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    

The Loar Lm-500-vs F Style Mandolin W/ Schatten M-05 Pickup Hardshell Case L@@k!Fender Electric Mandolin Model # Fm-60e SbGretsch G9310 Ny Supreme MandolinOvation Mm68 Acoustic-electric MandolinElectric Mandolin Very Nice Bean Blossom By Morgan Monroe With Hard Shell Case8-string Johnson Ma-100-b Oval Hole Mandolin W/ Case1970's Aria M900 F-style Mandolin Carved Back & TopAntique MandolinVintage Mid Missouri Mandolin Co Model M-ow Mandolin With Pickup + CaseKentucky Mandolin Autographed By Doyle Lawson With Case! L@@k!Vintage A-style MandolinVtg 1950's Martin ? Mandolin Good ConditionMandolins-new Electric Acoustic Bluegrass MandolinSuzuki Mandolin / Vintage In Excellent Condition / 8 String Bowl BackFender Concert Tone "a" 52e A-style Mandolin With Pickup,Morgan Monroe Rocky Top Mfm-300 MandolinRogue Rm-100a A-style Mandolin Sunburst BlemsOvation Mcs148 Acoustic-electric Mandolin, Red Ruby BurstAntique 8 String Mandolin Banjo Inlaid Beautiful Assorted Mandolin Tuners For Luthier Repair Work Elite SchallerEastman Md515 F Style Mandolin Comes With Case!!!Antique Wooden Coffin Case For Mandolin. Banjo. Ukulele.Dragon Inlay Solidwood Acacia-spruce Style F4 Mandolin Handmade -soft Bag Md4655Trinity College Tm-250 Mandolin Antique Some Kind Of 5 String Mandolin Restore Or PartsBron Coucke Original French Mandolin SlicerVtg Aria Am-20 Mandolin F Holes No Case Mahogony Spruce Made In JapanReuge Musical Jewelry Box From Switzerland - Mandolin & Horns Wood Inlay169 Vintage Tortoise Different Shapes Guitar Banjo Mandolin Picks Case CandyBird Inlay Solidwood Acacia-spruce Style F4 Mandolin Handmade -soft Bag Md4661Weymann Keystone State Banjo Mandolin Banjolin, RareMitchell Sun-burst Yellow MandolinVintage Kay Mandolin , L7759, N-4, For Parts Or Repair1890's Frontier Men Musicians Playing Banjo & Mandolin Antq Glass Plate NegativeHarmony H8010 Stella Style Vintage Mandolin 1960's - 1970'sGuardian Cg-100-m Mandolin Padded GigbagAntique Micro-mosaic Italy? Red Rose Mandolin Banjo Bronze 2 3/8" Vtg Pin BroochVintage Hummel Angel With Mandolin PinkMandolin Orange - Such Jubilee- Signed No Proof-cd Russian 8 String Mandolin Sun Burst Folk Music Instrument Purchased In UssrDansko 41 Mandolin Brown Leather Floral Clogs Loafers Women's Sz 10.5-114 String Musical InstrumentLot Of 12 Sets Mt Mitchell Mandolin Strings Bronze Wound Loop EndAcoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele S2Acoustic Piezo Contact Microphone Pickup For Guitar Violin Mandolin Ukulele New1950s Martin Mandolin12 String MandolinBanjo-mandolin-guitar Bluegrass Unlimited 1977 All 12Lot Of Vintage Guitar Mandolin Banjo Picks ++ DobroOdell Method For The Mandolin Instruction Book No DateVintage Miniature Figurine Silver & Wood Mandolin Musical Miniature Deco ArtSwimsuit Mandolin Girl Playing And Singing On A Fence* 1930's Music Photo