Mandolin vs Guitar: What’s the Difference and Which is Best?

mandolin vs guitar

Welcome to the harmonious battleground where the mandolin and the guitar pluck at the heartstrings of aspiring musicians, each vying for a place in the spotlight of your musical journey. This article serves as your compass through the labyrinth of notes and chords that define these two beloved stringed instruments.

Whether you’re captivated by the bright, chirping echo of the mandolin or the soulful hum of the guitar, the quest to choose your musical companion is no easy feat. We aim to illuminate the path by discussing size, tuning, playing technique, and musical styles associated with each instrument.

Imagine the mandolin and guitar as two distinct characters in the orchestra of life: one is like a sprightly sprite, with light gauge strings and a propensity for delightful, quick sounds, while the other is a versatile storyteller, weaving narratives through a broader spectrum of tones.

By comparing these smaller instruments with their eight strings against the more familiar six-stringed giants, we’ll delve into the modern instruments’ core, all the while hearing from seasoned musicians who’ve danced their fingers across both fretboards.

Their insights into which instrument may be the easiest to learn is invaluable for beginners taking their first steps into the world of music.

With a rich history stretching across genres from the spirited twangs of bluegrass music to the soulful expressions found in classical tunes, these instruments cater to various genres.

They enchant larger hands around the ample neck of full-size guitars, and coax melodies from smaller hands dancing on the condensed fretboard of a mandolin.

We’ll explore each instrument‘s suitability to different hand sizes, how they play into the learning curve, and how even a 12-string guitar’s majestic chorus can’t overshadow the mandolin’s rhythmic sparkle.

But it’s not all about the number of strings—oh no! We must also consider the symphony of chord shapes and the ballet of fingers upon the strings.

Whether you’re using a pick or your bare fingers, the chords and chord shapes you’ll learn will be the building blocks of the songs you’ll soon serenade the world with.

We’ll dissect these elements and more, giving you the foundational knowledge to make an informed decision on which instrument to pick—or pluck—as you embark on your melodic expedition.

So, whether you are a troubadour at heart or a strummer of the moment, by the end of this article, you’ll not only grasp the difference between a mandolin and a guitar but also which may be the best fit for your musical aspirations.

Prepare to tune your senses to the subtleties that define these instruments, for soon, with a bit of practice, one of them may become an extension of your own creative spirit.

History and Basics of Mandolin and Guitar

The mandolin and the guitar, two beloved musical instruments, each possess a storied past that intertwines with the evolution of music. Originating in Italy during the 17th century, the mandolin descended from the lute family, gradually adopting its characteristic eight metal strings arranged in four pairs.

This configuration gives it a bright, jangling sound which has become a staple in Irish music and bluegrass. Conversely, the guitar, with roots tracing back to ancient civilizations, has evolved into its modern form with six strings, though variations like 12-string guitars and classical offer diverse tonal possibilities.

Despite differences in string number and composition—mandolin strings being in pairs of strings and guitars typically having heavier gauge single strings—both instruments share similarities in structure, including a body, neck, and fretboard.

However, the mandolin strings are tuned in perfect fifths, akin to a violin, whereas the guitar strings follow standard tuning in fourths with a major third. These different tunings contribute to each instrument’s unique sound and the unique techniques required to play them.

The Basics: Size, Strings, and Tuning

When setting out on the venture of learning a new string instrument, potential musicians might find themselves at a crossroads: mandolin or guitar? These two stringed siblings have their own unique signatures, and understanding the basics of their size, number of strings, and tuning is essential for any aspiring player.

Physical Size and Number of Strings

The guitar and mandolin may look similar at a glance, but their dimensions and the number of strings diverge significantly. Standard guitars typically feature 6 strings, though variations like the 12-string guitar add a rich, choral effect to the instrument’s tonality.

In contrast, the mandolin usually sports 8 strings, organized into four “courses”, meaning you’ll find a pair of strings tuned to the same note, also known as double strings. This creates a strikingly luscious and full sound, characteristic of the sound of the mandolin.

Types of Strings and Their Impact on Sound

Guitars and mandolins not only differ in the number of strings but also in the types of strings used. Guitar strings can range from light to heavy gauge strings, with acoustic versions often using metal or nylon and electric guitars incorporating steel or nickel.

This diversity allows the guitar to achieve a vast spectrum of sounds, from the deep, soulful melodies of a classical guitar to the electrifying riffs of an electric guitar.

On the flip side, mandolin strings are typically made of metal and are played in pairs of strings, giving the mandolin a bright, penetrating tone. From the woody timbre of a round-backed mandolin to the bright punch of an electric mandolin, the string composition contributes greatly to the unique sound of each mandolin instrument.

