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Learn to play the mandolin! Gather friends and family for a sing-a-long on a cold winter's night!

You're up to here with high gas prices. Instead of wasting gas driving into town to rent a movie or go see a live band on a Saturday night, why not stay home and learn to play a musical instrument, something you've always wanted to do? For those of you with the itch to play the mandolin, I'm going to show you how to play one right now. It's easy!

You don't have a mandolin? That's only a small problem, and one that's easy to fix. Most music stores sell inexpensive mandolins, and some might even rent you one. If all else fails, you can always fire up the internet and buy one sight unseen. I can understand how you might be nervous using the internet to buy a musical instrument, but if you're buying from a reputable internet dealer, you should be fine. Check to see if they have a return policy in case you're not satisfied with your mandolin when it first arrives. Most inexpensive mandolins will be fine to learn on. They're usually set up so they're easy to play, but will probably sound very tinny. After you become somewhat adept at playing the mandolin, you can then purchase a fine instrument and give or sell your old one to a friend.

Before you drag out your credit card and start ordering a mandolin, let's talk about this for a minute. For years you've seen and heard mandolins played in bluegrass bands. In fact, if you're familiar with the music of Bill Monroe, then you've surely heard him play the mandolin.

I can hear you saying, "Well, I'm no Bill Monroe!" Well, you're right, and neither am I, but I can certainly show you how to play the mandolin. Before you plunk down your money and get all excited, you want to know if you can learn to play the mandolin. Am I correct? The answer is a resounding yes! If taught correctly, the mandolin is a rather easy instrument to play tunes on. As you'll soon find out, the instrument is set up in a very logical manner, and you'll soon be picking out melodies on it. Trust me.


Job one will be getting your mandolin in tune. If you've never tuned a stringed instrument before, you might need help. Ask a friend who plays mandolin or guitar to give you a hand tuning it. You can always throw yourself on the mercy of your local music store; they will surely take pity on you. If no help can be found, fine. You can tune it yourself.

The strings of the mandolin

1st = E, 2nd = A, 3rd = D, 4th = G

Electronic tuner

I highly recommend you purchase an electronic tuner to help you get in tune. These little gadgets are easily available at your local music store. Be sure to bring your mandolin with you when you purchase a tuner and get the salesperson to show you how it works.

Heck, why don't you get him or her to go ahead and tune your mandolin for you so you can start out on the right foot? You can reward them by being a loyal customer.

Your mandolin comes fully equipped with four pairs of strings. Each pair should be tuned exactly the same.

Turning your tuning pegs

This tuning tip is so important, I think I'll just put it in its own paragraph so you can't possibly miss it.
   When you're tuning a string,
   play the string continually
   as you are turning the peg.

No electronic tuner? Let's say you're an old-fashioned person who doesn't cotton to newfangled 'lectric gizmos. Great! I admire that. In that case, you can tune the mandolin to practically any other musical instrument.

Guitar: If you can find a tuned guitar, you can compare the notes of the mandolin with those of the guitar. The 1st string of the guitar is an E and the 1st or E string of your mandolin should match that. If you fret the guitar's third string at the second fret, you'll get an A. You can change your A string to sound like that. Next, fret the second string of the guitar at the third fret and make your D string sound like that. Finally, play the guitar's third string open (unfretted) and match your G string to that. That's it!


Fiddle: It's a snap to tune your mandolin to a fiddle because they're both tuned the same.

Tuning by the fret method:

With this method, you can tune the mandolin to itself. Begin by getting the two E strings in tune to each other. You're then going to tune your A string by fretting the A string at the 7th fret and making it sound like the E string played open. After you get both A strings adjusted, you'll be tuning the D string to the A string. You can do this by fretting the D string at the 7th fret and making it sound like the A string played open. Finally, fret the G string at the 7th fret and make it sound like the D string played open.

Pitch pipes

Used to be, pitch pipes (diagram above) were one of the few tools folks had to tune their instruments. Any more, they're rarely used because they're not terribly accurate. If you have an old pitchpipe similar to the one in this drawing, hold on to it. It's an antique and you can pass it on to your grandkids as a relic of your misspent youth.

Note: Mandolins are somewhat finicky and are hard to get exactly in tune. The double strings seem to play tricks on your ears. If you can't get it quite right, you're in good company, as there are many thousands of other out-of-tune mandolins being played at this very moment.

