Mandolins aren’t guitars at all, of course… but they are the instruments on which the great Gibson guitar company was founded. When Orville H. Gibson, founder of Gibson, built his first stringed instrument circa 1894, it was a mandolin. At the time, he was working as a clerk in Butters restaurant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and working in his home woodshop after hours. He wasn’t even thinking of guitars back then: in 1902, Orville founded the “Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co., Limited.”

Just as Gibson continued as a company, early models were pioneering. Orville Gibson’s first mandolin shapes were the scroll-body F-style and the teardrop-shaped A-style, both of which are a standard of mandolin styles today.

Mandolin collage

The mandolin is not considered a “guitar,” but it is as part of the lute family of stringed instruments. Lutes, mandolins, mandolas, and guitars… they’re all intertwined, and even these days a guitar builder is officially a “luthier.” If you want to be really precise, a mandolin is a soprano member of the lute family that includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello, and mandobass. It descends from France’s mandore, first written about in the 1500s. In Italy, it was called the mandolino. The term “f-holes” come both their f-shape and the fact it was a soundhole style originally used by mandolino makers in Florence, Italy. Think of f-holes as an early “logo” that told you where the instrument was built.

More crucial stuff:  the mandolin is stringed differently to a guitar and just because you can play guitar it does not necessarily mean you’re a master of mandolin. A mandolin usually has four courses of doubled strings, typically tuned in unison in perfect fifths, such as GDAE, so it’s some way from traditional “Spanish” guitar tuning (EADGBE).

Orville H. Gibson

From Classical Music to Blues & Country

Early spotting of mandolins outside of classical music go back to the early 1900s when Orville was building a lot of them. In 1903, U.S. blues historian W.C. Handy wrote of a Mississippi blues trio he encountered: “They were led by a long-legged chocolate [sic] boy and their band consisted of just three pieces, a battered guitar, a mandolin and a worn-out bass...  Thump, thump, thump went their feet on the floor. Their eyes rolled. Their shoulders swayed... it was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps ‘haunting’ is a better word....” Okay! And remember, Handy was a fan of the blues.

But a few years on, and mandolins were still around in the blues. Two noted players, Carl Martin and Johnny Young, were often seen playing the mandolin with the harmonica and guitar players of Chicago’s Southside. Young often played electric mandolin with Muddy Waters and blues piano legend Otis Spann.

In country music, Bill Monroe (1911-1996) was an early star of the mandolin. Widely known as “the father of bluegrass,” Monroe blended blues and gospel with the traditional fiddle tunes of Ireland and Scotland. Monroe is the only artist inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Trivia? Monroe placed a rattlesnake tail inside his Gibson F-5 to absorb moisture and frighten mice! Now, that’s country.

Mandolins In The Rock Era

Mandolins crop up plenty even now, and only the coldest of hearts would deny they sound fantastic. One of the most famous of examples of the mandolin rock’n out (kind of) is Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” (from Led Zeppelin “IV”).

Jimmy Page plays the mandolin on that song, but the mandolin itself belonged to John Paul Jones. Page later recalled, “’The Battle of Evermore’ was made up on the spot by Robert [Plant] and myself. I just picked up John Paul Jones’s mandolin, never having played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting.”

John Paul Jones is a major mandolin fan. His collection includes a triple-neck mandolin, octave mandolin, octave mandola, and mandocello, mostly custom-made. It was Jones who played mandolin on the same album’s “Going to California.”

Rod Stewart is another mandolin fan: there’s his famed track “Mandolin Wind” from his landmark 1971 album Every Picture Tells A Story. Ray Jackson from U.K. folk-rockers Lindisfarne, played that part, although on Stewart’s MTV Unplugged version, Rod plays a banjo. Stewart wrote “Mandolin Wind” on his own and says he “always thought the mandolin was such as romantic-sounding instrument.” The mandolin also crops up on the same album’s “Maggie May,” his breakthrough single as a solo artist.