Standard Tuning and Different Tunings

Tuning is where the mandolin and guitar reveal one of their most apparent differences. A standard guitar is typically tuned to E-A-D-G-B-E, which provides a versatile framework for a plethora of musical genres. Intriguingly, guitars can also be tuned differently to suit various musical styles, such as drop tunings for heavier rock or open tunings for slide guitar.

Conversely, the mandolin is tuned in a manner similar to a violin: G-D-A-E, with each string in a course tuned to the same pitch. This tuning is standard across most styles of mandolins, whether it’s an Irish mandolin, carved-top mandolin, or an octave mandolin, which is essentially a small guitar tuned an octave lower than a standard mandolin.

The key takeaway here is that while both string instruments offer variety in sound through different tunings, the guitar provides a broader range of different tunings compared to the standard setup of the mandolin. However, both instruments offer their own unique characteristics that cater to different musical expressions, and understanding these can be the compass to guiding an aspiring musician’s decision.

Playing Techniques: Chords and Finger Position

When embarking on the journey to master either the mandolin or the guitar, one must delve into the intricate world of playing techniques, particularly chords and finger position. The mandolin, with its four pairs of strings, offers a distinct approach to chords.

The strings are tuned in unison pairs, to notes G, D, A, and E, which is akin to the violin, thus presenting a unique challenge in terms of finger positioning. The pressing of double strings with one finger could be seen as a dance where precision leads, ensuring a clean, resonant sound.

a major on mandolin
An A-Major chord on a mandolin

Conversely, the standard guitar typically flaunts six single strings, though variations like the 12-string guitar add complexity with pairs. The more spacious fretboard and varying guitar strings thicknesses demand a different approach to finger placement and strength. Guitar chords are often composed of several notes spread across the strings, requiring a broader stretch of the fingers.

a major on guitar
An A-Major chord on guitar
  • Mandolin Chords: Compact and requiring a nimble touch, chord shapes on the mandolin can be a stretch for beginners but are uniform across the fretboard thanks to the instrument’s symmetric tuning.
  • Guitar Chords: The chord structures on a guitar are more diverse with open, barre, and power chords, each demanding unique finger positions and dexterity.

The potential for skill transfer is significant for musicians transitioning between these two string instruments. Knowledge of scales, chord theory, and rhythm can seamlessly weave through both, albeit with adjustments in execution.

Players will find that the compactness of mandolin chords can enhance the precision required to master the wider stretches on the guitar.

It’s important to note that the mandolin’s sound of the mandolin is brighter, often playing higher notes and quick, repeating phrases, which dictates its finger positioning and picking style. The guitar’s broader range allows for deeper resonance and a versatility in producing both rhythm and lead patterns.

Unique characteristics define the playing technique for each; for instance, the mandolin’s pair of strings per note encourages the use of a pick to properly articulate the notes, whereas the guitar provides the option of using a pick or fingers for a variety of sounds.

This distinction is not just about the number of strings but also about the approach to producing the instrument’s signature timbre.

In summary, whether one’s heartstrings are pulled by the delicate, shimmering jangle of the mandolin strings or the soulful, rich hum of guitar strings, understanding and practicing the different techniques of chords and finger positioning is crucial.

With dedicated practice, the transition between playing mandolin and guitar can be an enriching musical adventure, offering a kaleidoscope of harmonic possibilities.

Acoustic guitar example with pick and played fingerstyle

Playing Technique: Fingers vs Pick

Embarking on the journey of mastering a string instrument presents the quintessential quandary: to use one’s fingers or a pick? Mandolin players often gravitate towards the use of a pick, due to the double strings which demand a precise striking motion to resonate each pair of strings effectively. The pick facilitates a sharp, clear attack on the strings, contributing to the unique sound of the mandolin.

On the other side of the musical fence, guitar players have the luxury of choice. The guitar’s strings can sing beautifully whether plucked by fingers or struck by a pick.

Fingerstyle playing allows for a more intimate touch, offering a softer, warmer tonality, while picks can help achieve a brighter sound and are often preferred for styles like rock and strumming chords in folk music.

Beginners may find the fingerstyle technique on a classical guitar to be an approachable starting point, as it lends itself to the natural motion of the hand. Conversely, those starting with a pick, such as on an electric guitar or mandolin, may appreciate the ease of producing a consistent sound. Whichever method you pluck, the melody of learning awaits.

Sound and Musical Styles

Delving into the auditory landscape of string instruments, we find two distinctive characters: the mandolin and the guitar. Each brings its own unique sound and aesthetic to the table, which in turn shape the musical styles they are commonly associated with.

The sound of the mandolin is bright, punchy, and often jigs through tunes with a playful lightness. Its crispness comes from its double strings – each note is actually a pair of strings played together, delivering a fuller sound often described as shimmering or staccato.

Traditionally, the mandolin has been synonymous with classical music and Irish music, where its penetrating sound cuts through the melodic mix of flutes, violins, and accordions. However, the mandolin isn’t just a one-trick pony.

