View Full Version : what keys would you suggest for a newbie?

dan watson
Sep-12-2005, 5:15pm
i'm wondering if there are keys i should start playing arppegios and scales and generally messing around with as i start learning. I've learned my big 3 chop chords, chop no prob (i don't think) and i'm getting to where i can change chords pretty quickly. I guess what i'm asking is what are the most important keys for a newbie who wants to get out and play a little, even if its just rhythm. i've coppied many of the excercises here and working on them slowly.
thanks for the help

Sep-12-2005, 5:23pm
G, D and A.

Sep-12-2005, 6:18pm
G, D and A.

....don't forget C, E ( if playing fiddle tunes)

Suggest you start with the 2 finger chords 2 #Finger Chords (http://www.mandolincafe.com/two.html)

Sep-12-2005, 6:24pm
hmmm....fiddle tunes in E chord, let me think...can't think of too many.

Brown County-Monroe
Southern Flavor - Monroe
Opus something or other - Grisman
Big Bug - Reischman

all tunes in E chord, but not really fiddle tunes, per se.

What fiddle tunes in E are you thinking of?

Sep-12-2005, 8:09pm
To play in A, it helps to know the arpeggios in E - I think that's all gnelson351 had in mind. Otherise in Eminor, there's Drowsy Maggie, Morning Dew and Lady's Fancy (a.k.a., Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle).

fatt still-learning-too dad

Sep-12-2005, 8:43pm
I was going to say the minors, but a lot of this stuff is modal (Dorian) so if you play D you can also play the Em tunes (Lousy Maggie, etc), and the Am tunes use the G scale. C is an important key for songs, when backing singers. 90% of the Irish stuff is in G or D; there seems to be a lot of bluegrass stuff in A, besides those 2 keys.

Sep-12-2005, 8:49pm
As a newbie, I would actually go ahead and start with all the keys you think you will ever play in. And play them as slow as you can possibly play them. Here's the kicker, call out the notes to your self when you are playing them. That way you will be exercising your fingers, learning all the scales and arpeggios, and learning all the notes on the fingerboard all at once. This sounds like a lot but it's not. Just say on Mondays I will only work with the G and A scale, on Tues I will only work on the B and F scale....and so on. This is the way I learned and by the time I decided to actually start learning the melodies to songs, I was already familiar with the fingerboard. Therefore you will advance a lot faster and there will be a lot less fustration.

I have met a lot of people who get fustrated when they don't know what they are playing and why. By doing it this way you will understand what you are playing in songs, plus once you get to the stage when your ready to start improvising, you will be light years ahead of everyone.

Another thing this does is it gets your pinking working from day one. So many people like to play in G, C, and D when they start and never develop the pinky, so when they start getting along in their playing they have to almost stop and take a break to just work on the pinky. If you start with hard keys to play you never have that period of "restarting".

However, that is just the way I did it and by all means I am not pro or teacher....so if that's wrong oh well

Sep-12-2005, 9:05pm
Here's what i used to strenghten and develop my pinky: Four Finger Closed Position (FFCP) (http://www.mandolincafe.com/eschliman1.html). It's overkill, but it's good exercise. Play slowly, with a metronome. I've been doing these for over 6 months, and i'm still working on the first 2 (of 4) exercises.

Sep-12-2005, 9:31pm
I was going to say the minors, but a lot of this stuff is modal (Dorian) so if you play D you can also play the Em tunes (Lousy Maggie, etc), and the Am tunes use the G scale.

You lost me here; wouldn't you play the relative minor to a major scale (G maj = Em, C maj = Am)? I'm not saying you're wrong... my applied music theory is not that well developed and I'd like to understand where you're coming from.

I agree with your first post that G, D, and A will take Dan a long way.

Paul Doubek

Sep-13-2005, 9:44am
I was going to say the minors, but a lot of this stuff is modal (Dorian) so if you play D you can also play the Em tunes (Lousy Maggie, etc), and the Am tunes use the G scale.

You lost me here; wouldn't you play the relative minor to a major scale (G maj = Em, C maj = Am)? I'm not saying you're wrong... my applied music theory is not that well developed and I'd like to understand where you're coming from.

You are correct in that e minor is relative to G major but what glauber is refering to is the dorian mode -- this is a minor mode ( meaning that it has a b3 compared to major) but has a raised 6th compared to the natural minor.


E minor: E F# G A B C D E --relative to G major

E dorian: E F# G A B C# D E --relative to D major

"Relative" means that they share the key signature.

In Celtic music and in American music "of Celtic descent" a good number of minor key pieces are actually in the dorian.

Hope this helps.

