flat-back mandolin

Also:       flatback mandolin      

Title: The Doc Watson Family--Texas Gales/Blackberry Rag--Doc Watson, flat-back mandolin. Label: Smithsonian Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD SF40012. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

The flat-back mandolin is a plucked box-lute chordophone developed in late-19th century America as an easier-to-build variation of the bowl-back Neapolitan mandolin, which had recently been introduced to North America by a major influx of Italian immigrants. 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. By the 1910a and 1920s, the mandolin had become particularly popular, with thousands upon thousands of instruments in a variety of sizes and ranges being produced by such manufacturers as Gibson, Martin, Oscar Schmidt, Gretsch, and Bruno. Many amateur and professional mandolin groups formed to perform mostly arrangements of already existing music. The Depression and WWII brought to its end this golden age of the mandolin in America, although it was about this same time the mandolin came to be incorporation into old time and bluegrass music, and eventually country music, albeit with a newly developed resonator design pioneered by the Gibson Company with arched top and back boards with f-shaped soundholes, like violin resonators. The mandolin pictured in the first gallery image is an early 20th century American-made flat-back mandolin; the second instrument (gallery #2 and detail #1) is a flat-back mandolin variant popular in Germany in the 1940s and 1950s that has a slightly vaulted backboard. They will be discussed together in this entry.


The teardrop-shaped resonators of these two mandolins both have ribs but differ in the design of their soundboards and backboards. The American flat-back has a slightly canted (creased) spruce soundboard supported underneath but three or four struts, and its flat backboard is made by joining two thinly-shaven pieces of mahogany reinforced with two or three internal struts. The German flat-back has a perfectly flat spruce soundboard reinforced with internal struts, and its slightly arched backboard (see detail #1) is constructed for seven narrow slats of thinly-shaven maple glued together without internal strut reinforcement. Near the top end of the soundboards of these two mandolins is an oval-shaped open soundhole, and inlayed to one side of these holes are pick guards made of dark plastic. A wooden pressure bridge, held in place by the downward force of the tensioned strings, rests on their soundboards, just above the bend on the American instrument and at the point of greatest width of the German resonator. The neck and slightly angled back pegblock (closed on the American instrument, slotted on the German one) of each mandolin are carved from a single piece of hardwood the foot of which is glued to an internal 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 hardwood is glued to the face of the neck and runs onto the soundboard, covering part of the soundhole on the American instrument but only running up to the edge of the soundhole on the German instrument. Twenty metal frets (18 full, two partial) are inserted into grooves that are cut laterally across the fingerboard of the American flat-back; the German instrument as eighteen full frets on its 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 fingerboard are inlayed white dots marking the fifth, seventh, tenth and twelfth frets on the American instrument, the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets on the German one. Nooses tied at the bottom end of each of the instrument’s eight wire strings (the four 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 back-mounted (American instrument) or side-mounted (German instrument) metal machine heads (four on each side of the block). The acoustically active length of all the strings (the distance between the bridge and the top fret) is 13.2 and 13.4 inches an the American and German mandolins, respectively.

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 mandolins pictured here have ranges of G3 - C7 (American instrument) and G3 - A6 (German instrument. For a plucked acoustic chordophone, the mandolin is relatively loud thanks to its double course metal strings held at high tension.


Flat-back mandolins developed from the Neapolitan mandolin after the latter was introduced to North America in the 19th century by Italian immigrants. Flat-backs were produced in great numbers to satisfy public enthusiasm for the instrument in the early 20th century. Although not found in the Grinnell collection, an offshoot of the flat-back designed by Orville Gibson in the closing years of the 19th century would eventually become the most successful mandolin model in America. It had a violin-like resonator design with arched back- and soundboards, f-holes and a robust sound. The evolution of the German model of flat-back is less clear, other than its heyday of popularity in Germany was in the 1940s and 1950s as a folk instrument.

Bibliographic Citations

Gill, Donald, and Richard Campbell. 1984. “Mandolin.” 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:


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: 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: box 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)


24.5 in. length (gallery #1) 8.9 in. greatest width of resonator (gallery #1) 2.8 in. greatest depth of resonator (gallery #1) 24.5 in. length (gallery #2) 10.3 in. greatest width of resonator (gallery #2) 3.8 in. greatest depth of resonator (gallery #2)

Primary Materials

string - wire
string - wire-wound wire
metal machine heads


unknown (gallery #1) Walthari, Mittenwald (gallery #2)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter