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Mandolin Playing Tips: For Beginners

Are you ready to learn how to play mandolin but not quite sure where to start? Read on to learn the essentials to set you on the path to success.

Holding the Mandolin

Your mandolin should be balanced in such a way that you don’t have to struggle to reach any of the notes. Your right hand should be free to change your picking and strumming as necessary.

The three main balance points are the left-hand thumb, which guides the neck of the mandolin gently skyward; the diaphragm, which acts as the central stabilizer; and the spot just below the inside of the right elbow, which anchors the instrument without restricting movement of the wrist or elbow needed for picking and strumming.

Using a Pick

Once you’ve balanced your mandolin, you’ll need to establish a functional picking technique. Curl your index finger and lay the pick across it, so that approximately ⅛” extends past your finger. Place your thumb flat across the face of the pick, firmly pressing it against the index finger. The flat bottom portion of the index finger (along the surface of the nail) and the bottom of the thumb should be parallel relative to each other as well as to the ground.

When strumming chords, you’ll want to use a looser grip to allow the pick to glide smoothly across each string. When playing single notes, you’ll need a firm grip to drive completely through each doubled string, thereby producing a fuller tone.

Fretting With Accuracy

Because the mandolin has four sets of doubled strings, you’ll need more finger pressure than you would with most guitars, ukuleles, and the like. That said, producing a quality tone is more about accuracy than strength.

To ensure that each doubled string is sounded properly, hold the string down as close as possible to the fretwire without actually being directly on top of it. The contact point of the string to the fretwire is what actually produces the pitch that you hear (shortening the vibrating string to that point), necessitating left-hand accuracy.

Producing Quality Tone

Now that you know how to use the pick and the left hand, it’s time to put it all together. That means mastering pick technique on open strings (including string skipping) and incorporating fretted notes with scales and simple tunes.

You’ll need to practice driving through each doubled string with upstrokes as well as downstrokes before adding fretted notes. Next you’ll want to try the first five notes of the G major scale, ascending and descending, using alternate picking throughout. Fret numbers are as follows: (4th string, “G”) 0, 2, 4, 5, 7.

Once you’re able to play the first portion of the major scale ascending and descending on the G string, try the two-octave scale, which utilizes all four strings. Don’t forget to use your 4th finger.

Now that you have these key tips on how to play mandolin, you’ve got all the tools you need to hit the woodshed. Have a blast!

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