the individual instrument: from two octaves below middle C up to D#5/Eb5, in the octave above middle C, (with 18 frets), to as high as A5, with 24 frets.

On 10-string/5-course instruments an additional string-pair, placed above the first course, is tuned to E3 E3, adding an additional half-octave or so to the upper range.


Gibson mandolin family: mandocello is 2nd from right, front row Gibson Mandolin Family, National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota.jpg
Gibson mandolin family: mandocello is 2nd from right, front row

The bowl-back mandocello is chiefly used in mandolin orchestras and mandolin quartets, where it provides a melodic and bass role similar to the cello in a bowed string quartet. It is occasionally used as a solo instrument for the performance of classical music, such as concertos and unaccompanied repertoire originally composed for solo cello. However, some pieces specifically for liuto cantabile were composed by Raffaele Calace, who championed the instrument in the early 20th century. More recent music for solo mandocello was presented at the 2018 Classical Mandolin Society Convention in Santa Rosa. An article on this event and examples of the music appear in the CMSA Mandolin Journal.

The mandocello also has a role in modern folk music, such as bluegrass or Celtic music. In this setting the flat-back mandocello is typically used. The mandocello's lower range does not produce the bright, projecting sound of the mandolin or mandola, and its use in this setting has been generally eclipsed by mandolin artists since Bill Monroe. The amplified instrument has infrequently been used in modern rock music groups. The bowl-back mandocello (mandoloncello) is traditionally used for Italian folk music.

The most historically significant mandocellist was Raffaele Calace, who wrote the first method book specifically for liuto cantabile, and is thought to have perfected the design of the instrument following its putative introduction by the Vinaccia family. Luigi Embergher also contributed significantly to advancements in the design of the instrument during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [12]

Image in contemporary music

Accomplished artists specializing in mandocello performance in 21st century America are relatively few in number, and only a modest number of contemporary recordings prominently feature the instrument. One American mandocello artist, Stanley Greenthal, is a specialist in the music of Brittany and an instructor at Zouk Fest. The mandolinist Radim Zenkl [13] is also well known for performances of American, Italian, and other European folk music on the mandocello. One recent recording with mandolin virtuosos Carlo Aonzo [14] and David Grisman has featured Zenkl's mandocello on the album of Italian folk music "Traversata" published by Acoustic Disc. [15] Steve Knightley of the English folk-rock band Show of Hands plays the cello-mandolin, however his instrument is tuned GDAD, similar to an octave mandolin. Mike Marshall, best known for his collaborations with David Grisman, Darol Anger and Chris Thile has performed and recorded frequently with the mandocello.

Notable uses

Steve Knightley, the English folk musician and songwriter, made the mandocello a key part of his songwriting and overall sound, especially with his band Show of Hands. [16] Steve uses instruments made by David and Nicholas Oddie in Devon, England, [17] in the tuning GDAD which makes the instrument more effective for chunky chord accompaniments as well as playing tunes. Steve also plays guitar, cuatro mandolin, and tenor guitar. [18]

Geoff Goodman, New York born European jazz musician and composer, features both guitar and mandocello in his compositions.

Patterson Hood, front man for Drive-By Truckers, plays a mandocello made by Scott Baxendale of Baxendale Guitars in Athens Georgia. Baxendale starts with a vintage Harmony guitar and converts it from six string standard tuning to the mandocello.

Bryn Haworth uses a mandocello on his album, Let The Days Go By.

John Nagy and David Grisman play mandocello on the Earth Opera album, The Great American Eagle Tragedy.

Mike Marshall played a mandocello on his collaboration album Uncommon Ritual with Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck and plays it live occasionally (for example with Darol Anger on violin).

Rick Nielsen of the band Cheap Trick has a stringed instrument collection that includes electric mandocellos custom made by Hamer Guitars. Such an instrument was used for the title track from their LP Heaven Tonight, while their song "Mandocello", released on the band's debut album, used a standard acoustic mandocello. This song was later covered by Concrete Blonde and released on their album Still in Hollywood.

Jaco Pastorius, bassist for Weather Report, overdubbed a mandocello on their hit "Birdland." [19]

Richie Sambora, guitarist for Bon Jovi, used a mandocello on the song "Lay Your Hands on Me" from their acoustic album This Left Feels Right.


Related Research Articles

Classical guitar member of the guitar family used in classical music

The classical guitar is a member of the guitar family used in classical music. An acoustic wooden string instrument with strings made of gut or nylon, it is a precursor of the modern acoustic and electric guitars, both of which use metal strings. Classical guitars are derived from the Spanish vihuela and gittern in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, which later evolved into the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Baroque guitar and later the modern classical guitar in the mid-nineteenth century.

