The nordic mandola: it’s not a banjo

25 03 2010

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Whenever I’m travelling people assume that my instrument (when in it’s case) is a banjo. It’s not. While explaining could be a great conversation starter, things tend to get complicated. At “well, to be precise it’s a theorbed 5-chorus octave mandolin” I usually will have lost them. There was a time when I considered just making a sticker to put on my gigbag that says “No, this is not a banjo”. Now I can just give people the link to this post.

So, what is it?

To be nerdy, it is a theorbed 5-chorus octave mandolin. It looks like this:


Since calling something a theorbed 5-chorus octave mandolin is, to say the least,  lenghty it goes by many different names: nordisk mandola (nordic mandola), låtmandola (fiddletune-mandola), bas-cister, swedish bouzouki. I usually just call it mandola or, as the title suggests, nordic mandola.

According to english wikipedia, the mandola is the ancestor of the mandolin (which name simply means “little mandola”).  The mandola/mandolin distinction has a potential to mess with peoples heads because of the similarity with the viola/violin terminology. A viola is tuned a fifth below the violin. An octave violin is tuned an octave below a violin. So if a mandola is tuned a fifth below a mandolin, why do we at all use the term “mandola” for these instruments when it’s tuned an octave below a mandolin? I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with the  fact that what in the US is called “octave mandolin” usually has been called “octave mandola” in europe. The viola-tuned mandola is called tenor mandola.

So the term mandola can describe any fretted string instrument with pear-shaped body and flat back which is bigger than a mandolin. But, as wikipedia states: “The confusion will continue to reign for some time to come as the terms continue to be used interchangeably.”

I won’t go in to the history of fretted instruments, flat-backed instruments or even the mandolin family. There’s lots of info about that if you head over to google.

The history of the nordic mandola is rather short – it was developed by swedish multi-musician Ale Möller and luthiers Christer Ådin and Helge Ekvall in the 80s. Möller had been living in Greece playing bouzoki when he decided to return home and find the music of his own culture. He went to Dalarna to learn the traditional folk music which primarily is played by fiddlers. But he didn’t want to play the fiddle.

“I knew from all the other kinds of music I played that the instrument is just a voice. The music, the style, is the language. I tried to translate it into my instrument, the bouzouki. I found that it could be done. “But to do so required changing the instrument. The notes and tunings were obviously not the same, and he had a long series of instruments built, trying to find not only an instrument that could play the same scales as the music of Sweden, but also, as he put it, “an instrument that would have the right sound, the right feel.” He finally settled upon a mandola, an octave mandolin, that with frets added could play the quarter notes he needed to truly play the fiddle tunes properly. (quote from RootsWorld)


So that’s the story. Since Ale is a famous and influential musician the instrument found it’s way to more builders and musicians – among them myself. I still remember finding the cd with Ale’s band Enteli at the local record shop when I was in 9th grade. The album cover was a stage with tons of weird instruments, and in the middle was one which my eyes was drawn towards – the nordic mandola.



Tuning, pin point capos and theorbed base
The common tuning of the nordic mandola is, from the base string at zero-fret:


Most nordic mandolas has 5 choruses, with octaves on the C and G string.

But here’s the little peculiarity with this instrument. As Ale and Ådin/Ekvall developed the instrument, they found a need to be able to have different drones in the base. This led to the invention of something called “pin point capos”. The pin point capo is a little screw with a rubber packing on it which goes into holes drilled in the fretboard. This allows for shortening of single strings, and thus being able to change the base notes – without changing the tuning.  The base strings are usually elongated/theorbed so the lowest string goes down to A, and the second goes to F.

pinpoint1The point (hehe) with the pin point capos is that they can be put on any of the strings which allows for very cool open tunings – without changing the fingering. In example, if a tune goes in A I usually put a pinpoint capo on A on the second lowest string, and on e on the third. My open tuning then is A A E A E.  If I play in D I’d put the capos on D and a giving me a tuning of D A D A E . Pretty convenient and it can be a good source for inspiration to just make up weird tunings and play around.