Sep-13-2005, 10:00am
That does help... thank Jim. I guess I need to relearn modal forms. I probably switch between Dorian and Natural (Aeolian?) minor scales without thinking when I improvise since I play mostly by ear/feel rather than conceptually. Sometimes a note just "feels" right.


Sep-14-2005, 3:56am
It doesn't sound like real bluegrass until you play in B natural. Try "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome" for a nice melodic intro. to that key. Bb has its uses espcially because Gm is the relative minor -- think Kentucky Mandolin or Wayfaring Stranger.

Sep-14-2005, 6:18am
As a newbie, I would actually go ahead and start with all the keys you think you will ever play in.
I second Dfyngravity's suggestion and take it a step further.

Even though a lot of tunes use open strings and therefore leverage certain keys (G, D, A), focusing only on these 'open' keys really promotes limitations and bad habits over time, like UPS (Useless Pinky Syndrome), very low FFF (Fretboard Familiarity Factor), etc.

I suggest you spend at least equal time, if not even more time, working in all the keys you think you will NEVER play in. Learn things in closed position first (it's not overkill). Open strings will be a simple extension of that broader knowledge, and that way open strings will not become your limitation. Try Ab major, Eb major, Bb major, and F major. Watch for and learn the patterns and expand them all over the neck. It is helpful to notice how the patterns slide up and down the neck and rotate around the neck for different keys. Look for recurring patterns, and find ones that are simple to visualize to use as a 'home base'.

This doesn't happen overnight, but I truly believe it's the way to go. You'll find your 'open string' keys are a small subset of that.

(You will, of course, want to keep learning tunes with open strings for the bluegrass genre.)

Sep-14-2005, 6:40am
As a newbie, I would actually go ahead and start with all the keys you think you will ever play in.
That strikes me as great advice that doesn't answer the question. #From my perspective, a "newbie" doesn't have any idea what keys he'll play in and that's why the question was asked. #As a beginner myself I see the highly touted (by many on the board) "Music Theory for Modern Mandolin". #It has pages of different chords and variations on the same chord. #When some one asks which they should focus on first, an answer of "the ones you'll need" is technically correct but worthless.

Sep-14-2005, 6:43am
Well, how about this? The keys of the songs that s/he like and that s/he wants to play? I remember something Mike Auldridge said in his dobro instruction book from the late 70's, explaining why he had some complicated tunes in a "beginner's" book -- something like "well, these are the tunes you heard that you want to play, so let's learn them!

Sep-14-2005, 7:15am
"the ones you'll need" is technically correct but worthless.
I definitely see your point.

I'm thinking the question "What keys do I need?" may be the wrong question. You need all keys.

When you first learn piano, you learn all white keys. All songs are white keys. Black keys come later as you get better. Students often see playing tunes with blacks keys as a a right of passage. You have arrived. Similarly, when you first learn guitar, you use a lot of open strings. Closed positions come later as you get better. On mando, same thing.

I can't imagine a genre of piano music that is based entirely on white keys. Even though bluegrass often leverages open strings, it's not a genre based on open strings (I hope).

'dan watson' asked about scales and arpeggios. There are efficiencies and patterns and generalities and principles on stringed instruments that are only apparent when you leave the open string limitation behind. Hence the answers given above are on the money - don't get hung up on open strings (and open string keys). Learn closed positions.

Sep-14-2005, 7:30am
I guess the problem is there is no common starting place. #The original question is from someone whose signature line says the are a mandolin newbie, guitar intermediate. #I came to the mandolin with no background in anything other than a little public school music from 30+ years before. #Is the mode discussion relevent to a newbie?

I suppose a genre might have influenced the answer. #Maybe G,C and A is a good answer with the caveat that it is better to work on something like mandohack's FFcP for these keys from the start to avoid the open string/unused pinky issues.

Sep-14-2005, 7:55am
Is the mode discussion relevent to a newbie?

Nope! We just love talking about it every chance we get!http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif Okay, so we're a little overzealous. But after a while, when you see the puzzle pieces all falling together, it's exciting. It's kindof like telling folks who are planning their first trip out west, "Hey, you're going to love it when you see the Grand Canyon!"

Sep-14-2005, 8:14am
groveland - I would have thought modes would be more like telling that guy going out west how good the diner in Tuba City is... #http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

Sep-14-2005, 8:25am
Tim, that's very true. However, I was under the impression from the quote on the bottom that he was a newbie to mando not music. Seems as if he plays guitar too, so I figured he knew many keys already.

Groveland, I second you there on taking it further. Just because you are a "newbie" there is no reason you should limit yourself in what you learn.

