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Mandolin Scales with Four Fingers

mandolin scales with four fingers

If you're into playing bluegrass, it's a good idea to learn about four finger mandolin scales.

As with any string instrument, learning to use all of your fingers is going to be an essential task. Although all four fingers aren’t always needed, there are times when using the 4th finger will make it easier to shift positions and to properly execute hammer-ons and pull-offs. Economy of motion is particularly important when key changes require large position shifts or when the other three fingers are fretting other notes.

One thing beginning mandolin students often do is tuck the 4th finger behind the neck because it’s so difficult to use when starting out. This is due to tendon weakness, and lack of muscle memory. We’ll touch briefly on how you can keep that little finger active and increase your playing agility, stamina, and knowledge of scales and patterns all over the neck.

Beginner Mandolin: Basic Scales, Finger Patterns and Positions

When beginning a string instrument, you always need to learn the fretting patterns for major and minor scales. Once you learn the patterns in one position you can easily move that shape to other keys and play the same pattern to produce a major or minor scale in the desired key. A common place to start is with an open position. This requires at least three of your fingers (1st, 2nd and 3rd) in addition to an open string.

When playing basic mandolin scale patterns it is a good practice to use a new finger for each consecutive note in the scale, assigning one finger to each fret. This is much more efficient than moving the 1st finger from fret to fret or avoiding the use of the 4th finger altogether.

mandolin scales

Once you get familiar with the sound of the scales, it is time to move on to the closed position. In a closed position you will follow the same interval pattern for the major or minor scale, only this time all notes will be fretted. In other words, no tucking the pinky. Remember, once you learn the closed position scale you can simply move that shape throughout each key and play the same pattern.

Variations of the Major and Minor Scales: Arpeggios and Pentatonics

Once you have mastered the basic major and minor scales in open and closed positions, try learning different variations of the scales. For example, arpeggios are a great way to spice up your playing. This involves playing the notes of a chord (the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th) individually, sounding them one at a time rather than sweeping across them all at once with the pick.

Pentatonics are also great way to apply your knowledge of the minor scale, producing a sound that will be right at home in any blues or jazz setting. The prefix ‘penta’ indicates that this is a five-note-per-octave scale, meaning that you will omit two of the notes found in the basic minor scale. For example, in the key of A minor, the pentatonic scale is spelled: A-C-D-E-G. In other words, in any minor key, the pentatonic scale will always be the following scale degrees: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7.

mandolin scales

Player’s Tip: If you want an extra ‘bluesy’ sound, lower the 5th of the scale by ½ step (one fret), keeping all the other notes, including the natural 5th, the same.

Let’s change strategies, and take our knowledge to the next level. At this point, you know what the major and minor scales sound like. If you play the wrong fretted note, you can hear it and correct it. Learning to play the same major and minor scales by starting on lead fingers is fun and challenging, and requires a more intimate understanding of the fretboard.

Similar to closed position patterns that begin on the 1st finger, lead finger patterns begin the scale with each of the other three fingers. To preserve the interval pattern that produces the major or minor scale, we continue by assigning each finger to a new fret based on the new starting point.

For example, if you begin the major scale with 2nd finger on the 4th fret of the G string, the 3rd and 4th fingers will fall on frets 6 and 8, respectively. This fingering pattern will change if you start the major scale on the 3rd finger, 6th fret G string, making it your tonic note.

mandolin scales

By practicing these exercises, you will soon realize that there are many different ways and places on the neck to play the same scales. An effective learning method is to play each lead finger in a chromatic progression (beginning one fret higher or lower each time). You’ll also want to practice moving in whole steps (beginning two frets higher or lower each time) to really test your ears and your muscle memory.

Practice these techniques every day, and soon you’ll be able to improvise over complex chord progressions, consistently changing lead fingers and seamlessly weaving smooth, melodic lines.

Good luck and happy picking!

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