Guitar Fretted string instrument

The guitar is a fretted musical instrument that typically has six strings. It is held flat against the player's body and played by strumming or plucking the strings with the dominant hand, while simultaneously pressing the strings against frets with the fingers of the opposite hand. A plectrum or individual finger picks may be used to strike the strings. The sound of the guitar is projected either acoustically, by means of a resonant chamber on the instrument, or amplified by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.

Mandolin Musical instrument in the lute family

A mandolin is a stringed musical instrument in the lute family and is generally plucked with a plectrum. It most commonly has four courses of doubled metal strings tuned in unison, thus giving a total of 8 strings, although five and six course versions also exist. The courses are typically tuned in an interval of perfect fifths, with the same tuning as a violin. Also like the violin, it is the soprano member of a family that includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello and mandobass.

Bouzouki Greek plucked stringed instrument

The bouzouki, also spelled buzuki or buzuci, is a musical instrument popular in Greece. It is a member of the long-necked lute family, with a round body with a flat top and a long neck with a fretted fingerboard. It has steel strings and is played with a plectrum producing a sharp metallic sound, reminiscent of a mandolin but pitched lower. There are two main types of bouzouki: the trichordo (three-course) has three pairs of strings and the tetrachordo (four-course) has four pairs of strings. The instrument was brought to Greece in the early 1900s by Greek immigrants from Anatolia, and quickly became the central instrument to the rebetiko genre and its music branches. It is now an important element of modern Laïko pop Greek music.


The mandola or tenor mandola is a fretted, stringed musical instrument. It is to the mandolin what the viola is to the violin: the four double courses of strings tuned in fifths to the same pitches as the viola, a fifth lower than a mandolin. The mandola, though now rarer, is an ancestor of the mandolin.

Twelve-string guitar

A twelve-string guitar is a steel-string guitar with 12 strings in six courses, which produces a thicker, more ringing tone than a standard six-string guitar. Typically, the strings of the lower four courses are tuned in octaves, with those of the upper two courses tuned in unison. The gap between the strings within each dual-string course is narrow, and the strings of each course are fretted and plucked as a single unit. The neck is wider, to accommodate the extra strings, and is similar to the width of a classical guitar neck. The sound, particularly on acoustic instruments, is fuller and more harmonically resonant than six-string instruments.

Appalachian dulcimer fretted string instrument

The Appalachian dulcimer is a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings, originally played in the Appalachian region of the United States. The body extends the length of the fingerboard, and its fretting is generally diatonic.

Guitar tunings

Guitar tunings are the assignment of pitches to the open strings of guitars, including acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and classical guitars. Tunings are described by the particular pitches that are made by notes in Western music. By convention, the notes are ordered and arranged from the lowest-pitched string to the highest-pitched string, or the thickest string to thinnest, or the lowest frequency to the highest. This sometimes confuses beginner guitarists, since the highest-pitched string is referred to as the 1st string, and the lowest-pitched is the 6th string.

Irish bouzouki

The Irish bouzouki is an adaptation of the Greek bouzouki. The newer Greek tetrachordo bouzouki was introduced into Irish traditional music in the mid-1960s by Johnny Moynihan of the folk group Sweeney's Men. Alec Finn, first in the Cana Band and subsequently in De Dannan, introduced the first Greek trichordo bouzouki into Irish music.

Octave mandolin

The octave mandolin is a fretted string instrument with four pairs of strings tuned in fifths, GDAE, an octave below a mandolin. It is larger than the mandola, but smaller than the mandocello and its construction is similar to other instruments in the mandolin family. Usually the courses are all unison pairs but the lower two may sometimes be strung as octave pairs with the higher-pitched octave string on top so that it is hit before the thicker lower-pitched string. Alternate tunings of GDAD and ADAD are often employed by Celtic musicians.

The cuatro is a family of Latin American string instruments played in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other Latin American countries. It is derived from the Spanish guitar. Although some have viola-like shapes, most cuatros resemble a small to mid-sized classical guitar. In Puerto Rico and Venezuela, the cuatro is an ensemble instrument for secular and religious music, and is played at parties and traditional gatherings.

Romantic guitar

The early romantic guitar, the guitar of the Classical and Romantic period, shows remarkable consistency from 1790 to 1830. Guitars had six or more single courses of strings while the Baroque guitar usually had five double courses. The romantic guitar eventually led to Antonio de Torres Jurado's fan-braced Spanish guitars, the immediate precursors of the modern classical guitar.


Mandobass is the largest member of the mandolin family, sometimes used as the bass instrument in mandolin orchestras. It is so large that it usually isn't held in the lap, but supported on a spike that rests on the floor. The neck-scale length on a full-size mando-bass is similar to that of a standard orchestral double bass viol: about 43 inches (110 cm). The instrument is otherwise similar to the smaller, higher-pitched members of the mandolin family, having a fretted neck, a headstock with geared tuning machines, and a large resonating body often—but not always—shaped like that of other mandolins.

