View Full Version : I'm not getting anywhere

Dec-05-2005, 2:52pm
Hi everyone.
I know there are several good mandolin players around here. I have this problem. I started playing the mandolin 9 years ago, not been playing regularly all the time but last year I had a breakthrough and played a lot, improved on most things.
I also play the fiddle and now the concertina, which I'm quite beginner on so I improve quite fast and learn new things all the time. For some time, I haven't felt any great need to improve on the mandolin, I can play melodies, chords, chops, arpeggios, I feel comfortable with it. So, I wanted to set more time for the new instruments to improve on them.

Now, I really want to learn more on the mandolin again. I just don't know how to advance. There are many things I want to learn better but most of all I'd like to learn to play the bluesy style like Bill Monroe, the typical bluegrass harmonics. I've found some blues scales but will it help just practicing scales?

If I give you a list of things I want to improve on, can you all brain storm here and give me advice on how I could practice (and don't worry if it sounds like obvious things, because at the moment I'm quite stuck on the mandolin)?

-Better, clearer chops
-Better at minor chords
-Blues type of bluegrass breaks
-Not speeding up when I'm not supposed to
-Playing with a clearer tone
-Playing up the neck
-Transitions break/chords, chords/break
-Back-up on slow songs (is this possible on the mandolin?)

I realize that for some of these things, it will helps just practicing chops, for example, or playing up the neck and using the pinky. But could you help giving me advice on how to practice to make it nice to practice when my inspiration is low.

To make one thing clear: I'm not going to take lessons because I don't have time and there is no mandolin teacher around (and I don't have time or money to go further away).
I try to visit the monthly bluegrass jam as regularly as possible, and I have my fiancÚ to jam with at home, in addition we've started jamming sometimes with a banjo/guitar player so there are some oportunities, finally, to play with other people. I've just simply got stuck and don't know how to advance any further.

Mark Robertson-Tessi
Dec-05-2005, 5:24pm
Some ideas:

-Better, clearer chops
Play around with how you are muting the strings with LH, where you are striking the strings with your RH, which strings you are striking heaviest, etc.

-Better at minor chords
Play more songs with more minor chords, find all ways to play them.

-Blues type of bluegrass breaks
Listen to alot of breaks you like, try and figure them out. Get music or tab for them if you can't figure them out, to see what techniques/types of patterns are used. Then build from there. Can you sing the types of breaks you want to play? If I can't sing it, I can't play it.

-Not speeding up when I'm not supposed to
Play a lot with a metronome, and with recordings. They usually will not follow you if you speed up.

-Playing with a clearer tone
Play slowly, so that you are playing with clear tone. Then over time work your speed up, keeping clear tone.
Work on your tone. Play single notes. Pay attention to how it sounds as you play a note, and sustain it. Play two notes in a row. What happened in the space between notes? Was there a gap of no tone? Or was there a smooth ring from one note to the next? As you speed up, the spacing between notes gets smaller, but that gap usually doesn't, so it eats up more of your tone.

Goes with the one above. Play slowly. Anyone can play fast and unclean. The trick is fast and clean, and the clean has to come first.

-Playing up the neck
Play some tunes you know in other positions. Fiddle tunes are great for this. Take Whiskey for breakfast or something, and figure it out starting on the same note but on a lower string. Play it all in closed position. Play it in E, F, and G, instead of D. Play it up an octave. Play slowly at first, and don't tense up.

-Transitions break/chords, chords/break
not sure what you mean

-Back-up on slow songs (is this possible on the mandolin?)
Practice getting a smooth tremolo on single strings, double stops, and 3/4 string chords. Practice chording to slow tunes, without speeding up.

Comes with practice.

Mark R-T

Ken Sager
Dec-06-2005, 12:10am
A few more things to think about:

-Less is often more.
-Learn at least 3 ways to play every chord you know.
-Tone is a factor of your right hand as much as your left.
-Where do you pick? The distance from the bridge impacts tone, clarity, volume.
-Speed and tone without timing are lost.
-There is power in holding power in reserve (quote from Mike Compton).
-Timing is everything.
-Your left hand is your vocabulary, your right hand is your attitude.
-Know what others have done before you, study them and know what they said before you try to say anything for yourself.
-Have something interesting to say.
-Be true to yourself and your music.
-Love every minute of it, even when it's hard.
-Less is often more.


