I started playing the mandolin 4 years after I started learning the guitar (and I’ve played both instruments for over a decade).
One of the first things I wanted to know when I started playing the mandolin was how exactly these instruments differed.
So how are guitars and mandolins different?
- They have different numbers of strings.
- They are tuned differently.
- They are different sizes with different pitch ranges.
- Guitars have fixed bridges and mandolins have floating bridges.
- The guitar is more versatile and is played in a wider variety of genres.
- Mandolins are usually more expensive than guitars of similar quality.
- Learning resources are more abundant for guitar than for mandolin.
These differences can have a significant impact on which instrument is best for you to learn.
We’ll discuss these differences and which instrument is best for you to learn in light of these differences in the following sections.
Guitars’ and Mandolins’ Different Tunings Make Them Ideal for Different Types of Musicians.
Guitars have six strings and each string is tuned to a different note.
The notes of the open guitar strings from the thickest string (lowest note) to the thinnest string (highest note) are: EADGBE
(An acronym you can use to remember this is: Every Amateur Does Get Better Eventually.)
Mandolins, on the other hand, have eight strings and each pair of strings are tuned to the exact same note.
The notes of the open mandolin strings from thickest string (lowest note) to the thinnest string (highest note) are: GDAE (or really GGDDAAEE)
(An acronym you can use to remember this is: Giant Dogs Ate Everyone.)
Mandolins are actually tuned the same way a violin is tuned (except that mandolins have 4 pairs of strings and violins have 4 single strings).
So you can almost think of the mandolin as a fretted violin that you can strum like a guitar.
Because the mandolin is tuned like a violin, it makes the instrument well-suited for genres that are popular for the violin as well like:
- and classical genres
Of course, you will find the mandolin in more musical genres than just those listed above.
However, the mandolin is most often played in the above-mentioned genres.
As such, you may be better off learning the mandolin if you’re particularly interested in the genres above.
If not, the guitar might be the better instrument for you to pursue.
Guitars’ and Mandolins’ Different Sizes Give the Instruments Different Qualities.
One of the most apparent differences between guitars and mandolins is that full-size guitars are typically much larger than mandolins.
This makes the mandolin and other smaller instruments appealing to many for a variety of reasons.
For children or those with smaller hands, a smaller fretboard like a mandolin’s makes playing the instrument generally easier.
Also, smaller instruments like the mandolin have lighter gauge strings that are easier to press down.
Though both of these facts are true about smaller instruments like the mandolin, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should play mandolin instead of guitar.
The appealing features of smaller instruments can be easily met in a guitar.
Less than full-size guitars aren’t just for children.
Many adults enjoy smaller guitars with fret-boards that are easier to maneuver like the Martin or the Taylor below!
And even if you stick with a full-size guitar, you can make your guitar easier to play by:
- Taking your guitar to a repair shop and having them lower the action (reducing the distance between the strings and the neck).
- Using light gauge strings like these on your instrument.
If you’ve decided to pursue guitar, check out my favorite beginner instrument below.
However, there are other more legitimate reasons the mandolin might be a better instrument for you.
You may want to learn the mandolin if you prefer the higher pitch of the strings.
As I mentioned above, the mandolin’s open tuning is higher than the guitars and can thus reach higher notes than the guitar.
Some people just love the mandolin’s lighter, higher notes and sound.
You can get a good sense of this unique mandolin sound in the video below of Chris Thile playing.
(This is one of the aspects of the mandolin that drew me to it.)
If that’s you, then the mandolin might be the instrument for you to pursue.
Guitar’s Greater Popularity Makes Them More Accessible for Beginners than Mandolins.
One great aspect of learning the guitar is that, because it’s so popular, you can purchase a fantastic beginner guitar for not much money.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true for mandolins.
Mandolins aren’t as popular as guitar, thus fewer are made, and the ones that are made are generally more expensive.
Also, because mandolins are smaller, it can take more precision and man-hours to make a mandolin.
Thus, mandolins are usually more expensive than guitars of similar quality.
The beginner guitar I recommend in my acoustic guitar buyer’s guide is the Jasmine S35 which hovers around $100
However, I wouldn’t recommend spending anything less than this amount on an entry level mandolin.
I bought a $100 mandolin that functioned so poorly it wasn’t playable and ended up purchasing a Michael Kelly mandolin for ~$600 that worked great.
So if you’re on a tight budget, guitar is a better choice than mandolin.
This isn’t the only downside to the mandolin due to its lesser popularity than guitar.
In my experience, I’ve found fewer learning resources available for the mandolin than for the guitar.
Though more and more learning resources are published for both instruments every day, guitar’s popularity means there are simply more resources available for those learning guitar.
This can make learning mandolin more difficult than learning guitar.
The Way Guitars Are Constructed Makes Them Easier to Maintain than Mandolins.
