An Introduction to the Mandolin

By Isaiah Matthew Harris, Music & Arts Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success

Learning to play any instrument is a challenging, time-consuming and occasionally difficult endeavor. Steel-stringed instruments in particular can be quite uncomfortable to play initially due to the nature of pressing the soft flesh of your fingers onto thin steel wires. The friction of sliding up and down can also be a nuisance while learning. These issues will dissipate with time as a player’s fingers callus. In addition, learning to read and comprehend music in its various written forms and successively turning what is on the page into sound is like learning to read, write, and speak another language. True savants are rare, and a great many students will have their own individual challenges and difficulties. Overcoming these obstacles is unequivocally rewarding, but this can only be achieved by practicing regularly. Patience and a willingness to invest the time and effort to study and practice are inarguably essential to the success and enjoyment of all students!

A Good Ear
Nearly as much, if not more, of the time that a musician dedicates to learning an instrument is spent LISTENING to their instructors and other accomplished musicians play. It can be difficult to learn how to “hear” written music. A series of notes written on a page can be interpreted in different ways. Once our ears have heard a tune, it can help make it much more natural and instinctual to turn written notes into audible music.

Tuner Shop Now >
There are eight strings on a mandolin, and it is necessary to keep them all in tune in order to achieve the correct sound with the instrument. A tuner is an exceptionally handy tool for helping players of all skill levels keep those eight strings sounding together harmoniously. There are free tuner apps available for most smartphones, tablets and computers that use the microphone of the device to hear the strings. I like using a clip-on tuner. It senses the vibration of the strings to tune them, which can be particularly useful in noisy environments.

Picks Shop Now >
Once you've got all your strings in tune, you'll find it much easier to play them with a pick. While you COULD play mandolin with your fingers alone, the traditional sound and speed of mandolin playing is much more readily accomplished with a pick or, “plectrum.” There are thousands, maybe even millions, of different picks of varying sizes, thicknesses, materials, etc. There are even ones you can wear on your fingers and thumbs. The many different options offer various advantages/disadvantages when picking or strumming the strings. Your instructor can help to find the right pick for you.

Strings Shop Now >
As you play, the strings of your mandolin will become corroded by the sweat and oils of your fingers. This causes them to lose clarity and presence of tone, and to possibly even break eventually. Depending on how regularly you play, you’ll want to change your strings every few months or so, but it’s always a good idea to have an extra set or two on hand in case of breaks.

Strap Shop Now >
A strap will make it much easier to hold your mandolin in a comfortable playing position. Not absolutely necessary, but it can certainly make properly playing a somewhat small and awkward instrument much less difficult.

Music Stand Shop Now >
Music stands are an often overlooked necessity. They’re beneficial to development of proper playing posture by allowing one to read printed music at a comfortable angle.

Mandolin Stand Shop Now >
I urge all of my students to keep their instruments out of their case, visible and conveniently accessible to ensure that there is always one less barrier between them and playing or practicing. A stand makes this easy while keeping the instrument safe.

Wall Hanger Shop Now >
With same benefits as a stand, a hanger can also turn your instrument into a beautiful wall ornament when not being played.

Case/Gig Bag Shop Now >
Keeps your instrument safe when traveling!

Cleaning/Polishing Cloth Shop Now >
Dents and dings are bound to happen, and while I feel that they add character, it’s still a good habit to wipe the dust and dirt off every now and then. This will not only look better but will also help to preserve the wood and finish.

Instruction Books Shop Now >
There are many different publishers of music instruction books, each with their own particular “method.” Hal Leonard, Mel Bay, and Alfred are some popular examples. While each has their own distinct style, they all present the same essential knowledge for learning an instrument that you and your instructor will find useful to your education. Some instructors may prefer one method over another, while others may use elements of several methods in their instruction.

Manuscript Paper Shop Now >
There are a few different approaches to reading and writing music for the mandolin. Mandolin music can be written in what is known as “standard notation,” which is the form most people would associate with written music. Mandolin music can also be written in what is called “tablature” or “tab.” Tablature is a system of numbers that represent frets written on lines representing strings. There are also chord diagrams which are visual aids that show where to place your fingers when playing chords. Your instructor may teach you any or all of these methods. Having your own blank manuscript book is useful for learning new songs and chords, but it also comes in handy for documenting your own music that you may write! The book in the link is titled as being for ukulele, but it is just as perfectly suited for mandolin.

