The old saying, “Good things come in pairs” is absolutely true. Two is a number of harmony and balance. Think of ice skates, mittens, earbuds, bookends, and so many other examples.
Surprisingly, the mandolin is no exception to this law of the universe.
This stringed instrument is composed of coupled metal strings that are tuned in pairs. If you’re wondering how many strings a mandolin has, the answer can vary, but in most types of mandolins (with the tricordia being a notable exception), strings occur in pairs.
In music terminology, a “course” refers to one, two, or several strings that are placed close together on the neck of a stringed instrument and are often played in unison.
|Number Of Strings||Type|
|4||Go Down Low|
|8 (Classic)||Most Common|
In mandolins, a course typically consists of two strings that are played as if they were one.
Mandolins most commonly have four pairs of strings (or four courses), making eight strings total, but there are plenty of iterations that have been used historically and are also currently available. These varieties include, for example, five and six course instruments.
Without further ado, let’s dive into this fascinating instrument and answer the question, “How many strings does a mandolin have?”
In this list, we’ll start with the smallest number possible (four strings), discuss the most classic and popular types, and end with the highest number of strings possible (a whopping sixteen)!
Four Strings: Go Down Low
Mandolins can have a minimum of four strings, though this type is not very common at all. In this case, the instrument is composed of two pairs of strings and is tuned in unison. A very minimal and simplistic sound is produced since the number of chords that can be made is very limited.
Six Strings: Lombardy Bowlback
This type of mandolin originated in the Italian cities of Milan and Lombardo and likely preceded the eight string model that is now considered classic. They are shorter and stockier than the traditional Neopolatin mandolin. Additionally, mandolins from this Italian cities have only three courses of two strings each, making for six strings total. They contain three wire treble strings plus three gut or wire wrapped silk strings. The two different string types on this instrument give it a unique and coveted sound.
Even though each course consists of two slightly different strings, one being solid wire and the other being gut wrapped, tuning still occurs in unison. There is a greater depth of sound produced because of the slight variation present in each course.
Eight Strings: Classic
Classic mandolins have eight strings, consisting of four pairs. Mandolins first evolved from the lute family in Europe, and they possess features of many of their predecessor instruments like the gittern and mandore.
Today, the earthy sound of mandolins is very popular in folk music. A couple of unique features set the mandolin apart from other instruments and give it such a sought-after sound.
Mandolins, like all plucked instruments, make music because the sound of their notes quickly decay into silence. This is different than the ringing effect created from playing instruments with a bow, like the violin.
No matter how many strings a mandolin has, the instrument can be played with a flat tool called a plectrum or by strumming the strings with the fingers.
Why does a mandolin have 8 strings?
Eight strings provides a perfect balance to accompany many different songs and produce a distinctive sound. The strings are all tuned in unison. Tuning in unison means that each pair of strings is treated as the same for tuning purposes.
This creates a sense of harmony throughout the instrument.
Most traditional bowlback mandolins fall into the eight string category, including the standard Neapolitan model. Keep reading to learn about the other varieties that also exist, though.
This should also be where beginners start with.
Ten Strings: A Slight Variation
Varieties of mandolin exist that are composed of five pairs of strings all tuned in unison. Adding a new course increases the number of harmonies that a player can utilize when making music. Often the neck will need to be a little wider as the number of strings on the mandolin increases.
In the ten string mandolin, each course still consists of two strings and tuning is still performed in unison to create a pleasant sound when the instrument is played. The Algerian mandole is one example of a mandolin that commonly has ten strings.
Twelve Strings: Tricordia
The tricordia is a variation of the mandolin that originated in South America, specifically in Mexico. The tricordia has several key differences that distinguish it from its European cousin.
Most importantly, the tricordia actually has twelve total strings. The tricordia differs from other mandolins because instead of strings occurring in pairs, they occur in triplets. Therefore, tricordias have three strings per course, hence the name. This instrument is often used in Mexican folk music and can be tuned in unison or octave, which again separates it from the rest of the mandolin family, as they can only be tuned in unison.
Sixteen Strings: Take It To The Max
The maximum number of strings that a mandolin can have is sixteen. Again, this type is very rare. These instruments have very wide necks to accommodate the extra courses.
As you can see, there is a rainbow of diversity that exists in the mandolin world when it comes to the number of strings. Mandolins are most commonly strung with courses that consist of two strings each. No matter how many strings your mandolin has, you can still make it sing with beautiful music.
At the end of the day, the ideal string number really comes down to personal preference. If you’re not sure where to start, take some time to appreciate variations of the mandolin that have emerged all over the world, and that aren’t centralized to its European origins.
Different countries in Asia, Africa, and North America have developed some very interesting variations with different numbers of strings that are still very pleasing to the ear and an important part of history and culture.
With that being said, happy plucking!
Image from flickr creative commons thanker212