The guitar and the mandolin both fall into the same family of string instruments, but all it takes is a glance to see that these instruments are not the same. There are significant differences between the guitar and the mandolin, and deciding which instrument is the better choice for you can be a challenge. Let’s compare both to help you determine which to choose.
The guitar and mandolin are both string instruments. The guitar is widely versatile and used for many musical styles. The mandolin is easier to play but far less versatile. The mandolin is designed for traditional and folk music styles. The guitar is harder to play but much more accessible.
There are many important differences between these instruments, and exploring them will help you to determine which instrument excites you more and help you to decide which instrument is a better fit for you and your musical preferences. Comparing these instruments is a challenge, but it is the only way to find out which you prefer.
Guitar vs. Mandolin: an Overview
The guitar and the mandolin are both members of the same string instrument family, but it is very clear that these two instruments are very dissimilar. The guitar and the mandolin both have strings, and they can both be strummed or plucked, but that is where the similarities end.
Before making definitive comparisons between these two instruments, in the interest of deciding which instrument is better for you, it is important to do an overview of each instrument and what defines them. This will form a good foundation upon which to compare these stringed instruments.
The guitar and the mandolin are both descendants of the lute instrument family, and they were developed around a similar time as well. Both instruments were developed into what we know them to be today in Europe and have become very widespread globally since then.
The guitar is designed to be a very versatile instrument and encompasses several different sounds and tonal capabilities that make it an excellent instrument for playing multiple genres.
The guitar is available in multiple different versions, including electric and acoustic versions, and multiple sub-types that have varying numbers of strings, different sizes, different characteristics, and different specific design functions.
The mandolin is an instrument designed for a specific sound and tone and is generally less versatile than the guitar. There are different types of mandolin-type instruments, and many consider “mandolin” to be a string instrument grouping rather than a stand-alone instrument.
This instrument also developed from the lute family and has become widespread internationally, but it was originally developed and refined in Italy and remains a very popular instrument in this country to this day.
The mandolin produces a sound that is ideal for folk and traditional musical styles; it has a relatively high-pitched tone that lends itself to a specific musical area, and the sound of the instrument pairs exceptionally well with other instruments made for the same genres.
The guitar and the mandolin are vastly different instruments, even though they can be played in similar ways and with similar techniques, but they sound and look completely different, and the music that they make is very different as well.
Now that we have a broad understanding of each instrument, let’s take the time to explore some of the most important and most prominent differences between the guitar and the mandolin to help you determine which instrument is a better fit for you and your musical preferences.
Let’s begin with the most obvious difference and comparison between these two instruments: size.
The guitar is significantly larger than the mandolin. Even the smallest versions of the guitar are larger instruments than the standard mandolin, and this drastically affects the way the instruments sound and the way they are played in comparison to one another.
The guitar is larger in every dimension compared to the mandolin, and this larger size gives the instrument a boarder, warmer, more versatile tone as result.
The mandolin is significantly smaller than the guitar, and this smaller size is responsible for the higher tone of the instrument and makes it ideal for the music that it is made to play.
The larger size of the guitar can make it a more challenging instrument to play, especially for those people of smaller stature or for children, but the size also provides more notes to play and a broader range of note and tone versatility as well.
The smaller size of the mandolin makes it an easier instrument to play regarding the playability of the instrument, provided the instrument is made well and set up well in a way that makes it comfortable to play.
The size of the mandolin makes it easier to hold and easier to reach the notes for people of smaller stature and for children, but the size also limits the range of notes and tone that the instrument is capable of.
Strings and Tuning
Another obvious difference between these instruments is the strings that they are equipped with and the way the strings are tuned.
The guitar has a standard string set of six strings. The bottom string on the instrument is the thinnest string with the highest-pitched notes playable on it, and the strings become progressively thicker and lower-pitched until the sixth string, which is the thickest and has the lowest note pitch.
Six-string guitars have individual strings, but there are other string variants, such as twelve-string guitar configurations that have a set of six double strings, where two strings of the same note but different octaves are played simultaneously.
There are other guitar string configurations as well. There are six-string guitars, as well as seven-string, eight-string, and even nine-string variations of the instrument.
The standard tuning of a six-string guitar is E A D G B E, but the instrument can be tuned to almost any tuning variation. Extended-range guitars follow the same tuning system as six-string guitars but can also be tuned to whatever configuration the player chooses.
The mandolin has a very different string configuration to the guitar. This instrument always has sets of two strings tuned in unison, known as courses, and the instrument can have four, five, or six string courses.
A four-course mandolin is the most common variety and has a total of eight strings. Five-course versions have ten total strings, and six-course variations have twelve total stings. Each string course is played in unison, and this makes the instrument louder and clearer and produces a more pronounced sound than if the instrument only had individual strings.
