Mandolin for Melody

Mandolin for Melody

Have you seen mandolin used more often as a melodic instrument, or for Rhythm? How often is mandolin used to play the melody, is this common?


Go raibh maith agaibh!

Re: Mandolin for Melody

Mandolin is almost exclusively a melody instrument in itm. I play it myself and love it. The only chording i will really od is harmony to help bring out a point in the melody or for variation, like opening Planxty Irwin by hitting all open strings but the e and a *fretting A at fifth fret for D)

Re: Mandolin for Melody

TheBlindBard has put it pretty succinctly. Melody nearly exclusively. Whole chords on a mandolin don’t seem to work well for a lot of things but two-note chords like the lead-in to "Star of the Garder" on the Portland Sets shows how effective they can be when used judiciously. Personally, I don’t think a mandolin has enough projection to compete with the other instruments in its tonal range, especially banjo, fiddle, any kind of box etc. A bouzouki or mandola puts you "below" the typical ITM melody instruments and allows you a bit more elbow room for clarity. YMMV.

Re: Mandolin for Melody

Make that "Star of the Garter". Gad…

Re: Mandolin for Melody

I call it "the star above the garter"

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Me too. Assuming we are all referring to the same tune, I’ve never heard it called either of the other two.

Posted by .

Re: Mandolin for Melody

"I don’t think a mandolin has enough projection to compete with the other instruments in its tonal range"

If you strum chords on a mandolin (even a cheap one), it can actually be quite overpowering - another reason not to do it. ;-)

A mandolin *can* be used effectively for backing one or two other instruments, playing two or three strings (i.e. courses) at a time, arpeggiated or lightly strummed. But it needs to be kept in mind that it lacks the lower end of instruments like the guitar and bouzouki, so you are mostly playing in the same pitch range as the melody (or, if you are accompanying a tenor banjo, *above* the melody) and, as such, you need to be wary of obscuring the melody.

As all have said already, the mandolin is, first and foremost, a melody instrument in Irish trad and anyone turning up to a session with a mandolin would be expected to play melody.

Re: Mandolin for Melody

the only time mandolin is used legitimately as a rhythm instrument is in bluegrass and then its a very
staccato ‘chop’ to stop the strings resonating. The few times I’ve heard it used like this in ITM hasn’t been pleasing. As for projection, its really down to the construction of the mando - I’ve heard some that will easily
sound over banjo, fiddle and accordian

Re: Mandolin for Melody

I have found that mandolins are rather quiet for melody playing and peculiarly loud for chordal work.
BUT it all depends on the size of the ensemble and, of course, the player.
Lastly, as with all other areas of ‘this music’ THERE ARE NO RULES just common sense.

Re: Mandolin for Melody

I play the mandolin in sessions and you dont see them played as a backing instrument. It plays the melody.
Saying that, I did play some chords this week to support a tune played by a fiddler and flautist - just we dabs to fill it out.

Re: Mandolin for Melody

Marla Fibish & Jimmy Crowley’s album ‘The Morning Star’ is a great album focusing on ITM melody mandolin if you’re looking for inspiration!

Re: Mandolin for Melody

"I have found that mandolins are rather quiet for melody playing and peculiarly loud for chordal work."

But then there’s the area in between, that is neither melody nor chords - and it’s only too loud if you play it too loud.

"THERE ARE NO RULES just common sense."

Yes, we’re drinking from the same well.


I would still, however, advise anyone learning the mandolin to make playing melody their priority. Being able to back tastefully on mandoln is a skill worth acquiring, but one that will probably seldom get put ito practice. If accompaniment is what you are mainly interested in then you would be better off with a lower-pitched instrument, such as guitar, bouzouki, octave mandolin or cittern (or baritone ukulele ;-) ).

Another thing which, reading between the lines, the OP might not realise, is that more than one chord instrument in a session is generally not a good thing. If a session already has an accompanist, it is best to leave them to it and either play melody or sit out. If a session doesn’t have an accompanist, it might just be that that is the way they like it.

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You gentleman are correct. It’s "Star Above the Garter". Mea Culpa.

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It can depend upon the mandolin your using. If you’re using the rather ubiquitous F or A model Gibson and it’s clones (all of bluegrass) then pretty much melody only. If you’re using a large body mandolin that excels at non-chop chords then you can also use it for ITM backup (e.g. a large body Sobell mandolin) and it will fit

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In bluegrass, mandolin is used both melodically and for rhythm backup. It has no problem holding its own against any other instrument, especially when the player is using that well-known bluegrass "chop".

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Yes, I notice that the good bluegrass players can put in a pretty loud, but short chop during another’s break. They can also tone the volume of the chop right down when playing behind the singer.