A great way of learning your closed position scales and such is to play your open ones down in first position with only your 2,3, and 4th finger. So when you move up the neck into a closed position, your 1st finger becomes the "nut" and your 2,3 and 4th fingers already know what to do. I figured this like trick out one day, just mainly because I wanted an exercise for the pinky finger. Then I realized this would help for closed position. Then I took it a little further and started to place my 1st finger on the nut while playing the scales in 1st position. So technically I was "fretting" nut when playing the open strings to memic the motion of playing in closed position. This also helps as a stretching exercise since the frets are larger in 1st position.

Sep-14-2005, 8:39am
I can understand the various points of view. #I tend to look at it from a math perspective. #I wouldn't tell someone, "You'll eventually want to do calculus so lets start with that". #There is a reason basic arithmetic and then algebra are taught before calculus. #They are all building blocks. #

I guess what would be helpful to a true newbie is knowing what blocks are best near the foundation so you can successfully get to those modes, etc.

Sep-14-2005, 8:48am
To answer your original question:

Start with A as it's most common for fiddle tunes and easy. Old Joe Clark, Salt Creek, Gold Rush, Red Haired Boy are basics. What you learn playing those will apply to many BG breaks.

G is probably next. You know as a guitar player that folks like G. Old Crossroads, WheelHoss, Evening Prayer Blues are G classics.

You'll discover D is A's friendly brother, just like A but one set of strings towards the bass side. Home Sweet Home is usually played from D. So is Bluegrass Stomp and St. Anne's reel. C is G's friendly brother - same as D is to A. Rawhide is played in C. Honky Tonk Swing is another if my memory hasn't failed.

If you're playing grass, learn B next followed by Bb. Learn to play them from closed positions once you're this far. Playing out of a closed position will let you play in any key - C# for example. Train 45 and Rebecca are B tunes. E is B's friendly brother. It's also A's sister, one set of strings toward the treble side from A.

Peter Hackman
Sep-14-2005, 9:28am
When I started in 1966 the keys suggested were
probably the first
ones; however, someone told me open strings are to be avoided at all costs - and I'm happy I did, because that
made it easier to go on to other keys (I was also helped
by my experience with he guitar, i.e., with music
in general).

Today I use open strings quite freely! E.g., I might
play in F in second position, yte take advantage of the open d and a.

Oddly, although I sometimes play that key on guitar, I
almost never use A flat on mando. Doesn't sound right
(yet f minor does!!)
The same goes for D flat and F#.

E flat, shunned by bluegrassers, rings true and
sits comfortably on the fretboard, don't know why.

But you should ultimately practise in all keys, of course,
becuase it enables you to play more advanced progressions
in "standard" keys.

To summarize: my advice is, by all means start
with the "easy" keys, but try to play whole exercises
and songs without using the open strings.

Sep-14-2005, 11:14am
caveat that it is better to work on something like mandohack's FFcP for these keys from the start to avoid the open string/unused pinky issues

start with the "easy" keys, but try to play whole exercises and songs without using the open strings
I think avoiding open strings is extreme, but don't limit yourself by playing the same key in first position all the time either. You can focus on a handful of keys but once you learn the patterns farther up the fretboard it's easy to transpose on the fly. You'll also get to hear the difference between playing a note on an open string vs. a fretted one, and you'll start to learn what notes you can "drone" on the open string along with your fretted melody note.

It's true that discussing modal forms is beyond the scope of this thread, and it was my "bad" for taking us down that path to alleviate my confusion. Still, even if the newbies don't understand that concept now it will be in the backs of their heads when it comes up in the future. I don't think there was any harm in our brief digression.

Sep-14-2005, 11:15am
Tuba City! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

Sep-14-2005, 1:00pm
I just got back so I missed this posting for the past few days. Sorry for the confusion on keys vs chords to the key.

What I was thinking in the form of "keys" is that generally a key is made up of the I, IV and V chords (especially in BG). That is why I was suggesting C and E that tie into the G, D and A keys. I also agree that knowing the relative minor is equally important.

I believe a newbie should be practicing scales for the main keys and the chords that go with these keys. I know my daily practice includes chords (open and closed) and scales for G, A, C, D, and E, also F. As far as the scales go, I use both the key scales and chord forms appreggios along with the pentatonic scales for each.

My practices include also the Aonzo Family Scales (http://www.mandozine.com/index.php/techniques/techinfo/aonzo_family_scales/) which changes key from open G #up evey half scales to closed F.

I am self taught and only have been playing mandolin for about 2 years but found that this method has greatly increased my playing ability and improvization skills. However, if more experienced players have other suggestions or comments on improving, I'm all ears.

