If a guitar and a banjo had a baby together, it would be a mandolin.
This instrument is a little smaller than a standard guitar, often used for fast strumming techniques to add character and depth to a composition.
The most common music genre that includes the mandolin is folk, with Italian, American, and Irish influences creating unique sounds to enjoy.
When you think of the mandolin, rock music is not the first thing that comes to mind. Over the past few decades, some bands have created big hits by including this instrument on singles and albums.
History of the Mandolin
The mandolin (or mandoline) belongs to the lute family of instruments. The first version of it became popular in Germany and Italy during the 16th century as the mandora.
Our current mandolin is an evolution from that first effort, making its way into music for the first time in the 18th century.
Pasquale Vinaccia of Naples is often given credit for influencing the modern design. The standard mandolin is closer to a bass guitar than an acoustic with four steel strings. It uses a machine head to adjust the tone so that it plays at violin pitch.
That means the four standard notes without pressing modification are G, D, A, and E.
Seventeen frets are on the fingerboard for a standard mandolin, although youth sizes and manufacturer alterations can change that amount.
Two different body styles are currently played in modern music. Bluegrass and American folk tend to use a flat-backed, shallow version of the instrument. If you have a standard mandolin, the belly angles downward to give the bridge strings a potent tone that carries well.
As music genres developed and evolved, the mandolin made its presence known in concertos, Mozart’s 1787 opera “Don Giovanni,” and in Stravinksy’s 1957 ballet “Agon.”
With the emphasis on rock ‘n roll starting in the 1950s, numerous musicians began experimenting with this instrument to see how it could influence their sound.
What Are the Best Mandolin Rock Songs?
Although any list is subjective, here are the 15 most famous rock songs released to the general public.
1. “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart (1971)
The moody nature of the mandolin comes out to play on this beautiful song. Stewart uses the instrument to weave a tale that is both unnerving and exhilarating – although the lyrics aren’t as politically friendly today as they were 50 years ago.
The song is about a boy who has an encounter with a prostitute. Some of the elements come from an older folk song that originated in Liverpool. Still, the details are believed to be reflections of Stewart’s experiences at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in the early 1960s.
What is unique about this release is that “Maggie May” was the B-side on the “Reason to Believe” single. Radio stations quickly discovered that everyone liked it, started playing the song in the regular rotation, and it became Stewart’s first substantial hit as a solo performer.
It continues to be one of Stewart’s most popular songs.
2. “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers (2012)
Although this song was part of the debut release for The Lumineers, it was so popular that it held the #1 spot on the Billboard Rock Songs chart for 18 total weeks.
It also held the #1 slot on the Adult Pop Songs chart for eight weeks, the Alternative chart for two weeks, and went to #2 on the Mainstream Top 40.
The band initially wrote this song as a punctuation to concert-goers who weren’t interested in their music. They thought that punctuating the lyrics with shouts could get people to pay attention to them.
Before the song got released as a single, the band had it featured on an episode of Hart of Dixie. It received additional television play by becoming part of a commercial for the Bing search engine.
3. “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin (1971)
This ballad continues to be one of the most popular songs for Led Zeppelin, ranked at #11 of their 40 greatest hits by Rolling Stone magazine in 2012. It has a unique folk sound, punctuated with the mandolin, and speaks of what it is like to experience an earthquake.
Robert Plant admits that the song itself can feel a little embarrassing from a lyrical standpoint. Although it may not be a personal favorite, he sang it at solo concerts well into the 1980s.
Plant says that the music does an adequate job of summing up what life was like in his early 20s.
A separate version of the song uses even more mandolin influences, and it is featured on the second disc of the remastered “Led Zeppelin IV.”
4. “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne (1996)
Osborne was raised in a Catholic household, but she distanced herself from that faith after being told that women couldn’t become priests. Her music still reflects ideas of spiritualism, especially with mandolin-based songs like Saint Teresa.
She moved to New York City in the late 1980s to pursue her career, finally establishing a name for herself in the 1990s. Her work eventually earned nominations for Best New Artist, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year from the Grammy® Awards.
Most people know Osborne for the song “One of Us.” If you love the mandolin, listen to “St. Teresa.”
5. “Little Ghost” by The White Stripes (2005)
Jack White was playing everywhere in the early 2000s, forming multiple bands and groups. He became part of this duo with his wife, Meg. He took her surname instead of the reverse, rising to fame with folksy, mandolin-based songs with a driving edge and raw simplicity.
It’s a fun love song with an Appalachian style while exploring fear and shyness when approaching others.
You can hear the influence of the mandolin from the first chords played. The song continues to build, most lyrically, while the folk influences add depth and charm.
6. “Boat on the River” by Styx (1979)
This song was released as a single in 1980, but it was originally part of the “Cornerstone” album. It didn’t see much commercial success in the United States. It did rise to top-5 status in several European countries.
