How to Tremolo Pick a Mandolin

by Jay Sandwich

If you are into the mandolin and have done some reading, you will have come across the word tremolo. You’ve no doubt heard the tremolo picking in a song. With this article we’ll explain the tremolo picking, its place in music and how you can master this key mandolin technique.

How to Tremolo Pick a Mandolin
How to Tremolo Pick a Mandolin

What is tremolo?

What is tremolo?
What is tremolo?

Tremolo is rather simple to explain: it refers to the rapid picking of one note in an alternating picking motion (down, up, down, up). The trick to playing a good tremolo is to play as quickly as possible. It can be difficult to learn at first, as you have to maintain a steady rhythm while picking with great speed. There are two kinds of tremolo:

Free tremolo

This type of tremolo is a very expressive one that allows for varying speed in order to effectively emote through the mandolin. For example, you may speed up and then slow down to express elevated emotion, to intensify the feeling given through the music. This is a style used in music without defined or strong beat, like ballads and classical music.

Measured tremolo

As you might guess from its name, this tremolo involves a measured or steady and intentional rapid picking. For example, you will find this style used in bluegrass, where the strong beat, inspired by rock n roll, will use four strokes per beat in a fast tempo, six strokes per beat for medium tempos, and up to twelve strokes for slow tempos.

Measured tremolo
Measured tremolo

Why use tremolo

As mentioned before, tremolo is used to accentuate moments in the song to express an intense feeling. It is also a great way to showcase your talent on the mandolin. Tremolo is very useful when there is one sustained note (with long duration): it breaks up the note and accentuates it within the song. Tremolo sounds especially beautiful on the mandolin since the strings are in pairs. When you stroke down and up you create a unique ringing that has come to be known as one of the main characteristics of mandolin.

Tremolo is the only way to keep a note going on the mandolin, due to its acoustics. It is also a very effective way to express a feeling through the strings.

How to play tremolo

Tremolo is a rather difficult technique when you are new to the instrument, but with significant practice you will be able to master it soon enough.

Listen to examples of a bow on a violin: this is the effect you are going for. Rapid sound produced by picking down and up repeatedly, in order to sustain a note or intensify it.

In addition to physical practice, it is very useful to listen to audio examples of tremolo so you know what sound to produce. The trick is all in the right hand and more specifically, the wrist. The trick to good mandolin playing is keeping a very loose wrist and loose hold on the pick. Open, loose movement will allow you to play tremolo easily and without straining your muscles inappropriately. Beginner players will often anchor their right hands by setting their pinky and/or ring finger down. Remember, as you hold the pick, to curl your fingers in toward your palm. Believe it or not, this will greatly increase your wrist flexibility and help you practice the proper picking technique.

To begin, we have provided exercises that are easy on the left hand in order to focus on the right hand technique.

Select a note with your left hand anywhere on the fretboard. When you have selected your note, tap your foot to a steady beat counting 1, 2, 3, 4, or use a metronome. Pick the string down and up, down and up, going slowly at first. Try to fit 4 strokes into a single beat.

This technique will be achieved with great patience and practice. Make the note last long enough to practice by counting to four as you pick up and down. This will keep you on a steady tempo. When you reach four, move to a second note and repeat: count to four while you pick down up, down up. It helps to keep one’s pick on the strings at all times, in order to reach your next note and keep a consistent musical flow to your playing/the sound you’re producing.

Tremolo underlies many if not most mandolin compositions. Listen to any classical Italian mandolin composition and you will recognize the technique right away. It’s undeniable!

The more you practice, the more natural it will become. You will be able to move more by feeling than a concentrated application of pick to string. Tremolo is a picking method that comes from deep feeling, and is thus communicated through an organic flow: you will feel the music and flow with it.

The more you practice, the faster you will be able to go. Remember to exercise patience and work tremolo into your every practice, for it is perhaps the most crucial mandolin trick to learn.

Here is a video that should help show you how it’s done.

About Jay Sandwich

Jay is an ex-shred guitar player and current modular synth noodler from a small town somewhere. Quote: “I’m a salty old sandwich with a perspective as fresh as bread.” No bull.

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