Meet the Mandolele

I enjoy playing the ukulele but sometimes wish for a robust sound than I can get out of one, while still maintaining a compact size. So I wandered into the local music store and took a look at this mandolin hooked up on the wall. After strumming it a bit, I turned to the proprietor and asked him if it would be possible to tune it like a ukulele, so I wouldn’t have to learn a whole new set of chords. His response was “if you’re buying it, sure.” And so the mandolin is now tuned like a ukulele, although the G-string on this one is tuned an octave lower than it usually is on a uke. I can make the same chord figures, and the chords sound right, so from my point of view it’s all good.

The mandolin does indeed sound more robust than a typical uke, an artifact of both its steel strings, and the fact there are eight strings on the instrument. To be clear, there are 8-stringed ukuleles out there, but they weren’t in the local music store at the time and I wanted something at that moment and I also wanted to support a local business rather than farm it out to the Internet. Beyond that, I do like the sound of the mandolin. So again, from my point of view this was the right choice.

I don’t know if actual mandolin player would find it heresy to tune a mandolin like a ukulele, but if they do I can live with it, and they don’t have to play my mandolele. Or perhaps “ukeolin”? I think “mandolele” sounds better. “Mandolele” it is.

 

63 thoughts on “Meet the Mandolele

  1. That is one pretty instrument. Can you finger pick it as you would a four-string instrument? (I have a uke tuned low-g just for finger picking and Bob Seger songs. Because a reentrant soprano ukulele sounds kind of silly when you’re singing Night Moves.)

  2. If it sounds as good as it looks, I can see how it was irresistible. May you have many happy song-filled years together.

  3. Didn’t realize Indiana made mandos. One my my local shops carries some electric 6-strings by them that are labeled Indy (just to make them seem sportier, I suppose). Those instruments seem nice and solid for their prices, so imagine your mando is well more than adequate. Would never have thought to tune one like a uke though … score!

  4. I know nothing about musical instruments, but I’m thinking that if Bertie Wooster can play a banjolele (leading to Jeeves’s resignation in Thank You, Jeeves), then John can play a mandolele.

  5. Came here to say more or less what Eric Coleman says, above: alternative tunings aren’t heresy, they’re just a way of getting a different sound, or playing a particular piece more easily, than standard. Mandolele away (and I might have to try it myself, now; thanks for the idea)!

  6. Darn, I was hoping someone would freak out about your mandolele, and all you get are reasonable comments! Damn you, Scalzi, damn you!

  7. This is one of those moments where I smack myself in the head and say: why didn’t I think to try that. Did the proprietor mention any concern over the string tension on the neck with that tuning? Hmm…maybe I better try it with new strings.

  8. The major issue is if you reduce the tension too much on a given string, that string won’t stay in tune as you use higher frets. But if it doesn’t sound out of tune while you’re chording you’re probably good.

  9. Cat Faber:

    I asked about that, actually. The guy at the shop said it shouldn’t be a problem and so far (I’ve been playing with it for a few hours) I haven’t noticed it being an issue.

  10. My middle daughter plays the mandolin. My youngest plays the ukulele. A few years ago, we discovered that there is indeed an instrument already called the mandolele. It usually refers to a physical cross between the two instruments.

    That being said, I agree with people who say “tune it however you like.” I play classical guitar, five string banjo, mandolin, and ukulele and I change tunings whenever I feel like it. By the way, I envy the person who said that they have a cuatro. That is an instrument I would love to own and to learn!

  11. Well, why not? I tuned my ukulele like a mandolin for a while there. Because I learned mandolin before ukulele.

  12. I like how a Google search for “mandolele” returns a bunch of references to Bill Griffin’s “nylon-stringed mandolin with single strings” invention, but also, at position 3, mentions that a certain Scalzi has one. The Google juice is strong with this one.

  13. I used to work at Lark in the Morning when they had a shop in Pike Place Market. We sold a good number of mandolins and violins, and a few ukes–people seemed to find them odd and funny, but they’re actually quite lovely, especially if you try out some of the lower-pitched ones. While we generally tuned the mandos like the fiddles, we had a couple of regulars who were devoted to “alternate” tunings of both Mando and Uke and would happily cross-pollinate anything they had to hand. No shame in it.

    Now, if you want to get people foaming, tell them you tuned your banjo like a guitar but didn’t bother with the annoying “extra” string….

