Musicians have been playing the mandolin for several centuries. It’s a member of the lute family, with its modern shape developing around the 18th century.
It was often played in Europe, although the instrument disappeared for some time following the Napoleonic Wars.
Through the Vinaccia family’s efforts from Naples, the mandolin made a comeback, especially with the original Neapolitan form. After Orville Gibson decided to take on this instrument in the early 20th century, it would evolve into two shapes: the Florentine style (F-style) and the A-style.
When you understand the differences between these two mandolin options, it’s much easier to find the instrument that complements your playing style the best.
A vs. F Style Mandolin – Let’s Find Out the Difference
When you compare these two popular mandolin styles, there is only one primary difference between the instruments. With the F-style design, you’ll find an ornamental scroll on the headstock with two points on the lower body. On the A-style instrument, you won’t find these options.
When looking at the A-style mandolin compared to the F-style option, the instrument’s body tends to be more pear-shaped. The look is rather plain and understated, allowing it to fit in with virtually any band or recording effort.
It also sounds fantastic by itself when playing a solo session.
Pasquale Vinaccia modernized the instrument around the year 1835, extending the fingerboard to 17 frets. He also introduced metal strings for the first time, strengthened the mandolin’s body, and substituted a machine head for the tuning pegs.
After his work, luthiers like Raffaele Calace and Luigi Embergher continued the modernization process. Some of their initial instruments are on display in Venice’s Music Museum. For a brief period, these efforts led to two distinct mandolin styles that musicians could play: the Neapolitan and the Roman.
When you compare the Roman and Neapolitan mandolins, they’re both A-style instruments. Both designs incorporate the pear-shaped body, although the Roman option is significantly broader and more profound, producing warmer notes that attenuate well within the bass frequencies.
The Roman style also incorporates more ornate designs. It would be a fair comparison to look at Roman vs. Neapolitan mandolins as we would classical vs. acoustic guitars today. The instruments make similar sounds, but you’ll notice distinctive differences that go beyond appearance.
The F-style mandolin incorporates some of the ornate work from its predecessors, but the engraving or detailing is usually on the instrument’s back. You’ll see something akin to a sunburst pattern on the front, often with more flair in the design with the body stroll and fretboard inserts.
When you play the F-style mandolin, you’ll also see two F-shaped holes on the body on both sides of the instrument. This design creates an impression that reminds the average person more of a cello or a violin.
Both the A-style and F-style mandolins offer eight strings to play. Although many professional musicians choose the latter option, both instruments are close to each other for tone and playability.
Cost Differences: A-Style vs. F-Style Mandolins
When you compare the cost of an A-style mandolin to an F-style design, you’ll find that the latter can cost significantly more.
If you want a beginner’s instrument, you can find entry-level kits containing the mandolin, a gig bag, strings, picks, capo, and tuner for under $150 online. Although the craftsmanship quality is somewhat questionable for these instruments, the playability allows you to see if you enjoy working with them without a significant financial investment
At the other end of the pricing spectrum are the gorgeous Gibson F5 mandolins that the company produced in the 1930s and 1940s. If you can find one of those today, they retail for anywhere around $18,000 to about $25,000.
Some mandolin manufacturers, such as Ibanez, are creating instruments under $200 with the Florentine style. These items should be considered an entry-level product for beginners who want to experiment with this style.
When you want to play something made for professional use, the Washburn F-style mandolin is one of the best choices out there today. It retails for around $1,000.
Ibanez also makes several mid-range choices that retail from $400 to $600 using the Florentine influences.
When you start shopping for a new mandolin or compare brands, you’ll find that the F-style design’s craftsmanship can add up to 50% to the price of an equal A-style instrument. Is it worth paying the extra amount for something that makes a better visual impact and nothing more?
That’s a question only you can answer.
Perceived Differences Between the A-Style and F-Style Mandolin
Although the visual differences between the two modern mandolin types are the only direct comparison points to make with these instruments for most people, you’ll find passionate musicians who support one or the other.
These differences are more perceived than real. You’ll find many musicians debating this point, often looking at their direct experiences with the instruments, to say that there are three critical changes to review.
For those that adamantly believe in these comparison points, here are the details to consider if you’re looking at A-style or F-style mandolins today.
|Body Design:||• The scroll and points that you can find on the F-style mandolin are sometimes said to create a more full-bodied sound. |
• This reason is why you’ll find the Florentine design often preferred by country and bluegrass musicians.
• One could make the same argument for a deeper A-style with more resonance power.
|Wood Choice:||• When you make a mandolin with woods like mahogany, you’ll get a more robust bass response with more tone richness in each note and chord. |
• If you have an instrument made with maple or something similar, the higher attack rate tends to offer something brighter on the treble end of the spectrum.
• These features apply to both designs.
|Instrument Setup:||• Both mandolin styles use an eight-string design that runs along the instrument’s neck in the same way you’d use a six-string guitar. |
• Even the upper tuning mechanisms are remarkably similar.
• It all depends on what the musician prefers personally and is willing to pay when they want this instrument in their collection.
You can find some sound differences when comparing the A-style vs. F-style mandolins based on specific modifications that have become standard over the years.
When the scroll and points from the Florentine style get extended, you might notice some dampening in some areas of the instrument. This design change creates focused tones that don’t get lost in the upper register. If the A-style tries to play the same way, you’ll get more bass in the chord mix.
