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Beginners' problems

The term 'beginner' covers a range of musicians, including the following:

Category A - those who are completely new to making music, who have never played an instrument, sung in a choir or looked at a page of musical notation.

Category B - people who have done a bit on an instrument (e.g. guitar, piano) but who are new to the mandolin.

Category C - musicians who are proficient on another stringed instrument and who want to transfer their skills to the mandolin.


Category A - complete beginners

Unfortunately there are a lot of problems here!

Initially you will have difficulty fretting the strings with your finger tips without touching/damping the adjacent strings.

The left hand finger tips will get quite sore and painful until you have developed calluses - this will take time (weeks/months) and is normal!

You should work on holding the pick and positioning the right hand correctly from the outset.

Concentrate on playing simple chords clearly and developing some rhythm in your picking strokes. Try to play in time by tapping your foot, working with a metronome and playing with a guitarist.

Learn a bit of music theory, particularly the representation of time values (1/4 notes, 1/8 notes etc).

You will need to start developing a sense of pitch to get your instrument in tune. Tuning can be a major problem for complete beginners. An electronic tuner will make life a lot easier! See my page on tuning for further help.



Category B - new to the mandolin

You've probably learned some guitar chords and are familiar with the basics of fretting the strings. You will need to become accustomed to the feel of the mandolin (it will seem tiny after the guitar) and the principle of 'two frets per finger' (e.g. the first finger is used for stopping the 1st and 2nd frets).

The fourth finger is critical in bluegrass mandolin playing. The standard G chop chord may cause difficulties, with the fourth finger being required to fret the fourth string at the 7th fret. It may help at first either to put the fourth finger down first and then the other three fingers, or to put the fourth finger down after the other three. Whatever strategy you use, you will have to get used to that stretch!

If you are not already a guitar flatpicker you will need to learn how to use down-up strokes of the pick to play solos. Fiddle tunes are good for practice and have the advantage of being easy on the ear. You should get used to standards like Old Joe Clark in A, and Soldier's Joy and Arkansas Traveler in D.

It's also important for you to play regularly with other people. If there is a local picking community you stand a good chance of finding folks who will help you, otherwise you will have to hunt for other musicians to play with. Try asking at your local music shop, go to folk clubs and bluegrass festivals, and generally be proactive about your playing. You will never develop as a bluegrass musician by hiding away at home!



Category C - musicians already proficient on another stringed instrument

You've already gone through the struggle of learning an instrument, so you know what to expect! You will be familiar with jam sessions and have probably played in a band. When you pick up a mandolin it can feel as though you are starting all over again. However, you are already conversant with chords and scales, and probably know a lot of bluegrass songs and instrumentals on guitar, banjo, etc.

Your main objective will be to get a good sound out of the mandolin. Particularly if you have come from playing the banjo, you will notice a difference (!) and will have to work on achieving good volume and tone on the mandolin.

You will also need to concentrate on learning some mandolin licks, scales and patterns. I recommend a combination of tablature to see what other people are doing, and transcribing from recordings. Transcription is the key to learning, really, and your computer will be a huge asset to you for this purpose. I use the Transcribe! program for PC - I can't recommend this program highly enough for slowing down those licks and solos.

When you start on an instrument you are setting out on a journey. I hope you enjoy your travels as much as I am enjoying mine!



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