Why mandolin?

Why mandolin?

A recent thread basically said that there is no point in playing a mandolin as no one can hear it. That started me thinking (a rare occurrence these days) about why people play in sessions.
No doubt we all know those who strive for the loudest concertina, fiddle,banjo,etc. and who seem quite content to ignore any subtleties in the music.
Again, in big sessions with multiple guitars and massed ranks of fiddles and accordions there is a wall of noise with which to contend .
How then do people cope with this? It seems to me you can either
1 Join the decibel race and try and drown out the "opposition"
2 Stay at home or only attend small intimate sessions
3 Adopt one of the methods of ensuring that you can hear yourself (if I can’t hear myself, my playing gets even worse than when I can) and just enjoy yourself, assuming that the session is a good one.
Is it seen that if you can’t be heard, there is no point in playing? It could be said that if there is more than 2 or 3 fiddles, at least one of them will be "lost" in the mix.

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Re: Why mandolin?

Is not a better question:

What ever you play, why play in big sessions with multiple guitars and massed ranks of fiddles and accordions?

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Re: Why mandolin?

To start, you are not necessarily playing so that other people will hear you but for your own enjoyment.

Of course, it’s important to listen to your fellow musicians and they should listen to you too but don’t worry about some drunken punter complaining that they didn’t hear you play.

As for the mandolin, it depends very much on the instrument(whether it’s decent or its "set up"), player, and style of picking.
I’m generally fairly quiet but some players can be be heard very clearly alongside and even over the other instruments in large sessions.
However, in an average sized session, the mandolin is certainly loud enough and actually comes over much more so than you can hear yourself.

"drown out the "opposition"

I don’t think we should regard our session colleagues as "opposition" although, sadly, there are many places where people do behave like that. If it’s a busy or noisy session, I may try to play louder but only so that I can hear myself.

Re: Why mandolin?

I enjoy playing the mandolin and have several, along with an older-style Fylde octave mandola. I play them around the house and sometimes take them to sessions. They are ideal when with two or three other instrumentalists. Great for exploring and practising tunes on, because you can play them when lolling about which isn’t so easy with the fiddle. In an ideal acoustic environment you won’t be drowned out by the other instruments, but at many pub sessions it’s the background noise that’s the problem, so it isn’t an arms race with the other players. People shout conversations over the music and in the end the sound wells up to the point where you can’t hear anything, let alone a mandolin. People sitting opposite you might be able to hear it, but you can’t - Perhaps a stethoscope would help (I think there’s a toy one with other old toys in our garden shed - might dig it out). It’s all very well saying don’t play in sessions like that, but there’s not much choice. A plucked instrument must be affected more than a bowed instrument, and you can hear what you’re doing on a fiddle because it’s close to your ear. For a noisy environment, a bluegrass mandolin is probably best because the note has a bark to it, loud and bright, and you’re not looking for sustain. When I first got the Gibson A-style f-hole, I was told it could be heard abover everything else right at the other end of the pub through all the chattering drinkers. I work hardest at the fiddle though, because that’s where I really want to improve. Len - I liked your YouTube clip. Come and play tunes in Cambridge some time.

Re: Why mandolin?

"That started me thinking (a rare occurrence these days) about why people play in sessions."

I’m trying to figure that one out myself at the moment.

Re: Why mandolin?

Richard, someone said to me that the bluegrass mandolin is an instrument that is frowned upon in Irish trad circles. Just because of the bark. Have you met that opinion?

On the other hand, if we talk all the time of mandoline being hard to hear, isn’t bluegrass mandolin the perfect session solution? I mean, it is a pub session and not a recording session.

Re: Why mandolin?

There’s no such thing as a bluegrass mandolin … you’re maybe getting mixes up with bluegrass style mandolin playing.

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Re: Why mandolin?

Henk got there first!

Re: Why mandolin?

SOmeone once said to me that violins are frowned upon in trad circles. Maybe I should get a fiddle instead?

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Re: Why mandolin?

And of course the Dutch are experts on the mandoline…

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Re: Why mandolin?

Can ppl not just realise that theres more to life than sessions!?!? :D

Re: Why mandolin?

Someone care to answer my question? πŸ™‚

Re: Why mandolin?

In bluegrass the mandolin is primarily a rhythm instrument, providing chop chords on the backbeat - upright bass goes boom, mando goes chink. Bluegrass mandolin players universally use f-hole instruments as they have that fast attack ‘bark’ on those chop chords which cuts through the mix. They almost universally have F-shape mandolins (with scroll) rather than A-shape (without scroll) because that’s what’s expected.

