Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

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!

—-Michael B.

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Quite a few good points here, Michael. I especially endorse the pointers on pick direction - dud dud for jigs and dudu dudu for hornpipes and reels. Some people advocate dud udu for jigs but I feel that this does not give sufficient emphasis to the second beat of the bar as the upstroke tends to be weaker than the down (the beats occur on the first and 4th quavers of the bar) and there is a tendency to come unstuck when playing a slipjig (in 9/8) as you will arrive on the second bar on an upstroke! If you stick to dud dud you will be OK for double jigs or slipjigs. I have encountered mandolin players who hadn’t figured this out after years of playing and had to learn the picking anew for each tune they learned.
If dud dud seems difficult to begin with, as you have to do 2 downs in succession, practise it over and over again on an open string until it becomes automatic. BTW if you’re unsure of the rhythym for a jig try saying "rashers and sausages".
I believe that use of an electronic tuner is counter-productive as it will hinder the development of your ears. You need to be able to tell if your instrument is in tune or not. To tune the strings of a pair (or course) you can use the "beats" method. When the two strings are slightly out you will hear beats, that is a rhythmical alteration of the volume. (like the drone of an old spitfire). As you turn the peg and the notes come closer in pitch the beats will become slower until they disappear altogether when the two strings are in tune. Once you have one course in tune you tune the adjacent pair using your ears. You simply have to train yourself to recognize the interval of a 5th. This is what fiddle players do. Eventually your ears will be better than any electronic tuner. Good luck

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

BTW I forgot to mention, hammer-ons and pull-offs are in my opinion, not suitable techniques on the mandolin for ITM as I have as yet to hear anyone who attempted them make it sound "authentic" or appropriate.

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Read the posts and have had to ‘unlearn’ some wrong techniques transferred from guitar. One I will add is what’s called ‘cross-picking’ in ATM, but is simply arpeggios. An ascending or descending line can be added when moving from chord to chord. Whether the technique is acceptable to arbitors of ITM is up for grabs as the mandolin is used, primarily as a melody instrument, not rhythm. But, it is certainly acceptable when accompanying a vocalist. The octave mandolin or ‘Irish’ bouzuki is used for rhythm, instead. They’re tuned the same as the mando just an octave lower. The cittern is another. It has 10 strings(double coursed)and is tuned DADAD. It’s in the frequency range of the guitar and is more accepted than the guitar in ITM, generally. I disagree with the above poster. Hammer-ons and pulloffs are perfectly fine techniques to use in ‘any’ form of music as long as they’re not overused and/or a substitute for actually hitting the notes. A good tune to learn(I did it myself)is called ‘Rights Of Man’. It’s played in Em and has a ‘march’ tempo which is slow enough to get all the notes in for an interm/beginner. It’s challenging enough, but wont frustrate you, too much. Mostly, keep in mind about the basic differences in ITM and ATM and you’ll be fine. If you want to play in ITM sessions learn the tunes or get an Octave mando…I know, I’ve done it and whatever you do don’t EVER do the ‘monroe chop’ while playing ITM in Ireland…I’ve friends who did and haven’t been heard from in a while…

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Michael, Miles and WD thanks for the advice. It will help alot. Michael special thanks to you for getting this thread started - the more I see of this important resource (The Session) the more I like it. WD I will check out The Rights of Man. Don’t believe I know the tune. Anyway thanks again - off to the mandolin now for a bit more practise. Cheers ………….. Bob

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips


Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Gra5ity - I have just found a TAB version of this tune on Mandolin Cafe. Check it out. Not sure how accurate it is - let me know what you think. Bob

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Although I stick pretty strictly to DUD DUD for jigs at least one very good mandolin player advocates varying picking patterns for individual jigs. Dan Beimborn reckons that many jigs benefit from a DDU DDU pattern to fit the accent of the tune. If that looks just like DUD slightly misplaced try playing it. I find that with my limited ability trying to change to anything but DUD DUD fairly difficult without a lot of effort since it has become such an ingrained pattern and I’m sure that this must limit the expression in my playing

Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Hi Michael, seems you have got a lot of tips already. I wonder if tenor banjo tips are transferable to the mandolin since the two instruments have a fair amount in common as carriers of ITM and very often, I notice in my travels, as the instrument being learned by the more mature in years if less experienced in notes. (Why is this?)

Will once commented that relaxed hands and arms are often the hallmark of the master and, though I am way short of mastering Irish banjo, I have found this hint THE most significant for me. You already have received this tip so now you have to really put it into practice. I think that it is also worth bearing in mind that you are doing something which is very precise when you play ITM and therein lies the dilemma: being relaxed and precise at the same time. I find this an ongoing struggle! Finally, if banjo skills are in fact transferable with little adaptation to mandolin, there are Gerry O’Connor’s instruction videos which you might find useful. (One I found too simple and the other too complex but there are worthwhile pointers there which you may find vey useful.)

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Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Thanks Bob,

I found the TAB version from Mandolin Cafe and hope to give it a go tonight. Thanks also to jeSuisUneVache for finding what I could not here at the session. I’ve now added it to my virtual tunebook.
Ack! I must have typed in "The Rites of Man. "No wonder I came up blank.


Re: Half a Dozen Mandolin Tips

Quote: "…Get a tuner for the other seven strings."


"Rights of Man" variants


I finally got a chance to read through the Mandolin Cafe TAB of "The Rights of Man." I’ve also looked at Jeremy’s post and JC’s ABC site. It’s strange how tunes pop in and out of one’s musical life. A friend of mine played me a CD recording of this tune, along with many others, just last week. Can I remember the artist? Alas, no. It’s time to throw out those aluminium saucepans.

I really like the use of hammer-ons throughout the piece and will incorperate them as an ornimentation of the melody. In the very first bar I would play beat 3 as 5 ho 7 5 (all on the d string,) rather than 5 0 5 as written, personal preference.

Thanks again for pointing me in the direction of this fine setting for the tune.