Mandolin vs. Guitar: What’s the Difference?

When you decide to learn a new string instrument, it is natural to hesitate between mandolin vs. guitar. Even though they look a bit similar, every experienced musician will tell you that they are entirely different and you should think twice before making a final decision.

In fact, there are three separate primary groups of stringed instruments well-known in the Western world. They include the most popular guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Once you determine the instrument you want to play, it won’t be a problem to go to a music shop and pay for it. However, there are a few things you need to know about before the enjoyable part comes. Let’s see.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – History

Guitar

It is one of the most popular instruments nowadays, whether it is acoustic or electric type. It evolved from the lute in Spain in the early 16th century. In the very beginning, it was a female instrument, but men took over it over time.

Depending on your preferences, you can use it to create both a rhythm and harmony. Always determine your wishes before going shopping, including the neck width, the material it is made of, and string type.

Mandolin

It developed from the lute, like the guitar, but it kept the characteristic pear shape. The first mandolin appeared in the 17th century but became popular from 1750 to 1810, thanks to traveling players.

The specific sound makes this instrument unique, and musicians use it to play bluegrass, blues, jazz, Celtic, country, and classical music.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Size

Mandolin vs. Guitar - Size
Image: Noname Music

As you can see, the guitar and mandolin look pretty different. The guitar is almost always bigger, and you can’t embrace its neck with your hand.

Overall guitar length

Guitar size

Classical guitar with nylon strings Acoustic guitar with steel strings
1/4 29 – 31.5 inches (74 – 80 cm)

29 – 31.5 inches (74 – 80 cm)

1/2

33 – 34 inches (84 – 86 cm) 33 – 35.5 inches (84 – 90 cm)
3/4 35 – 36 inches (89 – 92 cm)

34.5 – 37 inches (88 cm – 0.9 m)

7/8

37 inches (94 cm) 36 – 39 inches (0.9 – 1 m)
Full 38 – 40 inches (96.5 cm – 1 m)

40 – 42 inches (1 – 1.07 m)

The rounder mandolin is smaller, and you can hold its neck effortlessly. It has its advantages, but that means you can break it quicker than a guitar neck.

Plus, the tiny mandolin’s body will force you to position your hand in an entirely new and quite uncomfortable way without enough place to rest it while playing.

Mandolin dimensions

Type Body width Overall length
Mandolin 10 1/8 inches (26 cm) 27 1/4 inches (69 cm)
Mandola 11 1/8 inches (28 cm) 31 3/4 inches (80 cm)
Octave mandolin 12 1/4 inches (31 cm) 37 1/2 inches (95 cm)
Mandocello 14 1/4 inches (36 cm) 41 1/8 inches (1 m)

The positive side is that mandolin is more convenient for kids and players with smaller hands.

Holding a Mandolin

Holding a Mandolin
Image: Noname Music

Unlike the guitar, the smaller and lighter mandolin usually has no strap. It can be a significant problem for a guitar player who wants to learn to play the mandolin because nothing holds this instrument up.

The best option is to tuck the mandolin body bottom into your strumming arm and angle its neck approximately 90 degrees more upright than the way you usually hold the guitar. Another option is to buy the instrument with a strap.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Strings

Mandolin vs. Guitar - Strings
Image: Noname Music

Most standard guitars have six strings, but the average mandolin features only four. BUT! This instrument actually has four sets of strings, which makes playing a bit complicated.

In the beginning, you need to get used to the necessity of making chords covered by only four playable, open strings. Then, you should accept the idea that you should deal with double strings.

Even though it sounds terrifying, you won’t notice the difference as much. In fact, mandolin strings are thinner, and they won’t be much thicker than the guitar’s ones after doubling them.

Plus, you will probably feel a double string as single while playing since they are close to each other. There is a slight possibility to get your finger or pick caught between two strings.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Tuning

Different guitar and mandolin tunings make these instruments ideal for various music types.

