View Full Version : Right-hand technique

Jun-13-2004, 7:17am
Hi all!

Yesterday I bought a new mandolin that was built (or more likely manufactured) by Manuel Velasco. It is avery small flat-top and ftat-back mandolin with the neck attached to the body at the tenth fret.

I noticed that when I play it like I play my archtop mandolin, the sound is fairly muffeled. When I play it without resting on the top or back of the mandolin it sounds superb.

This got me thinking about what is an apprpriate playing technique, with wich the top and the back are allowed to resonate freely?

does anyone has any advice, or pictures that show the "propper" placement for the right hand?

That would really help!


Bob A
Jun-14-2004, 10:49am
I have no pictures for you, but many mandolin methods suggest locating the forearm on the tailpiece and arching the wrist over the top of the instrument, to prevent muffling the sound as well as promoting a flexible right hand technique.

Playing the instrument in a seated position would allow you to keep the back away from your body somewhat, letting it resonate more freely. The "toneguard" device used by some Gibson players does this mechanically: it clamps to the bady of the instrument andkeeps it away from the player. Don't know whether this would fit your mandolin.

A nice thing about bowlbacks is the fact that the arch of the bowl acts in a way that keeps most of the back away from the player's body. I'm sure this helps in tone production.

Jim Garber
Jun-14-2004, 11:15am
The other advantage of many of the Italian-style bowlbacks is that they have a built in "tone-gard" in the armrest which arches over the tailpiece. I assume that your Spanish mandolin does not have such an arrangement.

Jun-14-2004, 1:33pm
a lot of people are skeptical of tone guards but truely they work. and you have proven it with out one. when any instrument is rested against your body you are reducing the amount of natural vibration of the wood. thus you are lowing the natural volume and giving your mandolin a bad tone. tone guards and armrests are very good things to have on a mandolin.

Jun-14-2004, 5:34pm
But to return to the original question, rephrased by me:
The photo of Ranieri recently posted, and the photo of him on
www.mandolinorkest.nl, shows the third thru fifth fingers of his right-hand resting on the mandolin. I personally am more comfortable and accurate with my fifth finger resting on the pickguard but have forced myself to stop doing so, assuming that this will damp vibrations on the soundboard. Photos of Aonzo seem to show him using a "fist". Is there a consensus on this subject or is it personal preference? Note that I'm asking strictly from the viewpoint of classical, not bluegrass.

Jim Garber
Jun-14-2004, 8:57pm
from S. Ranieri, L'Art de la Mandoline:

The right forearm musty be placed a little to the left of the strings, so that when #the G string is played the plectrum is at right angles to the string and strikes it with the flat side. #As in the case of other stringed instruments, a usual mistake is to play with the arm. From the very beginning the pupil must take care not to move the arm but to play from the wrist, which must be kept supple.

I don't think that Sr. Ranieri's fingers (in the photo) are resting on the top of the mandolin but are in a relaxed curve similar to what Carlo Aonzo does.


Jun-15-2004, 1:23am
Thanks guys,

I played a bowlback mandolin yesterday, and that one had an armrest. It is a lot easier when you have such a thing.

But I'm surely going to practice on that ranieri pose.

Martin Jonas
Jun-15-2004, 4:24am
As a matter of curiosity, would an armrest like in the photo posted by Jim have been standard on late 19th century Italian mandolins? #I'm wondering whether my Ceccherini (post-1881 and I think pre-1900) ever had one or not. #At present, it has neither an armrest nor a tailpiece cover; just the tailpiece itself with the strings out in the open throughout.


Bob A
Jun-15-2004, 9:50am
Martin, my Ceccherini has a shield-like device that covers the ends of the strings, and curves over the tailpiece to hook onto some pegs thereon. I'va also seen one on a de Meglio. It's somewhat fragile (not least because it's covered in tortoise with wire inlay) and I suspect most of these things have been lost over the decades.

It makes a poor substitute for an armrest, but may help prevent fraying of sleeve or forearm.

Most of the bowlback armrests I've seen have been structurally integrated to the instrument: indeed, given the lack of uniformity of shape, there could be little scope for an aftermarket solution, except a rest handmade for a particular instrument.

Jun-17-2004, 12:20pm
I don't think that Sr. Ranieri's fingers (in the photo) are resting on the top of the mandolin but are in a relaxed curve similar to what Carlo Aonzo does.
Looking at this photo from http://www.mandolineorkest.nl/informatie/eninformatie02e.htm#inf02e
(also attached) it seems physically impossible that his fingertips AREN'T resting on the soundboard. And curiously the quote you provided from his method book makes no statement on the subject. So my question is, is there a "definitive" statement on the subject (Ranieri or elsewhere), insofar as anything is definitive in music. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif

Bob A
Jun-17-2004, 12:32pm
I can definitely state that I have seen world-class performers who rest the little finger on the top; also seen curled fingers lightly brushing pickguard as a steadying technique. It is doubtless correct to assume that this is poor technique, nevertheless I'd kill for the ability to play like these folk.

Best advice from an untalented hack: try to develop your skill in such a way as to prevent resting on the top, but know that, as with all things mandolin, there is no single correct way.

Jim Garber
Jun-17-2004, 2:15pm
All right... I never took any lessons from Sr. Ranieri and your are correct, nickgeo: I find nothing in the explanatory notes in his method that mentions the prohibition of touching the top.

I have taken lessons and workshops with Carlo Aonzo however and he does teach the way of arching the right arm over the bridge (barely touching it), using curled fingers and not touching the soundboard.