Dec-06-2005, 6:06am
Thank you guys for your replies. Peter, is the Monroe book you're referring to this one (http://www.baysidepress.com/home.asp?productid=99962&category=M01&Heading=Mandolin+%28All%29&author=)? If so, I'm going to buy it, the bluegrass instrument and accessories dealer in my area has it, I'm just not sure when I'm going to see him.

Lots of good and helpful advice here. I'm going to write things down and work on them. Also, I got lots of new inspiration yesterday, because I found a tutor video by my all-time favorite Tim O'Brien, The mandolin and bouzouki of Tim O'Brien. I noticed he uses lots of open chords and plays it like a guitar, plus this makes it sort of easier to use chords into melody playing, at least that's what it seems like. I'm going to study the video into detail (Tim has been my role model in mandolin playing for a long time) as well as practicing the bluegrass things.

Thanks again!

Dec-06-2005, 8:21am
The work areas you list are all critical parts of the 'whole'. One in particular:

-Not speeding up when I'm not supposed to

is tantamount to good music. I picked with a guitar man last weekend. Man, was he fast. Man, did his timing waver.

Dec-06-2005, 9:03am
One thing I have been doing lately to improve transitioning from playing rhythm to playing a break is the following practice exrcise (I do this with every BG or fiddle tune I play):
-set my metronome to a nice, easy pace, say 120 bpm
-play the melody all the way through, including repeats, just as if I was playing in a jam
-play the chord changes all the way through, including the repeats
-play the melody again, as before
If there are any places in either the melody or chord changes that are not perfect and smoothe, work through those at that tempo until they are perfect.
Increase the tempo and repeat the process until it is just too fast, then back off to the fastest tempo I can play, keeping it clean.
Sometimes I will isolate the last 2 or 3 measures of chord playing, and really practice the exact point where the break begins. That seems to be the part where I am most likely to screw up.

Dec-06-2005, 10:55am
The Chop: It is all about timing. You have to be able to hit the chord and release at the exact moment that is need to get the sound you are after. Some people like to have just a slight ring of the chord while others like to have no ring what so ever. Different chops for different situations. Try to do all different types.

Minor Chords: This will help with all other chords too. When I first started out trying to learn as many chords that I could here is what I did: I took a song I knew and had the recording of and played with it. Here's the kicker...if the progession was Dm Gm Dm Am Dm I would play each one of those chords a diffenrent way everytime I came to it. So if I knew 3 different Dm than every time I came to it I would play it different from the last I played, same with the Gm and Am. Understand? or confused?

"blues" bluegrass breaks: Well if you know a break or any fiddle tune try this. When playing something you want to sound "bluessy" you need to know the blues scale of the key you are playing in. Use the blues scale and try resolving the flats by slidding or hammering on to the natural. This probably doesn't make sense so I'll probably post another thread, more detailed.

Not speeding up when I'm not supposed to: Metronome

Playing with a clearer tone: Keep your fingers down while asending. Try not to rush either hand. This goes with the above. What happens is either your LH and RH speeds up or slows down. The key to playing with great tone is to keep both hands at the same speed, TIMING is everything!

Speed: Don't worry too much about this. If you are stilling working on getting better tone and not speeding up, than speed is the LAST thing you want to worry about.

Playing up the neck: Learn scales that start in first potision and work all the way up past the 12th fret. I have some that Thile included in with his Homespun DVD. I think they come from fiddle books. So look for some great fiddle instruction books.

Transitions break/chords, chords/break: Get out a metronome, and play fiddle tunes, alternating chords and breaks. Play along with CDs.

Back-up on slow songs (is this possible on the mandolin?): when playing back up use lots of double stops, tremelo, and arpeggios. If you know the melody you are way ahead in the game. Use the melody and break it up. Usually the singer sings a verse and after that you want to try to play that part of the melody right after it's sung.

Control: Practice playing slow then fast, loud then soft, alternating quarter notes and 8th note, whole notes and triplets...just come up with all sorts of alternating things you can play. Having control over the mandolin is all up to you and how much and what you practice.

Dec-08-2005, 3:47pm
Band in a Box has helped me more than anything. Two minutes max to enter the chords to a song, and you have a rhythm section that will play any tempo, any key, any time, and doesn't get tired or criticize.

