mando demando
May 20, 2008 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I was gifted a mandolin for my birthday this past weekend. I already play guitar and bass. Mandolin, not so much. Tips, techniques and tricks are appreciated.

I have been playing guitar and bass for about 15 years. I've already learned some mandolin chords and have been happily strumming away.

I'm interested in hearing some mandolin tips, techniques or insights from experienced players. Or point me towards some good online resources. Tuning tips would be appreciated as well.

I plan on taking lessons at some point in the future. If you know anyone teaching in the SF East Bay, feel free to make a recommendation.
posted by gnutron to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I recently got gifted with an octave mandolin (like a bouzouki, sort of), and was in a similar situation.

I recommend mandolin cafe, which is an excellent board for advice. They also have a lot of tablature for basic songs that should get you over the new tuning. Mandolin family instruments are cool--the tuning is designed for logical scale placement and they're dead easy to play melodies on. Irish tunes sound great.
posted by LucretiusJones at 1:14 PM on May 20, 2008

I try to think upside down since its basically tuned upside down from a regular guitar. Low to high on mandolin is G D A E. Its hard to do on the fly but you can figure out any chord this way.

Once I had all of the open chords memorized I learned all of the major and minor movable chord shapes. If you know where the root is for those shapes, you can play any basic chord.

Scales, whole different thing. But like guitar - lots of practice.

And, use a real hard pick.
posted by eightball at 1:21 PM on May 20, 2008

here's the quick skinny while i'm at work (i'll probably blowhard all over this when i get home):

1) forget the "1 finger per fret" rule. on mandolin, it's one finger per scale tone.
2) learn the 4-string chords. those two finger chords with two open strings do not translate well to "chopping". also it makes transposing much easier.
3) get your tremolo on.
4) try not to think. all the fingerboard things you learns on the guitar (tuned in 4ths) are going to confuse you with the mandolin (tuned in 5ths). you can blaze away if you treat it like singing, just hear the note in your head and it'll come out fine on the mandolin.
5) it's tuned like a violin, so if you learn to read, you can play any violin music with no trouble at all.
6) listen to dave grisman, sam bush and vivaldi.
posted by stubby phillips at 1:33 PM on May 20, 2008

tuning tips, part i -- how to set the bridge

you'll notice that the bridge is just held in place by the tension of the strings. whenever you replace the strings (all of 'em) and when you first get the instrument, you have to locate the fucker in the exact right place.

loosen your strings enough that the bridge will slide up and down easily. the first time you try this, it'll fall over and slap down hard on the top, so be careful.

now tune one string. i use one of the g strings.

now strike a harmonic at the 12th fret. now fret the same note (12th fret). are the pitches exactly identical? you're done. if not, loosen the string, move the bridge a little, and try again.

if it's better, but not perfect, move the bridge again in the same direction. if it's worse, move it in the opposite direction.

once you think you have it perfect, do the same thing with a different string. i use one of the e strings.

once you think you have that perfect, check the first one. eventually, you'll have the bridge in the perfect place. tighten up all the strings and away you go.

here's something that i do with my mandolins, but i don't recommend:

once the bridge is exactly positioned, i trace the edge of it with an xacto knife. i cut through the finish just enough that i can see it next time i have to set my bridge. then i just line the bridge up with the mark. as i said, i don't recommend this, especially if you have a really nice mando.
posted by stubby phillips at 3:06 PM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

tuning tips part ii - tuning the damn thing

most mandolin players i know think it's hard to tune a mandolin, even ones much better than i am.

part of it comes from the double strings. singers will tell you it's a lot harder to sing in perfect unison than it is to sing in harmony. i think our ears are able to notice differences in Very Consonant Intervals (unisons, fifths, fourths).

you've heard the "beats" when tuning the bass? you can hear them very clearly on the guitar too. mando, not so much. that's also a problem.

another problem that crops up is instability or something. back in the old days, when you tuned a string on your guitar, it would throw all the others slightly out of tune. then you'd have to go back and tune them again. you don't see that much anymore. but on the mando, it still happens a lot.

to solve all these problems, use the skills you learned for guitar and bass, but apply them more earnestly to the mandolin:

tune and then tune again.
tune from below. start flat and come up to the note.
pay attention to the intervals. especially unisons and fifths for the mandolin
if you use a tuner, get the nicest clamp-on chromatic tuner you can afford
a standard tuning fork will tune your a string, if you're so inclined
new mandolin strings take even longer to settle in
get it as dead nuts in tune as you possibly can, and no more. it will never be perfect.
posted by stubby phillips at 3:50 PM on May 20, 2008

also if you use a tuner: as you tune each string, dampen all 7 others. hard but not impossible, and it really helps.
posted by stubby phillips at 4:08 PM on May 20, 2008

I found the hardest thing to master - above and beyond my sausage fingers - was the getting a really nice smooth tremolo (if that's the word I want) when I just moved the plectrum up and down on one string to give a constant note.

I ended up just plucking and plucking on one string at a time until I had the chops to get that lovely "drone" sound you get. Hand positioning is important in this too. You kind of have to prop your right hand up on the scratchplate, with all but your pointy finger straight so that you can hold the plectrum as still as possible relative to the strings. It's a nightmare, but the tone of the notes you can get defy description.

Also, the 4 stringed chords are important - as noted by stubby philips.

I also think that learning your scales are more important than with the guitar. Those four strings don't leave you anywhere to hide so lack of technique really shows up when you're vamping.
posted by Jofus at 4:07 AM on May 21, 2008

Seeing as I'm procrastinating massively, I've uploaded a few songs that I used as benchmarks (and still do.)

(My bag is very much American Folk Music, so YMMV.)

Rank Strangers - because Ralph Stanley is just *belting* those strings and his right hand work is so confident and natural.

She's More To Be Pitied - all of the above, also with some lovely "chopping".

The Old Account - Chopping, simple melody lines that you can use to practice following and vamping over. (And you get to sing too!)

Sweet Georgia Brown - to remind you that you'll never be as good as Dawg Grisman.
posted by Jofus at 4:27 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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