With one instrument having 4 strings and the other having 8, I always find it hard to imagine how so many people confuse a ukulele for a mandolin and vice versa.
Am I the only one who seems to think that the two instruments look and sound nothing alike?
Well, granted, I play several stringed instruments and have been doing so for a couple of years now. So maybe I’m just more familiar and experienced with these two instruments.
Actually, I’d understand if the confusion was between a mandolin and a Charango rather than between a ukulele and a mandolin.
But I digress.
Let me explain why the Mandolin and Ukulele are worlds apart.
Table Summary of Comparison Between Mandolin and Ukulele
|No. of Strings||
Hard Steel Strings
Soft Nylon Strings
Wood or Plastic
Round or Teardrop
Plucked or Strummed
Tuned To GDAE
Tuned To GCEA
|No. of Sound Holes||
3 Octaves (G3-F6)
2 Octaves (C4-C6)
Requires More Finger Strength
Easy to Play
Harder to Learn
Similar to The Violin
Similar to The Guitar
Naples, 18th Century
Hawaii, 19th Century
Differences Between Mandolin and Ukulele
A mandolin typically comes with four pairs of strings (giving it a total of 8 strings), but some mandolins can have ten or twelve strings.
Seeing as these are metal steel strings, they are harder to press, and it is nearly impossible to strum them by hand.
A ukulele comes with four strings made from nylon, gut or fluorocarbon. A player can easily strum these soft strings with their bare fingers without running the risk of hurting themselves.
Generally, ukuleles are rather small and lightweight instruments, which makes them extremely portable.
This compact grab-and-go size of a ukulele makes it the perfect travel companion, and this is actually something that appeals to many players.
A soprano ukulele (which is the most popular ukulele style) has a scale length of 35 cm (14”) and weighs about 226-400 g (8-14 oz).
Mandolins are typically bigger than ukuleles, and they are also built more sturdily with sufficient bracing to handle the 8 metal strings. They also weigh significantly more than a ukulele.
The standard F-shaped Mandolin has a scale length ranging between 33-41 cm (13”-16”) and weighs about 2 lbs.
One thing to keep in mind is that this difference in size doesn’t always hold true. Some mandolins may be smaller than some ukuleles, and at times, the two may even be of the same size.
The 4 strings on a ukulele are typically tuned GCEA, whereby the G string is tuned higher than the C and the E.
This style of tuning is referred to as re-entrant tuning, meaning it is not done in a logical low to high tuning order.
Ukuleles are tuned more similarly to guitars – specifically, the four highest strings on a guitar.
The tuning is done in quarters (intervals of 4), although potentially transposed (in instances where the second to last pair of strings are tuned a third apart).
The 8 strings on a mandolin are tuned GDAE in pairs/courses (GGDDAAEE).
Mandolins share the same tuning as violins (G-D-A-E), and the tuning is done in perfect fifths (intervals of 5).
Just like violins, mandolins have two F-holes, and just like guitars, ukuleles have one soundhole.
A ukulele has a high pitched (cheerful) and rounded sound, which primarily results from the re-entrant tuning used on the strings.
The sweet and low tone sound of a ukulele comes from the soft nylon strings, which also cause the instrument to lack in volume.
A mandolin has a broad and rich sound created by the unavoidable minute differences in pitch between the paired strings.
The characteristic loud sound and biting timbre of a mandolin come from the fact that the instrument has double steel strings that are more resonant.
By vibrating together, these strings cause notes to ring louder.
The Mandolin is a far superior instrument when it comes to live performances, including busking through street performances.
Being acoustically louder than a Ukulele, the sound of a mandolin can be picked up by microphones much easier.
On the other hand, you can barely hear a ukulele, and worse still, playing it together with other instrumentalists (e.g., guitarists) will completely drown its sound.
The Ukulele is a great vocal accompaniment, and can easily be used to self-accompany while you sing.
A mandolin is perfect for accompanying other musicians, and this instrument tends to be the treble end of a band, working against the noise of guitar, banjo and bass.
The loud and distinguishable voice of a mandolin mixes much better with the other components in a band.
Keep in mind that both the Mandolin and Ukulele could be wired for electric amplification.
Usually, this isn’t done because a ukulele hardly ever needs to be that loud; and a mandolin is already as loud as it needs to be.
Uses and Musical Genres
Ukuleles are typically associated with Hawaiian and folk music.
Mandolins are most typically associated with classical, country and bluegrass music.
In the grand scheme of things, a ukulele is basically a chordal (harmony) instrument, while a mandolin is more of a melody instrument.
Also, a mandolin is not a very good songwriting instrument, and yet this is where the Ukulele thrives.
One popular use for the Ukulele is by guitarists who are experiencing mental block when it comes to composing songs.
The cost of a nice Mandolin starts at about $300, while a comparable ukulele goes for about $100 – nearly 25% of the price of a beginner mandolin!
Besides the initial purchasing cost, maintenance costs vary as well. A mandolin requires frequent restringing.
Additionally, you have to factor in buying accessories such as plucks, straps etc. so eventually, owning a mandolin will cost much more than owning a ukulele.
The fact that a mandolin is tuned in perfect fifths means that all shapes of mandolins are entirely transposable up and down the neck, and also conceptually to higher and lower strings.
