Advice for a new mandolin player

Out of the blue I started playing fiddle last year (I’m a late starter - 46!). I enjoy it, but I miss being able to sing while I play and I haven’t been too happy with my instructor. Lately I had a good excuse to stop taking lessons (job loss) so I did. Also, did I mention fiddle is really really hard?

Anyway, I still enjoy playing and a few weeks ago I got a mandolin. Since the string arrangement is the same (except doubled) I thought I would pick it up quickly, and I have - I can play most of my fiddle tunes, though not as quickly, and I’m learning some easy chords. I have a few questions -

  1. Any general advice I should know about playing mandolin that’s not immediately obvious?

  2. How the hell to you play an F chord? I mean, I see the chart, but my fingers can’t do that. I’d hate to go through life not playing anything with an F, but for now when I see an F I just move the whole song into a different key.

I plan on signing up for lessons soon - I start a new job next week. So in a month or so. But so far it’s a lot more fun than my poor fiddle, although I try not to neglect that one too much either.


I think picker plays some mando.

Obvious things:

  • Go to YouTube and search on beginning mandolin lessons - find a person and approach that works for you.

  • Go to the website the Mandolin Cafe and hangout - I believe it is a broad Forum for bluegrass and a wide variety of players and instruments, but retains a mando focus.

  • Watch Chris Thile play - solo, as party of Nickel Creek or Punch Brothers. You many want to put your mandolin down after watching him, but oh man what a player.

There are various ways to play an F chord, so I’m not sure which one you’re having trouble with. The open position chord is pretty easy: index finger on the first string first fret, second string open, middle finger on third string third fret, and third or pinky finger on the fourth string fifth fret. If you’re having trouble with the stretch, simply keep practicing it; it will start to feel natural eventually.

The second position voicing is kind of awkward; I never use it. The third position voicing is easy: barre (lay your index finger across) the third fret, and fret the first and last strings at the fifth fret. Notice that you’re basically playing the D shape, moved three frets down.

Yeah, Biffy, it’s the open position I’m talking about - I can’t stretch from first string first fret to fourth string fifth fret without physically moving my fingers with my right hand. Which is slow and makes it difficult to strum. :slight_smile: I’ll try to believe that it’ll get easier with practice.

Ya think 46 is a late starter? I recently started cello . . . at 70! And take it from me, fiddle isn’t the hardest instrument.

Good luck!

Congrats Skammer!

Mandolins rock!

What type mandolin do you play?

I learned on a tear drop Kentucky and then moved up to an f-style.

Chop patterns go along way since the mandolin is categorized as a percussion instrument.

Tremelo is also a great way to fill in around guitar.

I mainly picked up a mandolin because everyone seems to play guitar.

Yea and Thile is stupid good.

I am a fan of Sam Bush and of course Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan.

If you have not listened to any Peter Rowan youtube Peter Rowan/ cold rain and snow with Tony Rice. Some haunting magical stuff in there.

Also I lower the action to near fret buzz and a thick pick

Man, jerry’smissingfinger, I only understood about 2/3 of that post. I do love Bill Monroe, and I’ve been watching a lot of Ricky Skaggs videos. He’s scary fast. Meanwhile I’m picking out ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ :slight_smile:

Oh, and since I just wanted a learner/student instrument on a limited budget I got a Samick A-style (is that the same as a teardrop?).

Ha, when I was learning fiddle I was thinking “Hey, maybe the cello is easier… there is more room for my sausage fingers.” Then I realized you play it upside down (neck pointed at your head) and I dropped that idea. :wink:

Learn “Mandolin Rain”. It’s the only song that anyone who’s not a fan of mandolins might have ever heard of. :stuck_out_tongue:

A style/ teardrop is same

I hear ya, I played many cheaper model mandolins because i didn’t want to fork out the cash for an instrument I may not take to but when I finally played a fine mandolin my level and time practicing moved forward exponentially.

Check out Brad Laird mandolin instruction books. He is also on youtube, youtube is your friend.

Also there is a guy named Greg Horne that has some good level based instructional stuff.

I learned stuff like “losing my religion” and some Led Zep mandolin stuff just because it is recognizable to folks. Bluegrass mandolin is not really recognizable to people for some reason.

Happy picking friend

Hey there! Congrats on starting the mandolin, it’s a great instrument and very fun to play. Interesting coincidence, I’m currently studying the fiddle, so find myself in a similar position as yours, but reversed.

I’d refer you to these texts to get you started, but nothing substitutes for an actual teacher, even if once a month or so, to correct errors of technique and answer questions.
Getting started, I have students start with
Fretboard Roadmaps for Mandolin. This series is wonderful - there’s a version for most all instruments commonly found in roots and grass.

For technique development - once you’ve got the basics down - Killer Technique: Mandolin.

The Fiddler’s Fakebook is the gold standard for learning tunes and building your repertoire. It’s unavailable on Amazon right now but should be easily available at most music stores catering to acoustic and roots instruments.

For instrumental technique, one of the more traditional books is Bluegrass Mandolin.

For jamming with others (eventually) and learning a large chunk of the bluegrass canon, I’d strongly recommend The Bluegrass Fakebook.

Finally, once you are jamming a bit, improv takes a much greater role. Creative accompaniment, phrases and soloing are a superfun part of playing with others. Try The Mandolin Pickers Guide to Bluegrass Improvisation.

That should keep you a while.

For the F shape, it’s almost definitely a wrist position issue. Try cocking your wrist by pushing the base of your thumb further under the neck and dropping your elbow.

Good luck and pick on!

Awesome post, picker! That’s exactly the stuff I was hoping for when I wrote the OP!

No worries.

I see by your location you’re in Nashville. There’s literally hundreds of great mando teachers there. I’d recommend you look on CL for local bluegrass jams and go hang out. Don’t even worry about bringing an instrument until you’re comfortable.

Bluegrass pickers are very friendly and accessible for the most part. Pretty much every picker in Nashville teaches on the side, so strike up some conversations and find someone you vibe with. Every player at a jam will probably be happy to refer you to a friend of theirs who’s probably an amazing session player.

Yeah, I figured my geography would be advantageous. I need to find some local jams that work with my schedule.

Just checking in. How’s the picking going?

i can bluff some chord strumming on a mandolin by thinking of the instrument (stay with me!) as an upside down, normally-tuned, left-handed guitar - without the B and top E…
It works for me! If someone shouts the changes say, Am C G D, I picture it played left-handed and flip the image. D took a bit of thinking and AM is the same as A in the first inversion - but as a start point it got me off and running!
This may be of no help at all as you started with a fiddle, but it may help someone else who is able to think upside down and back to front!