Mandolin for Beginners, Lesson 1 – Mandolin Basics

Mandolin for Beginners, Lesson 1 – Mandolin Basics

Big day today! Starting mandolin lessons  to my 10-year old child Panos and the 13-year old Alexandra and I am excited. I will start with the mandolin basics but I also want to show them how much fun playing the mandolin can be.

I think this is an opportunity also for some quality time between father and kids. Who knows, at the end we may end up creating a family group and becoming famous. Everything is possible in the era of the Internet, right?

This is a project I wanted to start a long time now, so I intend to record here a detailed transcript of each lesson. If you are interested, grab your mandolin and follow!

Check the video at the end of this post, to see Alexandra during the lesson!

Mandolin Basics – Holding the mandolin!

We start with the basics.

Lets hold the mandolin.

Mandolin Basics - Holding the mandolin

That is a nice sketch from an old mandolin method by De Cristofaro, showing how to hold a bowl back mandolin. Yes, I will be using my old bowl back for these lessons, as I am still working on selecting and buying a nice Weber mandolin. But this is another story for another post. If you are using a modern A-style or F-style mandolin, no worries, I have instructions for that too.

 

Let’s try to hold a mandolin!

Mandolin Basics - Holding the mandolin

Here is Alexandra holding the mandolin. Not bad. I need to correct her posture a little bit, as she seems not to be able to stabilize the mandolin in her lap. I will now show her how to position her legs. This is how I explain it:

  • Place the mandolin in your lap, so it rests on your thighs

  • For bowl back mandolins, you need to elevate your right leg. You can do that by crossing your legs, or by using a footstool, similar to the one used by classical guitarists.

  • For f-style mandolins, you normally need to elevate your left foot with a footstool.

  • Try to position the mandolin in a way that is not pressed on your clothes, or it becomes muted. You can do that by leaning slightly forward.

 

Mandolin Basics - holding the mandolin 2

This is another nice old image showing how to properly hold the bowl back mandolin with the right foot elevated. Source: mandolin method by Carlos Munier.

Mandolin Basics - Holding the mandolin properly

And this is how Alexandra sits after the instructions. Notice the crossed legs. Now the mandolin is steady in her lap.

Alexandra’s left hand is not properly positioned. We work on that later on.

 

Let’s try to hold an octave!

Now it is time for fun! I give her an octave mandolin with a long fretboard and ask her to hold it. She immediately understands why we need to elevate the right foot (or left for f-style) with a mandolin, but not with an octave.

It’s the size dad!

Mandolin Basics - Holding an octave mandolin

Here is  Alexandra holding the octave mandolin.

We are ready to move on to the right hand.

Mandolin Basics – How to hold the mandolin pick

Mandolin Basics - Holding the pick

This is how to hold the pick.

Mandolin Basics - Holding a pick

And here is Alexandra holding the pick. Now it is time for a small lecture. This is how I describe to Alexandra how to properly hold the pick:

  • The right hand must be relaxed. I repeat, relaxed!

  • With the thumb pointing up, make a loose fist with your hand.

  • Place the pick on the side of the index finger, near the top knuckle.

  • Place the pad of the thumb over the pick.

  • That’s it! Hold the pick loosely. This improves speed and tone.

 

Mandolin Basics - right hand pick 2 to play mandolin

This is another picture from Carlos Munier method.

I am sure Alexandra has not yet fully understood the importance of holding the pick loosely but I guess that is ok for now. Let’s move on to use the pick to actually play the mandolin.

 

Mandolin Basics – Learning the open mandolin strings

The mandolin open strings are named G, D, A and E, from the the thickest to the thinnest.

Alexandra plays them freely with the pick and she is having fun. I let her do that for a while to relax, and I enjoy it too!  I then ask her to repeat the names of each string while playing, to make sure she remembers them.

 

Mandolin Basics – Learning how to read tabs

This is how to read tabs:

  • The four horizontal lines in the tab represent the four strings, with the thickest string (g) being the lowest.

  • Numbers on the lines represent frets (and not fingers!)

 

I show Alexandra the tab below and ask her to play it three times, while at the same time naming the strings.

Mandolin Basics - mandolin open strings
Check the video at the end to see how Alexandra plays that!

 

Mandolin Basics – Practicing the right hand (exercise #1)

Now it’s time for the first exercise.I want Alexandra now to try picking upwards and downwards, so I explain how we use small marks like “^”  to denote downward and upwards picking.

