Used in music genres that range from bluegrass to jazz, the mandolin is an instrument many musicians have resorted to in order to express their personality, thoughts, and emotions. Becoming a great mandolin player, though, takes commitment, lots of practice, and talent.
A few words about mandolins
This stringed instrument is part of the lute family, and it is typically played by plucking the strings with a plectrum. It comes in different versions as far as the number of strings featured is concerned, and you can thus find mandolins with eight, ten, or twelve strings. Plus, the mandolin is available in various types, the most common ones including the Neapolitan, archtop, and flat-backed mandolins.
Even if the mandolin is considered to be easier to learn than many other instruments, it does take perseverance and lots of practice to master this instrument. As is the case with other musical instruments, to master the mandolin, studying music theory principles and language is required, so what you put into the instrument is what you get out of it.
Many of those interested in studying the mandolin want to know whether it is easier to play than the banjo or guitar, but the answer to this depends on your experience with musical instruments, your goals, whether you’re completely new to this field or you have some experience, and other such factors.
Mandolin musicians have shown what this instrument is capable of when put in the hands of a skilled player, and some of them have done so in ways that place them among the world’s top mandolin players. To show our appreciation and gratitude for what they have done and the way they have enchanted us, here is a list of some of the most famous mandolin players out there.
Any list trying to gather great mandolin players includes Bill Monroe, whose performances and activity in this field have contoured the way mandolin playing evolved and influenced many musicians. His career spanned 69 years, and he engaged in diverse musical activities. Besides a mandolin player, he was a singer, composer, and bandleader.
He is often referred to as one of the best bluegrass mandolin players and the ‘Father of Bluegrass’, given that he is the one who created this music genre by blending the blues sounds from the American South with fiddle tunes of Irish and Scottish origin.
The world of mandolin wouldn’t be what it is today without David Grisman’s contribution. He is not only a mandolin player but also a teacher and producer. Grisman is regarded as one of the most important promoters of this instrument and is famous for the so-called ‘Dawg music’, a genre that combines bluegrass, jazz, folk, and other music genres.
He is also the founder of the Acoustic Disc label, which specializes in acoustic string music. To promote famous mandolin songs, Grisman launched a website where mandolin fans can find a rich library of mandolin music available for download.
The way mandolin performances and music evolved was also influenced by Jethro Burns’s activity. He is well known for his work as a part of the Homer and Jethro comedy duo as well as for his mandolin playing, which is often described as being legendary and of significant influence in the development of jazz mandolin.
The best mandolin music includes songs from different mandolin artists and music genres, and his recording Back to Back is a part of it. The recording came to be regarded as one of the most important ones in this field. His discography includes many recordings with him as a leader, co-leader, and sideman.
When it comes to today’s progressive bluegrass mandolin players, Chris Thile holds a top position thanks to his remarkable technique and skill level. He embarked on the mandolin journey when he was only 5, and it didn’t take long before he reached his first achievements as a mandolin player.
At 12, Thile won the well-known mandolin contest at Walnut Valley Festival held in Winfield, Kansas. One year later, in 1994, Thile released Leading Off, his first solo album, which included mostly original works. That was just the beginning as Thile released several other albums, such as Stealing Second, Not All Who Wander Are Lost, and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground.
His achievements also include several important awards and nominations, such as the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album and the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (for Bass & Mandolin), which makes him a suitable candidate for today’s best mandolin player title.
As we’ve said above, the mandolin can be heard in many different music genres, and a quick online search will get you from country songs with a mandolin to rock songs with a mandolin. Yank Rachell is a great example of the instrument’s versatility as he employed it for blues and even played it after having tuned it lower than normal.
Rachell is often referred to as the master of country mandolin blues or the ‘elder statesman of the blues’, and his career spanned 70 years, including recording for Blue Goose Records and Delmark Records and collaborations with many artists, such as Sleepy John Estes. His ‘She Caught the Katy’ became a standard for blues players.
Today’s mandolin stage is beautifully shaped by Mike Marshall’s mastery and versatility as a mandolinist. His performances have been described as combining all the essential aspects required for mastery, namely technique, speed, tone, and improvisation.
His high skill level and complexity have enabled him to approach different music genres, ranging from bluegrass to Brazilian choro. His achievements include an impressive discography, as well as collaborations with important musicians, such as Darol Anger and David Grisman.
He is married to Caterina Lichtenberg, who is regarded as one of the most important female mandolin players, as we will see below. Both of them are mandolin teachers and teach through ArtistWorks.
Jacob do Bandolim
Taking mandolin playing to the high levels of quality, Jacob do Bandolim remains one of the most influential figures in this field. Known as ‘Mandolin Jacob’, the musician is associated with Choro music, an instrumental music genre that originated in the 19th century.
