Mandolins and guitars are both used in old-time string bands and other groups which play traditional folk music. But they’re also integral parts of groups that play newer musical styles like bluegrass and country. And more and more these days, talented musicians and composers are incorporating both these instruments into fusion ensembles which bring together the best of many varied styles of music to create something new and wolderful that, nevertheless, has the sounds we’ve come to associate with fun, people-centered music.
Frankly, it’s a slightly disturbing feeling to write an article which purports to decide for you whether you should settle for a guitar or a mandolin. After all, there’s no real reason why you should limit yourself to only one instrument. Even if you can’t afford both, you never know what the future will bring and one day you might have the resources to get all the instruments you could possibly want.
I think it’s better to take this attitude: that all well-rounded musicians are best off when they familiariaze themselves with all the major instruments used in their favorite style of music.
After all, there are concepts that are universal to all good music that you won’t learn unless you’re familiar with a range of instruments.
Should you play the guitar?
It’s impossible to say that the guitar is best restricted to use as either a rhythm or lead (melody) instrument. In the hands of a skilled player, the guitar truly does it all.
But sometimes, when you plan to play as part of a group, you really don’t need or want to do it all. As a band member, you might not want to spend the years needed to become a master of all aspects of music.
Guitar players are capable of playing fast licks that come close to rivaling the lead capabilities of a violinist, but they’re also able to flesh out a song’s harmonies while laying down the rhythmic framework much like a piano player.
Should you play the mandolin?
The mandolin was traditionally a lead instrument. It has the same tuning as a violin, and it can be used to play the same sorts of melodies.
But lately, mandolin has been used more and more as a rhythm instrument. The famous mandolin chop is a rhythmic device used bluegrass bands (and other ensembles), and when it’s combined with a banjo, the results do away with the need for a drummer.
Since mandolins are smaller than guitars, it’s often easier to fret chords and single notes than with a guitar. If you are afraid that you’ll never manage to become good at effortlessly moving between chords on the guitar, perhaps the mandolin is a better choice for you. Or, maybe you just need more practice or a different guitar with lighter strings.
Comparing the mandolin and the guitar
Number of strings on the guitar and mandolin
Guitars have six strings — three bass strings and three treble strings — while mandolins have two sets of four strings. This makes guitars more versatile, but they lack the rhythmic ‘chop’ of a good f-style mandolin. In modern times, 12-string guitars have become easier to get; they offer a fuller sound than regular 6 string models, but they’re not as versatile.
Guitars have more sustain than mandolins. The large soundbox just rings out for much longer than the smaller mandolins.
In fact, mandolin players use a tremolo picking pattern to ‘hold’ a note, while guitar players just pluck the string extra-loud.
Picking styles of the guitar and the mandolin
Mandolin players rely exclusively on flatpicking. With a flatpick (or, in some rare cases, a thumb-pick used as a flatpick), mando players can chop all four strings while fretting a chord. Or they can play individual notes at a fast and furious pace, much like a violinist. To hold a note, they pick the string repeatedly using tremolo picking.
Guitar players have more choices. Old-time players pick with the fingers and thumb. This fingerstyle guitar is beautiful and versatile, but not very loud. Bluegrass guitarists get around this lack of volume by using metal or plastic fingerpicks. Some players use the flatpick, just like mandolin players. But in general, this is a less-versatile style of playing the guitar.
Electric and Acoustic-Electric guitars and mandolins
Both instruments can be electrified, either at the factory or by using aftermarket pickups.
Many electric guitars do away with the soundbox entirely. But there are few electric mandolins that don’t also function as acoustic instruments.
Some guitar players feel that the only way they can compete with a loud banjo player (in terms of volume) is to electrify the instrument and use an amplifier. Rhythm mandolin players usually don’t have this problem, especially with f-style mandolins which are louder than their older counterparts.