MANDOLINQUENCY: THE ROCK & ROLL MANDOLIN BLOG
Post #1 | BY BRAD TOLINSKI | Photo Wojtek Urbanek | May 2, 2017
Greetings and welcome to my first blog for Weber, makers of some of the finest acoustic instruments in the world. As the former Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine, and author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar (Doubleday) and Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown), I might seem like a strange choice for mandolin blog. But, like many of my folk and country brethren, I spent a number of years playing mandolin and fiddle, as well as guitar. My intention over the next few months is to fuse all those experiences together and talk about where they fabulously cross paths.
But before we dig into things like style, technique and amplification, I thought it would be interesting to go back and start from the beginning—the very beginning—and tell the rather strange tale of how the mandolin became popular in United States.
In the 1800’s awareness in America of our favorite eight-string instrument was marginal at best—it was essentially an odd folk instrument played by French or Italian immigrants. However, in 1880 that would completely change when a group of young European musicians known as the Estudiantina Figaro, or the “Spanish Students,” inadvertently turned the mandolin into a surprising national obsession.
After making a huge splash in Paris, the flamboyant 20-piece group, who dressed in exotic knee boots, velvet pants and floppy hats, landed in New York and played to wildly enthusiastic crowds in Manhattan and Boston. Ironically, the Spanish Students didn’t play mandolins at all, but rather bandurrias, small Spanish folk instruments with double strings that resembled the mandolin. And this is where the story gets interesting.
The success of the group immediately caught the attention of an Italian-born American musician named Carlo Curi, who knew a good act to steal when he saw one. Unfortunately, he had two major problems: He didn’t know any Spanish musicians or anyone that played the bandurria.
Curi, however, wasn’t about to let little details like that get in the way of his big plans. As the saying goes, if you’re gonna tell a lie, make it a big one, and he told a few whoppers. First he hired a group of Italian mandolinists, assuming the public would not be able to tell the difference between a mandolin and a bandurria. Then he changed his name to Carlos, figuring that under the lights, crowds would assume he and his olive-skinned Italian musicians were Spanish. If that wasn’t enough, Curi had the sheer audacity to call his rag-tag band of imposters The Original Spanish Students.
It was a complete sham, but a brilliant one. It didn’t matter that the group weren’t Spanish, students or even played the correct instruments—The Original Spanish Students became a huge success. And so did the mandolin. The fad continued into the mid-Twenties, spawning dozens of copycat bands, which in turn inspired other musicians from other genres to try the mandolin. Soon the instrument’s high, sweet tremolo could be heard in ragtime jazz, blues, classical and country music.
To satisfy the growing demand, American luthiers like Orville Gibson of the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. started making quality instruments. These instruments in turn were marketed by teacher-dealers who started mandolin orchestras, which were large groups of musicians who played various mandolin family instruments. By the Thirties, mandolins were literally everywhere, eventually elbowing their way into southern string bands, most notably the Monroe Brothers, featuring the man who forever made the mandolin an essential part of country music, Bill Monroe.
With Monroe, we enter the modern era of mandolin, which seems like a good place to stop. Over the next several blogs, I plan to take a look around and see where the instrument is at, where it’s going and hopefully offer a few ideas on how to get there. In the meantime, as Bill once said, “Practice every time you get a chance.”
Stay tuned for more blog posts from Brad Tolinski!