Guitar to mandolin tabs?
April 3, 2007 6:13 PM   Subscribe

How do I convert guitar tabulature to mandolin tabs?

Hi, I've just managed to get my hands on a mandolin, and since I've never played any musical instrument before, I'm just looking at mandolin tabs and trying to play songs. Is there any (easy) way to convert a standard guitar tab to its mandolin version? And while I'm at it, I would be grateful for any tips and tricks to help me learn to play the mandolin. (I've trawled the numerous mandolin websites on the net, and I'm now looking for personal recommendations from y'all, and I'm on a Mac, if that helps).
posted by dhruva to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's not quite what you're asking for, but has interactive chord charts for a lot of their songs which can be set to mandolin tunings (and banjo, bass, uke, and other instruments) and transposed. You might check it out if you haven't already,
posted by lekvar at 6:47 PM on April 3, 2007

Just a general suggestion, but a mandolin is much closer to a fiddle than a guitar, string wise. I don't play, but I'll ask some people who do for some tips.
posted by shinynewnick at 6:58 PM on April 3, 2007

Response by poster: Well, I wanted to learn to play a particular song and I only found a guitar tab for it, which prompted the question.
posted by dhruva at 7:06 PM on April 3, 2007

Is it a single-note melody you're trying to convert? Chords? Riffs?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:07 PM on April 3, 2007

A guitar is tuned EADGBE. A mandolin is tuned GDAE, like a violin. The intervals between strings, the number of strings, and the ranges are not equivalent, so there is no simple conversion. My advice is to figure out what a tab means in terms of music rather than in terms of ASCII characters - playing it on mandolin will become trivial then.

And of course the chords will be the same on guitar or mandolin.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:11 PM on April 3, 2007

Alternatively, figure it out by ear.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:11 PM on April 3, 2007

Response by poster: nebulawindphone: it's this one.
posted by dhruva at 7:15 PM on April 3, 2007

A mandolin is like the bottom four strings on a guitar, upside down. That doesn't really help for melodies, but for chords, you take the fingering for the bottom four strings and invert it top to bottom (as played)/right-left (as it's written in a chord chart) and there you have it.
posted by notsnot at 7:21 PM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: The mandolin generally occupies a different role in harmony than the guitar. However, if you have a chord chart for the mandolin, you should be able to just play chord of the same “name” on either the guitar or the mandolin. Because the mandolin’s strings are tuned in ascending 5ths and the guitar’s are tuned in ascending 4ths, you’ll probably end up playing a different inversion of the chord, meaning that the intervals of the notes in the chord will be arranged differently.

Example: on the guitar, the notes in a major D chord, in ascending order, are D A D F. On the mandolin, the notes are in ascending order as A D A F.

To play a guitar melody on a mandolin, you can just play the same note values. I’ll see if I can translate the first few phrases of your linked song:
This may be wrong. I don't have either my guitar or mandolin in front of me.
posted by ijoshua at 7:40 PM on April 3, 2007

The other commenters are also correct in comparing the mandolin to the violin. There, the string’s tuning intervals are the same, so if you can find a fiddle tab that you like, no translation should be necessary.
posted by ijoshua at 7:46 PM on April 3, 2007

I don't play. Here's how I would start out. Your results may vary.

Don't worry about tabs. Think in terms of chords. Get some chord guide for mandolin online. Learn to play those chords. Next just grab some songs written out in chords, like this. Listen to a song and then try to do it in your own way. You will be playing music much faster this way.

Then go out and buy a guitar.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:49 PM on April 3, 2007

I don't play mandolin that is. I play guitar all the time.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:49 PM on April 3, 2007

Response by poster: Yes, I do have chord charts for the mandolin, and while it's fun and all, I find myself gravitating towards learning to play simple tunes. I have found a bunch of mandolin specific tabs on the net, so that's no problem. However, I thought it would be nice to play this song on the mandolin, and so.

I understand the chord business (well, sort of), but I am curious how you did the translations of the melody, (not chords), ijoshua, for future reference. For example, you say "you can just play the same note values", could you elaborate on that? (and thanks!)
posted by dhruva at 7:57 PM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: It *seems* like there should be some easy way to convert between tabs (every note on the guitar has a similar note on the mandolin, more or less), but the problem is that fret x on the guitar does not equal fret x on the mando. As others have explained here, the difference in tunings between guitar and mando means that there are different intervals between strings. Thus, if you tried to "auto convert" a guitar tab you could well end up with fingerings that at best don't make sense, and at worse are impossible to play, on the mandolin.