I now give her the first exercise. She has to hit each pair of strings four times, downwards-upwards-downwards-upwards before proceeding to the next pair. That is easier done than said, so she has no problem with that.

Mandolin Basics - mandolin exercise 1

Here is exercise #1, playing just open strings with the pick upwards and downwards.

Check the video at the end to see how Alexandra plays that!

Now it is time to move on to the left hand.

 

Mandolin Basics – How to use the left hand to play mandolin

I show Alexandra how the left hand is placed on the mandolin.

Mandolin Basics - Left Hand on the Mandolin

That is another image from an old mandolin method by De Cristofaro, showing the right hand. Now it is time to stress the important points.

 

Mandolin Basics – The “one finger-two frets” rule

The first thing to understand regarding left hand positioning on the fretboard, is that each finger is “responsible” for two frets. So, when you play in the first position (frets 1-8):

  • the index finger covers frets one & two

  • the second finger covers frets three and four

  • the third finger covers frets five and six

  • finally the fourth (little) finger covers frets seven and eight

 

The image below explains the above (click to enlarge).

Mandolin Basics - mandolin left hand fingers positioning

Of course you may wonder why use the little finger when the seventh fret of a string is the same note as the adjacent string played open? (e.g. when the 7-th fret of fourth (g) string is the same with open third (d) string?)

The answer is that a fretted note sounds different than an open one.

Here is also a link to my article left hand for beginners – you can find there more details.

 

Mandolin Basics – The thumb of the left hand

Alexandra has a guitar background, so she finds the small mandolin awkward, as she can not place her left hand as she does with the guitar. I explain her that placing the left hand on the mandolin properly and especially the thumb is vital, as it will enable her to reach all the frets.

The mandolin is not like the guitar where the thumb must be lined in parallel to the other fingers. This is how to do it, and the important points to remember:

  •  Position first the thumb of the left hand by placing the pad of the thumb on the neck where it’s fastened to the fingerboard

  • The wrist must be straight and relaxed

  • The entire arm, from the neck all the way down to the fingertips must be relaxed

  • The only points of contact with the mandolin neck must be the pad of the thumb and the side of the first finger, somewhere between first and second joints

  • The fingers must not be parallel to the frets. The mandolin frets are small, so it is not like the guitar where the fingers are parallel to the frets. It is played more like a violin (see a video of a violinist and you will see what I mean)

  • Make sure you have a space between the left palm and the back of the mandolin neck. This will help you have a relaxed left hand.

  • The fingers (except the thumb) must be curled to avoid muting other strings.

 

Mandolin Basics - mandolin left hand

This is a nice picture from Munier method, illustrating how to properly place your left hand on the fretboard with curled fingers to avoid muting other strings.

Mandolin Basics - Proper right hand position on mandolin

This is Alexandra left hand, good enough to proceed to do some practice.

 

Mandolin Basics – Practicing the left hand (exercise #2)

Mandolin Basics - mandolin exercise 2

This is the exercise. I ask Alexandra to play it slowly three times. She is confused with which finger to use for each fret, so I explain that again and I show her the reference diagram.

Mandolin Basics - mandolin fingers positioning

 

Once she seems to understand which finger to use, I tell her she needs to practise this exercise, as homework, for the next lesson.

That’s it! I cross my fingers and hope that this was easy enough to follow and it will not scare her off! She looks happy!

Mandolin Basics – Lesson #1 Video

Here is Alexandra during the lesson. Try to do what she does, using the tabs and instructions above. If you have any problem, please leave a comment below!

 

Next Lessons

What do you think my chances are for Alexandra wanting to continue the lessons? Please leave a comment to give me motivation to continue!

 

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About the Author:

I’m Chris, a mandolin lover from Greece, trained in Music, Mathematics and IT who makes a living on technology but enjoys life through music and arts. Welcome to my adventures!

22 Comments

  1. Zach October 29, 2013 at 09:40

    Keep it up! 🙂

    • Chris October 29, 2013 at 15:01

      Thanks Zach! I will do my best, I promise.
      I am now preparing the second lesson and I am excited. Let’s see how it goes!

  2. Jamie October 29, 2013 at 18:53

    Hey Chris – this is a great and detailed entry, well done.

    You could even charge a couple of dollars later on for learners to progress to more advanced play to give you more motivation and to help fund your time.

    It’s hard to find good mandolin teachers so people are turning to the internet more and more.

