The first great wave of mandolin madness hit American shores early in the 20th century, with Ellis Island as the gateway, and European masters and amateurs serving as ambassadors.
Years before Bill Monroe played his first lick, mandolin orchestras roamed the land, popping up in urban centers and small towns alike. Some petite ensembles played jaunty classical pieces or nostalgic airs of home—often Italy and Germany. Other large groups favored popular melodies of the day, arranged in sections like a symphony.
But all featured the full range of the mandolin family, and often some guitars for good measure. The mandolin, like its cousin the violin, was, of course, the star, with a soprano voice made for singing out. But the mandola, the octave mandolin, the mandocello and the comically enormous mandobass all had their place.
Today, with roots music being fueled by well-trained millennials with an ear for the past and an eye on the future, the larger body instruments are making a real comeback, and pickers of all ages and skill levels are remembering just how versatile and visually beautiful these four-course orchestral instruments are.
Perhaps your next Weber mandolin is actually a mandocello!
Part of the Weber legend was built on the fact that the brand invested in octave mandolins when they were still rare as hen’s teeth. That commitment flowers in 2018, with standard octaves available in A or F Bitterroot models, with oval or f-holes.
What’s more, the Yellowstone line now includes everything except mandobass, with F style, f-hole mandolas, octaves and mandocellos debuting at this summer’s NAMM show. These are remarkable instruments, sporting dovetail neck joints and the new gloss Burnt Amber finish developed by Weber luthier Dalton Bell.
You will get noticed playing one of these!
The very nature of the larger body instruments requires more handwork, particularly for seasoned woodworker Marty Lewis’ incomparable dovetails.
On Bitterroot octaves, the necks, backs and rims are made of genuine mahogany. For Ryan Fish, that means hand bending the sides with great care to keep the wood at an optimum moisture level while it’s heated to its new permanent shape.
These traditionally styled eight-string instruments (all with specially designed, hand-cut S-shaped ebony bridge feet) correspond with their orchestral cousins. The 17-inch-scale mandola, for example, is tuned CGDA, and has a throatier voice quite comparable to a viola. David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury and Peter Rowan have all recorded with mandola, adding richness to the bluegrass blend, without losing any feel.
The mandocello shares the viola’s tuning, but a full octave down, making for a uniquely thunderous instrument, which is also capable of dulcet, chiming grace. The dynamic range of the mandocello, scaled at 24 3/4” is unequalled. It can function much like a bass or a rhythm guitar, but also as a sonorous lead. Multi-instrumental whiz Mike Marshall is a fan of the ‘cello’s deep, robust throb, as is Canadian “mandolin maestro” Andrew Collins.
The chord shapes and scale patterns on these larger bodied instruments remain the same, and it’s easy for the player to quickly transpose, simply by rethinking the tonal center. An open G shape on mandola, for example, is now a C chord.
The octave mandolin doesn’t even require this simple mental math. It is pitched, as its name implies, one octave below the mandolin. Chords and scales are identical, and with some slight re-fingering, based on the 20-inch scale length, you’ll be rocking in no time, whether inspired by Irish trad pioneers Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny or fearless bluegrass master Mike Compton.
Fish notes that the octave (also available in a custom 22-inch scale) is especially popular with guitarists, because its deeper tone—“it’s a big sound,” he beams—and familiar size echo the six-string, making for an easy transition.
Weber Signature Artists Sierra Hull and Eva Holbrook of Shel have learned that the octave mandolin serves many purposes, from knocking out deft, sweet instrumental passages to providing perfect accompaniment for vocals.
In 2016, Hull, who used a Weber octave on many tracks for her brilliant Weighted Mind album, told Mandolin Café, “You have to approach mandolin differently for it to have the same effect that a guitar and voice can have, and in so many ways I feel like the octave mandolin gives me just that, a warmer kind of support.”
The standard 20-inch octave rewards digging in with what Fish admiringly refers to as “a growl. It also has a friendly snap on the upper strings, which brings an instant grin to first time players used to the higher tension and pitch of a mandolin. It’s pure, instant joy and time on the strings brings endless invention.
Imagine playing a new instrument without having to learn it!
There may be no faster route to versatility for the mandolinist than to explore the world of these orchestral Weber instruments, with each bringing its own new timbral palette, and opening up a new world of sound.