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I need to play low guitar accompaniment parts (simple bass-note-plus-chord style) but I prefer the narrow neck and short scale length of the mandolin.

Is there an instrument (acoustic, not electric) that has a narrow mandolin-style neck (and preferably a short scale length, although I realise that's perhaps unlikely) but that can reach the low guitar range and has something of the rich and powerful low-end that a guitar has?

I've looked at a few mandolas (tuned a 5th below mandolin) but so far nothing I've found has had anything like the guitar's power or sustain in that range. Is this a fool's errand?

  • Hmm, perhaps a miniature child's guitar would be close? – Matthew Read Jul 28 '11 at 13:55
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    Power and sustain might be difficult, because the sound characteristics is mainly made by the size and form of the instrument for accousting string instruments. – awe Jul 29 '11 at 10:35

10 Answers 10

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Yes, you are on a fool's errand, but you might learn some new ideas while you are on it.

Why not consider a 4-string tenor guitar? Those are tuned in 5ths like a banjo. The lowest pitch on the tenor guitar is the C above the E on the regular guitar. But there is an alternate tuning for the tenor guitar where the lowest pitch is the G above the low E on the guitar, or a minor third higher. In the G tuning, the tenor guitar is tuned like a violin, but one octave lower.

You are aware of course of the issue that the mandolin is tuned in 5ths and the guitar is tuned in 4ths--I hope you are taking that into account.

There are a number of "baby" acoustic guitars on the market now which have the shortest possible scale length that can still accommodate standard guitar tuning.

  • A mandolin has a scale length of 356mm or 14 inches.
  • A standard acoustic guitar has a scale length of 648mm or 25.5 inches.
  • A "baby" guitar has a scale length of 584mm (23 inches) or 559mm (22 inches).

Any shorter than 559mm and you can't adequately produce the low "E" of a guitar.

Some "Baby" guitars of good quality:

Be sure to check out specialty instruments by Gold Tone. They make some freaky cross-over hybrids between mandolins, guitars, basses, banjos--you'll just have to see the site and view the demos!

Gold Tone has a new mandolin with a 6-string guitar neck on it, tuned in 4ths, but of course it plays the range of the conventional mandolin. It does not go down to the lower octave of a real guitar. I played one of these at the Summer NAMM convention in Nashville last month. It's an impressive instrument, but it's not quite what you are looking for.

Then there are the octave mandolin, the Greek bouzouki, and the banjo, all of which do in fact go down close to the range of the guitar (and lower than the mandola), yet are tuned in 5ths, not 4ths.

Finally, as a left-field choice, if you want a real acoustic guitar, tuned like one, but you want the thinnest, narrowest neck, you might want to consider the Daisy Rock Girl Guitar brand. They are quite hideous in aspect but they are designed to be played by, well, girls, with small adolescent hands. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but a sparkly pink guitar may not be your thing.

  • Nice answer and welcome to the site! – Sophie Alpert Aug 10 '11 at 8:32
  • Also worth checking out the Irish Bouzouki, which is generally bassier than it's Greek forefather. – Muckle Beats Aug 22 '12 at 9:34
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    It's worth note that the "octave mandolin" Wheat mentions (i.e. the mandola tuned an octave below the mandolin) is also called the octave mandola or (perhaps more correctly) the tenor mandola. – dumbledad Mar 20 '14 at 21:36
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You won't find anything with a short neck that plays guitar notes, because the range of available notes is a function of the length of the neck.

I would suggest a mandola, a mandocello or a bouzouki but they are not necessarily designed to offer as much sustain as a guitar- if you listen to music designed for those instruments it tends to be based on very rapid picking rather than individual sustained notes. You could perhaps adapt your playing style to accomodate this.

Or I guess you could try the viola, which is a very different type of instrument, but could offer the sustain and tonal characteristics you want.

  • I'd just add that for bouzouki and mandola, I've often heard them played strumming-style on the folk scene. – Mich Sampson Aug 10 '11 at 8:57
  • "You won't find anything with a short neck that plays guitar notes" UBass, an ukulele bass with a ridiculously short scale length and the low notes of a bass guitar (!!!). – user45266 Apr 13 at 5:43
  • But... why???? Also from my experience of acoustic bass you would need a ridiculously huge body for that to be audible more than three feet away, which would make for a shonky-looking instrument. – glenatron Apr 13 at 10:10
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Have you tried a ukulele? I don't know any other instruments that your looking for other then a ukulele

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    A baritone ukulele might fit the bill. – NReilingh Jul 28 '11 at 15:03
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Here is a new instrument designed by Pono and Kilin Reece

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What you want is a guitar bodied octave mandolin. That's a guitar sound with a neck tuned GDAE or GDAD. The sound is much deeper and fuller than a mandolin.

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a tenor or bass ruan, perhaps?

  • That is an interesting suggestion, but a ruan sounds nothing like a guitar or a mandolin! – user1044 Sep 14 '11 at 1:28
  • 'nothing like'? subjective evaluation of similarity in tone can be affected by context too. please try listening to some works played by the Singapore Ruan Xian Chamber Ensemble on youtube e.g. youtube.com/watch?v=xvn3PCatV7g youtube.com/watch?v=yZkUzL94_4o etc. – user1217 Sep 18 '11 at 20:47
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please search for:

  • Liuto cantabile /Liuto moderno (for example: Calace or

http://www.musikalia.it/en/catalogue/instruments_list.asp?cat=4)

(there are not a lot of such instrumentmakers)

  • Mandocello (in some music-houses like thomann, Europe)

And ofcourse: Going to a luthier and ask for constructing a individual one. But the luthier has to live too - it cant be so "cheap" like anindustrial one. (btw: in comparison with the lot of work, whats in a such instrument, its really "cheap" from the luthier too ...)

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Frank with Republic Guitars here, I just shipped one of our Highway 49 tenor guitar's tuned to Octave Mando tuning to a customer and it sounds and plays great. I had to put different string gauges on it but I keep enough gauges on hand to accommodate. I used something close to the medium gauge example on http://rycooder.nl/pages/tenor_gauges.htm

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Available in several Latin American countries are various instruments going under the name "tiple." These usually sound pretty good and come in various sizes. They should be available from Latin American instrument sources. Another possibility is the requito guitar which is popular in Mexico. (I'm not sure which is more important to you, the tuning in fifths or the short neck length.) All of these will sound a bit higher than a guitar. (As an aside, the guitarron. The Mexican one is like a big guitar; the Argentine has six strings and the Chilean one has 25 strings so seems more like lute. These are low but big.

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A baritone guitar would also work in terms of range, though it will be lower than the guitar and might not have the scale length you want. Baritone ukulele would be similar, being the highest-pitched strings of a guitar on a shorter scale length.

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