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 MandolinOrpheum #1 Banjo-mandolin By Lange For RestorationHenry Glindoni (1852-1913) Signed Oil Panel To £12,000 Cavalier Playing MandolinRegal Resonator MandolinAntique Felt & Cloth Painted Lenci Style Jointed Doll Minstrel W Mandolin1970's Aria M900 F-style Mandolin Carved Back & TopKentucky Km855 Vintage Amber Burst Mandolin W/case New Old StockF Style Project Mandolin No Reserve1916 Martin Style A Mandolin With Hard Shell CaseBreedlove Premier Ff Mandolin Vintage Burst F Style W/hardcase Vintage Gibson Pick Guard Clamp For MandolinBruno 4-string Open Back Melody Banjo A/ka 4-string Mandolin Banjo. Ca. 1914.Blue Comet MandolinEpiphone Mandolin Made By Gibson Mm 50Vintage Gibson Or Vega Fairbanks 1920s Banjo MandolinInstrument # 264 Fine Handcarved F Mandolin Luthier BurgessBeautiful Antique Vintage Bowlback Mandolin Bowl Back Inlay Inlaid WoodVintage Signed Swarovski Brooch/pin Mandolin White Crystal Gold Tone W/box 44581935 Regal-made Maybell No. 32 Flatback MandolinJohnson "louisville" A Model MandolinMichael Kelly Legacy Dragonfly Flame MandolinGibson Mandolin With Pick-upStew Mac Ebony Mandolin Fretboard Compound Radius FingerboardTeens Gibson Mandolin Pick GuardAutographed Fender Fm-62se Acoustic-electric Mandolin Blue BurstGibson Junior Instruments Brochure Original Print 1920s? Mandolin Banjos Guitar Ebony Mandolin Fretboard From Luthiers Mercantile Stew Mac Fingerboard LuthierAcoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele Exc & Glossy ~1890s Cabinet Photo, Passaic, Nj Mandolin & Guitar Playing MenVintage Bruno Banjo Mandolin Uke Banjolin UniqueYoung Men's Band With Guitar+mandolin+violin+tiny Piano* Old Rppc Music Photo Dressed Easter Egg Shell Rabbits Music Lute Mandolin Bunnies Dance ~ Not Mint PcTkl A-style Mandolin CaseAntique Alarm Clock Mandolin.pat.mar.2.1886Kinney 1888 Scarce Novelty Type Card " Mandolin -- Novelties - 50 Styles "Levy's M19 3/4" Leather Mandolin Strap Quality Leather Used Great Shape 48" LongCat Art Postcard Kittens Mandolin Music Books "ragtime" C1909Brown Dansko "mandolin" Gold Embossed Floral Print Shoes Size 39 Us 8.5 - 9Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele NewAcoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup F/ Guitar Violin Banjo Mandolin UkuleleMorgan Monroe Acoustic/electric MandolinGivson Mandolin Outfit2 The Cadenza Music For Mandolin, Banjo, Guitar June December 1909Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele Dansko Mandolin Womens Brown Tooled Leather Clogs Size Us 10 Eu 40 EucVintagejuliana Book Piece Brooch- Mandolin -magnificent Collector Piece!Vintage Ajfj Mandolin A Silvered Steel StringsNew 18' Professional Guitar Cable Cord Electric Acoustic Bass Keyboards MandolinNever Been Used: Genius Gourmet Mandolin Slicers Set Of 2 ~ Adjustable SlicersJohann Adolf Hasse Harpsichord Sonata Mandolin Concerto 2 Violin Sonata SealedMichael Kelly Mkasolidrhs A Solid R Mandolin, Hickory SunsetFontanini Simonetti Seated Angel Playing A Mandolin 4.25" Tall Dated 2002 ItalyPampered Chef Ultimate Mandolin Blades 3 With CaseBoy Playing Mandolin To Girl Opening Shutter Of Heart House~valentine~1908Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele S2