Sep-14-2005, 3:07pm
Nice clear road map. I think you scared Dan off. He decided he'd be happier whistling. ;-)

dan watson
Sep-15-2005, 2:38am
first off i would really like to thank every body for their help, ya'll are great. i haven't been scared off, i know from guitar that you gotta "pay the dues". been arpeggiating and scaleing (whats a good site for scales?") Been doing the aonoza (sp) exercise, hard but cool. I remember from first learning guitar there was a box pattern thing that really helped, any thing like that? funny, i just started playing anything tonite and started goin'"okay that goes there and ooooh thats cool". think i might add that to my practice schedule. I know there is no set way to learn good and quick, the reason we are special (and we are) is that we are willing to do the not fun stuff (work) and turn it into fun(kinda) unless you got the gift from the good lord and had it from birth you gotta work at it. Again thank you each and every one for the encouragement, help, and just interest...one day we'll meet and i'll play some decent stuff for ya?...ya'll are my pals....dan ;-)

dan watson
Sep-15-2005, 3:00am
i seem to be very verbose tonite! What i want to do here and now is tell ya'll that dan watson is not my real name...i was being cute (i have had a back problem for about 10 years, including surgery and used the manufacturer's stamped name on some of my meds for a name...my "bad") also i hardly ever give correct info when i'm going into any forum situation for the first time. My real name is Eddie Taylor (every thing else is correct) i'm going to start a new account with real name right now. I hope no one has been offended or feel a lack of trust, blah, blah...still think the world of all of you who are helping me....;-)

Sep-15-2005, 6:23am
Welcome Dan/Eddie. You've come to the right place.

Sep-15-2005, 7:46am

You mentioned learning a box pattern on guitar and asked if there is an equivalent set of patterns on mando.

I assume your refering to the ubiquitous major and minor pentatonic scales and yes they can be applied to mandolin very easily. If you play bluegrass you will undoubtedly run into playing patterns based on the 'chop' chord. You should also check out Mandohacks FFcP (Four Finger closed Position) scales on jazzmando.com.

Sep-15-2005, 8:36am
thanks 250, i did print FFcP stuff, sort of forgot where i put 'em. Still wondering around, mostly practicing chords and changeing between them faster. last nite i kinda went on a tear and started seeing ways to get around single note style...the box patterns for guitar weren't pentatonics i don't think, not fluent enough to 'splain...do appreciate your input, thanky...;-)

Sep-15-2005, 12:33pm
Most guitar players depend heavily on pentatonics. My guess is the guitar patterns you know are closely related to, if not pentatonic but I could be wrong.

I think you will find a wealth of information here at the cafe. BTW, if you haven't already found it check out mandozine.com and download a free copy of tabledit. Lots of great examples of mandolin solos there.

Sep-15-2005, 4:17pm
e.taylor/Dan Watson: A few weeks ago at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, Brian Aldridge (Dry Branch Fire Squad) was conducting a mandolin workshop. He handed out an extract from a work-in-progress by Mark Brinkman that used a "box method". No estimate of publication was given.

Sep-16-2005, 5:22pm
hey 250sc!! I found mandohacks FFcP and started working on 'em this a.m......MAN! WOW!! GADZOOKS!!! Please don't think i'm bragging and i got a lotta LOTTA work to do but i's playin' mandolin today!!! talk about excited? My wife's gonna freak...
i did d/load tabledit and yes its real cool...thank you and thank you all for helping me. HOT DA##!!
oh yeah and thank you Ted E. you made me a happy guy...

Sep-20-2005, 4:03am
Thank you (whoever it was) for the link to the FFcP stuff, I didn't understand it at all just looking at the lesson here at the cafe, but the pdf was very useful.

Sep-22-2005, 11:32am
still wrestling with this, (man my left thumb and fore finger hurt!) I think i need to make some thing a little more clear...i do know some Basic theory and i am able to get all around the guitar. Sometimes i have no clue what i'm doin' but it sounds good and thats where fun is. I'm completlly self taught on guitar, and pretty much know my numbers system (I-vi-v-IV blah blah) I have played lead in several bands...but when it comes to the mandolin, it's just like starting all over again (not problem, i wanna real bad)
i'm not aspiring to be a real hot player, i just wanta be able to bring out the thing once in a while for a different sound during jams... I'm still at the beginning, trying to teach my fingers to change faster to the chords i know, trying to learn more chords and doing scale and arpegios that i have found on these wonderful pages about mandolin...I'll just keep truckin' and if you have any advice, it won't be wasted on me. thanks...eddie ;-)

ps i'm trying to use musedit and tbledit but hard to understand and haven't been able to import any files into tabledit...i got the free download with tef. view but my computer sez it can't read these files...technical writing puts me to sleep faster than anything...