You've got a steady tempo, they always play in tune, and you can work on licks, breaks, melody, improvisation, etc. Music notation also works pretty well, if you are into that sort of thing.

I don't have any affiliation with the publisher, just a very satisfied customer.


Dan Adams
Dec-08-2005, 11:11pm
Tjej: I'm surprised!! After being around as long as you've been here! Playing with others!! Using the software to hear yourself, then play along. Your progess has been incredble... Give yourself some credit!!! Dan

Pick it like you're the star, and you are!! Dan

Dec-09-2005, 5:51am
Hi Plinker!
Yeah, I've been around a long time and it's a shame I haven't come further isn't it. The truth is that I've improved on many things, speed to name one (but only on very familiar tunes, Red haired boy, Liberty, Soldier's joy and St Anne's reel), but most of all improvising, which I really wanted to improve on so I've worked a lot with that and not so much with other things. I'm quite satisfied with my playing if I don't play with too advanced folks.
The last 6 months I've practiced a lot of fiddle and not so much mandolin, then the last month I've also started playing concertina which took some time because it is quite hard to learn where the notes are (not as obvious as on the mandolin!!!). But, now I got into this mandolin mood again, actually after I listened to some Bill Monroe stuff. And my goals are higher, my expectations on what I should be able to play are much higher. I know what I want to sound like but not really how to get there. There are so many things I want to improve on that I get confused. When I play, I end up just playing familiar things and play around with chords because I don't know what to start with. I'm not at all so far down as I could be last year though, I don't look down on myself and my playing anymore because I know I've improved on many things.
My recordings will be up soon..look forward to hear them.

Woodwiz: I tried BIAB once and I never understood how to use it. But I have a new little free software to slow things down, it's called Best Practice and is very similar to Amazing Slowdowner, just that it is free.

Dec-09-2005, 12:45pm
Do you have a link to the Best Practice software? That's a minimally selective google search term :-)

Dec-09-2005, 1:46pm
Woodwiz: I tried BIAB once and I never understood how to use it. But I have a new little free software to slow things down, it's called Best Practice and is very similar to Amazing Slowdowner, just that it is free.
I bought a copy many years ago, and it was pretty hard to use, but the current version is very easy. It's a HUGE help on tempo and improvisation.

I also find it great for lerning new keys. I can take a familiar tune, transpose it automatically, and practice it in the new key. Lots more fun than doing scales and finger exercises.

If you haven't looked at it lately, you can download a free demo from PG Music. It literally takes about two minutes to set up a simple fidddle tune to accompany you. Songs with a lot of chord changes take a little longer.

Dec-09-2005, 5:47pm
Do you have a link to the Best Practice software? That's a minimally selective google search term :-)
Here it is: Best Practice (http://www.xs4all.nl/~mp2004/bp/)

Maybe I should try that new Band in a box. I'm open to any new learning tools.

Jan-21-2006, 4:48pm
I thought I'd post an update on how things are going. I can't say I've been a good girly and followed all your advice. I didn't play much mandolin for a while, but bought two new books: 25 Monroe instrumentals, and Bert Casey's Bluegrass Fakebook with a lot of bluegrass standards. I also found Tim O'Brien's tutor video on some unmentionable place, and got really inspired by him and his open chord playing!! So, I started playing around with chords, and it made me start adding chords in instrumental tunes I already play.
Then, started learning songs from the fakebook, found recordings of those songs and I've listened a lot, don't know what I've done really but I've had a real breakthrough on the mandolin lately, seems like I need to take a break sometimes to get new inspiration. Suddenly I can play nice breaks and I've started to play around with tremolos into breaks. Now I also need to practice timing and better chops and more chords, especially minors.

Jan-21-2006, 7:06pm
Get lots of Bill's music if thats the style your wanting to learn and break it down into phrases and licks and learn what you can by ear. If you can slow it down somehow perhaps with a cassette deck that may help. Sometimes headphones hooked into the recorder helps. Failing that get the sheet music or tab but I think its important learn as much as you can by ear in addition to practising scales, arprggios etc. I guess a huge shortcut is a well qualified expert in that style but it doesn't sound like thats possible for you at the moment. Have fun with it ..............Tom