  14. It should work. Mandolins currently run 13″ or 13 7/8″ scale length, and soprano ukuleles are 13.” Enjoy! If the strings don’t quite feel right or you find the neck needs to be adjusted, you might wish to try these guages when you next restring, it’s a little lighter on the tension and easier action.

    0.017 for hi-G, 0.026 for C, 0.020 for E, 0.015 for A

  15. I’m disturbed. I’m apparently channelling you. Or you’re channelling me. Last night I was in the music store last night looking at mandolins. I think I had that same model in-hand…

  16. Heretic! (Ok, that was just because somebody was hoping for some flames :-) I’ve thought about restringing one of my ukes as a mandolin, but haven’t been able to find the right strings (the other direction’s easier.)

    The big differences between them are that mandolins use steel strings in pairs (often with the pairs an octave apart), while ukes usually use single nylon strings, and mandolins have a much wider range of notes than ukes. The bottom to top strings on a standard guitar tuning are two octaves apart (EADGBE), mandolin, banjo, and fiddle are an octave plus a sixth (GDAE), and ukes are either just a fifth with the usual high-G tuning or an octave plus a whole step if you use low-G (GCAE).

    So the characteristic sounds you get when strumming them are different, and picking them is a lot different. If you want to play Irish fiddle tunes on a small uke you just run out of notes, but if you know guitar chords it’s a lot easier to learn uke chords, and since there are only four strings instead of six you only need to use four fingers instead of six.

    Because the mandolin gets you a much wider range than a uke, your fingers might have to move farther, but there are more places to go; with a uke your fingers usually don’t have to move as far, but if you can’t get by with the easy-to-reach notes you’ll have to move a lot farther up the neck. Mandolin chords are easier but more spread out, and you get low notes in them that you don’t get on the uke.

  17. JJS – you could play Layla on your mandolele.

    PWStrain – Usually in the small mandolin they’re in pairs with the same note, so they’re just louder and strumming is a bit smoother. In the larger mandolins (octave mandolin, mandola, Irish bouzouki) the two lower pairs often have one low string and one string an octave up, but the higher pairs are still unison. I’ve seen similar things done with 8-string ukes also.

  18. I’m wondering what it might sound like if you were to tune the strings thusly: gGCCEEAA (in other words, one of the G strings as low G and the other as high G). Do you think that would be a good idea or a bad one?

  19. I have noticed that stringed instruments of this type tend to be pretty open to different tuneings. Certainly, I have heard of about 4-5 different different tunings for the Saz we have, (Basically at least one variant per region in turkey) which is in many ways a similar instrument to the mandolin.

    And mintwitch: I have found that mandolin like instruments are quite good starter instruments for people who want to be “all musical” but aren’t currently.

  20. That is a beautiful thing and your hybrid name sounds quite exotic. I wish you many hours of joyful playing. Just don’t do that “Over the Rainbow”song. Please.

  21. It wouldn’t kill you to learn the some new fingerings, ya know! Learning is good for your brain. I read somewhere that learning a new set of fingerings for a stringed instrument will forestall the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s for three whole months. 8P I suppose you have some kind of heretical plans to play covers of 80’s pop songs or whatnot on the thing, instead of bluegrass and folk, as God intended, too.

  22. “If you’re buying it, sure”. Now that’s the proper response (if it doesn’t break the instrument, of course) .

    There are enough people using alternate guitar tunings out there that someone else must be using alternate mandolin tunings.

  23. In terms of a “larger than ukelele” instrument, do you still play the tenor guitar, or has that fallen by the side?

  24. @Catherine Schaffer

    “I suppose you have some kind of heretical plans to play covers of 80′s pop songs or whatnot on the thing, instead of bluegrass and folk, as God intended, too.”

    My regular bluegrass(ish) jam session strays into pop music all the time. We don’t play a lot of ’80s music, but the 60s and 70s are very popular. Chops chords and crosspicking fit into pop music so well that I think god intended it to happen. He just didn’t tell us so we’d have the joy of discovery.

    @doctorgrasshopper

    Chris Thile’s a lot of fun. Have you seen this one: http://www.avclub.com/articles/punch-brothers-cover-the-cars,70701/ ? The mandolin doesn’t stand out, but I can forgive them because the band itself sounds so good.