For a ukulele, the equivalent moving around of chords works going up and down the frets.
However, you’d need to adjust the shape in order to get around the pair of strings that are a third apart, and not a quarter like the rest.
a). Mandolin Playing Technique
Producing a sound on a mandolin would require you to strum the strings using a hard surface, like a hard-plastic plectrum, for instance.
Should you choose to play by hand, you would find that this requires a player to develop thick calluses.
The higher string tension on a mandolin would affect your fretting (non-strumming) hand as well.
The metal strings are physically harder to push down, thereby requiring a good deal of strength to play this instrument. Worse yet, the player has 8 strings to deal with, rather than the 4 on a ukulele.
Another thing you will notice is that the frets are closer together on a Mandolin than they are on a Ukulele.
This design makes it easier to move from note to note on a mandolin, but it also means that you would need to be precise in your finger placement on the fingerboard.
b). Ukulele Playing Technique
When playing the Ukulele, you have to think about playing chords, rather than playing single-string melodies.
The soft nylon strings make it easier to strum the instrument with the fingers and using a brush stroke.
To get the most out of this instrument, you need to get more strings involved and dampen the chords less by quickly relaxing your fingers. On a mandolin, the equivalent of this technique is the “chop.”
Both right- and left-hand techniques on a mandolin are more like a guitar.
The fourths tuning means that you would have to move from string to string sooner than you would with the fifth-tuned Mandolin.
The Ukulele is easier to play and easier to string up as well. Being lighter in weight also means that the instrument can easily be played by kids.
All these factors, combined with the small size of a ukulele, mean that many players who are too young to play the guitar with ease will take a liking to the Ukulele.
There’s a ton of materials out there for learning a ukulele.
It’s easy to get used to the notes and chords, and likewise, there is an endless supply of tabs (both online and in books) that provide a large variety of songs to play.
Other reasons why the Ukulele is a better beginner instrument compared to a mandolin is because the former is inexpensive and readily available.
Better yet, there are far more ukulele choices that there are mandolins and so you are bound to find something you love.
Be wary about buying very cheap ukuleles, though. These low-quality instruments are constructed terribly and can sound very cheap and muted.
The Mandolin is a more difficult instrument to play, and this is because it requires more finger strength to push down the hard metal strings.
The chords are also quite challenging to master, with some players reporting that it took them months to retain the chords to memory.
The tuning of a mandolin may be a little challenging to get used to because it’s essentially upside down from the tuning of a guitar.
Also, its finger pattern is unlike any string instrument you may have encountered – unless, of course, you play the violin.
Another reason why the Mandolin is a harder instrument to learn and play arises from the fact that there is a limited choice of modern song tabs for mandolins.
Therefore, because you can’t find the equivalent mandolin chords for a song, the player has to play by ear.
As difficult as the Mandolin is to play, mastering the instrument is just as rewarding. If you can get it down, you will find that the Mandolin is one of the most beautiful instruments out there.
Furthermore, a mandolin has a wider range than a ukulele (3 octaves vs. 2 octaves). It has more frets, thereby giving a wider variety of what songs can be played on the instrument.
They are through and through glorious instruments, both acoustically and aesthetically, and this all makes the Mandolin worth the extra effort it takes to learn the instrument.
FAQs About Mandolin Vs. Ukulele
Which Is Easier Ukulele or Mandolin?
It is much easier to play the Ukulele than it is to play the Mandolin.
The features that make a ukulele easier to play are:
- The softer nylon strings are gentler on the player’s fingers.
- Its small size means that there’s no stretching that can cause wrist tension.
- There are only 4 strings making it easier to learn chord shapes and scales.
- Has a similar fingering pattern to a guitar.
Mandolin Vs. Ukulele: Which Is the More Serious Instrument?
There are excellent mandolin players just as there are outstanding ukulele players. Both instrument play beautifully, and the unique sound attributes of each are hardly comparable.
While a mandolin feels energetic and fun, a ukulele has a more mellow sound that’s somewhat romantic.
Regardless, mandolins tend to be viewed as the ‘more serious’ instrument, but this is just because of the context they are played in.
Not to mention the exceptional skills required that render it a not-so-friendly instrument for beginners.
Ukuleles are extremely social instruments that can be played by virtually anyone.
Their incredible portability means that you can take your Ukulele everywhere, whipping it out to churn out a few tunes whenever you feel like it.
Can I Tune A Mandolin Like A Ukulele?
Yes, you can, but it might not give you the expected results.
Tuning a mandolin like a ukulele would involve tuning it lower.
Players who tune their Mandolin like a ukulele don’t do so with the aim of mimicking the techniques of the Ukulele.
Instead, tuning a mandolin like a ukulele is done in a bid to get the familiar chords and scales of the Ukulele, all the while retaining the Mandolin’s unique sound.
Besides the fact that both are string instruments belonging to the Lute family, a mandolin and a ukulele are hardly comparable.
If you like the idea of basking, then a mandolin will serve you well. The instrument is incredibly pleasing to the ears, and its folky sound makes it fun to play song covers.
On the other hand, if you want a songwriting instrument for home recordings, then go for a ukulele.
The instrument is easier to take places, so you can play a chord or two whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.