I started playing Celtic music in late 1989 and mandolin in early 1990 after meeting a gaggle of traditional music lovers at Quail Hollow State Park’s music sessions. I had played violin since fifth grade and guitar since ninth, so adding mandolin, its tuning the same as the violin and its way of playing like the guitar, was a natural choice.
I don’t know when I first heard the mandolin — growing up listening to traditional music it was probably always in my life. But I knew I wanted to play it when, one day before orchestra rehearsal in high school, I figured out how to play “Dueling Banjos” by plucking with my thumb. In college, I found Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti on scratchy records at the North Canton Library, recorded them and listened to them for years. Now I have them, and many other classical mandolin pieces, on CD.
After I began attending Quail Hollow sessions my friend Tom introduced me to the Celtic mandolin family. He played a beautiful Celtic-style mandolin, and at a music party that first fall he played a bigger mandolin that he called a bouzouki. I was mesmerized. The bouzouki was almost as big as a guitar and had a range similar to the guitar, its tuning an octave below the mandolin, G-D-A-E (Helmholtz notation G-d-a-e´) from low to high. Its tone was similar to the guitar but a bit sharper, possessing the mandolin’s tart lemon-like tone. Tom played music by the Irish harper Turlough OCarolan, which is very Baroque in flavor and perfect for the instrument.
Eventually I learned that the bouzouki is more correctly called an octave mandolin, which was developed by Irish musicians and an English builder from the true bouzouki, a Greek instrument with a rounded back like that of the classical mandolin. Andy Irvine of the seminal ’70s Irish folk group Planxty had brought a bouzouki back to Ireland after a trip and asked English guitar luthier Stefan Sobell to make a version more suited to Celtic music. Sobell built his instrument with a slightly arched back and the octave mandolin tuning, and that instrument became a mainstay in Celtic music.
The Celtic version of the bouzouki works well for melody and rhythm and, tuned like the violin and mandolin, readily plays the drones that are so prevalent in Celtic music.
A few months later, in the summer of 1990, Tom told me about his mandola, which he wanted to sell, and I knew before seeing it that I wanted it. Built by the Flatiron Company of Bozeman, Mont., it is tuned like the viola in the orchestra and lies in range between the mandolin and octave mandolin. Its tuning is C-G-D-A (c-g-d´-a´).
The mandolin family was very popular in the early 1900s, the Gibson company being the most prolific builder of mandolins. Gibson built the mandolin; mandola; mandocello, tuned like the cello, C-G-D-A, (C-G-d-a) an octave below the mandola; and the mandobass, tuned like the double bass, E-A-D-G from low to high, an octave below the four lower strings of the guitar.
After I learned about these mandolin family instruments, I started getting ideas about playing Celtic and Baroque music on all mandolins. One of my favorite Bach pieces, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3,” is perfect for mandolins, and because Baroque folks weren’t such sticklers for prescribed instrumentation it is perfectly acceptable to play that piece on mandolins. Sometimes the composer listed the instruments to be used but added “or whatever is at hand.” Also good on mandolins are Bach’s inventions for harpsichord, especially since the Celtic mandolins sound more like the harpsichord than do classical mandolins.
To be more precise, the modern mandolin as most people know it shouldn’t be called a mandolin; it’s a cittern, the English guitar of the 17th and 18th centuries. Celtic mandolins are patterned after the cittern, which was pear-shaped and had a flat back. Classical mandolins have rounded backs. In the Baroque era, the cittern was an instrument for ladies to play at home. Men played the louder instruments — the violin and flute and cello — in public, but women didn’t dare perform publicly and besmirch their reputations. The cittern was tuned in an open tuning, in other words to a chord, usually a C, so the player could make more sound than possible when playing on only one string. While nowadays we have no strictures on who plays what, I have found that open tunings or partial open tunings can make a mandolin ring with drones and chords, although they limit me to one or two keys.
I’m glad that society doesn’t dictate what instrument I play. I cant imagine life without the mandolin.