Raffaele Calace

Raffaele Calace was an Italian mandolin player, composer, and luthier.

Liuto cantabile

The liuto cantabile, also termed a liuto moderno, is an uncommon ten-stringed mandocello. This bass variant of the mandolin family was developed by the Neapolitan luthiers of the Vinaccia family in the late 19th century and perfected by Raffaele Calace. The scale of a modern Calace-manufactured liuto cantabile is 61 cm (24"). The instrument overlaps or is equivalent to the mandolone and mandocello.


A mandolone is a member of the mandolin family, created in the 18th century. It is a bass range version of the Neapolitan mandolin. Its range was not as good as the mandocello, which replaced it in mandolin orchestras, and had largely disappeared in the 19th century.

Pasquale Vinaccia

Pasquale Vinaccia was an Italian luthier, appointed instrument-maker for the Queen of Italy, and maternal grandfather to Carlo Munier. In 1835 he improved the mandolin, creating a version of the instrument that used steel wires for strings, known today as the "Neapolitan Mandolin." His use of steel strings has become the dominant way of stringing mandolins.

Mandolins in North America

The mandolin has had a place in North American culture since the 1880s, when a "mandolin craze" began. The continent was a land of immigrants, including Italian immigrants, some of whom brought their mandolins with them. In spite of the mandolin having arrived in America, it was not in the cultural consciousness until after 1880 when the Spanish Students arrived on their international performing tour. Afterwards, a "mandolin craze" swept the United States, with large numbers of young people taking up the instrument and teachers such as Samuel Siegel touring the United States. The fad died out after World War I, but enough had learned the instrument that it remained. The mandolin found a new surge with the music of Bill Monroe; the Gibson F-5 mandolin he played, as well as other archtop instruments, became the American standard for mandolins. Bowlback mandolins were displaced. The instrument has been taken up in blues, bluegrass, jug-band music, country, rock, punk and other genres of music. While not as popular as the guitar, it is widespread across the country.

History of the mandolin The history of the mandolin.

The mandolin is a modern member of the lute family, dating back to Italy in the 18th century. The instrument was played across Europe but then disappeared after the Napoleonic Wars. Credit for creating the modern bowlback version of the instrument goes to the Vinaccia family of Naples. The deep bowled mandolin, especially the Neapolitan form, became common in the 19th century, following the appearance of an international hit, the Spanish Students. They toured Europe and America, and their performances created a stir that helped the mandolin to become widely popular.

Mandolin playing traditions worldwide Global traditions of playing the mandolin

Following its invention and development in Italy the mandolin spread throughout the European continent. The instrument was primarily used in a classical tradition with mandolin orchestras, so called Estudiantinas or in Germany Zupforchestern, appearing in many cities. Following this continental popularity of the mandolin family, local traditions appeared outside Europe in the Americas and in Japan. Travelling mandolin virtuosi like Carlo Curti, Giuseppe Pettine, Raffaele Calace and Silvio Ranieri contributed to the mandolin becoming a "fad" instrument in the early 20th century. This "mandolin craze" was fading by the 1930s, but just as this practice was falling into disuse, the mandolin found a new niche in American country, old-time music, bluegrass and folk music. More recently, the Baroque and Classical mandolin repertory and styles have benefited from the raised awareness of and interest in Early music, with media attention to classical players such as Israeli Avi Avital, Italian Carlo Aonzo and American Joseph Brent.


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  2. 1 2 The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and others (2001)
  3. Sparks 2003 , p. 218
  4. Paul Sparks, The Classical Mandolin, Oxford University Press, pages 205, 206.
  5. Sparks 2003 , p. 1
  6. Sparks 2003 , p. 15
  7. Sparks 2003 , p. 21
  8. Martin Sárraga, Felix O. (26 July 2015). "Apuntes de la gira por la Península Ibérica de la Estudiantina Fígaro (1881 - 1890)". Retrieved 10 October 2016. La Estudiantina Española Fígaro, como publicara la prensa de 1882, "es una asociación de jóvenes profesores, músicos ..... se creó y constituyó en Madrid formando una magnífica banda de guitarras, bandurrias y violines que partió de allí en 1878...
  9. Sparks 2003 , p. 22–135
  10. Sparks 2003 , p. 96
  11. Ian Pommerenke, The Mandolin in the early to mid 19th Century, Lanarkshire Guitar and Mandolin Association Newsletter, Spring 2007.
  12. "Embergher". Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  13. "Radim Zenkl". Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  14. "Redirect..." Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  15. "HOME". Acoustic Disc. Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  16. "Show of Hands - Steve Knightley Story". Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  17. "mandocello". Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  18. "Strum with Steve - Lick the Lockdown, Part Three - the Mandocello | Steve Knightley". YouTube . Retrieved 19 April 2021.
  19. Heavy Weather liner notes