He did not limit his activity as a musician only to mandolin playing as he was also a composer, and his works include more than 100 compositions. These tunes show his versatility and creativity as they range from jazzy pieces, such as Assanhado, to more lyrical ones like Dôce de Coco.
The musician was a perfectionist, which contributed to the high levels of quality he achieved with his band Época de Ouro. Jacob also directed his efforts toward preserving the old choro traditions and other Brazilian music genres.
Learning to play this stringed instrument from his father and later at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory in Padua, Italy, Carlo Aonzo is one of today’s most influential mandolin players who has enchanted audiences worldwide and performed with major orchestras.
Even though his playing often focuses on the Italian classical mandolin, his repertoire shows his versatility as a mandolinist as it ranges from Italian folk music to Jethro Burns’ music. He has taken his passion for this instrument one step further and founded the International Mandolin Academy.
Moreover, he directed his efforts toward promoting the Italian-style mandolin through the workshops he has led in New York City and his activity as a teacher.
Regarded as one of the most influential mandolin players of the 20th century, Dave Apollon shaped the way mandolin was played and revealed the instrument’s sonic beauty and his talent through memorable performances and recordings. He was born in Kyiv, February 23, 1898, but he moved to New York in 1919, where he started to work in vaudeville.
He was often referred to as the best mandolin player in the world at that time, thanks to his mastery as well as versatility as a mandolin player. Apollon embraced different playing styles, such as European folk and Russian Gypsy, and approached various music genres, including jazz.
He is also considered one of the first jazz mandolin players, and some of his noteworthy recordings and performances are ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘Two Guitars’, ‘Who’, and ‘Hora staccato’.
Regarded as one of today’s most important mandolin players, Caterina Lichtenberg has brought forth the classical mandolin style and has an impressive career and list of achievements. She is not only a mandolin player but also a Professor of Classical mandolin/Soprano lute at the Music Conservatory in Cologne, an institution from which she graduated with the highest honors.
With 20 years of mandolin performances, teaching, and touring, Caterina Lichtenberg is one of the key players in this field. She has collaborated with important artists, including Mike Marshall, and orchestras, such as the New Century Orchestra, the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin, and the MDR Orchestra.
She has performed at various important festivals, released 10 CDs, and published instructional books. Her works and recordings include classical mandolin pieces as well as music that combines bluegrass, jazz, and Brazilian influences.
Best known for playing in old-time styles and bluegrass, Adam Steffey is included in many lists of today’s greatest mandolin players, and for good reason. The mandolinist’s talent and skill have been acknowledged worldwide, and he has been named the Mandolin Player of the Year by the IBMA eleven times.
Adam Steffey’s achievements also include five Grammy Awards and seven Grammy nominations. He performed as a member in several bands, such as Mountain Heart, the Dan Tyminski Band, and The Isaacs, and his activity also includes performances with many artists, such as Clint Black, Jim Mills, Rhonda Vincent, and Vince Gill.
Bluegrass fans are probably familiar with Doyle Lawson, thanks to his activity as a bluegrass musician. He is one of the most influential artists in this field, and his activity includes performances both as a vocalist and a mandolin player.
Lawson is also a producer and the leader of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, a band focusing and performing gospel and modern bluegrass. His discography includes an impressive number of studio albums and compilation albums.
In 2006, he was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. His achievements also include many awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Considered an influential figure in progressive bluegrass, Sam Bush has taken this beautiful instrument toward new levels of quality and success. His talent and contribution to this field have turned him into a frequent recipient of the Mandolin Player of the Year honor from the IBMA.
He is the founder of New Grass Revival and considered the ‘Father of Newgrass’. His career includes collaborations with important artists, such as Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, and Jerry Douglas, to name a few.
Bush’s talent and mandolin mastery have also led to Grammy awards and nominations. For example, in 1996, he received a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. His discography includes several solo albums, specialty projects, as well as several albums with his band, New Grass Revival.
Even though the first instrument he studied was the violin, he came to be known for his mandolin performances and his mastery of this instrument. He was only 13 when he gave this instrument a try, and just six months later, his father invited him to become a member of his band, Del McCoury Band.
The mandolin playing level he reached led to him being named the IBMA’s Mandolin Player of the Year every year from 1993 to 2000. His discography includes a solo album, as well as many recordings with his father’s band and as a guest musician.
Although the mandolin is just one of the instruments he plays, Ricky Skaggs has become a key figure in the bluegrass field thanks to his performances both as a singer and as a mandolin player. He also plays the banjo, guitar, fiddle, and mandocaster, and he extended his professional activity to producing and composing.
His band, Kentucky Thunder, has received several Grammy awards, as well as many CMA, ACM, and IBMA honors. Skaggs’ professional activity has shaped today’s bluegrass, and his discography is impressive, to say the least. It includes several studio, collaborative, and live albums, as well as many singles.