What is frowned upon in trad is chop chords on the back beat, not the use of f-hole mandolins as such.

The bluegrass mandolinist also gets to play a solo on most songs. The oval-hole with less attack but more sustain would be better for that, but you can’t have it both ways.

Re: Why mandolin?

Hi Henk - back to your question: both types of mandolin are equally despised by certain players of the "proper" instruments for Irish traditional music. There is no special prejudice against any one type.

Re: Why mandolin?

Most session musicians have no objection to any type of mandolin provided it’s used to play "the tune" or, in some cases, a tasteful backing.
Of course, neither of the above include "show off" breaks or the use of "chop" chords as in the blue grass world.

Many players of the so called "proper" instruments may question(as they have done) as to whether it is as effective in trad music and/or its point. However, it is still accepted in most places and certainly gets more respect than, say, the bodhran, guitar etc or other instruments which are frequently used for percussion or mass destruction.

Re: Why mandolin?

I do agree with you John - I should have inserted a πŸ™‚

Re: Why mandolin?

The "loudest" mandolin I have ever heard, and a sweet tone as well, is one I own.

It is Romanian, an A type, and these days would probably retail at say $150.

I have this one some 26 years. Beautiful instrument.

Re: Why mandolin?

@Henk - there is no such thing as a "bluegrass mandolin" - that’s just a term being used to market those mandolins in the link you provided. The only place I regularly see someone calling a mandolin a "bluegrass mandolin" would be those cheap and cheerful entry level plywood mandolins that are for sale all over ebay. The photos in your link are of F style mandolins with f-holes. Just because bluegrass players tend to favour F style mandolins with f-holes (likely because Bill Monroe played one) doesn’t mean that those are "bluegrass" mandolins. It’s a bit like how short scale tenor banjos are marketed as "Irish tenor banjos" in the States, this despite the fact that the majority of tenor banjo players in Ireland play 19 fret tenors, but hey, that’s marketing for you.

I like F style mandolins meself, but own an A style, and have a new one being made for me that’s an A style as well - primarily because F styles are pricier and I haven’t got the dosh to spare for the curly bits.

Re: Why mandolin?

Hey Len, you know "how people cope with it" they get to the Anchor at middayand have their fill before the stampede arrives!!

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Re: Why mandolin?

Bluegrass mandolin?

Shouldn’t you have a greengrass mandoline for ITM? πŸ˜‰

Re: Why mandolin?

Generally speaking, "bluegrass mandolin" is verbal shorthand for a mandolin similar in tone and setup to a Gibson F-or A-style. Plenty, from Luke Plumb to Gary Peterson, play trad music on them, often in sessions. Little sessions can become big sessions can become litlle ones again, sometimes in the same set. Not to worry, it’s not a performance.

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Re: Why mandolin?

Much to my surprise, the mandolin sounds quite nice as a duo with a set of pipes - similar to fiddle of course but not the same.

Re: Why mandolin?

A well made mandolin played with conviction is plenty loud for most sessions. True, it’s easier to hear yourself on fiddle, flute, or concertina, but mandolin cuts through the chatter just fine.

I see people using 0.60 mm picks, light-gauge strings, and flat-top plywood top instruments and it’s no wonder they think mandolins are quiet.

My Weber Yellowstone F is plenty loud, has a warm round tone and bell-like highs, and doesn’t need any excuses or golfer’s handicap.

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Re: Why mandolin?

llig
"why play in big sessions with multiple guitars and massed ranks of fiddles and accordions?"
I used to travel around a bit and took my instrument to the local session (found on this site very often). In those situations, you get what you get. I have often been surprised at how welcoming people can be and have had some good evenings at sessions I would not regularly attend by choice. I now live in Cornwall and am in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose where I play.

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Re: Why mandolin?

Mandolin is the ideal travelliing instrument.
Fits into overhead lockers no bother.
Also good for fishing boats and oil rigs - you can play it lying in your bunk.
Possibly explains why it’s been so popular in the Northern Isles.

So naturally you end up taking it into sessions in strange ports and stops along the way.
And people are welcoming.

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Re: Why mandolin?

@Will
β€œI see people using 0.60 mm picks, light-gauge strings, and flat-top plywood top instruments and it’s no wonder they think mandolins are quiet.”

Right. I used to play old-time and bluegrass with a guy who played an old Gibson F-style with heavy strings and action so high I could barely squeeze a four-finger chord on it. Not that you would want to play chords in an Irish session. He used a big tortoise shell pick about as thick as a half dollar (not exaggerating) and had no trouble projecting a strong clear sound.