It has firmly etched its presence in the world of bluegrass, where the unique characteristics of the style mandolins – particularly the f-style mandolin with its ornate scroll-shape and piercing tone – become the heart and soul of rip-roaring, foot-stomping festivities.

On the flip side, the guitar’s voice is as classic as a little black dress – suitable for nearly every occasion. Its versatility is unmatched, whether it’s the gentle strumming of a small guitar in a cozy coffee shop, the resonant plucking of a nylon-stringed classical guitar, or the electrifying wail of an electric guitar at a rock concert.

Guitars can be the lead singers or the supporting cast, carrying a tune or complementing the harmony. The larger body and thicker guitar strings compared to mandolin strings contribute to its rich, full-bodied resonance that can range from warm and mellow to bright and twangy.

Considering musical genres, guitars have become the backbone of styles such as rock, blues, country, and folk. The 12-string guitar adds yet another layer of depth and complexity to the instrument’s portfolio, with its chorus-like effect amplifying the already broad spectrum of the guitar’s voice.

  • Classical Guitar: Embraces a range from Spanish flamenco to baroque and renaissance pieces.
  • Electric Guitar: Dominates rock, jazz, and blues, with the power to command a stadium’s attention.
  • Acoustic Guitar: A favorite in folk, bluegrass and country, offering a down-to-earth, intimate sound.

When discussing well-known musicians who have mastered these instruments, consider the virtuosity of mandolin players like Chris Thile, bringing contemporary zest to the instrument, or the pioneering sounds of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass mandolin.

In contrast, guitar legends such as Jimi Hendrix with his blistering electric guitar solos and Andrés Segovia with his transcendent classical guitar performances showcase the broad appeal and adaptability of the guitar.

Whether you’re entranced by the spirited sound of the mandolin or the soul-stirring strums of a guitar, each instrument offers a passport to a variety of acoustic realms.

The accessibility of different tunings and the number of strings – fewer strings on mandolins for focused melody, or more on guitars for harmonic richness – shape the musical journey for players and listeners alike. The key is to immerse yourself in the distinctive textures and styles each instrument can unveil, and in doing so, discover which resonates with your musical ambitions.

Which is Easier to Learn?

Beginning the musical journey of mastering a new instrument is akin to setting sail on a vast ocean of melodies and rhythms.

When deciding whether to pick up a mandolin or a guitar, one of the most crucial questions budding musicians ask is: Which stringed companion is the easier path to musical fluency? This query is more complex than a simple chord progression, as several factors come into play.

Firstly, let’s explore the difficulty related to the number of strings. A standard guitar boasts six strings, while an electric guitar might hum with a symphony of twelve. On the flip side, a mandolin traditionally has eight strings – four pairs of strings, each tuned in unison.

Although the mandolin has more strings overall than a standard acoustic guitar, they’re organized in pairs, which means you’re effectively playing four double strings as if they were single.

For those starting their musical trek, the guitar could seem like a gentle hill to climb with its fewer strings. However, the wider neck and the necessity to press down on individual guitar strings might turn that hill into a steep incline for small hands or beginners with less finger strength.

The mandolin, with its small guitar-like body and narrower fretboard, can be less daunting for those with petite hands.

In terms of tuning, the guitar typically employs standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E), which may be more intuitive for beginners. The mandolin uses a different approach, with each pair of strings tuned to the same note (G-D-A-E), resembling the tuning of a violin. This may present a learning curve for those not versed in orchestral string instrument tunings.

Chord transitions on a guitar can be challenging due to the span required between frets, especially when navigating the fretboard of a classical or 12-string guitar.

In contrast, mandolin chords often require fewer fingers, making them potentially easier for the uninitiated to grasp. However, the mandolin’s metal strings can be tougher on fingertips than the nylon strings often found on classical guitars.

Advantages of guitar:

  • More common, easing the learning process due to readily available resources.
  • Standard tuning may be more straightforward for beginners.

Advantages of mandolin:

  • Simpler chord shapes for beginners with small hands or less finger strength.
  • Lighter strings (compared to heavy gauge strings on some guitars) may be easier to press down.

Seasoned guitar players and mandolin players often note that the difficulty of an instrument is subjective and can depend on an individual’s natural affinity for the unique sound and style mandolins or guitars offer.

When considering the unique characteristics of each instrument’s sound and playability, those drawn to the bright, jangly sound of the mandolin may find it more rewarding to tackle the quirky pair of strings, while others may resonate more with the depth and versatility of a guitar’s melody.


Ultimately, whether you choose a mandolin instrument or any variety of guitar – be it electric guitar, classical guitar, or an octave mandolin – the key is to let your musical preferences and comfort guide you. Dive into both worlds, feel the strings under your fingers, and let the music whisper which path feels like home.

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