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    

1964 C F Martin A Style Mandolin W Price Tag 8 Strings #24449 No Reserve W CaseVintage Gibson A Model Mandolin Case1988 Flatiron Mandolin & Banjo Co. Performer F Style Montana Usa Made MandolinHenry Glindoni (1852-1913) Signed Oil Panel To £12,000 Cavalier Playing MandolinBreedlove Premier Ff Mandolin Vintage Burst F Style W/hardcase Epiphone Mm50evn Natural Electric Mandolin Kentucky Km855 Vintage Amber Burst Mandolin W/case New Old StockAntique Felt & Cloth Painted Lenci Style Jointed Doll Minstrel W Mandolin1970's Aria M900 F-style Mandolin Carved Back & TopF Style Project Mandolin No ReserveVintage Gibson Pick Guard Clamp For Mandolin1916 Martin Style A Mandolin With Hard Shell CaseBruno 4-string Open Back Melody Banjo A/ka 4-string Mandolin Banjo. Ca. 1914.Vintage Gibson Or Vega Fairbanks 1920s Banjo MandolinTeens Gibson Mandolin Pick GuardEpiphone Mandolin Made By Gibson Mm 501935 Regal-made Maybell No. 32 Flatback MandolinInstrument # 264 Fine Handcarved F Mandolin Luthier BurgessBeautiful Antique Vintage Bowlback Mandolin Bowl Back Inlay Inlaid WoodMichael Kelly Mkasolidrhs A Solid R Mandolin, Hickory SunsetAutographed Fender Fm-62se Acoustic-electric Mandolin Blue BurstJohnson "louisville" A Model MandolinStew Mac Ebony Mandolin Fretboard Compound Radius FingerboardGibson Mandolin With Pick-upEbony Mandolin Fretboard From Luthiers Mercantile Stew Mac Fingerboard LuthierMorgan Monroe Acoustic/electric MandolinVintage 8 String Mandolin With Hard Case - Sounds Sweet !Michael Kelly Mkleleaab Legacy Elegante MandolinVega Style K Mandolin Banjo.Fender Fm-52e Acoustic/electric Mandolin - Sunburst - 095-5205-032Exc & Glossy ~1890s Cabinet Photo, Passaic, Nj Mandolin & Guitar Playing MenGretsch Guitars G9311 New Yorker Supreme Acoustic-electric MandolinDressed Easter Egg Shell Rabbits Music Lute Mandolin Bunnies Dance ~ Not Mint PcBrown Dansko "mandolin" Gold Embossed Floral Print Shoes Size 39 Us 8.5 - 9Stoneman Backpacking/hiking/travel/student Mandolin Usa!Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele Tkl A-style Mandolin CaseAntique Alarm Clock Mandolin.pat.mar.2.1886Vintage Oliver Ditson Empire Mandolin Bowlback Abalone Inlay Minor RepairsAcoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup F/ Guitar Violin Banjo Mandolin UkuleleVintage Bruno Banjo Mandolin Uke Banjolin UniqueSid Dickens T-07 Violin/mandolin RetiredMandolin 8-string With Original Cardboard Box - No Case! Vintage Guitar Picks Pair - French Atlas Mandolin & Banjo Picks - Atlas Pr AVintage Solid Silver Mandolin Guitar Miniature - Dollhouse - Stamped - ItalianAcoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele NewGivson Mandolin Outfit1960's Kluson Deluxe Mandolin Tuners 2 The Cadenza Music For Mandolin, Banjo, Guitar June December 1909Levy's M19 3/4" Leather Mandolin Strap Quality Leather Used Great Shape 48" LongAcoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele Dansko Mandolin Womens Brown Tooled Leather Clogs Size Us 10 Eu 40 EucJohann Adolf Hasse Harpsichord Sonata Mandolin Concerto 2 Violin Sonata SealedBoy Playing Mandolin To Girl Opening Shutter Of Heart House~valentine~1908Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele S2Alvarez 5-string BanjoVintagejuliana Book Piece Brooch- Mandolin -magnificent Collector Piece!Fontanini Simonetti Seated Angel Playing A Mandolin 4.25" Tall Dated 2002 ItalyHarmony Monterey Mandolin