Antique and Vintage Mandolins

Although many fans of electric-guitar god Jimmy Page only know the mandolin as the high-pitched, plucky sounding background instrument in Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” the mandolin was largely responsible for the spread of the guitar in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was itself a major musical phenomenon. The craze began in the 1880s, when a group of Spanish musicians took Boston and New York by storm playing bandurrias, an instrument that resembles the mandolin in several respects.

The mandolin was an easy instrument to popularize, given the role of music in society at the time. In an era before iTunes, CDs, 8-track tapes, vinyl records, or even radios, being able to play an instrument was a highly desirable social skill—those who could play at home would be able to entertain friends and family without having to go to an expensive show or concert.

People who grew up without a music education in working- or middle-class families knew that instruments like the piano and the violin required an early start, so they largely resigned themselves to musical illiteracy. The mandolin, however, promised a way out. Mandolin manufacturers like Gibson sent representatives called teacher agents out into towns to stir up interest. The teacher agents would find a few people who already played the violin and would teach them to play the mandolin, since the two instruments have the same tuning.

Teacher agents would then organize a performance to be given by those they had taught. These concerts were generally fairly impressive, which allowed the representatives to pitch the mandolin to audience members as something they, too, could learn—these performers had only been playing for a few weeks, and look at all they could do!

Soon, mandolin orchestras performing popular classical songs were widespread. These orchestras often included up to 50 or 60 pieces, including mandolins, guitars, mandolas (the mandolin equivalent of the viola), mandocellos (the mandolin equivalent of the cello), and mando-basses. In fact, one of these orchestras was still active in New York City into the 1950s.

For collectors today, mandolins made by Gibson are by far the most desirable. While still owned by Orville H. Gibson himself, Gibson began manufacturing mandolins in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1894 with great success, and in 1898 he received a patent for a mandolin design.

Gibson sold his company in 1902, but the Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company (as it was then known), continued to manufacture mandolins. Instruments made from the 1890s to the late 1900s are most prized by collectors, though many musicians consider them lacking in volume and tone. For such aficionados, the 1909 Gibson F-style mandolins are the first ones with a good, “modern” tone...

The absolute zenith of mandolin design came in the 1920s, thanks to an acoustic engineer at Gibson named Lloyd Loar. His F-5 model is considered the best mandolin ever produced, and those with Loar’s signature on the label inside command the highest prices of any mandolins on the market, thanks both to their superb construction and their selection by the pantheon of famous American mandolin players, including the legendary Bill Monroe.

Aside from the F-5, Gibson’s F-7, F-10, and F-12 from the 1930s are rare, too, though less valuable. Gibson also manufactured mandolas, mandocellos, mando-basses, and even mando-lutes. Mandolas and mandocellas are quite rare, and collectors tend to value them more than their equivalent mandolin models, with the exception of Loar-signed mandolins.

Martin and Epiphone also produced mandolins, mandolas, and mandocellos, many of which were high-quality instruments and are quite sought after today. Martin’s Style 20 and Style 30 are rare and well made, but still not as collectible as the Gibsons. No company in the United States in the early 20th century could challenge Gibson’s dominance in the mandolin market.

Throughout the 1920s, though, even as Gibson was producing some of the best mandolins ever made, mandolins were falling out of favor. Once the accessible instrument of choice, the mandolin began to be replaced in the national spotlight by an exotic new instrument that was even easier to play—the ukulele.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Mandolin Cafe

Mandolin Cafe

Launched in 1995, Mandolin Cafe brings together anyone with an interest in mandolins—from players and teachers to… [read review or visit site]

First published as a folk music magazine in 1971 by Michael I. Holmes before going online in 1997, Mugwumps is a no… [read review or visit site]

