The mandolin, a direct descendant of the lute, differs from its ancestor mainly in the sound it presents and the types of music for which it is used. While both the lute and mandolin are classified as chordophones, musical instruments that make sound through the plucking of a stretched string, many musicians find themselves drawn to the sound of one over the other. To decide which one is right for you, get a feel for the sound and shape before committing to one.
Both the lute and mandolin are fretted and have strings set in courses called pairs, but the number of pairs is different between the two. Early mandolins had six double courses of strings, and were tuned similarly to the predecessor, the soprano lute. The number of courses on a lute varies from style to style. The lute's strings are also arranged in courses, but the highest-pitched course usually consists of only a single string termed the chanterelle. In later Baroque varieties, two upper courses are composed of single strings. An 8-course Renaissance lute will usually have 15 strings and a 13-course Baroque lute will have 24.
The lute is held and played much like a guitar, with higher chords played with the thumb, which allows for great expression and delicacy of sound. While early mandolins were similarly plucked with the fingertips, modern mandolins are commonly plucked, strummed or played by using a sustained tremolo, produced by a vibrating movement with a plectrum.
In modern music, a mandolin is commonly used for country, old-time music, bluegrass and folk. Mandolins have often found a place with jigs and reels, especially when paired with the guitar. A lute is similar to a middle-eastern oud in sound and is often used for classical, new age or Celtic sounds. Before you decide which instrument is best for you, it is wise to listen to music featuring each instrument.
Unlike guitars, lutes are not generally mass-produced and can be quite expensive. Most lute-makers, or luthiers, make lutes for specific customers, so try before you buy is quite rare. Second-hand lutes are risky unless you can have an experienced player inspect it before you buy. Although it's easier to find an old mandolin, most of the ones that are easily found are not well made. It's important to find an experienced player who can help you find a quality instrument with a reinforced neck that does not bow when played.