    • Chris October 29, 2013 at 23:17

      Thanks Jamie! I am really glad you like the lesson.
      Your suggestion is interesting, maybe a subscription model would be a possible way to do it in the future.
      Internet is indeed a valuable tool, and I’m happy that I’m part of it, helping people learn and enjoy music.

  3. Roger November 1, 2013 at 18:30

    Chris,

    Great work! I love the simplicity of the way you present such a challenging task for a newcomer to mandolin instrument, without compromising on the need to attention to detail, nor professionalism.

    Keep it up! I will definitely be coning back for next series of lessons. I have been trying to teach my own kids, and I found that your method and visual way to present style and positioning is extremely helpful to them
    Roger

  4. GODHEAD369 January 11, 2014 at 22:20

    this is really great my friend told me she learn how to play guitar by tabs. This really made playing alot easier for me to play by tabs

    • Chris January 11, 2014 at 23:35

      Hi Katherine,
      I agree, tabs can be very helpful especially for beginners! I will make sure I include tabs also in the following lessons (I will be posting another lesson probably tomorrow).
      Best Regards,
      Chris

  5. GODHEAD369 January 13, 2014 at 06:07

    I have started the lesson and would really like to continue with the lesson. will you be posting the next session soon. Please do I really could use the lessom.

  6. Mark Smith February 25, 2014 at 04:02

    Wow you are doing a lot of work but this is great. I have always loved the sound of the mandolin, I play at the guitar and I have two daughters 9 and 13. One is musically gifted with an amazing voice. I wanted to teach them guitar but mandolins might fit their hands and fingers better. So I picked up a used a style mandolin. I will be following your lessons, thanks again for your work.

    • Chris February 26, 2014 at 23:31

      Thanks Mark for your kind words.
      It is really a lot of work and although I am enjoying it, it takes some time to create new lessons and with two kids at 11 and 13, time is hard to find . Anyway I am doing my best!
      It is great that you are teaching your kids as well, keep up the good work and I wish your musically gifted daughter to become a great musician.
      Best Regards,
      Chris

  7. Justin April 2, 2014 at 05:37

    A most helpful , clear and sensible lesson and explanation. The lesson avoids the usual loose words and imprecise directions.

    Very encouraging.

    Thank you

  8. grace August 19, 2015 at 11:42

    hey she is really good keep up the good work 🙂

  9. vasilis pant October 22, 2015 at 17:04

    Very nice. Very helpful!

    • Christos Rizos November 1, 2016 at 11:23

      Hi Vasilis,
      I am happy that you like it!
      All the best,
      Christos

  10. peter January 19, 2016 at 11:06

    best beginners approach i have yet encountered

    • Christos Rizos November 1, 2016 at 11:22

      Hi Peter and thank you for your nice words. I am now looking for a way to sponsor the creation of more lessons, as a lot of work is involved. I hope I will have a solution soon to help me start adding more lessons.
      All the best,
      Christos

  11. Antonia October 29, 2016 at 06:03

    Thank you! My daughter and I are learning together. At the lesson’s end, she said, “It was a great first lesson!” And I agree! We are both very excited. One comment – perhaps it is my computer, but some of the text is very pale. Thank you again. +JMJ+…Antonia

    • Christos Rizos November 1, 2016 at 11:19

      Hi Antonia and thank you for your nice comments!
      No it was not your computer, following an upgrade some fonts were “broken”. I fixed that now and I hope that made the lesson much more readable. Keep up the good work!

  12. Bruce December 1, 2016 at 01:20

    Hi Chris, Is this still a working site? I think it was a nice first lesson. Did Alexandra continue with it and how is she progressing? I’m 62 and an intermediate acoustic guitar player and I want to begin with the mandolin lessons. My sister and brother-in-law are musicians and play in local bands. She said she will loan me a bowl back mandolin but it kind of intimidates me, as far as holding it. I learned the chords G, A, C, and D, but I found it tough to hold the bowl without it sliding off of my lap. Thanks so much for your generosity.
    Bruce

  13. George December 10, 2016 at 02:10

    Just what I was looking for . Fantastic job . Please continue .

  14. George December 10, 2016 at 02:18

    Just perfect. Please continue.

  15. Mary symington July 29, 2017 at 04:48

    Hi I enjoyed your lesson It’s always good to review the basics I am a beginner I can play the g and c scale , chords and pick notes but I don’t know how to mix it up to sound good bare notes is too bare bones and I am attempting to do tremolo any suggestions? Thanks Mary

Comments are closed.

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