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique 1913 Cylinderback Vega Mandolin W/ Cylinder Case RareKay Old Kraftsman MandolinGibson Mandolin Tailpiece " The Gibson"Beautiful 1915 Gibson Mandolin Serial Number 25332 Model A-4 With Original Case Bulldog MandolinKentucky Mandolin Km-180b Mandolin -- No Reserve & Free ShippingAntique Gibson Mandolin With Case/ 8-stringed Instrument/1906 Model/ #50578Vintage Unmarked 8-string Mandolin String Instrument In Hard Case1970 Vintage Suzuki Bowl Back Mandolin No. 601 W/ Case - Made In JapanAntique 19th C French Bisque Porcelain Figural Woman With Mandolin Figurine YqzEastman F Style Mandolin27.5" 8-string Rover Rm-25 Mandolin W/ Case Blevins Mandolin F5 Model Blevins Mandolin F5 ModelRogue Rm100f MandolinEastman Mandolin Md315Crafter Mandolin Guitar M70e- Acoustic ElectricMandolin -- Eastman Md514, F Style Oval -- Classic FinishNice Flat Back 8 String Mandolin With Case Restored 2007Loar Lm370-vsm F-style Mandolin -plays Very WellWeber Absaroka Mandolin /belgrade, Montana/serial # 041201 (01/2001) Very Good+Crafter M70-e Acoustic-electric Mandolin With Spruce Top.Strad A Lin Mandolin In The FiftysOlder Kay Electric MandolinVintage Small 4 String( Mandolin ?) Banjo + Case 21 In. LongBig Muddy Mandolin--special Edition. Excellent Condition!Antoniotsai,bird Inlay Solid Maple & Spruce F5 Mandolin Handmade,soft Bag Md4566Fender Fm-100 MandolinDearmond 500 Mandolin Pickup With Original BoxJ Bovier Electric MandolinKentucky Km-140 MandolinDelta Mandolin Chrome Finish Kitchen Faucet; 155-25nKentucky Mandolin Km 700Phoenix Select Two Point MandolinVintage Suzuki M210 Bowl Back Mandolin 8 String With CaseBanjo Mandolin - Harmony-made C.1930 Mother-of-toilet-seat BeautyMandolin Antique Vintage Repair Restore Holdrio Piccolo T Germany Small Mandolin Or Banjo Uke Case Gig BagBlue Vegetable Spiral Slicer Spirelli Kitchenspiralizer Julienne Cutter MandolinHohner Acoustic Electric A Style Mandolin With Soft CaseGibson Mandolin Tailpiece " Gibson"Vintage Halloween Bridge Tally, Singing Cat W/mandolin , Full Moon, UnusedArt Deco Porcelain Pirouette Girl Playing Mandolin Vase 1930s - Robji Lenci EraOld Weymann Keystone State Mandolin Mandolute Bowlback Banjo Vintage Silvertone Mandolin With CaseSuper V Slicer Mandolin Cutter Shredder Slicer With 4 AttachmentsVery Nice Mandolin Guitar By Rogue Model Rm-100a W/ Hardshell Case - Exc. Cond. Antique 1894 Guitar Zither Mandolin Vtg Lap Harp Autoharp No.2 U.s.a. "rare"Serious Back Yard Band W Mandolin Girl+guitar Man In Front Of Car*old Rppc PhotoStoneman Backpacking/hiking/travel/student Mandolin Usa!Stoneman Backpacking/hiking/travel/student Mandolin Usa!Antique Samson Porcelain Monkey Band Figurine - Mandolin Musician - 14 - PcBowl Back MandolinPortable Senior Folding Stand For Ukulele / Violin / MandolinFender Fm-63s Mandolin, Spruce Top & Maple Back, Int'l Buyers WelRogue Rm-100a MandolinHummel Figurine Hum 53 "joyful" Tmk5 (ce) Goebel 3.5" Girl Banjo,mandolinUniversal Acoustic Guitar Pickup Piezo Transducer Ukulele Mandolin Banjo NewPick Up Coil, Electric Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin, Phone, Japan, 10mm, Vintage2 German Gewa Guitar / Mandolin Picks! Look!