Sep-22-2005, 12:00pm
What am I missing, here? I always practiced scales on all 4 (8) strings... (2 octives.)

As usual... I don't get it. What's all this hoop-lah about?

(not that I care... I just do what I do....)

Jun-13-2006, 10:35pm
I can understand the various points of view. I tend to look at it from a math perspective. I wouldn't tell someone, "You'll eventually want to do calculus so lets start with that". There is a reason basic arithmetic and then algebra are taught before calculus. They are all building blocks.

I guess what would be helpful to a true newbie is knowing what blocks are best near the foundation so you can successfully get to those modes, etc.
As a total newb to stringed instruments and some tenor sax almost 30 years ago I most definately agree that I need the very basics, especially in music theory. Heck, I printed out the FFCP sheet and am still trying to figure out what it means , how to read it and then how to start it. Having a FFCP (and similiar)doc with the red pointer arrows at all the points of interest in the doc, with the ballon text, and perhaps hyperlinks to the applicible music theory when necessary to teach or clarify, to me, would be fantastic. 99.9% of the music theory talked about is over my head and I'm sure the rest of the total newbs would agree. I find myself running all over the net looking for definitions, meanings, etc.

Jun-15-2006, 5:05am
I would come at it from a slightly different angle. I'm also a relative begginner. However I want to be fluent in many styles and instruments. So I play myscales and learn where scale degrees are in relation to the tonic. By that I mean learn a G scale but think of it in terms of scale number and how they are related to the root. You only need to learn how to do it on two strings and then you know every key. I'm self teaching as well due to lack of teachers, but thats my over simplified approach.

Once you know the patterns for the scales then start learning the notes on the fretboard intimately.

Tina MBee
Jun-15-2006, 5:15am
Hey Repent 34, I feel your pain.I'm a total newbie to stringed instruments with alto sax almost 30 years ago.Never learned any music theory-most of what is said is way over my head.I just found this thread so hopefully after I read over the postings I'll find some HELP!!!There is a mandolin haiku thread and after my last lesson I wrote one that was so depressing. I couldn't bring myself to post it because then everyone would have been depressed:D I've been considering giving it up because I just can't seem to "get it"....

Jun-15-2006, 6:48am
I had posted an explanation of FFcP last night, but figured Ted would probably post, so I deleted it. Suffice it to say that the FFcPs yield all fingering possibilities found in the major scale: w-w-h, w-h-w, h-w-w, w-w-w. Plus connecting them up (like First FFcP and Fourth FFcP) will give the 4-strings-2-octaves that OdnamNool was talking about.

Jun-15-2006, 9:14am
For those in pain over theory: Learn a dozen tunes...one at a time. One a month if that's how long it takes. Learn them so you don't have to read them, i.e. memorize them. Learn the chords and when they change (the "form" of the progression).

Don't worry about the theory. Don't worry about the keys.

Learn to play them in time (metronome) with good tone first. You can analyze later. Have fun now. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif

Jun-15-2006, 12:04pm
Learn tunes in the usual keys- A,D and G in particular if you play along with a fiddler or plan to.
I don't play Bluegrass and rarely encounter B flat, B, F etc, in fact I can go weeks and never leave A and D.
John McGann says learn one a month- well if your slow- and young- learn one a year. 30 years from now you will be an excellent player with a small but well played repertoire that you enjoy- that's the point isn't it?
Scales and theory may be essential to mastering music but they are not central to playing anymore than knowing exactly how a car works is central to driving it.
I guess you could say I am centered on tunes.
Have fun.

Jun-15-2006, 1:27pm
The post is titled "what would you suggest to a newbie"-

Although I am a "theory guy", I suggest keeping your mind on your instrument first- learn to get a nice tone, play in time, get both hands working together properly, (http://www.johnmcgann.com/techtips.html) don't obsess about speed, learn some tunes, and don't worry too much about the theory stuff. get in there and have at it, and when you have a bunch of tunes under your belt, it'll all make a LOT more sense.

Theory was developed AFTER practice, for the most part. It is a wonderful thing to know what it is, but the EAR is the first and last arbiter of everything. As long as you got 'em, you'll be fine (and ol' Beethoven managed without 'em in the end- but i think he used them before they shut down!)

Jun-15-2006, 3:40pm
G, D and A.
don't forget B either. A lot of banjo players love B.

Jul-07-2006, 6:38pm
G, D and A. If you play blues with a guitarist or two you'll also want E in there, and maybe C. Once you start playing with horn or woodwind players then you're simply asking to be forced to learn how to play in nasty keys! (Joking) http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif