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Mandolin Tips for Right Hand Playing

mandolin right hand tips

You may know this, but it's worth repeating: the right hand is crucial for mandolin mastery.

Although our tendency as mandolinists is to focus on problems of the left hand, involving scales, patterns, fingering, and where and how to play a phrase, the true arbiter of one’s ability is often the right hand. Given that rhythm is of primary importance in music, our right hand is our timekeeper, as it were, which allows us to ornament and punctuate musical lines in various ways. The ability to control these shades and nuances is what distinguishes mastery from mediocrity in the world of mandolin.

Holding the Mandolin

In order to utilize the most efficient right hand technique, remember to hold the mandolin with the headstock pointing upward (roughly between 9 and 10 o’clock). You can use a footstool to raise your left leg so that it supports the mandolin rather than trying to hold it up. There are two reasons for doing so. First, this eliminates all tension in the neck, arms, and shoulders and thus makes for smoother playing. Second, the upward angle of the mandolin allows us to strike the strings with the front edge of the pick, creating more velocity and a fuller tone.

Now that we’ve discussed how to position the mandolin, let’s take a more detailed look at how to hold the pick.

mandolin right hand tips

Holding the Pick

First, hold your hand out loosely with your fingers curved and relaxed, as though you were holding change in your palm. Place the pick on the outside of the index finger and enclose it by pressing the thumb into the other side of the pick, at a roughly perpendicular angle. Do not squeeze the pick, rather, hold it firmly between the fingers with a soft and supple hand. The key is to not have too much tension, because any tension present will show up somewhere in the kinetic chain, whether it be the thumb, the wrist, the forearm, the shoulder, or the neck.

Where to Place the Right Hand

The next question of importance is where to brace or rest the right hand on the mandolin. The best place is just behind the bridge, where the strings will not be deadened by the right hand. Once you’ve found this spot, place the fleshy portion of the hand opposite the thumb here (think of placing a relaxed fist on the table, and moving your thumb slightly down towards the table).

The fleshy part of the thumb may also graze the top portion of the bridge. Remember, you don’t want to be glued to this spot; rather, use it as a guide for the right hand while allowing enough mobility to reach all four strings with ease.

Another quick tip: Don’t rest the right hand fingers on the body of the mandolin; although this may feel good on the downstroke, it will create rigidity on the upstroke and throw off your balance.

How to Pluck All Four Strings

Let’s move now to the task of playing all four strings. You don’t want to feel as though you’re reaching for the high E string or low G string with your right hand. This feeling happens when we allow too much rotation of the wrist. Rather, use the fleshy part of the hand that we discussed in the “Where to Place the Right Hand” section to glide the right hand towards the high E or low G as necessary. In other words, positioning the right hand to play a given string is a whole arm movement rather than a wrist movement.

How Hard to Grip the Pick

The same overarching philosophy that we’ve learned applies to pick pressure as well. The ideal grip is firm, but relaxed. Think of the soil of a plant; it supports the plant while always allowing room to breathe and grow. This is how your right hand should feel as well; in control, but relaxed and allowing free movement where necessary.

Avoid splaying the right hand fingers outwards into a fan shape, this can also create unnecessary tension in the tendons, almost as if the right hand were holding a plank position. Instead, remember to use the “holding loose change” right hand grip, as suppleness is key to good tone.

mandolin tips for the right hand

Playing Both Strings in Each Pair

A common problem is only playing one string on the downstroke, and one on the upstroke. This is another tone killer because in doing so, you’re only getting half of the potential volume of each string pair. Be conscious of driving through each string pair to make sure that your mandolin is really singing at full volume.

Now let’s try some exercises for the right hand to improve your tone and control.

Exercises for the Right Hand

Play the G string with a downstroke, and the D string with an upstroke, making sure to sound both strings cleanly. Next, play the G string with a downstroke, and glide the right hand contact point down to play an upstroke on the A string. Finally, play a downstroke on the G string and an upstroke on the E string.

Next, make the D string your starting point, beginning with a downstroke and following with an upstroke on the A, E, and G strings in order after each return to the D string.

The Figure 8

Pay particular attention to the inverted feel of a downstroke on the D string with an upstroke on the G string, as this is the most difficult part of the exercise. You can visualize this as a “figure 8” pattern, whereby the pick travels in a smoother motion than in a strictly vertical plane.

Continue to alternate downstrokes and upstrokes with these string sets, also using the A and E strings as the starting point, gliding the right hand along the contact point while maintaining a comfortable tempo. The more distance that there is between your downstroke and your upstroke (E string, G string), the more you'll need to exaggerate the “figure 8" pattern.

Follow these tips and you'll soon be on your way to mandolin mastery!

Mike Marshall teaches mandolin online at ArtistWorks. Click here for free sample lessons!

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