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Mandolin Basics for Those Considering Purchasing One

Updated on July 14, 2017
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Bob Craypoe (also known as R. L. Crepeau) is a musician, writer, webmaster, 3D artist, and creator of the "Punksters" comic strip series.

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As a musician, I play a number of instruments and one of them is the mandolin. When I first got it, I just learned some basic chords and a few songs. It wasn't until much later that I got serious about learning to play the instrument. There are probably a lot of people out there who are considering taking up a new instrument and are unsure as to whether or not that new instrument should be a mandolin.

Obviously a mandolin player is not nearly as common as a guitarist, keyboard player, drummer or bassist. It is also an instrument that is more common in some genres of music than in others. However, it can be played in a number of genres if one really chooses to try it out.

The Technical Rundown

A mandolin has 8 strings. They are basically in pairs, also called courses. The mandolin is tuned the same as a violin but it is a fretted instrument that is plucked with a plectrum or pick. A mandolin can be finger picked but it is more commonly played with a pick. The tuning from the lowest to the highest is G, D, A, E. Because it is in pairs, you have two G strings, two D strings, two A strings and two E strings.

Since the mandolin is such a high pitched string instrument, it does not have a lot of sustain when a string is plucked. This is why the tremolo technique is so widely used on the instrument. Tremolo is a fast picking technique that used so often on the instrument that it a must-learn technique, if you want to play the instrument well.

An electric mandolin with volume and tone knobs.
An electric mandolin with volume and tone knobs.

The Styles of Music and Songs the Mandolin Appears In

Mandolin is a popular instrument in bluegrass and country, however, it could be used in other genres of music. It has been used in a good amount of classic rock music. Jethro Tull has used the mandolin in a number of instances in the studio. Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" and REM's "Losing My Religion" are two hit songs that highlighted the instrument. Styx used it in "Boat on the River", which was actually the biggest hit the band ever had in Europe. So it can be used in rock or popular music and be received well.

Mandolin goes great with an acoustic guitar and bass guitar. The bass will be handling the low end, the guitar the mid range and the mandolin will cover the high frequencies. It really balances out nicely. It works very well for acoustic music. You could even add some hand percussion and do a very nice unplugged set.

Electric or Acoustic Mandolin

I have two acoustic mandolins and one electric mandolin. My electric mandolin has a body shaped like a Fender Telecaster and plugs in just like a regular electric guitar. I even run it through a guitar effects unit and use distortion, chorus, delay and a lot of the other popular guitar effects.

My acoustic mandolins have transducers mounted on them with a jack to plug them into an amplifier or mixer. I also use some effects with them as well but I save the distortion for use with the electric mandolin. You may also find acoustic mandolins with electronics already built in. They still maintain much of the acoustic sound. However, my electric mandolin is purely electrophonic in sound like how a standard solid-body electric guitar is.

My Experience with the Mandolin

I have used the mandolin in a couple of band situations. One of the bands had a keyboard player. The keyboard player would often use strings sounds and piano sounds and worked very well with the mandolin, making things sound very orchestral and full. I have also used it as part of a duo with a bass player. I played guitar for most songs but also played the mandolin on about a dozen songs or so. The bass guitar worked very well for some of the Irish music. The bass player would play much of his parts high up on the bass to make up for the lack of mid range that you would normally have with a guitar.

One big plus about taking the mandolin up as an extra instrument to play is that it is not as common as guitar, bass or keyboards. So it could really make a lot of your music stand out. It also makes you more valuable in a band situation if you play more than one instrument, with one of those instruments being a less commonly played one. It makes you more of a rare and unique find as a musician.

I personally love the instrument. In fact, I appreciate it much more today than when I first started playing it. That's mainly because I take it a lot more serious now than I did back in the beginning. So I really learned a lot on it and I enjoy trying out some challenging pieces or songs on it. Initially, I was just doing some basic chords on it. I didn't realize the instrument's potential until much later.

Learning to Play the Mandolin

If you decide to purchase a mandolin, I would recommend that you also purchase a mandolin chord book. That's what I did. I purchased one the same day I got my first mandolin. I have since purchased a lot of sheet music over the years for the mandolin. I have a couple of books with Irish mandolin songs and I also have some classical sheet music that I use to learn some classical music from. Things like Beethoven, Mozart, etc.

There are plenty of learning resources for the mandolin online. In fact, I offer some learning resources myself on one of my websites. I offer mandolin chord charts as well as mandolin scales. It's all free too. The location is

Some Final Thoughts

So if you decide to give the instrument a try, there are some very cheap ones that you could buy on Amazon. I picked up a cheap practice one for about 50 dollars. I have more expensive ones as well but it's nice to have a cheap one to beat around and put wear and tear on so that you could save the good ones for your gigs.

Besides, if you purchase a cheap mandolin to learn on, it's no big deal if you decide later that it is not for you. However, if you find that you like it and want to continue to play it and learn more, then you buy a more expensive one. What do you have to lose? Give it a try.

© 2017 Bob Craypoe


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