The Smiths

The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” features Johnny Marr playing a mandolin for its outro. Marr remembers he wrote the song's melodies in “about four to five days when I was living in a flat in Earls Court. That was done when we needed a follow-up to “Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now.”

“I think the mandolin was suggested by the producer John Porter. I had the tune and he thought the mandolin would be good. The music was written because I was thinking about my childhood in Ardwick Green [Manchester].”

Perhaps the most famous modern “rock” song featuring mandolin is R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” of 1991. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had never played mandolin before that recording.

Buck told Guitar School in 1991: “I started it on mandolin and came up with the riff and chorus. The verses are the kinds of things R.E.M. uses a lot, going from one minor to another, kind of like those ‘Driver 8’ chords. You can’t really say anything bad about E minor, A minor, D, and G – I mean, they’re just good chords.” Buck's mandolin parts on the “Losing My Religion” recording are all live. “I did no overdubbing,” he says. “If you listen closely, on one of the verses there’s a place where I muffed it, and I thought, well, I can’t go back and punch it in, because it’s supposed to be a live track. That was the whole idea.”

Plenty of other noted players over the years have gone to classic Gibsons, Chris Hillman, once of The Byrds, is a fine guitarist, bassist and songwriter... but his true love is mandolin. His first was a 1922 Gibson F-2 bought for just $125.

“There’s only one thing I regret from when I joined the Byrds in ‘64,” Hillman has said, “I put the mandolin down. I lost a lot of time. I'm still trying to figure out things that I was starting to figure out in ‘64.” Even so, Hillman helped recruit Gram Parsons, then Clarence White, to The Byrds and steered them in a more country-folk direction.

Ry Cooder loves his vintage mandolins. Cooder favors a Gibson F-4 (with an aluminum bridge), a Gibson H-4 mandola and a Gibson K-4 mandocello.  Cooder plays mandolin on “Factory Girl” from the Rolling Stones' 1968 album Beggars Banquet. And modern mandolin maestro Chris Thile loves the versatility of his Gibson 8-stringer. His mandolin album, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, went to Number 1 on the U.S. Classical charts.

A younger mandolin artist making waves is the superb Sierra Hull. Here’s she is on her Gibson F-5 playing “E Tune” for Shred!

Gibson’s 2018 mandolins

By their very nature, mandolins don’t change much in design. And because they’re ornate and intricate construction is complex, they cost time and money – but what craftsmanship! Mandolin players take their craft and instruments very seriously and here are a few of the beauties currently handmade by Gibson.

Gibson F-9

The F-9’s no-frills design makes it a great entry point – you still get a hand-fitted dovetail neck joint, solid maple neck, sides and back, solid spruce top, and a hand-tuned tone chamber, but with less of the ornate inlay work and a satin lacquer finish. There are 20 frets on this neck.

Gibson F9 Mandolin

Gibson F-5G

The F-5 model is kind of your “core” Gibson mandolin model – this still has an ornately carved body of figured maple with a spruce top in subtle gloss lacquer, a rounded V neck (neck shape is very important to mandolinists, as the necks are so small), pearl dot fingerboard inlays and Grover tuners on the “peghead.”

Gibson F5G Mandolin

Gibson F-5 Goldrush

The F-5 Goldrush is a “bling” version, with a golden amber finish on a AAA flamed maple back, sides, and neck, and spruce top. But there are only 23 frets compared to the F-5’s 29.

Gibson F5 Goldrush Mandolin

Doyle Lawson Signature

This is built to the exact specs of the gospel bluegrass mandolin master. Its beautiful sunburst finish spruce top, unique peghead inlay, gold hardware and 20-fret neck design earn it a 10/10 rating on

Gibson Doyle Lawson Mandolin

120th Anniversary Mandolin Set

OK, you get three of the finest mandolins you could ever imagine – in Black/Reddish Walnut (pictured), Pigeon Blood Burst, and Cremona Burst – but they are super-expensive. Outrageous inlay work, gold Waverly inlaid tuners, three-ply binding and more. The ultimate mandolins, and as much a work of art as an instrument.

Gibson 120 Anniversary Mandolin