Re: Why mandolin?

My Weber Yellowstone F is plenty loud, has a warm round tone and bell-like highs, and doesn’t need any excuses or golfer’s handicap.

# Posted on July 7th 2011 by Will Harmon


Playing melody or chords? I ply melody on the thing and it can be difficult at times, chords you will hear it fine.

Re: Why mandolin?

Melody, Bliss, I don’t chord the tunes, I play the tunes themselves. A quality mandolin (not one of your laminated Ozarks) is plenty loud to hold its own with fiddles and accordions.

Honestly, if mandolin isn’t established as an Irish session instrument it’s only because too many people play cheap toy mandolins with wimpy picks.

Get yourself a well-made solid wood, carved arch top mandolin and a stout pick (> 1 mm), and you will be heard.

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Re: Why mandolin?

Actually, not all mandolin players are quite. I’ve seen some mandolin players that would give an accordion a run for their money.

Re: Why mandolin?

Melody, Bliss, I don’t chord the tunes, I play the tunes themselves. A quality mandolin (not one of your laminated Ozarks) is plenty loud to hold its own with fiddles and accordions.
# Posted on July 7th 2011 by Will Harmon


I think you missed my earlier post Will.


The "loudest" mandolin I have ever heard, and a sweet tone as well, is one I own.

It is Romanian, an A type, and these days would probably retail at say $150.

I have this one some 26 years. Beautiful instrument.

# Posted on July 7th 2011 by bodhran bliss


It currently needs a few new frets so I am using the expensive $200 dollar electric one at present. Nice sound but a bit muted.

Re: Why mandolin?

Bliss, I haven’t missed your posts. When I referenced the Ozark it was in response to your recommendation of them on another thread.

Most $150 mandolins are made of plywood, do not have carved arch tops, and so cannot project and do not have adequate tone. If you’re happy playing yours, great. But a higher quality instrument will sound better, be more responsive, and project better.

I was a mandolin builder at Flatiron before Gibson bought them out. I know a little about the instrument and its construction.

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Re: Why mandolin?

Ozark mandolins are generally crap, but if you have a stockiest that has a large turn over of these beasts it’s possible to find a decent one among the bunch. Solid wood mass produced in China but still the odd good one among them but you have to look, you want be able to pick up the first you find.

Several years ago when I’d be in edinburgh I’d pop into Scales and try them all out, eventually one just leapt out at me after a couple of years of looking. Asking price Β£199 so a little haggling and for Β£200 I had a cheap mandolin and hard case. Solid top, not sure about the back and sides.

A year or so later I found my self in Brighton and found a good US hand made mandolin for a good price. What was striking was I was using the Ozark as my bar. The mando I settled on was head and shoulders above the Ozark on all counts, a slight flaw on the fretting (hence the affordability) but cut and volume a plenty.

I tried many single luthier made mandolins that day below the Β£2k mark ($3500 aprox)The mando I settled on cost a little more than half of that, the Ozark a 10th. Yet the my Ozark was comparable to many far more expensive mandolins, in sound if not build quality. If I wasn’t a man of means I’d still have it. My brother has the Ozark now, got it for his xmas and is quite happy with it. The exception rather than the rule, but thier out there. Just like the Jap made Sigmas of the 80’s but with less of a cracker to flapper hit ratio.

Try them all and let your ears decide.

Re: Why mandolin?

Someone said earlier(I’m too lazy to look back) that background noise is a far bigger problem than "competition" from other instruments in a session.

I would tend to agree with this and it’s usually the reason why I sometimes might have trouble hearing myself play the mandolin… the sound is projected away from me while my ears are picking up all the rabble around me.

As most people will concur, a good mandolin can usually be heard by everyone else there and, often, more clearly than many of the other instruments. After all, if there are three or four fiddles you wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify the playing of an individual fiddler over and above the others… the exception being if one was either particularly brilliant or, conversely, crap. Then you would soon know, of course.
πŸ™‚

Of course, it’s not the best idea to sit next to a loud bodhran player nor to "the left" of an accordion player(You sometimes can’t hear the tune due to the basses dominating). Also, an unamplified mandolin doesn’t fare too well alongside the Highland pipes but it’s "horses for courses".

Re: Why mandolin?

You can get more volume (and be able to hear it better yourself) if you put one of those "toneguard" frames on the back of your mandolin whch prevents the back making contact with your "sound dampener" , and allows the back to resonate freely.

