Northern Renaissance Instruments

6 Needham Avenue, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AA, U.K.

Phone & Fax. +44 (0) 161 881 8134 ; proprietor: Dr. Ephraim Segerman [USA]

e-mail: ; on internet:


After the Neopolitan mandolin was invented in the middle of the 18th century, and its popularity spread throughout Europe bearing that name, the Italians started calling local variants of mandoras (including ones similar to the Neopolitan mandolin) by 'mandolin' names prefaced by other cities or regions. The Milanese variety had 6 courses which originally were doubled, but became single strings from later in the 19th century. The bridge was glued to the flat soundboard like on a lute or guitar. The pegs plugged into a curved pegbox from the sides, and a square finial adorned the end of the pegbox. Playing was usually with the fingers, like the guitar.

The name 'mandolin' dates from late in the 17th century, when it referred to the smallest popular size of the 'mandola', which was any instrument made like a miniature lute. Early mandolins were tuned in fourths throughout, with 4 courses tuned to e' a' d" g" or 5 courses tuned to b e' a' d" g". Because of of the decrease in sound quality of thicker gut strings due to inharmonicity, even with a supporting octave string, an open-string range of two octaves with all gut stringing cannot work if the sounding length is less than about 40 cm. Mandolins were smaller, so when the range increased to two octaves in 6 courses in the second half of the 18th century, this was only possible by using metal-wound strings, like had already been used on the baroque guitar. Earlier mandolins can be strung with our Milanese mandolin sets without the lowest one or two courses.

The string sounding length on the Milanese mandolin (as of its predecessors) was about 30 cm, and the tuning was g b e' a' d" g". Since the highest comfortable pitch a gut string of this length can be tuned to is f" (at a'=440 Hz), this tuning was apparently at a tone low pitch standard. At modern pitch this tuning would be f a d' g' c" f". If one tuned the 1st, 2nd and 6th strings a semitone lower, one would have e a d' g' b' e", an octave above the standard 19th century guitar tuning. This would be an appropriately familiar tuning if the musician had strings made for the tone-low tuning but had to play at modern pitch. A different set of strings would be needed for the tuning g b e' a' d" e", which apparently was for playing permanently at modern pitch. When the strings were in paired courses, the reduced open-string range of this tuning made it possible to use all-gut bass strings supported by octave companions. The octave guitar tuning (at modern pitch) has been popular with those who pick up playing the instrument without the benefit of being trained in its original tradition.

The relevant pitch history is that a movement to standardise Italian pitches to a 'mean' pitch, which had previously been that of Lombardy and was very close to modern pitch, commenced in the second half of the 18th century. It took place fairly quickly it Northern Italy, but it took almost a century for the rest of Italy to conform. Before that change, most stringed instruments were tuned to 'corista', which was about a tone lower.

Prices of Sets (2009)

Milanese Mandolin String Specifications and Prices