Neapolitan mandolin

Also:       mandoline      Mandoline      

Title: Ludwig van Beethoven Rarities—Sonatina in C Major WoO 44 No.1; Lajos Mayer, mandolin, Imre Rohmann, piano. Label: Hungaroton. Format: CD. Catalogue#: HCD 12303-2. Track: 2.

Contextual Associations

The Neapolitan mandolin is a plucked bowl-lute chordophone developed initially in Italy in the 18th century but which has subsequently come to be distributed and manufactured broadly throughout the world (the mandolin pictured and described here was made in 1957 in Germany). Although throughout the mandolin’s existence there have been professional players of the instrument, it has probably had its greatest following amongst and impact on amateur players. Many tutors and collections of works for amateur players were published in the early years of its existence. 18th century composers wrote hundreds of solo sonatas, works for two, three, and four mandolins (the audio clip on this page is of a mandolin work by Beethoven), and a number of concertos were composed for professional players. The mandolin makes an appearance as a serenading instrument in several operas of the period as well, suggesting that it was used extensively for that purpose in daily life. Distributed widely throughout Europe and transplanted by immigrants to the Americas and elsewhere (it has been popular in Japan since the first half of the 20th century), the mandolin was incorporated into numerous folk music genres. In late 19th- and early 20th century America, the playing together of the parlor guitar, banjo, and mandolin (all plucked lutes with frets) became a fad, later labeled as the BMG (banjo, mandolin, guitar) movement, amongst middle class Americans. This likely set the stage for the mandolin’s incorporation into old time and bluegrass music, albeit with newly developed resonator designs such as the flat-back made by American companies.


The vaulted resonator body of this mandolin is made from fourteen shaped and bent slats or ribs of maple wood that are glued together to form a deep teardrop-shaped bowl. The first and fourteenth of these ribs are considerably wider than the other twelve and are reinforced with an exterior belt of thicker maple. At the pinched end of the body the ends of the ribs are glued to and interior block of wood. This hollow body is covered with a flat soundboard of straight-grained softwood (spruce or pine) that is angled downward slightly from about its midpoint (sometimes labeled as a canted table). Running from side-to side on the bottom side of the soundboard are a number of wooden struts the ends of which are anchored to the resonator’s top-most ribs, enhancing the sound quality of the instrument and strengthening its delicate soundboard. Near the top end of the soundboard is an oval soundhole, and inlayed to one side of this hole is a pick guard made of dark plastic. A long wooden pressure bridge, held in place by the downward force of the tensioned strings, rests on the soundboard just above its bend. The neck and flat, slotted pegblock are carved from a single piece of hardwood the foot of which is glued to the block at the top end of the resonator. A bone nut (a raised ridge) marks the transition between the neck and pegblock sections. A thick fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the face of the neck and runs onto the soundboard, covering part of the soundhole. Twenty-four metal frets are inserted into grooves that are cut laterally across the fingerboard. The first of these, located right next to the nut, actually serves as the nut, the bone nut functioning only to arrange the strings in double courses. On the side of the fingerboard visible to the performer are inlayed small white dots marking the third, fifth, seventh, tenth, twelfth, and fifteenth frets. Nooses tied at the bottom end of each of the instrument’s eight wire strings (the two lowest of which are wire wound) are looped over tabs in a metal tailpiece that is screwed to the resonator at its bottom end. The strings, organized into four double courses, pass over slots in the pressure bridge and run in a parallel plane over and just slightly above the fretted fingerboard making contact with the topmost fret and the nut. The ends of the strings are then wound around the capstans of the side-mounted metal machine heads (four on each side of the block) with their back-facing knobs. The acoustically active length of all the strings (the distance between the bridge and the top fret) is 13.6 inches.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The mandolin is typically played by a seated player with the back of the resonator pressed against his or her stomach, the soundboard facing outwards, and the pegblock held anywhere from horizontal to about an upwards 45-degree angle. The strings are plucked with a plastic pick held in the right hand and stopped against the frets with all four fingers of the left hand (the left-hand thumb hooks around the neck and supports the weight of the neck and pegbox). Due to the relatively fast decay of the sound, tremolo is used to sustain notes of longer duration. The standard tuning for the mandolin is as follows: G3-G3 - D4-D4 - A4-A4 - E5-E5 (the strings in each course are tuned in unison; the interval pattern between courses is P5 - P5 - P5, like the violin); the mandolin pictured here has a range from G3 - E7. For a plucked acoustic chordophone, the mandolin is relatively loud thanks to its double course metal strings held at high tension.


The Neapolitan mandolin is believed to have evolved from the Italian mandolino in the 1740s. Around 1835 the Neapolitan luthier Pasquale Vinnacia modified the design of the mandolin of his day by deepening the resonating chamber, raising the fingerboard and having it run onto the soundboard, increasing the number of frets, stringing it with wire strings, and using machine heads instead of friction pegs. Though further changes were made by later makers, the instrument pictured and described here is basically identical to Vinnacia’s model. Around the turn of the 20th century a whole new resonator design with a flat back and arched soundboard with f-holes was introduced in the United States. This flat-back model, still tuned and played like the Neapolitan mandolin, is now the standard mandolin model but should not be called a Neapolitan mandolin.

Bibliographic Citations

Gill, Donald, and Richard Campbell. 1984. NGDMI v.2: 603-607.

Noonan, Jeffrey J. 2008. The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Sparks, Paul. n.d. “Mandolin.” Oxford Music Online, accessed October 13, 2014:

Tyler, James, and Paul Sparks. 1989. The Early Mandolin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard

String courses: double at unison

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: machine head

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


25.4 in. length 8 in. greatest width 6.5 in, greatest depth

Primary Materials

string - wire
metal machine heads


R. Kurt Hower, Mannheim

Entry Author

Roger Vetter