How to hold the pick

The way you grip your pick will have a lot to do with your overall tone and how well you can maneuver over the strings. Begin by balancing your pick directly over the first joint of your index finger. Once you have the pick balanced, secure it in place with your thumb. Be sure to keep your other fingers open, so they sort of flap loosely as you play.

Most untrained beginners will naturally hold the pick with the very end of the index finger and the tip of the thumb. This might be good for dainty picking in the serenity of your living room. However, I am grooming you to project power and authority with your mandolin, so the dainty pick hold certainly won't cut it. Remember, when you're finally released from Mandolin Boot Camp, you'll be playing with very loud bluegrass banjos and jumbo-sized guitars, and you're going to have to lay the power to it, and not let them kick sand in your face.

Note: As you pick individual notes, you will want to anchor your pinky finger loosely on the top of the mandolin to steady your hand. Keep your wrist relaxed and loose.

As you're picking, remember to keep your middle, ring, and pinky fingers open. Be sure to play both strings of the pair with your pick.

What kind of pick should you use? I recommend a teardrop-shaped pick, but beyond that, it all boils down to personal preference. I would stay away from the super thin and flexible pick, which is like hitting a fast ball with a boiled noodle.

Music or tab

For learning bluegrass or old-time music, most people don't learn to play by reading standard musical notation. Of course, if you already read music, that's a plus. Instead of musical notation, most mandolin instruction books use what is called tab, which is short for tablature. Tab is just a shorthand way of knowing what notes to play.

The tab consists of four horizontal lines, which represent your strings. On the strings will be letters of the alphabet such as A, B or C. These are the names of the notes you'll be playing. I'll show you how this works shortly.

G scale

The first thing we're going to do is play a G scale. Once we learn that, we can play literally millions of simple tunes.

Here is a chart of your mandolin fingerboard with some notes on it.

Keep in mind that the E string is the smallest and highest string on your mandolin. As you hold your mandolin in playing position, it's the string that is closest to your feet.



With your pick in hand, play the eight notes of a G scale: G, A, B, C, D, F, F# G. Note that the E and A notes to the left of the chart are played "open" or unfretted. Practice the G scale until you can go from note to note fairly rapidly, using the correct fingers. Practice it both forwards and backwards.

In addition to learning how to play the scale, also memorize the names of your notes. Try saying out loud the names of the notes as you are playing that note. (See G scale, above.)


When your fingers have learned to play the G scale, and your head has memorized the names of the notes, you're ready to play your first tune, "Amazing Grace." As you look over the song on this page, you'll see it is written out both in music and in tab. If you already read music, you're pretty much set to go. If you're going to try the tab I need to explain how the timing works.

"Amazing Grace" is played in 3/4 or waltz time. That means there's three beats in each measure and each beat is the same as a quarter note. Each beat gets one foot tap (down and up). A vertical line attached to a note identifies it as a quarter note. (It doesn't matter if the vertical line protrudes up or hangs down from the note). If there are two lines attached to a note, that's a half note, and gets two beats, or two down-ups with your foot. If two notes are attached to each other, that means they are each eighth notes. Just like you learned in math class, each eighth note is worth exactly half of a quarter note. For you, that means each eighth note would get half a beat. Your foot would go down on the first eighth note, and up on the second eighth note. On measures 7 and 15 you'll see a dote after the note. The dot means you just add one beat to the note before it so that measure gets three beats, as usual.



Before you try picking out the tune, you might want to sing or hum the tune while playing several simple chord positions.

(See G, C and D chords, above.)

When you are learning to play your chords, make sure to practice putting your fingers down on the chords all at the same time, not one finger at a time.

Once you can sing or hum "Amazing Grace" while playing the chords, you're ready to try picking out the melody. Even if you haven't had a chance to try the chords, feel free to pick out the melody.

Amazing Grace

(See music on previous page.) Hopefully, this article will get you going on the mandolin. For more instruction and lots more songs, check out my new book, Bluegrass Mandolin for the Complete Ignoramus, available from Native Ground Books & Music. Good luck, and keep pickin'!



Wayne Erbsen is a teacher, musician, author, radio host and publisher. He has been teaching banjo for over 40 years and he claims that he can even teach a frog to play the banjo. You can order a free catalog of his 25 books and 18 CDs at Native Ground Books & Music, or or toll-free 800-752-2656.
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Title Annotation:Homestead harmony
Author:Erbsen, Wayne
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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