A Gibson Mandobass (center rear), displayed for size comparison.
There are three main variants of the mandobass:
- The large four-string mandobass has a much longer neck and is tuned EADG, like a double bass. It was popular in early 20th century American and European mandolin ensembles. Early examples had very large bodies and were often played in an upright position like a double bass is. Later examples often have smaller bodies and are intended to be played guitar style.
- The small four-string mandobass is identical, but built on a smaller scale and usually tuned GDAE, two octaves below the mandolin. Though not as resonant as the larger instrument, players often preferred it as easier to handle and more portable.
- The eight-string mandobass, or tremolo-bass, relatively rare, is built exactly like a mandolin but is much larger and tuned either GDAE, two octaves lower than the mandolin, or CGDA, two octaves below the mandola.
When mandolin orchestras were being organized in numbers, the members became aware of a problem of adding bass to their orchestras. In trying to play the bass range, many mandolin players were reluctant to switch to the contra-bass, because they saw it and its bowed action as intruding into their plucked-string world. However they faced the problem that mandolin basses were too quiet; it was hard to get forte from them. Furthermore they didn't get the deep bass notes of the contra-bass. For those reasons most mandolin orchestras preferred to use the ordinary contra-bass, rather than a specialized mandolin family instrument. The bow not only helps with volume for forte sections of music, but the contra-bass has deeper notes available.
Traditionally the mandolin family of instruments as known in the United States had no bass member. Mandolins were new to the United States, beginning to be known in the mid 1880s and reaching the peak of popularity before 1910. If mandobasses were being made in Europe, the American public was unaware; Gibson was the only company to address the lack of bass in the mandolin family by marketing a mandolin-family bass.
The Gibson Guitar Corporation made Mandobasses from 1912 to approximately 1930. The instruments were designed to be played either upright or on their side (like a regular mandolin was held), through the changing of the position of the pins upon which the instrument rested.
- Paul Sparks, The Classical Mandolin, Oxford University Press, pages 205–206.
- Paul Sparks, The Classical Mandolin, Clarendon Press, Oxford, page 199.
- The National Music Museum, NMM 2883. Mando-bass by Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, Kalamazoo, 1916. Style J. Serial number 25936. Arne B. Larson Collection, 1979.
- [Sparks, Paul, The Classical Mandolin, chapters 2,3]
- The National Music Museum, NMM 5910. Mando-bass by Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company, Kalamazoo, ca. 1923-1924. Style J. Serial number 76525 or 74563 (number faded). Arne B. Larson Estate, 1988.