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    

Antique 1915, The Gibson, Model A, Mandolin, Fresh Find Unrestored ... NrBreedlove American Series Ff Mandolin Excellent! Nr No ReserveHistoric 2000 Gibson F-5 Master Model MandolinLoar Lm520 F-style Mandolin & Gig Bag - Beautiful Sound - Solid Spruce & MapleGibson F9 MandolinThe Flatiron Mandolin Model 1n With Soft Case Vintage C.f.martin A-style 2-15 Mandolin From 1956Tacoma Mandolin M3 With CasePre Owned Kentucky Km-500 Artist A Model Mandolin - Vintage SunburstEastman Md-504 MandolinThe Aria F-5 MandolinWilson, MandolinVintage/antique Paramount Banjo Mandolin Tailpiece C.1930-nickelEpiphone Mandobird Iv Electric 4 String Mandolin W/ Case Vintag Gibson Junior Mandolin Sty. A Jr. Md. #65130 With Origenal Gibson Case1920's Slingerland ? 4 String Banjo Mandolin Ukelele For RestoringHandmade Mandolin In Hardcase. Spruce,solid Rosewood & Ebony BrdSavannah Sf-100 -model Mandolin - Vintage SunburstVintage Washburn A-style Mandolin Martin & Gibson StyleOliver Ditson Co Mandolin Banjo NeckNew Acoustic F Kentucky Mandolin Builder Kit With Spruce Top W/ Mahogany Back A1890's Vintage Graupner & Meyer Bowlback Mandolin Ornate Hand Inlays W/caseOld & Original Labeled Washburn Mandolin Model 1923-24 W/ Case Nr19thc Antique 1899 O/c Oil Painting, 18thc Mandolin Player & Bar Maid, NrF-5 Bluegrass Mandolin ProjectJohnson Ma-115-e Acoustic Electric Mandolin No Strings #222Epiphone Bluegrass Mandobird Viii MandolinFender Fm-53s Sb 8-string Mandolin BrownVintage Kiso Suzuki Mandolin Bowl Back Style Mr- 80 Made In JapanAntique Reliance No. Xx Eight String Mandolin Ukelele Banjo BanjolinNeat Vintage Orpheum No 1 Banjo Mandolin 6 Strings Wooden Resonator/backNew York Pro Ny-m5-vs A-style Electric Acoustic Mandolin 3-tone SunburstHand Crafted Mandolin 8 Strings Mint Condition With Hard CaseMartin Sigma Mandolin Sa-1 & Hard Case A Style JapanVintage Bowl Back MandolinFylde Touchstone Walnut Mandolin W/ohscVintage Kay Mandolin "a" Model Silvertone Type, Plays Great, Burst Finish!The Loar Lm-300 Mandolin (stand Not Included)New Acoustic F Kentucky Mandolin Builder Kit With Spruce Top W/ Mahogany Back AJohnson MandolinVintage 1920s-30s Potato Bug Mandolin Butterfly Inlay Italian Bowl Back Look!Italian Mandolin - Estudiantina From Catania Italy - Chiocca Carlos Made For VenVintage Orpheum MandolinMandoline Slicer Kitchen Mandolin Nib Zyliss Easy Slice Vegetable Slicer Bird Inlay Solidwood Koa Maple F5 Mandolin Handworks 4408Washburn Mandolin M1sdlb - Excellent ConditionNew In Box Pampered Chef Ultimate Mandolin Free Fast Shipping! Antique MandolinIbanez Fretless Electric Acoustic Mandolin For Oud Baglama Middle Eastern Sound Goya / Cf Martin Mandolin Made In Korea Gm 16 Serial #93110048Vintage Bluebird MandolinVintage 1920s-30s Mandolin Tuners - Missing A Shaft PartsAero-case Flight Case For Guitar, Mandolin,fiddle Etc.Parrot Inlay Solidwood Acacia Koa New Mandolin Handworks 4430Ibanez M511s MandolinPat. Mar. 30, '09 Gibson Mandolin "a" Or "f2/f4" Pick Guard W/ Bracket/ ClampEarly Antique Mandolin, Watermelon Style ( As Found )Dearmond Vintage Mandolin Tenor Guitar Pick Up, Nice!Loar Lm220-vs Mandolin Solid Carved Spruce & Flamed Maple- Beautiful Sound Vegetable Spiral Slicer Spirelli Kitchen Spiralizer Julienne Cutter Mandolin Wln