People advising you to just learn the music, or figure it out by ear, are of course offering good advice, but I know that's not what you're looking for. You just want to try and pluck out this tune on your new instrument. (I read music and play several instruments, but the first thing I did when I got my new banjo was pull up some banjo tab so I could start hacking away!) ijoshua has the best advice so far - you'll have to convert the tab yourself. I imagine the best way to do this is to compare the guitar tab to a diagram of the notes on the guitar frets. Write the notes out on the guitar tab. Then look at a map of the notes on the mandolin neck, and mark off the equivalent notes, converting *that* into tab. It won't be easy, but you should learn a bit about the notes on your mandolin. Once you're happily plucking out your tune, you can start thinking about learning chords and scales.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:02 PM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: Okay dhruva, here's how it would work. Take the first six notes of the guitar tab:
(all on the B string). If you check out the guitar neck at a site like this, you can convert the frets to notes. -B-C#--E-F#-E-F# Then take a peek at the notes on a mandolin. Start on the A string (closest to the B string your guitar piece starts on). That same progression of notes would look like this on mando tab:
You'll just be writing down the fret number of the notes that you converted from the guitar tab. Of course (and here's why an auto-translation wouldn't work), when you hit the E note you don't need to keep going up the neck, you'd move up to the E string. So your mando tab would look like this:
Exactly what ijoshua came up with. Does that make sense?
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:15 PM on April 3, 2007

I just skimmed -- someone may have already got this, but ChordFind's 4stringchords is a great resource for mandolin chords.'s forums are a great resource, too.

More time later -- I will come back to this. The mandolin is a great little instrument. You'll love it ;]
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:18 PM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: #Banky_Edwards summarized my translation technique pretty well. Here’s a shortcut: All the notes on the high E string on the guitar can be played on the same fret on the E string on the mandolin. Moving down one string, you have a B string on the guitar and an A string on the mandolin, so all the guitar notes on this string would need to be transposed by adding 2 frets on the mandolin to achieve the same note value.

Down another string, you have a G string on the guitar and a D string on the mandolin. To play the same note on the same string, add 5 frets on the mandolin. Finally, notes on the D string of the guitar can be played on the same frets on the D string of the mandolin, or on the G string of the mandolin by adding 7 frets.

As Banky_Edwards mentioned, this direct translation will probably result in some awkward movements up and down the neck. You can fix this by finding the same note on different strings by adding 7 frets and moving up one string, or by subtracting 7 frets and moving down one string. For example, the B note on the 9th fret of the D string is the same pitch as the B on the 2nd fret of the A string.
posted by ijoshua at 5:23 AM on April 4, 2007

Best answer: Example: on the guitar, the notes in a major D chord, in ascending order, are D A D F. On the mandolin, the notes are in ascending order as A D A F.

Nitpick: that's D minor. D major has an F#.

And dhruva, trust me that it will take you much longer to go through some process of converting tab to music to tab than it will for you to learn enough music to figure it out that way.

You just need to think of what you're playing in terms of notes or intervals rather than just frets.

It's pretty trivial. Every fret is a half-step, on guitar or mandolin. There is a half step between E and F and one between B and C. There is a whole step between all other letter-named notes. So you get C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A#. Alternatively, C# (C sharp) can be written as Db (D flat), and so on. Which is technically correct depends on what key you're in and some other obscure things which you don't need to worry about. So if you know that and the names of the strings you can figure out the pitch of any note on the guitar or mandolin.

You can also think in terms of intervals: major seconds, minor thirds, perfect fourths, and so on. Check out the lessons at for an introduction. A given interval will involve a different fingering on the two instruments because of the different tunings, but it will sound the same.

Learning a bit of this stuff also provides the benefit of a far easier time communicating and playing with other musicians.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:20 AM on April 4, 2007

er, and there's also B, which I left out of my chromatic scale for some reason.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:21 AM on April 4, 2007

Nitpick: that's D minor. D major has an F#.

Of course. Additionally, I stated the order of the intervals as if they were immutable and affixed to the instrument, but in fact, you can create various chord inversions on either instrument. The particular ones that I quoted are simply the ones you would commonly find on a chord chart.
posted by ijoshua at 9:49 AM on April 4, 2007

True fact.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:19 AM on April 4, 2007

Response by poster: wow. thanks for all the input...I will be revisiting this thread many times, and hopefully something will sink in. ludwig_van, I understand that getting into music theory is probably the proper way to do things, and after I get used to moving my hands on the strings, I will definitely start with it. Thanks so much everybody.
posted by dhruva at 7:43 PM on April 4, 2007

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