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"A bouzouki or mandola puts you "below" the typical ITM melody instruments and allows you a bit more elbow room for clarity. "

That’s true about the ‘zouk or mandola (especially if we’re talking about the American terminology for octave mandolin). The problem I’ve had playing melody on my octave mandolin, is that the longer scale requires more finger stretch, which makes it harder to play as fast as I can on mandolin. So I find it harder to keep up in a fast session. Maybe it’s just my own limitations there, but I’ll take the mandolin’s limitations if it means I can play up to tempo.

In some situations a mandolin can still get "underneath" the main session melody pitch. With a pipe tune in A (or A mix), it’s usually possible to transpose the melody an octave down and play it on the lower strings. That’s a trick many Cape Breton fiddlers do with tunes in A. I think they call it a "low turn." I do this frequently in a local Scottish/Cape Breton session where pipers make it a special challenge to be heard on mandolin.

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The scale length for a mandolin is around 14", many octave mandolins are around 23", and it is hard to handle the finger stretch. There are a few octave mandolins with a 20" scale length that is similar to many 17 fret tenor banjos. You can develop a fair amount of speed at that scale length, the real issue is developing finger strength to clearly fret notes with your little finger, something much easier on a tenor banjo than an octave mandolin. Of course, you also need to consider your fingering, I finger notes on my octave mandolin differently than I do on mandolin, violin, or even tenor banjo. The change has allowed me to relax my left hand more and improve the speed. If I were to switch to an octave mandolin with a 23" scale length I would probably go with a 5 course instrument so that I can go up a string instead of that rather wicked stretch to B.

Re: Mandolin for Melody

I second sliesen, Marla Fibish & Jimmy Crowley’s album ‘The Morning Star’ is a great album focusing on ITM melody mandolin. They also have some clips on Youtube.

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As far as I can tell, there is no standard practice for mandolin the way there is for many other instruments, but melody seems to be the way to go unless there is a need for a bouzouki like backup and there are no backup instruments (which rarely happens.) Recently I took a mandolin class from Mick Moloney - he was one of the first to record ITM with a mandolin when he was with the Johnstons - and he emphasized using chords as a part of the melody. He stated that by playing a chord not as a backup but as an technique to emphasize the melody, the mandolin asserts its unique contribution to the music. Other double coursed instruments are usually lower in pitch and often used as backup while the mandolin (here I mean the 14"/350 mm scale instrument) seems to have a special aural spot in sessions. He recommended taking advantage of that quality.

Mike Keyes

Re: Mandolin for Melody

I frequently capo my bouzouki at the 7th fret and play it as as a three-course mandolin one course of strings over. There are a couple of advantages to doing this, one being the frets are closer together than at the long end of the neck, the larger body of the bouzouki yields more volume and sustain then either of my mandolins (MK Kelly Dragonfly, Joe Foley) plus I can get away with just hauling one instrument to a session (I used to haul five, eventually realizing that I could only play one at a time. Now I tremendously envy the tin whistle players because they can just stick one in a shirt pocket if need be). The disadvantages are any time a tune drops below "G" the capo has to come off (a quick action capo won’t fit because of the heel of my PW Crump bouzouki) and the upper registers of the bouzouki have a somewhat saccharine sound without the bite of the open strings. Still, it’s all good and I’m pleased with how it’s working out overall.

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I also love the double-course instruments for ITM, and, until recently, played an octave mandolin (21" scale) occasionally, and mandolin (14" scale) quite often. The OM makes for long stretches, and the mandolin doesn’t work very well for chordal accompaniment.

Now I mostly play a mandola (17" scale) tuned CGDA, and, like Goldilocks, have found this instrument to be ‘just right’. A capo at the 2nd fret gives DAEB - most of the strings needed for ITM, but an octave lower than a mandolin, which sounds much better for chordal accompaniment. At the same time, the relatively short scale makes for fast playing of melody.

It takes awhile to get used to CGDA versus GDAE, but for some tunes, especially certain O’Carolan, and ‘darker’ mixolydian or dorian tunes, the mandola works well.

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Re: Mandolin for Melody

I just got back from a local session tonight playing mandolin, and I was reminded of one big advantage of the mandolin over double-course instruments pitched an octave down:

There were several occasions where the typical thing happened in an intermediate session — someone calls a tune, everyone nods their head, but nobody can remember how to start it. I was the "tune starter" for a few sets like that on mandolin, because I could remember how to kick it off. My mandolin isn’t quiet; it’s an archtop F-hole "Bluegrass" type, and I was able to lead off the tune. I also called a few sets where I was leading the change through the sets.

I’m not sure that would have worked as well if I was playing my octave mandolin. When you’re the one kicking off a tune, there is an advantage in being at the same pitch as the principal instruments in a session (typically fiddles, flutes, pipes). Fiddlers are used to hearing others start a tune in the same pitch. A mandolin lacks sustain, but the pitch is the same rather than a transposed version an octave down. The higher pitch is also easier to hear in a loud venue. This was a loud coffee shop, and I’m not sure the others would have heard me on a lower-pitched instrument.