Metronome Shop Now >
One of the most important aspects of playing music is being able to keep steady rhythm and timing. In order to ensure every member of an ensemble can keep the beat together through the entirety of a piece, great rhythm is a must. A metronome will assist by providing a constant beat with which to play along to at varying speeds or “tempos.” When practicing as a beginner, start with a low tempo on the metronome and as your ability to play the piece progresses, increase the tempo until reaching the desired speed. As with tuners, there are many free apps for smartphones, tablets, and computers that will provide a metronome. There are also some more advanced features to some of these apps that offer an accompaniment beyond a simple click. One of my favorite things to do with my iPhone when practicing with students is to use the Smart Drums in GarageBand to instantly create a randomized beat for us to play over.

Tuning, Holding the Mandolin and correct posture

Tuning the mandolin
The mandolin has four pairs of strings. Each pair is tuned to the same note. The strings are tuned G, D, A, E, with G being the lowest pitched pair of strings and E being the highest. Because the strings are paired very closely together, when tuning, I like to use a pick to pluck each individual string. This provides a clear, singular tone for the tuner to hear.

Holding the mandolin
As noted above, a strap will certainly help to hold the mandolin in an easily accessible and comfortable position. Without a strap, it is advisable to rest the mandolin on your left leg. You may want to rest your left foot on a small block or foot rest to help elevate the instrument. Tilt the neck of the mandolin at roughly a 45-degree angle so that your fretting hand will be able to comfortably fret the strings. It is ideal that you keep the neck of the mandolin not only angled up, but also parallel to your torso. You do not want the headstock of the mandolin pointing away from you, as this will make you need to stretch your left arm away from your body and to contort your hand more than necessary to reach a fretting position.

Fretting the strings
The thumb of your fretting hand should rest against the back of the mandolin’s neck. You do not want to use your thumb to squeeze the neck but rather as a stable support to your other fingers. The other four fingers of your fretting hand should be able to lay comfortably flat against the strings when not playing. When fretting notes, you should try to allow your knuckles as much freedom to bend as possible. You want your knuckles to arch, not bow. Occasionally, a player will use the pads of their fingers to fret more than one string at a time, but beginners should attempt to “point” at the strings with their fingertips.

Your back should be loose but upright. Don’t let yourself tense up, as this can negatively affect the fluidity of your playing. However, slouching can produce equally detrimental results. Sit up straight and try to relax your muscles in your back and arms.

Holding the pick/Picking & Strumming
Different picking and strumming techniques are achieved by holding the pick in a few different ways. Oftentimes, a player may change the way he or she is holding the pick several times throughout a song in order to yield a specific desired sound at certain moments. Tremolo picking necessitates a close, tight grip on the pick, while jangly strumming can be accomplished through a looser grip.

Reading Music

Learning to read music is much the same as learning another language. Music for the mandolin can be written in standard notation for the treble clef. It can also be written as “tablature” or “tab” which is numbers representing frets written on lines representing strings. The figure below illustrates both of these writing methods and equates them to one another. It is a good idea to learn how to read both, as sometimes written pieces may only be available in one style.

Practice Time

Practice should not be a chore! If you’ve made the decision to purchase a mandolin and invest time to take lessons, then practicing should be something you also look forward to doing. There is great reward in learning a piece of music. It can be frustrating will often taking a great many tries to be able to play a piece correctly, but it is also incredibly satisfying to finally hear those notes come out just right. Be patient and try not to get upset with yourself. Mistakes and fumbles are inevitable, and they are necessary stepping stones to mastering a piece. I recommend trying to practice or at least interact with your instrument every single day. Even five to ten minutes of practice a day is better than one hour once a week. The more consistent you are with practicing, the quicker your muscle memory will strengthen and develop. Too much practice can be harmful, however. If you’re really having fun, still try to give yourself a break every half hour or so.

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