  25. Watching the George Harrison tribute concert I learned that Harrison was an avid collector of ukes and would invite people (Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, etc.) over for impromptu uke jam sessions. How much would you give to sit in on one of those?

    McCartney also collects rare and unusual ukes and mandolins. Of course, his start off being unusual since they have to be lefty.

  26. @Christopher, I took a gander at Google Images you linked and wow, I spotted at least 9 Whatever pics based on Mandolele including the actual pic John posted of his Mandolele. Surprisingly, his quickly-becoming ubiquitous sign, FUPM was shown too. That’s some serious SEO cross-over and indicates a rather useful insight into the Images search algorithms.

  27. I hate all of you.

    Okay, really I’m just jealous because I completely lack musical ability, despite attempts at cello, piano, guitar, and the odd thump or twelve on a dumbeq..

  28. I hate you with a white hot hate! I played the saxophone for 8 years (6 in school and 2 later) and am really shitty at it. I bought a canter and have been trying to teach myself the bagpipe. I suck. I feel like Scalari from “Amadeus” “Gawd” has given me the ability to hear music & discern good from great but not the ability to be more than crappy. You are lucky to have the ability to produce nice sounds.

  29. Frankly, if it makes you feel any better I desperately wanted to learn the piano at school. They lumped me with the bassoon instead because I was the only kid in my year big enough to keep it off the ground.

    Bastards. Bastards, I say.

  30. Lovely! I agree with everyone else, it’s not heresy to tune your instrument however you damn please, and it’s a folky thing to do. I dunno about fingerpicking a mandolin; with flatpicking it is easier to strike both strings in the note. But whatever, do it if you can get away with it. And enjoy.

    I’m currently into the wind instruments, myself; low whistle and penny whistle. One day, when I graduate from ‘suck’ through ‘merely terrible’ to ‘actually OK’, I’ll join in with the musical efforts around cons and maybe we’ll meet up. One of the things that I’ve always loved about these types of instrument is the ‘session’, which is where players all show up, in an informal public venue such as a pub, or a con room, and play the tunes that they know and learn new ones from one another. One of the things I like about it is that you’re playing for each other as much as for any other listener, and it’s OK to be sucky.

  31. @Sign Ahead – Hey, thanks for pointing me out to that link! What an awesome series! That was really cool, watching some of my favorite musicians cover one of my favorite songs.

    One of the things that impresses me about Thile is his pattern of surrounding himself with other excellent musicians, and making sure he takes the backseat occasionally so they can be highlighted, too.

    (As an aside, Punch Brothers is a technically impressive group, but they still haven’t achieved the simple transcendent beauty that Nickel Creek had in all their songs.)

  32. Good you went with “mandolele”, more fun on the tongue, and “ukelin” (sic) was taken.

    The ukelin has a fascinating history, and a friend happens to have one. Someone once memorably described its sound as “the last breath of a dying vampire”, but, seriously, IN A GOOD WAY.

    CRAP! I see that “Not that Frank” beat me to it (2 msgs, arghghgh!) Damn. >;^)

  33. @doctorgrasshopper

    I really like both of them. But to me, Punch Brothers are for listening and Nickel Creek is for singing along.

  34. Wait – John, I’m confused.

    You say you play the Tenor Guitar – but you don’t want to learn Mandolin Chords? They’re the same chords! Unless you’re tuning your tenor non-classically.

    Generally guitars (and the Ukelele) are tuned to 4ths, and fiddles and tenor banjos, tenor guitars and the mandolin are tuned to 5ths.

  35. Another answer to the problem of robustness is a dobro/resophonic ukelele: built with one of those big honking metal resonators in the middle of the soundbox. I think the ukes might be all metal. Bob Brozman has made a career of playing such mutant instruments. Great sound, and, as the popularity of the dobro (guitar) has made clear, particularly suited to playing with a slide.

  36. By coincidence, I’m re-reading Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘John’ stories- it always makes me want to play an instrument.

  37. @Jared I think that John mentioned he tunes his Tenor to “Chicago” tuning, IE the same as Baritone Uke, or the top four strings of a standard Guitar. DGBE. Unless he switched it back to a more traditional tuning since he first talked about it. Frankly, I think it’s clever. Means he only needs to learn one set of fingers/chord patterns to play lots of different neat sounding instruments.

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