It has more effect for those of us with bigger "sound dampeners" (i.e middle-aged beer drinkers) but most people will benefit.

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Re: Why mandolin?

There’s that Bren, or you can use a strap and hold the back off your body when you play, just the back edge touching your dampener, does the same thing but without the scaffolding.

Actually I find the strap (loop of string fitted over the right shoulder only, ie not over the head) helps big time with my hold position.

Re: Why mandolin?

I play a carved-top Vanden A model and use a fairly thick plectrum. I still have some difficulty hearing myself at sessions even though I’m not a retiring player - but I also get plenty of comments about the lovely tone of the instrument, so others can clearly hear it. Seems to main problem is the position it’s held in and the direction i which the sound therefore projects. Play it up against a wall and the sound comes back load and clear.

Re: Why mandolin?

"you can use a strap and hold the back off your body when you play"

yebbut my arms aren’t long enough these days

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Re: Why mandolin?

Bliss, I haven’t missed your posts. When I referenced the Ozark it was in response to your recommendation of them on another thread.

Most $150 mandolins are made of plywood, do not have carved arch tops, and so cannot project and do not have adequate tone. If you’re happy playing yours, great. But a higher quality instrument will sound better, be more responsive, and project better.

I was a mandolin builder at Flatiron before Gibson bought them out. I know a little about the instrument and its construction.

# Posted on July 8th 2011 by Will Harmon



the old one is not made of plywood, in fact it does not have a maker’s name. Simply says "made in Romania" on it.

And obviousluy a Flyde or Gibson will sound better but I am not likely to be playing at Wembley, glastonbury, or the Houston astrodome or Yankee stadium anytime soon, so the Ozark does me. These days they tend to be made from Maple, spruce or even mahogany. The electric one has a synthetic back like an ovation guitar.

The cheapest one appears to be spruce.

http://www.eaglemusicshop.com/details1.asp?ProductID=1273&name=ozark-2001-mandolin-romania-solid-spruce-top-mandolin.htm

A friend got a hand made mandolin in Galway for Β£1200, but alas has to borrow my Ozark as he thinks it has a nicer tone!!!! I do know that would be unusual but shows ye.

But for playing at sessions, well an ozark will do.

Unless ye have loads of money of course πŸ™‚

Re: Why mandolin?

Dear Allah, it is spruce and maple.

The cheap skates.

Re: Why mandolin?

It is not just a question of the thickness of the pick, Will Harmon . LOUDNESS is to do with a number of things, but not much to do with the pick, I do not doubt you were a mandolin maker.
But on the strength of that comment, I would not buy a mandolin that you made.
I have a very loud mandolin, the maker explained why he thought it was loud and it had nothing to do with the thickness of the pick.

Re: Why mandolin?

"My mandolin is loud, and it’s not because of the pick, therefore the pick can’t affect the volume of the mandolin".

Uh, yeah, whatever.

Re: Why mandolin?

Sure, thickness of the pick doesn’t matter nearly as much as how the mandolin is designed and constructed. And thickness of the pick by itself doesn’t determine the volume you can get out of any mandolin.

But…and this is important…a thick pick (> 1 mm) will allow you to wail harder on the strings than a thin pick, and so you can transfer stronger (louder) vibrations to the whole instrument without overwhelming the flex of the pick.

I currently use three different picks: a 1.0 mm Dunlop nylon, a 1.2 mm Bluechip, and a 1.5 mm Bluechip. I guarantee you I can get more volume out of these picks on any given mandolin than a (comparatively) floppy 0.66 mm or 0.73 mm pick. Of course you can choke up on a thin pick and use just a mm of the tip to get more volume. But you can have all that volume and more *and* gain a wider range of tonal color by simply using a thicker pick, preferable with beveled edges.

Stiff picks are also faster than floppy picks because the pick doesn’t flex around the string as much. Less flex allows a smaller picking motion, and that lets you go faster.

I’ve met people who disagree with these ideas. They almost always play with a slappy or plicky thin, weak tone. That’s their choice, of course. I prefer a rounder, fuller tone and quicker pick response.

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P.S. WCB, you apparently missed or ignored the first half of my comment: "Get yourself a well-made solid wood, carved arch top mandolin and a stout pick (> 1 mm), and you will be heard."

See, I was mostly talking about the design and build of the mandolin, less so about the pick.