The bridge is the part of a stringed instrument that supports the strings and holds them above the neck of the instrument.
On most guitars, the bridge is fixed or immovable.
When you replace the strings on a guitar, you don’t have to worry about the bridge moving at all.
It simply stays in place as you restring the guitar.
On the other hand, the mandolin has a floating bridge or a bridge that is not fixed to the instrument.
When you remove the strings on a mandolin, the bridge can move or fall down.
Proper bridge placement is crucial to the sound of an instrument.
If you place the bridge too high or too low, the instrument will not produce the sound you want.
Because bridge placement is so important, it’s a little bit more difficult to replace the strings on instruments with floating bridges which can be intimidating for beginners.
I own multiple floating and fixed bridge instruments and I’m a little bit more nervous replacing the strings on my floating bridge instruments.
On fixed bridge instruments like the guitar, a beginner can quickly and easily replace the strings and otherwise maintain the instrument.
If you want to maintain your instrument with ease by yourself, you are better suited learning the guitar.
Guitar Vs Mandolin: The Final Verdict
In short, the guitar is probably a better instrument choice for you if many of the following are true:
- Your hands are large enough that you’re concerned you won’t be able to effectively play within the small frets of the mandolin.
- You’re on a tight budget.
- You want to play in a variety of genres and styles and might feel limited by the mandolin’s sound and range.
- You want to be able to learn from an abundance of learning resources.
If this is you, check out my buyer’s guide to acoustic guitars here.
On the other hand, the mandolin might be a better choice for you if many of the following are true:
- Your hands are small enough that you’re concerned you won’t be able to effectively play the guitar and are looking for a smaller instrument.
- You travel frequently, you want to bring an instrument with you, and you appreciate the compactness of the mandolin and how well it travels.
- You’re willing to spend more to invest in a quality instrument.
- You’re OK figuring out some things on your own as there aren’t as many learning resources for the mandolin.
- You love the tonal range of the mandolin and are interested in bluegrass, country, folk, and other genres that incorporate the mandolin.
- You understand you may need to get your instrument setup from time to time with a luthier because replacing the strings and making sure the bridge is in its proper place are more tedious on the mandolin than on the guitar.
If you think this sounds like you, this mandolin could be a good starter instrument for you.
But before you buy that instrument, check out the next section to see if the mando-guitar is a better fit than the mandolin.
The Best of Both Worlds with the Mando Guitar
If you still can’t decide between the guitar and the mandolin, you might consider getting a mando-guitar.
A mando-guitar is a 6 string mandolin guitar hybrid instrument tuned like a guitar (EADGBE) except one octave higher so that it’s in the same tonal range as the Mandolin.
The mando-guitar’s body closely resembles the size and shape of a mandolin.
This instrument provides a sound and note range similar to that of a mandolin with the number of strings and tuning of a guitar so that a guitarist can play it just like a guitar but get a mandolin sound from it.
So it has many of the benefits of both the mandolin and the guitar.
In 2019 after having owned my Michael Kelly mandolin for over 10 years, I sold it on Ebay and purchased this Goldtone mando-guitar.
I love the mandolin sound but always felt overwhelmed by the hurdle of learning a new instrument and as such didn’t play my mandolin as often as I would have liked.
So after much deliberation, I sold my mandolin, purchased the goldtone mando-guitar, and have never once regretted the decision.
I can now get that beautiful mandolin sound playing the same guitar licks and chords I play on my standard guitar.
If you want to hear the difference in sound between the mandolin and the mando-guitar, check out the videos below where I play the beginning of Ode to a Butterfly on the mandolin and then on the mando-guitar.
Here it is on the mandolin:
And here’s the same tune on the mando-guitar (note the subtle difference in their sounds):
I hope I haven’t discouraged you from learning the mandolin.
I thoroughly enjoy playing my mandolin and think it’s a beautiful instrument.
However, I think the guitar is better-suited for most beginners who are deciding which instrument to play first.
Is mandolin easier to learn than guitar? I think the mechanics of playing the mandolin may be slightly easier than the mechanics of playing the guitar (but not as easy as the ukulele). The mandolin has more strings than the guitar but the strings are tuned in pairs which should make the left-hand fingering role easier than on the guitar. On the other hand, the mandolin string pairs are slightly harder to pick with the right hand than the guitar. The fret board of the mandolin is smaller than the fret board of the guitar so it is easier for those with smaller hands and can be more difficult for those with larger hands. However, I think that learning the guitar or mando-guitar is ultimately easier because there are more learning resources available for the guitar than for the mandolin.
What is the difference between a 12-string guitar and a mandolin? 12-string guitars have 12 strings tuned in pairs like the mandolin. However, each pair of strings on 12-string guitars have one octave between them whereas mandolin string pairs are tuned to the exact same note. Though 12-string guitars and mandolins both have strings tuned in pairs, the other differences between the instruments listed in this article still apply.