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1924 Gibson Lloyd Loar F-5, The Gibson Family

The mandolin is one of the instruments of the classic bluegrass band’s instrumentation, the others being the guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. It evolved from the Lute family and developed in the 17th and 18th century in Italy. During the early 1900’s the mandolin was the “it” instrument. Mandolin clubs were very popular. Entire orchestras were formed consisting of only mandolins. These orchestras had bass mandolins, octave mandolins, mandolas and mandolins. The instrument is strung with 4 sets of two matching strings tuned in unison for a total of eight strings, however two of the strings are pressed down at a time for the note desired. The tuning is in perfect fifths, the same as a fiddle. It is viewed by many as a fiddle with frets that is plucked instead of bowed like a violin. The fingering for a tune is exactly the same for a fiddle and a mandolin and the finger board is similar in size. This makes many fiddle or mandolin players able to play both instruments without the time required to learn the note locations as is necessary when learning the same tune on for instance the guitar. In a bluegrass band the mandolin plays a “chop” chord on the 2nd and 4th beats of a measure when not playing a solo.The playing on the 2nd and 4th beats emulates the snare drums function in popular music. The description “chop” comes from the player fingering the chord then strumming the chord in a percussive manner and almost instantaneously letting up slightly on the strings to muffle the sound. Two styles of the mandolin are associated with bluegrass music. The A style and the F style. The A style has a body shaped like a teardrop and round sound hole while the F (Florentine) style has the a body with F style sound holes and scrolls and other enhancements for a more decorative appearance. A styles are generally less expensive than F styles. Bluegrass and folk music players began using the mandolin to accompany singing and play solos in the 1920s. Bill Monroe, considered the father of bluegrass music fronted his band with a mandolin. Many instrumental tunes played today on the mandolin in jam sessions and shows were written or co-written by him. Mandolins are also used to play traditional fiddle tunes very effectively.

Some prominent bluegrass players past and present of the mandolin include Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Chris Thile (Grammy Winner and present host of The Prairie Home Companion show), Mike Marshall, Mike Compton, John Duffy, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Tim O’Brien, Sierra Hall, Sara Jarosz, Adam Steffy, Jesse McReynolds, Jethro Burns, Ira Louvin and Hershel Sizemore.

The most desirable mandolin for bluegrass players and collectors is the Gibson F5 model made from 1922-1924 and signed by Lloyd Loar. Prices for this mandolin are currently in the $130,000-$150,000 range. The most valuable mandolin today would most likely be the Gibson Lloyd Loar F-5 played by Bill Monroe.

Current makers of the mandolin are Gibson, Collins, Kentucky, Loar, Wood and Gilchrist to name a few.

A reasonably well built mandolin for a beginner would cost between $500.00-$1,000.00.