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Will’s comments reflect my experience too. I use Fender heavy or ever extra- heavy fake-tortoiseshell and they are faster and louder than anything else I’ve tried. Can’t be doing with nylon picks at all. I adjust the shape and pointedness of the end, and the bevel, to suit using fine wet-and-dry paper.

Re: Why mandolin?

Ian, I only recently tried the Dunlop nylon 1.0 mm. Once the edge wears smooth a bit, it’s a decent pick. But I wouldn’t use anything thinner on a mandolin. Unless I really wanted that "playing card in the spokes" sound. πŸ™‚

A denser material, like the plastic in the Bluechip picks, gives a fuller tone.

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Re: Why mandolin?

"Stiff picks are also faster than floppy picks because the pick doesn’t flex around the string as much. Less flex allows a smaller picking motion, and that lets you go faster."
I agree but you need to be very accurate in just hitting the string with the very tip of the pick. A thin or less stiff pick is a bit more forgiving of less accuracy. I use a 1.0mm Dunlop Tortex for the wood mandolin and a .73 or thinner Tortex for the metal resophonic because it sounds better with a thinner pick and has no problems on the volume front.

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Re: Why mandolin?

My favorites are the John Pearse Studio mediums. I find that too think or too stiff interferes with the triplets, so I prefer something with a litte give, but not much. For easy reference, I can get away with a Dunlop orange, but nothing lighter. I’ve played with some of the superheavy picks - the Golden Gate and so forth - but those always seemed to me to strangle the sound a little. I guess it’s a matter of your individual style to some extent, but I’ve seen some people trying to play with picks that bend in your fingers - those, I can’t understand. I can’t criticize the people who use them, though - I’ve never heard them play!

Re: Why mandolin?

It depends on the individual really. My friend gets a fantastic tone and good volume with those Dava hybrid picks

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Re: Why mandolin?

Jon, those Golden Gates tend to have overly rounded edges and a very rounded point (if you can call it a point, even), and those can dull the sound.

Bren, agreed, it’s always about the player, less about the equipment.

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Re: Why mandolin?

"Jon, those Golden Gates tend to have overly rounded edges and a very rounded point."


True, and perhaps that enhances the effect, but generally I find that a very stiff and heavy pick doesn’t suit me. I want something that has a little give - just the right amount, ideally. Too stiff and thin, and I find it "catches" more than I like, too thick and I just feel like I’ve got a quarter in my hand - I don’t like it. The Pearse picks suit me well, though, for mandolin and guitar.

Re: Why mandolin?

>>overly rounded edges and a very rounded point (if you can call it a point, even), and those can dull the sound.

There’s always a trade-off between ease of use and loss of attack with triplets and rounded picks. I try to make a range from quite rounded to quite pointed and then choose according to the demands of the tune.

Re: Why mandolin?

I visited the Crane Bar in Galway with a friend of mine and his fiance over a year ago, early December 09 I guess. There were two men running the session, one playing fiddle and one playing mandolin. The mandolin player was, I have to say, a FREAK! He was so good. The fiddle player had real difficulty keeping up at times, even though, because of volume and combining multiple notes on one bow stroke, a fiddle to my mind is much easier to play at high tempo.
That gentleman alone is why a mandolin is a great instrument for trad sessions. Yes among 4 guitars and 3 bodhrans at a large session you may as well start strumming if you want to even be able to hear yourself play (I can’t play anything unless I can hear myself, even slightly) but among smaller numbers or in quieter venues they are nice, I often wish I had a fretless mandolin to revert to when I don’t know the tune so well on the fiddle (I mean to play one with a pick).

Also, if you ever visit the Tuesday night session in Danns bar in Greystones, a fiddler there brings his mandolin for the after session πŸ™‚

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Thanks for the advice; playing a Johnson A style but just bought 1mm picks; its made all the difference. Is there anyone in Belfast doing heavy strings; Matchett’s only have Elixer 11s. Any suggestions for a new mandolin? Nowt wrong with the Β£150 Johnson but I’d like something real nice. Thinking Moon or Fylde (that single malt looks great)

Re: Why mandolin?

I think you should try a set of D’Addario J74 strings - they’re heavy enough for most players and very widely available. To my ears the Elixirs don’t have quite the same brilliance and volume. The D’Addarios take a few hours’ playing to settle in but they keep their tone and volume for longer.

When it comes to buying mandolins, you don’t have anything like the same range of choice "off the rack" as guitarists do. For that reason, I think custom-made mandolins are relatively common compared to guitars. So it’s always worth having a talk to a maker, once you’ve been playing for a while and have a better idea of what you want.

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