Four-course mandolin, the most common of all mandolins, uses a standard tuning of G D A E, but as is true for all string instruments, the strings can be tuned to other pitches, changing the way the instrument sounds and the way it can be played.
Mandolin strings also progress in thickness from one to the next, and the thickest strings produce the lowest note pitches, while the thinnest strings produce the highest note pitches.
The size of the guitar and the mandolin, as well as the strings that these instruments are equipped with, are the largest contributing factors to the way these instruments sound, which leads us to the most crucial comparison to make between these instruments: the way they sound.
The reason why this is the most important comparison to make is the sound these instruments produce determines how they are used, the context in which they can be used, and the music that can be played on them, and these should are the most important determining factors when deciding which instrument to choose.
The guitar is a wonderfully versatile instrument. The sound that this instrument produces is varied, as it can produce very low notes, very high notes, and everything in between. The guitar can play notes in a melody and notes in harmony, and it has a very wide range of possible chords and chord combinations.
The guitar can also be played with a wide range of playing techniques that produce different sounds or change the way the instrument changes altogether.
Electric guitars can be used with various effects units and pedals that drastically change the way the instrument sounds as well and bring the guitar into a completely unique sonic space.
The mandolin, however, is far less versatile than the guitar. There are fewer types of mandolin, and the sound that the mandolin produces is limited due to the size of the instrument.
The small size of the mandolin makes the instrument sound far higher in pitch than the guitar and means that the instrument has a very limited note range as well.
However, what the mandolin lacks in versatility, it makes up for in a unique tone. The mandolin is not designed to be a highly versatile instrument used for multiple genres, but it is rather focused on being used in folk and traditional genres, which means that it does not have to be very versatile.
This focused, designed sound that the mandolin produces means that it is very good at what it does. There is no other instrument that sounds like the mandolin, and therefore there is no other instrument that can compete with it in the realm of folk, traditional, and bluegrass music.
Instrument Playability and Techniques
The guitar and the mandolin are both string instruments that can be plucked and strummed, which is why they fall into the same family of string instruments, but there are various techniques that are unique to each instrument, some that are transferable between them, and others that are completely different by comparison.
The guitar is used with a wide variety of techniques and methods, including various strumming, plucking, picking, tapping, and percussive playing. The guitar is incredibly versatile, which leaves room for a multitude of playing techniques and playing possibilities.
Chords and single-note melodies, as well as combinations of both, are standard guitar playing techniques, but there is a multitude of sub-techniques that every guitarist learns along the way as well.
The mandolin is primarily strummed while playing various chords and chord shapes, but the strings can be plucked as well. However, the music that the mandolin is designed to play lends itself to a combination of these strumming and plucking techniques without leaving much room for other playing techniques or methods.
The size and design of the mandolin make it somewhat limited regarding playing versatility, but the fact that this instrument is designed for specific genres of music means that it does them very well, and it does not need to be as versatile as other instruments.
The price of these instruments is another important factor when considering which instrument you choose.
Guitars and mandolins can be bought for roughly the same price, especially beginner versions of the instruments. Beginner guitars and mandolins both sell for around $100 – $500, and better-quality versions sell for anywhere from $500 – $1000.
Mid-range guitars and mandolins tend to be priced around the same as well, but the high-end versions of the instruments are usually priced differently.
High-end guitars can sell for many thousands of dollars. Some custom-made guitars even sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Typical premium guitars sell for around $5000 – $10,000.
By comparison, high-end mandolins do not cost nearly as much. Typical high-end mandolins cost around $3000, and even the custom hand-made mandolins barely reach $5000 or so.
Universality and Repertoire
The final consideration here when choosing between a guitar and a mandolin is the universality of the instrument and the repertoire of music that is possible to play with the music.
The guitar is a far more universal instrument. There are far more opportunities to play the guitar, and there are far more songs written for the guitar than for the mandolin, especially in modern popular music.
Mandolins are less versatile and are typically used for a limited range of musical styles and genres, which means that there is less to play with a mandolin, and there are fewer opportunities to play as well.
Most bands have a guitar player, but few bands have a mandolin player.
The sound of the instruments is the determining factor regarding how universally usable the instruments are. If you want to play a very wide range of music, or if you dream of performing with other musicians playing the songs that you love, then the guitar is a better option for you.
However, the sound of the mandolin is entirely unique, and if you love the sound that it produces, don’t settle for the guitar just for the sake of playing in a band.
The guitar and the mandolin are somewhat similar in some ways, but they are overall very different instruments. The guitar is widely used for multiple genres, while the sound of the mandolin only suits a select few musical styles.
Regardless of the instrument you choose, be sure to choose the one that excites you the most, as this will inspire you to practice more and drive you forward on your musical journey. Carefully consider which instrument suits your musical preferences best, and then give them both a try to make your final decision!