What is an Electric Mandolin?

A. B. Kelsey

An electric mandolin is a musical instrument that is fashioned after the traditional acoustic mandolin. However, even though it is played and tuned like an acoustic mandolin, the instrument is amplified in a way that is more similar to the electric guitar. An electric mandolin consists of a specially designed pickup that converts the vibrations of the strings into electrical audio signals. Electric mandolins are played by plucking or strumming the strings with fingers. These instruments are most commonly heard in western swing, jazz, blues, and country music.

An electric mandolin uses a pickup to amplify string vibrations.
An electric mandolin uses a pickup to amplify string vibrations.

There are many different types of electric mandolins. These instruments are offered in four-string, five-string, and eight-string versions. The most popular type of electric mandolin is probably the eight-string version. Solid body electric mandolins are also common, as are semi-acoustic and acoustic mandolins.

An electric mandolin is designed to be played through an amplifier.
An electric mandolin is designed to be played through an amplifier.

American companies that produced musical instruments began offering electric mandolins to the general public in the earlier years of the twentieth century. In one of the more successful early advertisement campaigns, the Electro String Instrument Corporation, now called Rickenbacker Guitars, offered an electric mandolin in their 1931 catalog. ViViTone also produced a number of electric mandolins in 1933. The National Reso-Phonic company had a prototype of an electric mandolin back in 1934, but didn’t actually start producing the instrument until 1939. In 1936, both the Vega and the Gibson companies offered consumers their choice of electric mandolins, with the latter company’s offering being far more successful.

The first documented solid body electric mandolin was invented in 1942 by Osmar Macedo, a musician who lived in Brazil. Macedo’s pau electrico was inspired by the cavaquinho, a musical instrument that is similar to both the ukulele and the mandolin. The pau eletrico had four single courses and were typically used in the popular Brazilian music frevo.

Back in America, the first known solid body electric mandolin was the five-string mandolin created Paul Bigsby in 1952 for Tiny Moore, a popular western swing musician. His electric mandolin had five single courses instead of the more popular four double courses.

During the 1950s, the Rickenbacker and the Gibson companies both introduced solid body eight-string mandolins. The Fender company chose to follow the single-course trend with its four-string version.

Fender’s popular four-string Fender Electric Mandolin was produced from 1956 to 1976. They currently offer an eight-string semi-acoustic electric mandolin with a body similar to the original instrument. The Gibson company produced the popular solidbody EM-200 from 1954 to 1971. They now offer a solid body mandolin called Mandobird, which is based on a smaller version of their early Firebird. The Mandobird is available in both four- and eight-string versions.

Electric mandolins can be made with a variety of materials. Two of the most popular materials are mahogany, which has a warm sound, and maple, which has a bright sound.

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