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    

1922 Gibson A-4 Mandolin W Verzi Tone Producer A4 Mando W Ohsc Loar Period E47Vintage 74 Ibanez 524 Gibson Mandolin. Great Player Internal Pickup. Rect. Case1919 Gibson A Mandolin, Rare Pre War Gibson! With Original Case!1957 Vintage Gibson A-40 Mandolin With CaseGibson Style A Mandolin Guitar2002 Gibson F-9 MandolinVintage 1912 Gibson A Mandolin With Repaired Headstock Serial # 15093Vintage Rare Regal 10 String Tiple Mandolin Guitar Harmony Kay AntiqueVintage Acoustic Electric Mandolin No Maker Ibanez M510e-bs Acoustic Electric A-style Mandolin - Brown Sunburst - Right HandVintage Banjo Mandolin Ukulele Banjolin UkeGibson Mandolin A 1914 With Original CaseLoar Lm520 F-style Mandolin -solid Carved Spruce & Maple -beautiful ToneFender Robert Schmidt Electric Mandolin Fm62eNeeds Work Unfinished Kentucky Style F Acoustic Mandolin Builder Kit ProjectGibson Mandolin F-4 1916Eastman615 F Style MandolinEastman Md815v MandolinEpiphone Mandobird-viii MandolinSuzuki Mandolin Model No. R-6 (kiso Violin 60's Bowlback Mandolin.Vintage The Gibson Mandolin 68995 With Hard Case 11618 Action AdjustedC.1905 Serenatta Mandolinetto Guitar Ukulele William Tonk & Brothers Mandolin-nrBreedlove Crossover Oo Mandolin W/ CaseVintage Mandolin, Reverse Scroll, Epiphone Case4 String Tourtellotte Electric MandolinVintage German Goldklang Inlaid Mandolin Lute Guitar 12 String Case BackgammonSavannah Sf-100 MandolinRich And Taylor T5 Sunburst Bluegrass MandolinAntique Bowl Back Mandolin Michele Marano - Allievo Di Vinaccia Good ConditionMorgan Monroe Mms-8w Vintage Style Mandolin With CaseVintage Old Faux Gibson A Style Mandolin Project LuthierVtg 1930s Vega Little Wonder 8 String Mandolin Banjo & Case Harry Owens Beauty!1970s Gibson F Style Mandolin Case - Almost Perfect Condition!1910 Gibson Mandolin-guitar Catalogue "h" OriginalVintage Antique - Gibson Junior Mandolin - Style - A Jr - No. 80381 - W/ Case Vintage Mandolin Airline With Original Case BeautifulRogue Rm 101a Mandolin - Jet Black - UsedOvation Applause Op-14 Acoustic/electric Mandolin With CaseHondo Mandolin...8 String Flat Back W/case!Antique Mandolin Micro Mosaic Brooch Lute Vintage Fine Millefiori Tesserae ItalyVintage 8 String A-style Acoustic Mandolin With F-holesMichael Kelly Legacy Fse Acoustic-electric MandolinCustodio Cardoso Pereira Mandolin, Antique Made In Portugal (body Needs Repair)Hummel Goebel 172/ii - Festival Harmony, Angel With Mandolin, Tmk5 !!Vintage Kiso-suzuki Kiso Suzuki Model 100 Neapolitan Bowl Back Mandolin Mint Vint 1965 Countess Heiress Barbara Hutton Playing Mandolin Photo By Cecil BeatonRare Ornate Chinese Bronze Incense Burner Or Inkwell Mandolin No Reserve!!Old Vazquez Miniature Mandolin Orig Wooden Box Paint & Pearl Inlay Stunning FineCoconut Inlay Solidwood Acacia Koa New Mandolin Handworks 4452Antique Bowlback Mandolin By C.c Mellor Pittsburgh Pa Bowl-back Carnegie SteelAntique Mandolin Bowlback Patent Date 1886 With CaseBending Iron, Usa Plug Violin, Viola, Mandolin, Guitar Woodworking TestedVintage Mandolin Japan - Needs Lots Of Work - Diy ProjectVintage Stella Mandolin #233Pre-war Hot Mandolin Pickard Chinese Syncopators Stay Out Of The South On HmvTonerite For Mandolin 3g Used Only A Few Times Tone Rite 3rd GenerationVegetable Spiral Slicer Spirelli Kitchen Spiralizer Julienne Cutter Mandolin WlnGeorge Washburn Mandolin M-2s- Sb In Hard Case With StrapOne Day Auction! Vtg Antique W.m.c. William Stahl Mandolin BowlbackAllen Mandolin Tai Piece