The mandolin has a unique resonance, higher register, and distinct look. Let’s check out 9 of the very best tracks that feature this little beauty.
The mandolin has been around since the mid-18th century and is about half the size of the typical modern acoustic guitar. It has a tone that cuts through. Known for its jangly sound, typically having between 4 to 12 strings, depending on the type of mandolin.
It’s tuned in fourths or fifths, and depending on the model, some mandolins can create a slight chorusing sound. It’s an instrument that can be easily picked up by most who can play a stringed instrument. And like a 12-string guitar, its strings are tuned in octaves next to each other. Let’s explore 9 songs that celebrate this pocket-sized beast of an instrument.
The Doors – Runnin’ Blue
The Doors were supposed to play with Otis Redding, but as we all know, fate intervened and Redding died in a plane crash. Guitarist of The Doors, Robby Krieger wrote Runnin’ Blue with lyrics inspired by Redding’s crash. It can be found on their album The Soft Parade, this track featuring renowned mandolin bluegrass player Jesse McReynolds.
We know The Doors are no strangers to using an array of instruments. This tune also featuring a fiddle and soulful brass. McReynolds is best known for his innovative picking which can be heard on Runnin’ Blue, sounding similar to how a banjo would be played. Offering a joyous moment overlapping with the fiddle to create an intricate blues and RnB toe-tapping classic.
Heart – Dream of the Archer
In this track, the traditional folk instrument has never sounded so epic. Fronted by the unstoppable sister act of lead vocalist and flautist Ann Wilson, alongside guitarist and backing vocalist Nancy Wilson, Heart were pioneers of the metal genre. If you’re still unfamiliar, a few bars into the shuffling riffage of Barracuda will confirm instant recognition.
Yet, they still had a folky alter ego: no track exemplifies this tendency better than the medievally-titled Dream of the Archer. Stereo, stadium-sized mandolins interweave effortlessly with the Wilson sisters’ silken harmonies. Led Zeppelin wishes they could sound this huge.
R.E.M – Losing My Religion
That’s right, the legendary R.E.M. have used the humble mandolin. In fact, it’s the main acoustic instrument that’s heard on this ’90s banger. Tiring of being a guitar hero, Peter Buck picked up a mandolin and began recording himself learning it. It was those first cassettes that formed the beginnings of Losing My Religion.
Somewhat perfectly, the mandolin’s jangly sound fills the stereo space in a way two modern acoustic guitars couldn’t. Guiding you through the song’s story, these two mandolins sit lightly in the mix. A combination of strumming and little riffs weaved in from verse to chorus. If there’s one song to show you the magic that can happen with a mandolin, it’s this one.
Led Zeppelin – Going to California
You might think of Led Zeppelin as a through and through electric guitar rock band, that don’t mess with no folk instruments. This is so wrong: Zepp is basically modern folk. They fused storytelling with powerful riffs. Sure, that’s quite an oversimplification of the band, but you know what we’re getting at. Off their album IV, the folk-style ballad Going to California is a neat little song featuring the mandolin.
The British rock legend John-Paul Jones — usually the bassist, jumped on the miniature shredding machine. Jones in this particular song provides some pivotal riffing and doubled guitar that helps keep interest in the song. So if anyone ever says you can’t riff on a mandolin, show them some Zeppelin and watch their brains explode.
Rod Stewart – Maggie May
Your mum’s first celebrity crush, or the person your dad wishes he was. Rod Stewart is known for his iconic voice and his countless hits. One of which, Maggie May from the record Every Picture Tells a Story, features a mandolin. Yes, that song about him getting raunchy with an older woman has the shimmering sound of this innocent folk instrument.
Much the same way as R.E.M. the instrument is used to offer something an acoustic guitar couldn’t. It offers a 12-string vibe without the 12-string size. It’s layering and blending with the other guitars so well, you could mistake them all for being the one instrument.
Goo Goo Dolls – Iris
If the past few examples didn’t bring the mandolin to the centre of pop, how about this one. Chart-toppers Goo Goo Dolls brought the instrument to life in emotional moments in the chorus of their megahit, Iris, really making you want to go out and buy one to let everyone know who you are. Written in 6/8, it taps into the instrument’s primal folk ancestry.
The story goes that when they were recording the track, producer Dr. Dre was working with session guitarist Dean Parke, recording the mandolin. A member of the band approached Parke and asked to play on Iris. Parke couldn’t put himself on the record, however, and an engineer working on the Dolls record suggested Tim Pierce. This session guitarist worked out well, cause man, this mando be tugging on the heart strings.
Paul McCartney – Dance Tonight
If there’s anyone who could write a tune with a mandolin it’d be the legendary Sir Paul McCartney. McCartney is known for writing some of the quieter, more sensitive Beatles songs. The Beatles were known for using various acoustic instruments like sitars, but this is something a bit more folky than usual.
Featuring a ghostly Natalie Portman appearing out of a cardboard box. McCartney takes us on a small journey around a rural English house, the mandolin providing the main harmonic content throughout the song. It’s like diet Lumineers. We don’t need to dress up McCartney for you, watch the video to see.
The White Stripes – Little Ghost
Now for something a bit more rock n roll. Jack White of The White Stripes is known for being one of this century’s hero shredder of the electric guitar. Their song Seven Nation Army is one of the most taught and played songs. This song titled Litte Ghost features Mr. White strumming vigorously on his little mandolin and exercising his voice in this folk-rock song.
Here the duo really channels pioneer/frontier living vibes. Lady White on the kick drum, tambourine, and backing vocals while Sir White strums and sings his heart out. You could argue all that’s missing from this folk-rock-n-roll tune is a fiddle.
The Lumineers – Ho Hey
A list of mandolins in modern music would be complete if it didn’t feature The Lumineers’ quintessential Ho Hey. Released in 2012, the song didn’t chart well. They’re a band that eschews flashy gear and production. The song is as bare-bones as it gets, featuring a fine selection of acoustic instruments and genuine songwriting.
The mandolin kicking in about halfway, providing an extra dimension to the sound of the acoustic guitar. The mandolin is almost entirely strummed, complementing its bigger brother, finding a home amongst the other instruments, while still cutting through the mix.