This is an instrument that evolves and changes over time – people try different approaches to the capos and theorbed bases. In example, in Ådins latest creations he has theorbed the top string as well, going down to D.

Quarter note frets
As RootsWorld writes in the above quote, the nordic mandola usually has frets added to be able to “play the quarter notes […]  needed to truly play the fiddle tunes properly.” . Yepp, swedish fiddle players has this annoying habit of not conforming to the tempered western scale. So to be able to play tunes together with these stubborn fiddlers, we use quarter tone frets. This is of course totally optional – if you’d order one you would get to decide if, how many and where these should go.

How to get one
There’s no factory made versions of this instrument – so if you want one you need to get a used one or get in touch with a luthier.

Christer Ådin is a magnificent luthier who lives in Grebbestad. He was the one who developed the instrument together with Ale Möller.  He makes fantastic instruments. He has a long waiting list, so if you are interested you might want to get in touch as soon as possible.

Ola Söderström (OS Instrument) lives in Upplands Väsby and is an equally fantastic luthier.  My instrument is built by Ola, and I am very happy with it. Ola makes awesome and very reasonably priced instruments.

If you are interested in getting a nordic mandola of your own, I’d advice you to contact both of these builders – they are nice people, if occasionally a bit hard to get hold of. Before you decide to buy one I really think you should visit your chosen builder and try out some instruments.  For contact with Christer and Ola, click the links by their names above.

Here are three more builders who make mandola-like instruments. I don’t know these personally though:

Mats Nordwall –
Tyko Runesson (nedan) –
Heikki Rousu –


My friend Bob Mills made nice demo vids of his instrument, enjoy them here:



Finally, enjoy these pictures of the nordic mandola, courtesy of José Higuera, Christer Ådin and Paulina Holmgren. And whoever took the group-photo from the mandola camp at Hovra -03…


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25 responses

25 03 2010

Aha! I understand much better now. The pinpoint capos are interesting — a lot like guitar partial capoing, only with more control.

The partial quarter frets are… crazy. 🙂 Though I have run into that sort of issue on the mountain dulcimer, particularly when I try alternate tunings on it (the mountain dulcimer does not use evenly spaced frets).

I don’t see how anyone could mistake it for a banjo. in a photo with little sense of scale, I would have immediately pegged it as a mandolin in the A style. Do luthiers experiment with F-style soundholes for mandolas?

25 03 2010

Hey Raph! Nah, the banjo thing is mostly when it’s in it’s cover. “It’s like a guitar but round”, ergo banjo. Once I take it out people call it a mandolin. =)
You get used to the quarter frets rather fast. It’s actually good for technique – you learn to place the fingers accuratly close to the frets, which makes for better sound. I’ve never heard of f-holes on any kind of mandola, but it would be cool!

27 03 2010

My mandolin is like this one: a hybrid of the F-style body and the A style soundhole. I picked it purely based on tone.

I notice they have a mandola with F-holes…!

31 03 2010

Very nice looking instrument Raph. And cool with the f-hole tenor-mandolas!

22 04 2010
The Silkwood Journals » Mandora summit 2010

[…] while ago, I made a post about my main instrument the nordic mandola. As a complementary instrument I use another little known, 5-chorus plucked folk-instrument. Like […]

9 07 2010

Very nice information…¡¡¡¡

13 07 2010
Börje Dahren

At the suggestion of the author, I’ll post a little advertisement for my nordic mandola here.

I’ve decided to sell my mandola, built in 2005 by Ola Söderström (OS instruments) in 2005. The instrument is virtually identical to the one owned by Daniel Fredriksson (the author), with solid sitka spruce top and bottom and sides in Jakaranda. See the topmost pictures if in this post for reference. Pictures and recorded samples are of course available on request.

