Simple Advice for Beginning Mandolin Players
by, Mar-07-2010 at 9:30am (9477 Views)
First off, I am not an experienced mandolinist, or musician of any type. When I took up the mandolin as my first instrument in 2009, I did a lot of Internet searching about all things mandolin. This blog may save time for some other beginners (especially those new to acoustic stringed instruments). You've already found a great resource here at Mandolin Cafe that is well-worth exploring. Below you will find some basic information with links to other webpages that are usually part of larger websites full of useful information. You can also Google "mandolin" plus any related term and find a wealth of information.
Research and learn about mandolin construction details. Some basics are:
A-style - teardrop (or similar) body shape with either ff soundholes or oval soundhole.
F-style - fancy scroll on the upper bass side and two points on treble side with either ff soundholes or oval soundhole.
ff-hole - violin-style soundholes
Oval hole - single oval (or round) soundhole
Arched top - Curved/shaped top and bottom (all F-styles are arched)
Flat-top - flat top and bottom (A-style with Oval hole. I've never seen one with ff-holes.)
F-style with ff holes is the typical bluegrass mandolin. That F-style look is all appearance and gives no appreciable sound benefit over an A-style (but adds cost for construction time and materials). So, unless you really want the look of the F-style, most players recommend an A-style. Oval hole gives stronger bass, more resonance, and warmer sound. The ff holes give a clearer sound with more projection and cut. Flat-tops can be good buys because the simpler construction techniques usually mean they cost less.
Another major construction detail is solid wood vs. laminate (plywood) and how that wood is shaped. Some tips from Allen Hopkins, Cafe member:
1) Solid wood vs. plywood (solid is better)
2) Carved vs. heat-pressed top and back (carved is better)
3) Hand-carved vs. machine-carved top and back (hand-carved is [probably] better).
You can tell a lot from the printed specs, which may well be accessible on-line if you're buying a new or recently-built mandolin. If it says "spruce top" but not "solid spruce top," it's plywood; if it doesn't say "carved," it's heat pressed; if it says "carved" but not "hand-carved," it's machine-carved. Not universally true, but close enough.
Price, construction, appearance, budget, type music you want to play, and other details all factor into what and where to buy. Post the usual beginner's questions on the Cafe forum or perform a forum search for answers and expect a wide variety of opinions from many sources. Research lets you sift through and identify commonalities in those opinions. Identify a reasonable budget range for your first mandolin purchase (probably at least $250-300) and play only instruments you can afford. Playing high-priced mandolins, then finding that the ones that fit your budget don't sound as good or play as well, is a way to get frustrated fast.
Here are three great sites with first-time mandolin purchasing advice:
Mandozine's Mandolin Buying Guide(Mandozine.com website)
Buying a Beginner Mandolin Advice (Blog entry by JEStanek, Cafe Forum Moderator)
Mandolin Buying Tips (Blog entry by Nonprophet, Cafe Forum Member)
For advice about a particular mandolin brand or model, search the Cafe forum and you will find many opinions. If possible, visit stores to actually feel and hear various mandolins and take a mandolin-playing friend if possible. You can also call any of the Cafe sponsor stores and ask questions.
Where to buy can be tricky. Supporting your local music store is great but lack of selection makes this tough. Buying from a reputable Internet dealer (which includes all Mandolin Cafe sponsors) works well. Call the store and ask questions. Take care buying used, especially unseen. Cafe Classifieds have a good reputation but avoid eBay.
Whatever and wherever you buy, a good SETUP is an absolute necessity. Setup relates to how easily your mandolin plays and how well it sounds. High action (how far off the fretboard the strings are) make it hard to play because you have to push harder on the strings. Low action can result in buzzing frets which can also be a result of individual frets not seated in the fretboard correctly. A mandolin with improper intonation will sound out of tune as you move down the fretboard. Playing the 12th fret should produce the same note as the open string but one octave higher. If the bridge is not placed properly, this 12th fret may be flat or sharp. Reputable stores usually provide good setups with purchase. Discount stores probably won't and you may need to find an experienced luthier (someone who makes or repairs stringed instruments). Click here for a good forum thread about setup.
Along with the mandolin, I recommend you plan to buy the following upfront:
- clip-on tuner (Easy to use and cheap at about $20.)
- hard case (Many stores include a decent case with the purchase of a new mandolin)
- strap (You don't want to learn how to move your fretting fingers while also holding up the neck. These can be bought for $10-$15 or you can make your own.)
- some picks (Start with some inexpensive mediums or get an assortment and experiment. Your choice.)
- spare string sets (D'Addario J74s are a good all-around choice.)
The above are what I consider to be the minimum. Possible additional accessories include: case humidifier, polish and cloth, sheet music stand, metronome, digital recorder, slow-down software, armrest, tuner crank handle, lessons, instructional books, and more. Again, RESEARCH. If buying online, consider buying accessories at the same time you buy your mandolin to save on shipping costs. If you have questions, ask your dealer.
Mandolin Care & Maintenance
Some simple maintenance that every player should be capable to perform will help ensure a long and enjoyable relationship with your mandolin. Here are a few sources of information.
The Mandolin Owner's Manual (Almost everything you might need to know about mandolin care, maintenance, troubleshooting, and repair, courtesy of FRETS.COM.)
Humidity Matters (Fret Not Guitar Repair webpage about humidity for guitars that applies to mandolins as well.)
Lacquer Finish Care and Maintenance (Gibson webpage detailing care for nitrocellulose lacquer finishes.)
How to Setup A Mandolin Bridge (Bridge placement is a key element of the setup and it is only held in place by string tension. Remove or loosen too many strings and you need to know how to reinstall the bridge.)
Rob Meldrum's Mandolin Setup Ebook. Cafe member Rob Meldrum offers a great free Ebook for mandolin setup. Just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, have "mandolin set up" in the subject line, and include a short request.
Personal preference and learning style will dictate professional instruction or teach yourself. If seeking professional instruction, look for a mandolin player/instructor and not just a guitar or other instrument player who happens to play the mandolin. Ask for references.
If self-teaching, there are lots of good books with accompanying CDs or DVDs. There are also lots of websites that provide instructional material, tunes, and even videos. YouTube is a great source of information. Browse around and take your pick.
If you have mandolin in hand without a clue on what to do, click here for a wee bit of mandolin instruction. (Don't worry that it says "Scottish mandolin" and you want to learn bluegrass as it doesn't matter yet.)
Unless you can play by ear, you need to read music. Common varieties of written music include tablature, standard musical notation and ABC. Tablature (Tab for short) is probably the most common. Click here for some information about tablature.
Google "mandolin tablature" and find a lot of music in tablature format. Include your music preference (old-time, bluegrass, Celtic, etc.) and you can quickly find many songs to play. The Mandolin Cafe has a large amount of songs in tablature format and links to other sources located here.
Tablature normally comes in standard computer file formats such as *.jpg or *.pdf but may come as a *.tef computer file format which requires TablEdit software. This format allows you to hear a midi sound version of the song. TablEdit provides a free TablEdit File Viewer which is available by clicking here.
Tablature can be limiting however. Here is an article about the benefits of standard notation and a link to a free Tab Reader's Guide to Reading Standard Notation.
ABC notation uses plain text. For more information, click here.
While not necessary to play, a musician who knows music theory understands how music works. This knowledge helps a musician to play in different situations, with new people, on tunes and songs he may never have played or heard before. Click here for music theory instructional material written specifically for the mandolin.
That's about all for now. Best of luck and Happy Picking.