That’s why, according to some luthiers, professional musicians prefer the F-style mandolin over the A-style design.
You also have the option to have a flat or carved top with your A-style mandolin. The former option is sometimes referred to as a “flatiron” design. They look more like a pancake, designed to be closer to the older Gibson models instead of the traditional format. These tend to sound brighter than the others while delivering a consistent result.
The Flatiron mandolins typically sell for around the same price as a high-quality F-style instrument today.
How to Start Playing the Mandolin in Five Easy Steps
If you want to start playing a stringed instrument for the first time, the mandolin is one of your best choices. Not only is it unusual enough to grab the attention of others around you, but it also compact and lightweight.
You can take your A-style or F-style mandolin with you almost anywhere to practice!
Although it has eight strings compared to the six or four you’ll find on electric or bass guitars, it’s still remarkably easy to start playing. Here are the steps you’ll want to follow.
1. Find the style you prefer.
You can play the A-style or F-style mandolin with almost any musical genre. Musicians from Jethro Burns to Eric Clapton have all used this instrument to record some fantastic songs. You’ll want to decide which option fits best with your personal preferences, playing methodology, and rhythmic approach to compositions.
If you’re unsure about these various choices, a mandolin teacher can help you identify what you like and how to get there. Once you’ve made decisions in this area, this step lets you start discovering the relevant techniques needed to reach the playing style you prefer.
2. Purchase the mandolin you need.
Although mandolins often sound similar to the average person, you will want to consider the style and material composition based on your musical style. When you want to play bluegrass or something upbeat, the instrument will perform better with the improved attack.
If you play blues or rock, something warmer and softer tends to work better for the harmonies you prefer. Many A-style instruments tend to provide this result.
When you play folk or something classical, a rounder instrument shape will fit your needs the most.
If you like an Irish jig or other cultural tunes, you might even consider playing a mandola instead of a mandolin.
3. Get some light strings for your instrument.
Although the tablature for a mandolin is similar to other four-string instruments, you must press two strings to play each note. That’s why it’s often easier to transition to this instrument if you already play the bass guitar.
It can be challenging when you first start learning, which is why lighter strings are a better choice. The learning process will feel more comfortable on your fingers, allowing you to develop the calluses needed for your chording work.
If the calluses become bothersome, it helps to have some witch hazel astringent available to use to reduce the swelling on your fingers.
Should a blister form on your fingers, don’t pop it! The injury will take longer to heal, and it’ll be even more uncomfortable to play those strings.
4. Find an instructor you trust.
Whether you choose a helpful YouTube video or a music teacher near your home, it helps to have an instructor you can trust. A live person can give you more feedback about what you’re doing right (or wrong) so that you can make some adjustments.
If you don’t have anyone local who can teach the mandolin, it is possible to find an online instructor today. You’ll take lessons over video chat or Zoom, showing off the skills you develop each week.
5. Get some supplies.
Whether you take lessons or use the DIY approach, it helps to have a methodology book available for the instrument. Since learning music is a lot like speaking and reading a new language, this resource is an invaluable tool to use.
The best methodology books provide tuning instruments, note picking instructions, double-stops, and much more.
If you take private lessons, your instructor might have specific products to use or purchase to make progress.
What Mandolin Should I Purchase Today?
Most mandolins offer a consistent sound and style. You can purchase almost any instrument to get the sound results you want.
I’d highly recommend purchasing an entry-level combo kit if you’ve never played an instrument before. Although the sound quality of these mandolins is sometimes questionable, they do help you learn how to play the eight-string design.
When you’re ready to pursue the mandolin to build pro-quality skills, you’ll want the Ibanez M700AVS. This instrument uses a solid spruce top with flamed maple for the back and sides to create a bright, almost crisp sound that emanates with excellent sustain.
■ Benefits of Using the Ibanez M700AVS F-Style Mandolin
Why do I prefer the Ibanez M700AVS F-style mandolin?
Ibanez uses a rosewood fretboard and pickguard to round out the visual aesthetics while offering the proper sizing for chopping and solos. Although it works exceptionally well for bluegrass, you can adapt it to almost any musical genre.
What I love about the Ibanez M700AVS is how punchy the notes are with each effort. You get lots of presence without much effort, offering a buoyant tone that works with your lead lines.
Unless you purchase this instrument locally from a luthier, you’ll need some help to have it set up. Everyone needs a different string setup, so it might need to be brought to a local specialist to get it ready for your playing style.
I’d also recommend getting the fret edges dressed to have a more comfortable playing experience. Once you make those updates, you might not ever want to put down your new mandolin!
A Final Thought About Playing the Mandolin
If you thought playing the guitar was a fun experience, you won’t believe the joy that comes from strumming a mandolin. It’s easily one of the best instruments you could add to your collection this year.
Even if you’ve never picked up a stringed instrument before, you’ll find that learning how to play the mandolin is relatively simple. Although it won’t happen through magic, the effort it takes to learn the chords and fingerings isn’t complicated.
If you’re willing to put in about 30 minutes per day, you’ll be ready to start playing a few simple songs in a couple of weeks.
Is the A-style or F-style mandolin better to start using? That question is one you’ll need to answer. For me, I love the Florentine option because it matches visually with many of the other instruments in my collection. That continuity helps me get into the proper mindset for creating music.
Everyone has a different preference. Although some passionate people might say one is better than the other, your choice is the best one when comparing styles.