Learn a new style: The mandolin

by Metro Music Maker instructor, Mark Grundhoefer

If an instrument has strings and frets, I want it. So just like the guitar, bass and banjo, I was immediately drawn to the mandolin. I had a bluegrass band in college, and one of the members played the mandolin. During set breaks, while traveling, whenever I could find a moment, I would grab his instrument and start experimenting and learning. Shortly after that, I bought my own and have used it in bands, recordings and jam sessions. But what is a mandolin?

A mandolin is a small stringed instrument. Similar to the size of a ukulele. The first mandolins were produced in Italy in the 1700s, and like all modern plucked string instruments, it evolved from the lute. It has four pairs of strings (so that’s eight total), and you fret two with one finger, similar to a 12-string guitar. The most common tuning is GDAE (from low to high). If you’re a violinist, then this should sound familiar, as these two instruments are tuned the same. In fact, most violinists have no trouble transitioning to a mandolin.

The mandolin has had prominent roles in many styles of music. Its roots are in classical music in Europe. There is a vast repertoire of Celtic music written for the instrument. But it’s probably most famous in the bluegrass genre. It’s even made its way into rock ‘n’ roll over the decades.

There are several techniques associated to the instrument. Like a guitar, one hand frets the strings to produce different pitches, while the other hand uses a plectrum (pick) to strike the strings. Since the strings are doubled, the player is plucking two strings to produce one note. In bluegrass music, the mandolin is used to play melodies and chords, but is also given a rhythmic role simulating a snare drum. Often times a player mutes the strings and simply strums the backbeat of the song. For such a tiny instrument, it sure produces a lot of sound. Another unique technique is the use of tremolo picking. This is achieved by moving the pick up and down extremely fast on a string. Guitarists are familiar with tremolo picking as made famous in the first minute of Eruption by Van Halen.

Here are a few examples of the different techniques and sounds associated with this versatile instrument:

Chris Thile https://youtu.be/j3lH_Tevw5o
Ronnie McCoury https://youtu.be/080Kwc1WWiQ
Bill Monroe https://youtu.be/4syA9aNnNa0
Mark Mothersbaugh https://youtu.be/3Vf9s9an6ks
Italian Mandolin https://youtu.be/Y883OAj7Ghk
Peter Buck https://youtu.be/BLhD-h1LRQs
And the greatest use of mandolin in modern music: “Spinal Tap” https://youtu.be/qAXzzHM8zLw

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