Tommy Shaw is the lead vocalist and plays the mandolin on this piece. You can also hear an accordion and a double bass with some tambourine.
Although it wasn’t one of their most popular hits, almost anyone familiar with the band remembers the chorus.
“Take me back to my boat on the river. I need to go down, I need to come down. Take me back to my boat on the river, and I won’t cry out any more.”
7. “Mandolin Wind” by Rod Stewart (1971)
If you love the song “Maggie May,” this one is almost as good. It appears on the same album, eventually earning a single release in 1973. It’s been covered twice by other artists where the song reached the charts, with The Everly Brothers and Earl Scruggs each taking a crack at it in 1972 and 1977, respectively.
When you read the album notes for this song, it says that the mandolin was played by the “mandolin player in Lindisfarne,” but Stewart had forgotten his name.
There’s more romance in this song than others released by Stewart at the time. “Through the coldest winter in almost 14 years, I couldn’t believe you kept a smile,” the song says.
8. “The Battle of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin (1971)
This folk duet features Sandy Denny and Robert Plant. Unlike some of the other songs from the band, the writers say that they came up with the lyrics on the spot. Jimmy Page once said that he wrote up the chords and everything in a single setting.
As with several songs by the band, several Tolkien references from The Lord of the Rings make their way into the lyrics. It’s also the only recorded piece that includes a guest vocalist with the band.
A new version of the song was released in 1994, with artist Najma Akhtar taking on Denny’s original vocals.
9. “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. (1991)
Anyone who grew up in the 1990s heard this song and felt touched by the melody, mandolin, and lyrics. The pitcher of milk falling from the windowsill at the start of the video is an iconic moment for the band.
The song would become the biggest hit on the U.S. charts for the band, eventually reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also won Best Short Form Music Video and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with a Vocal at the 1992 Grammy Awards.
Guitarist Peter Buck said that he wrote the chorus and main riff on the mandolin while watching television.
10. “Friend of the Devil” by The Grateful Dead (1970)
Jerry Garcia and John Dawson wrote this song for the album American Beauty. It’s also one of the most-covered pieces ever recorded by the band. Lyricist Robert Hunter calls it the closest thing to a classic song that they ever created.
Although most people know the piano version, it was initially performed at a bluegrass tempo with a brisk mandolin setting the pace.
We never learn the fate of the fellow who runs away from Reno to avoid the devil, the sheriff, and a couple of wives. The listener can determine what they think is best from music.
11. “Love in Vain” by The Rolling Stones (1969)
This song got recorded for the album “Let It Bleed.” It is the closest to a blues-based folk sound that the band ever reached with their music.
The band thought it was a beautiful song and that it deserved a cover. Musician Robert Johnson wrote it first in 1937, with the piece issued in 1939 as part of his last 78 RPM records.
Johnson died when he was only 27, disappearing for almost 30 years until a researcher found his death certificate. Twenty-nine songs make up his total discography, and all of them are excellent.
The popularity of the Stones’ version led to a copyright lawsuit over the song, which was eventually resolved in favor of Johnson’s estate.
12. “Dream of the Archer” by Heart (1977)
The original recording of this song featured three mandolin players on it. You’ll hear two during the majority of the composition, while a third adds more depth toward the end of the song.
It was part of the second studio album from the band called “Little Queen.”
The situation was unique for the band. A contract dispute led to a 4-day marathon recording session that eventually led to Heart having three albums on the chart simultaneously.
13. “Cry Love” by John Hiatt (1995)
This song is more of a niche inclusion, but it deserves attention. Capitol Records released the composition in the mid-1990s as more of a trial.
Hiatt’s voice drives the song forward, with the mandolin providing a foundation in the background. It’s one of those compositions that makes you want to tap your feet.
The song appears on Hiatt’s 13th album at the time, called “Walk On.” It would help him to earn his first Grammy nomination after about 20 years of making music.
14. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” by The Beatles (1965)
One doesn’t usually associate this band with the mandolin, but it would become a #1 hit in Australia. Rolling Stone ranked it as the 83rd best song out of the 500 best of all time.
The lyrics follow the tale of an affair that John Lennon found himself trying to manage. It’s also notable that the sitar is featured on this composition, making it the first rock song to highlight that instrument.
15. “Foreverdark Woods” by Bathory (2002)
This 8-minute epic death metal, hard rock piece features incredible mandolin support that deserves a listen. The song begins with a horse riding by, with the instrument providing the initial intro and melody.
It takes almost a full minute before the heavy guitars and percussion come along in the composition, yet it is the mandolin that continues to drive the piece.
What’s your favorite mandolin rock song from this list?
The mandolin is a versatile instrument that can provide more character to any genre. It’s unique tone, and dramatic carry have influenced dozens of rock songs over the years.
These are the most famous mandolin rock songs from one perspective.
What are your favorite rock songs from this list or others that feature the mandolin?