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]

Mugwumps.com

Mugwumps.com

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    

Weber Sage Octave Mandolin/custom 20" Scale. -signed! Mint Cond.! $1 Start Bid! Vintage Harmony "batwing" Electric Mandolin- Exc.cond Practically Nos Loar Lm590-ms F-style Mandolin - Solid Carved Spruce & Maple - Plays Beautiful Vintage Ornate Banjo Mandolin (banjolin) Playable! Possible Stewart/vega Parts.Vintage 8 String Instrument Mandolin,ukulele,guitar,banjo? Very Old-needs RepairVintage Resonator/dobro Mandolin 1$ Start Bid!The Loar Lm-520 Performer F-style Mandolin W/ Stand Bundle 4474#10Vintage Gibson Mandolin Hard CaseVintage Batwing Mandolin Refinished, Electronics Ready, ProjectAntique Silver Filigree Mandolin Thimble Holder * English * Circa 1840Eastman F-style Mandolin Md315 Johnson Musical Instruments Ma-550 Octave MandolinEpiphone Electric Mandolin .1915 Gibson A Mandolin, Beauty With Tone That Will Make You Swoon!A Fine Giovanni De Meglio E Figlio 1902 MandolinKentucky Km-140s Mandolin With Strap, CaseRare Vintage 8-string Mandolin By F. De Mureda - Strumenti Armonici NapoliWashburn M3sw Florentine Cutaway Mandolin F-style W Case Tobacco SunburstFender Fm62sce Acoustic Electric Sunburst Mandolin W/ CaseVintage Antique Wooden Mandolin 8 String Acoustic Instrument GuitarVintage Mystery Mandolin Project1924 Fratelli Vinaccia - Naples Italy Antique Mandolin Beautiful PlayableEpiphone MandolinWeber Gallatin Custom MandolinLoar Lm170-vsm Mandolin - Electric Pickup Option -solid Carved SpruceLoar Lm170-vsm Mandolin - Electric Pickup Option -solid Carved SpruceRare Antique Mandolin Banjo Banjolin Restoration Project UsaNew Acoustic F Kentucky Mandolin Builder Kit With Spruce Top W/ Mahogany Back AVintage €Rare Vintage Bruno Mandolin Project UsaConqueror Bowlback Mandolin Model Cm-805 Japan 8 String / Look!Antique Mandolin Beautiful Condition By Antonio GrausoHondo Hman10 - 20 Fret - Orange Sunburst - 8 String - Right Handed - MandolinGretsch G9320 New Yorker "deluxe" Acoustic/electric Mandolin W/hardshell CasePacifica Banjomandolin Banjolin ?? Banjo Mandolin Weird Vintage AntiqueSavannah Sf-100-f Model Mandolin F Style Mandolin Mando Sunburst MandolinNew Solid Kentucky Style Mandolin F-model Antique Bowl Back Mandolin Puglisi Reale E Figli 1890-1918 Made In Italy Antique Mandolin Joseph Bohmann Pair Expo 1889 Bowl Back For Parts Or RepairVintage Early 20th Century Bowlback Washburn Mandolin-Rogue Rm-100a MandolinVintage Masakichi Suzuki Bowl Back Mandolin W/ Case & Key6 Vintage German Musical Angel Mica Glitter Moon Star Cello Mandolin OrnamentCharango 10 String Rzeznk Hr-350 Made In Bolivia Mandolin Bolivian Style!Gibson A2 Mandolin Circa 1918 Sn 61909Vintage Gibson A-40 MandolinMandolin Bowlback Stathopoulo New York 1919 Style 138Gretsch G9310 New Yorker Supreme Mandolin With Hardshell CaseVintage 8 String Mandolin UsedConqueror Mandolin Bowlback Model Cm-805 Japan 8 String Nice Style Repair PartsCalace MandolinGretsch G9310 New Yorker Supreme Mandolin Natural - Solid Mahogany Top + GigbagVintage Gibson Late 1920's / 1930's Guitar Banjo Mandolin Ukulele Catalog RareVintage Harmony Monterey Mandolin H410New Acoustic F Kentucky Mandolin Builder Kit With Spruce Top W/ Mahogany Back ARogue Rm-100a Mandolin SunburstRogue Rm-100a MandolinVintage Washburn Bowl Back Mandolin Sold At Grunewald's New Orleans 1900'sVintage ( Set) 1940s-1950s Mandolin Gear Drive Tuners-antique Mandolin Tuners Vintage German , Mandolin Banjo?? Good Condition, 8 Strings, 23"