There are so many musical instruments out there these days; it can get confusing at times. It is often hard to keep track of which one is which and how all of them are played. One of the instruments that confounds a lot of people is a mandolin, and since it looks so much like a violin and has the same standard tuning, they often want to know if it can also be played with a bow.
You can play the mandolin with a bow. However, it wouldn’t sound very good. It would be similar to trying to play the guitar with a bow, and you’d most likely be doing a lot of damage to your bow in the process. So, while you can, it’s best not to play your mandolin with a violin bow.
Throughout this article, we will be exploring some of the topics related to this question. These will include why you shouldn’t play a mandolin with a bow, the different types of mandolins that are made, and how and when they are played. Let’s dive right in!
Why You Shouldn’t Play a Mandolin With a Bow
Other than the fact that many people say that playing a mandolin with a bow produces a bad sound, and thus wouldn’t recommend doing it, there may be another (and more valid) reason why you shouldn’t play a mandolin with a bow. This is because of a difference in the materials used to make the strings of a mandolin and the strings of an instrument usually played with a bow, a violin for instance, that could take a toll on the integrity of the bow.
Since mandolins are traditionally a ‘picking’ instrument, their strings need to be made to withstand the picking action. They are made from strong materials that will be harsher on the fragile fibers of a bow and will wear them out quicker than a violin’s strings.
They are typically made with one material as the core of the string and another material wrapped around it. Cores are mostly made of solid steel but are sometimes also made of spiral steel, braided steel, or nylon. The “wrap wire” is seen as the most essential component of a mandolin’s strings as they have a significant effect on the playability and durability of the strings. They are mostly made of silver-plated copper, phosphor bronze, brass, stainless steel, or nickel.
On the other hand, violin strings are made from materials that allow them to be thin while still maintaining their strength and sound quality. They are made from “catgut” (sheep intestines), steel, or synthetic fibers. They can be left plain, or they can also be wound in various types of metals.
A delicate balance has been created between the strings of a violin and the stings of the bows used to play them since they have been paired together for decades and are made to complement one another.
Bow strings are almost always made from the hair of a horse’s tail, which are attached to the handle of the bow to create what is known as a “ribbon.” As many as 180 single strands are used to create one ribbon, and any very thick or twisted strands are left out to ensure that only the straight strands are used. The ribbon is then coated in a layer of rosin, which is a powder made from hardened pine tree sap, to enable friction and keep all of the strands together.
Horsehair isn’t the thickest material out there, and one could see how using a bow made of horsehair on the tough strings of a mandolin might quickly wear out and damage the ribbon of a bow. In short, you’d be wasting your own money by having to replace the bow’s ribbon so often because you used it to play a mandolin.
As an alternative to horsehair, you can also find bows that are made from a synthetic hair.
Different Variations of the Mandolin
While there are a lot of variations of the original mandolin, there are three that are most common, namely the “Neapolitan” or “round-backed” mandolin, the “archtop” mandolin, and the “flat-backed” mandolin.
Neapolitan or Round-Backed
This mandolin style has a deep bottom, somewhat resembling a bowl, made from bent strips of wood that are glued together. It is still used worldwide and is the most popular of the modern mandolins (except for the United States). They are mostly manufactured in Europe and Japan.
An archtop mandolin (also known as carved-top mandolin) has an arched top with a shallower, arched back, and both carved out of wood. They were first designed and built in the late 1800s by Orville Gibson and subsequently began to supplant the European-style mandolins in the US.
Flat-backed mandolins are made using thin sheets of wood for the body, braced on the inside like guitars to provide strength.
This type was developed in 1850s Europe and was most commonly made by the French and Germans and the Spanish and Portuguese, who made a version called the bandolin, which was distributed to Brazil and the Philippines as they traveled there. There is also a ‘Celtic’ mandolin developed in the 1970s by Stefan Sobell, which has a slightly larger body.
Mandolins most commonly have four courses (sets) of two strings tuned in unison, meaning that they have eight strings in total. However, some versions have five courses (ten strings) and six courses (twelve strings). There have also been twelve-string models with three strings in each course and sixteen-string models, meaning that there are four strings in each course.
If you’re thinking about getting into playing the mandolin, you should be able to easily find a mandolin to practice on, like this Vangoa A-Style Mandolin.
How and When Mandolins Are Played
As mentioned before, there are several different mandolin variations, and while all of them are played similarly, their use in music is quite different.
How Are Mandolins Played?
All variations of the mandolin are played by plucking at the strings with a plectrum (now more commonly known as a pick) with your dominant hand while using your other hand’s fingers to press down on certain strings on the neck of the mandolin to form a chord.
Playing the mandolin is similar to playing the guitar, taking into account that a guitar has six single strings instead of the mandolin’s various sets of two. The learning curve on this instrument is also said to be close to the time you’d need to learn the guitar.
However, they are similar to a violin. They are the soprano in their family (other members are the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello, and mandobass), and their courses are tuned in succession with perfect fifths (G3, D4, A4, and E5).
When Are Mandolins Played?
Each variation of the mandolin has its own particular quality of sound and thus is associated with certain forms of music. The Neapolitan version of the mandolin has been prominently used in classical and traditional European music. The archtop mandolins are mostly used in American folk and bluegrass music, while the flat-backed versions are common in folk music from Ireland, Britain, and Brazil.
Are you interested in knowing more about the mandolin? Watch this video!
Realistically, you could play any instrument in any way you like. However, there’s no guarantee that doing so will produce a good sound or will not cause unnecessary damage to the instrument you are playing and the accessories you’re playing them with.
To this end, you could play the mandolin with a bow, but most musicians and music teachers would probably suggest that you shouldn’t.