During the five years I’ve used this instrument, I’ve been extremely happy with it. However, I’ve now decided to buy a few new instruments (you know how it is…), and unfortunately I need to finance these aquisitions by selling this mandola. 🙂

I paid 25 000 SEK for this instrument. All offers are welcome!

You can contact me by replying to this post, or by dropping a line at: b.dahren[at]

All the best!
/Börje Dahrén
Uppsala, Sweden

30 05 2012
gaedic chambrier

I’m very interessed to buy such a mandola. Did you sell yours? if not, I would be interessed… tell me.
warmest regards

27 11 2010
29 11 2010
22 10 2011

can anybody tell me some songs with the mandola in them i can’t find one any where and today please!

22 10 2011

Well,for example I play mandola on all cd:s with my duo Pettersson & Fredriksson! Listen to our latest album at .

21 02 2012

Interesting ideas you have. I have been listening to the album. I have used partial capos on guitar. This now inspires me to try the same approach on mandola (even if I play a more conventional Scottish model).

15 11 2011
Hubert Dohr

Hello Daniel!

Did somebody made a Chord Table for the AAEAE Tunig. In the meantime i got my Adin Mandola…
Reg Hubert Dohr

17 03 2012
Berndt Zimmermann

Very nice article, although I’m not much in string-instruments. Just came across after a fantastic concert of the Stockholm-Lisboa-Project (

Anyway, instrument-building is an adorable mix of craftsmanship and arts.
All the best / berndt

1 09 2013
Aritz Mugartegi Aretxabaleta

Hi Daniel. I would like to ask permission to take this text and translate it to Spanish and incorporate it into my blog INSTRUMUNDO, along with some videos of your band, always referring your authorship. My email is and the blog

I await your response and thank you in advance for your time

9 09 2013

Hey Aritz! Please do, use the text any way you wish. Take care!

20 02 2014


27 02 2014

Hi Daniel,

Can you tell me the type of strings you are using on your mandola? Make and gauges. I want to experiment with different strings on my bouzouki and cittern. I love the tonal quality you are getting. Right now I use phosphor bronze…

Thank you…


10 03 2014

Hey! Thanks. Most nordic mandolasts use Thomastic strings + hannabach base strings. The last years I’ve used normal acoustic steel strings, phosphor/vintage bronze or similar, but I’m planning to get back to Thomastic.

1 10 2014

Thanks Daniel, I will take a look at the Thomastic strings… Sometimes the PB’s can be too bright and metallic sounding for my taste. I am looking for something warmer that will still give definition.


10 03 2014

Hi Daniel
I find the idea of the Nordic Mandola very interesting
With an instrument tuned AFDAE the strings must be very heavy
can you tell me what gauges of string you are useing

10 03 2014

Hey Paul! Sorry for being bad at responding here, I saw you wrote below too. Ok I don’t have a set in front of me, but I think it is, from the top choir, zero fret (nordic mandolasts, please correct me or tell me what string you are using!):
e: 0.12,0.12
a: 0.22, 0.22
d: 0.32, 0.32
g: 0.24+E-string from classical set,
C: 0.34+Hannabach G5 or G7

15 03 2014

Hi Daniel

Thank you for your reply and for the information, I did not realize that you used bronze guitar strings mixed with classical guitar strings. I have not come across this before.
I use NEWTONE bronze wound guitar strings on my instruments.
Do you ever use a set of all bronze strings on your Nordic Mandola ? or is this not possible?
I have looked at the Hannabach web site and cant find strings listed G5 or G7 are these from a bass guitar set? if they are which ones are you using?
Sorry for asking all these questions but this instrument relay interests me.


27 07 2014
The last three years. | The Silkwood Journals

[…] two families who has children with downs syndrome. We made the music in a dreamy, folky style with nordic mandola, keyed fiddle, vibraphone and other instruments. On that subject, “real” vibraphone […]

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