  • Guitar – It has six strings, and each of them is tuned to a different note from the lowest (thickest string) to the highest (thinnest string). E-A-D-G-B-E.
  • Mandolin – It has four times two strings (eight strings in total), with each string pair tuned to the same note. The order goes from the lowest note (thickest string) to the highest one (thinnest string), GG-DD-AA-EE.

You can compare mandolin tuning with a violin. The only difference is that a violin has four single strings while a mandolin features four pairs. The way of tuning makes these instruments an excellent choice for genres like bluegrass, country, folk, and classical music.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Challenges While Playing

Mandolin vs. Guitar - Challenges While Playing
Image: Noname Music

Since the guitar has more strings, it is reasonable to claim that it is harder to learn this instrument than the mandolin. However, things are not so simple since the mandolin has double strings, which means – eight of them. So, there are more chords you should learn, although it doesn’t look like that at first glance.

Another problem with the mandolin is its size. It is much smaller than the acoustic guitar, so you can find it challenging to play it if your body structure, especially your hands, is large.

One of the common issues is the playing technique. Basically, it will help if you learn both left- and right-hand techniques when playing the mandolin. Be prepared for specific ways of playing necessary to master this instrument, including:

  • Chops
  • Tremolo
  • Cross-picking

One more struggle is to get used to playing double strings. It is not simple to adjust your fingers to hold double strings, especially if you have already played some other string instrument.

If you have too small hands, you won’t be able to hold two strings at the same time effortlessly. On the other hand, you need to clench large hands to get the right notes while playing.

In the end, the mandolin has a short neck. Consequently, its strings have much more tension, so you may feel resistance while pushing the mandolin strings down. As a result, you will face sore fingers during the first few lessons.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Learning

Mandolin vs. Guitar - Learning
Image: Noname Music

There are no too many differences when it comes to the learning process. Moreover, mastering one instrument will make it easier to play another in the future.

However, you will probably have difficulties finding adequate learning resources available for the mandolin classes. There are fewer tutors available, and literature is a bit limited. All that will make learning mandolin complicated.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Maintaining

The way of guitar construction makes it much more convenient to maintain than the mandolin. The fixed guitar bridge that supports the strings allows their replacing effortless, so even a novice can do it.

On the other hand, the floating mandolin bridge can move or even fall while removing and changing the strings. In such a case, you need to put them back in the right place. It is vital since the too high or too low placed bridge will result in inadequate sound. It can be a bit terrifying for a beginner.

Mandolin vs. Guitar – Price

Mandolin vs. Guitar - Price
Image: Noname Music

Since the guitar is a far more popular instrument, it is much more accessible for beginners. In other words, you can find even a quality beginner guitar at a more affordable price.

Unfortunately, it is not the same for the mandolin. Since it is not as sought after as the guitar, the creation process is more precise and demanding, and the production is limited, you can expect a higher price.

So, all things considered, you can find a decent guitar for a beginner for about $100. Mandolin purchased at the same price is usually not of satisfactory quality. If you want to buy a quality mandolin, you need to pay at least $600.

Mando Guitar – The Best of Both Worlds

Mando guitar is an excellent option for those who can’t decide which instrument to choose. The body size and shape of this instrument resembles the mandolin.

It is a mandolin guitar hybrid with six strings tuned E-A-D-G-B-E, like a guitar, but with one octave up. That will enable you to use a standard guitar tuning and play in the same tonal range as a mandolin. It is an excellent solution for those who are used to the guitar but prefer the mandolin sound.

Conclusion

There is no such thing as an easy instrument to learn. If you want to master either guitar or mandolin, you need to practice and be persistent. Your choice will depend on your preferences, music style, and body constitution.

It is a bit harder to find a tutor and literature for learning the mandolin, but it is an excellent choice for someone who enjoys being unique. On the other hand, everyone adores guitar players. The choice is yours!

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