Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips
I’m a relatively new mandolin player, but I’m told that I’ve gone a long way in the ten months or so I’ve been playing. I noticed that Dr. Bodhran, in another thread, was looking for some tips, and I’ve got a few, mostly courtesy of a Chris Thile instructional video, "Essential Techniques for Mandolin".
0) Get the Chris Thile instructional video "Essential Techniques for Mandolin". He’s not an Irish traditional player as much as a phenomenal bluegrass player, but the techniques on the tape/DVD are about basic, fundamental mechanics more than a about a particular style, and I’ve found those techniques enormously helpful. You can find it at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000050YT0/qid=1044124212/
1) Looseness is everything. Your right hand especially should be extremely loose; otherwise, there will be hours of pain, mostly in the elbow but also in the wrist. Your pick should be gripped just tightly enough that it stays in your hand, and should always be in danger of falling out. Practise waving your hand around and shaking your wrist gently with the pick almost dropping from between your fingers.
2) This is the most important one for me: Chris Thile talks about "pick stroke theory" or "the pick stroke law". Reels are DOWN up DOWN up DOWN up DOWN up, each stroke being an eighth note with the DOWN on the beat and the up on the off-beat. Jigs are DOWN up down, DOWN up down, DOWN up down, DOWN up, with the big down on the first note of the triplet. If there’s a quarter note or a hammer-on or pull-off in there somewhere, resume picking within exactly that pattern, with the DOWN on the beat.
What this does is to make the right hand very regular, and to drive the rhythm naturally onto the beat. I’ve found that it eliminates the need to figure out whether a particular stroke should be a down or an up; that gets dictated by the note’s position within the time signature. It really works!
This point is controversial among some people that I’ve spoken to; what I noticed about them is that none is a mandolin player! They worried that restricting the pick strokes in this way would make it impossible to produce the proper accents when those accents weren’t on the beat. So, as Chris Thile also advises…
3) Make sure that you’re capable of a balanced, even weight between downstrokes and upstrokes.
4) Obsessive and compulsive practise, especially with other people, puts you on the fast track. It appears that for all sorts of mechanical or physical skills—I’ve seen the same thing said of surgery—it’s mostly the total number of hours you put in. You can spread those hours over a year or over a lifetime; that part is up to you. That you’re also a guitar player should help somewhat; I’m sure it helped me. The cool thing is that a lot of the skills are transferable between instruments.
5) Save yourself from self-inflicted bad habits and mistakes (i.e. the kind I made for the first couple of months) and get yourself a good teacher and/or the aforementioned video.
6) Get yourself a clamp-on tuner or a tuner with a transducer attachment. As a previous thread notes, the mandolin has eight strings to increase the odds that at least one will be in tune. Get a tuner for the other seven strings.
Hope this helps!