This article details how to play a mandolin – for beginners only. First, before we begin to play the mandolin, we must know how to hold the instrument! Take a look at this diagram below to get an idea of how to do it.
How To Hold A Mandolin
A key component to holding the mandolin is good posture. Traditionally, we sit while learning, but if you are more comfortable standing, you can do that too. Make sure you don’t hunch over the mandolin; the key is to remain as relaxed as possible, all the way from your shoulders and back to your elbows and hands. The looser you are, the better you will play. A good quality strap will help maintain good back posture since you won’t be spending muscle energy holding up the instrument. If you don’t have a strap, that’s okay, too. If sitting, lay the mandolin on your thigh and hold it at slightly less than a 45-degree angle. The curve of the mandolin body will naturally curve over your thigh. You will find what is most comfortable for you, whatever keeps you moving easily.
Keep your shoulders loose; don’t hunch or roll them back too far. We tend to hold a lot of tension in our shoulders. If you can keep them loose, this will loosen your arms and result in a good playing technique and sound. You will strum and pick with your right hand; the left hand will press the strings on the fretboard. Keep your right arm loose, in line with your body.
To loosen it up, bend the elbow at a right angle so your hand is out in front of you, and swing it in toward the instrument. Your hand should line up with the strings. Keep doing this and be mindful of loose, easy movements. Shake out your arm a few times, and repeat. Keep both elbows nice and loose. This is always a good little exercise to do before playing.
As you learn the placement of the notes and chords, you will likely hunch over the instrument to look at the fretboard and strings. It’s good practice to sit back and sit straight. Eventually you will learn to feel where your fingers go, but there will also be indicator dots on the top of the fretboard, visible to you as you sit back, and these indicate certain frets. This visual will help stop you hunching over the instrument.
Now that we know how to hold the mandolin, we can learn some very basic skills.
Many players prefer heavy gauge picks for a strong sound. Hold the pick between thumb and index finger, across the top/widest part. Bring your arm in to the strings, and hold the pick loose; don’t hold it too tightly or you will get a very strained sound.
You will alternate between down and upstroke, keeping a loose wrist and allowing the hand and pick to roll between downstroke and upstroke.
Pick one string at a time, repeatedly. Remember to keep elbow loose and aim for a very clean sound. There should be no twang. Just pluck any open string (usually the G is easiest) repeatedly to get a clean sound.
Notes & Strings
A standard mandolin has four pairs of notes: G D A E. The string closest to your chin is the G; the string closest your leg is the E.
The easiest scale to learn is G; it is also the most commonly played. We have illustrated the G scale here:
Now that we are familiar with how to pick using our loose right hand, we will shake our left hand, bend the arm at the elbow and gently grab hold of the mandolin neck. Leave your thumb around the first fret while you become familiar with the G scale. The thumb will stay around here until we move higher up the fretboard.
Try not to choke the neck of the mandolin; leave some space between your hand and the neck. Keep your wrist rather straight; don’t bend it too much up or down. We have illustrated a good way to hold the mandolin here:
You should be able to each your pinky to about the seventh fret while your thumb is in proper place.
When you play a note, you will want to press your finger close to the edge of the fret; nearly up against the fret division. Play the G scale. You will notice a burn in your fingertips from pressing the strings, but you will eventually grow callouses.
As you move up the scale, don’t rush to lift your finger as soon as you’ve played the note. Imagine a spider weaving a web, the way the graceful legs move. Move your fingers as such, leaving them down on the string until the next note has been played. If you lift your finger after each note you will get a broken sound. Leaving the fingers down will give a very nice smooth sound.
Now that you can play scales, you can look up chord charts on the internet or in a book, and play around with some different sounds. It also helps to play along with YouTube tutorials and mandolin songs you like. This will get you acquainted with nice chord combinations as well as strumming patterns.