Jim Garber
Jun-17-2004, 2:36pm
And for your entertainment pleasure and edification... here is a quote (rather curious English translation) from Munier's Scuola del Mandolino:

Lean your right arm on the upper part of the mandoline, neither too high nor too low: so that your hand lies across the harmonical-board.
Keep the wrist a little bent and about an inch away from the trestle.
The other fingers of this hand must be open – the little finger slides on the harmonical board and it is a guide for the tremelo.

I assume that this means that you keep your hand above the bridge (trestle - "chevalet" in French) and lightly touching the soundboard (harmonical-board).


Jun-17-2004, 2:51pm
If you click here (http://www.mandolineorkest.nl/samples/ensamples.htm) and download "Calace Prelude No2," you will see Sebastiaan de Grebber playing an Embergher in Roman style a la Ranieri pictured above. The fingers will not so much "rest" on the table as very slightly brush it. Without an arm rest, the bulk of contact with the right arm and hand will be focused in the forearm at the very edge of the instrument. While not too uncommon in other genres, it is very rare (I can't think of a single example) to see any classical players with the pinky--or anything else--planted to the table.

Jun-18-2004, 6:34am
[QUOTE]"also seen curled fingers lightly brushing pickguard as a steadying technique. It is doubtless correct to assume that this is poor technique"

Well... yes and no (I think). While limiting the mobility of the hand by planting in on the pickguard (or anywhere else for that matter) is obviously a bad thing, I wouldn't worry too much about the curled fingers brushing against the pickguard, as long of course as said brushing is light, occasional, and non-restrictive.

Especially when playing old Neapolitans, whose fingerboards are wafer-thin, whose bridges are low, and which consequently keep the player's hand veeeeeeery close to the soundboard, I cannot see how one can avoid the occasional "brush with the tortoise-shell" without undue anxiety and preoccupation. Point in fact: The visible wear on the TS of my de Meglio and Ceccherini; vice versa, the slight chance that I should ever touch the pickguard of my modern bowlbacks, with their thicker fingerboards and (naturally) higher bridges.

Then again, my statement above may simply be a candid confession of MY poor technique! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Jun-18-2004, 8:14am
Hi all,

I thought I'd chime in here, mostly redundantly with others who have contributed. As it happens, I've been playing with a long wooden plectrum (thanks to Alex and Sebastian Nunez) this week on a couple of 18th-century mandolins (Cremonese and Milanese). While these instruments are not the subject here, experience with them may contribute to the discussion. The Ranieri technique, of course, also includes a long (pivoting) plectrum as per Sebastiaan de Grebber's inspiring example.

Anyway, on these lightly-built 18th-century instruments, it becomes *essential* to stay clear of the top and the bridge for good sound production. With tops that are less than 1mm thick, not only does right-hand contact with the top damp the sound, any light brushing of the top or bridge produces an audible sound. Of course, there are always cases when one accidently brushes the top, or hits it with a plectrum, but those should be the exception, not the rule. This holds true for lightly-built 18th-century mandolins as well.

Later Neapolitan instruments are, of course, more heavily-built, but good sound production would seem to advise minimal contact with the top here too. In my experiments with a long plectrum, its easy (and very ergonomic) to let the right hand fingers hover just above the table. I believe this is what both Ranieri and Sebastiaan are doing.

Practice it slowly for a while and it will come quickly.


Jun-18-2004, 8:28am
I agree. Please note, however, that both instruments I was referring to have a rather thick, tortoise-shell pickguard glued ONto the soundboard. I cannot imagine that minimal contact with the superimposed TS plate would have a substantial adverse acoustical effect.

But, all in all, Eric is 100% right: "Hovering above" beats "planted on" any day.

Jun-18-2004, 8:53am
There are, of course, other reasons for not "planting" on the bridge, or even relying on little finger contact with a pickguard. If you plant, you must by necessity change the attitude with which the plectrum meets the strings, from one side of the instrument to the other (top to bottom string, for example). This means that you get a different attack and sound depending on what string you are playing on.

Even the arm on the edge of the instrument should not be planted or fixed completely, it must be able to move up and down to allow a consistent position on all courses. This becomes apparent when you play scales on a six-course Milanese or Lombardian mandolin. When playing on the lower g-string, a planted right hand, or dragging right-hand fingers, would completely change the right-hand position for the worse.


Alex Timmerman
Jun-18-2004, 5:36pm
Hello all,

You are right Eric, and how nice to hear that you practise and ´feel´ the advantages of the long quil/plectra.

Since the discussion here is getting focussed on Silvio Ranieri, I thought it would be a good idea to add some nice close up pictures that illustrate how to hold the Embergher/Ranieri plectrum.

Thanks to Ruth (Consort member)- who took the photo´s today - you can also get an idea of how close the right hand fingers ´hover´ (I like that word!) above the table and of what length the tip of the plectrum has to stick out towards the string (that is, as I like it to be).



From beneath

Alex Timmerman
Jun-18-2004, 5:38pm
From above

Alex Timmerman
Jun-18-2004, 5:39pm
And from the front

Jun-18-2004, 8:07pm
Aha! Mandocam! Or is it Alexcam?

Thanks for the great photos Alex. Being new to this technique, I do have a couple of additional questions.

1) I presume that you really do allow the plectrum to pivot (flop back and forth) between the thumb and index finger? This seems to happen quite naturally for me. How tightly do you hold the plectrum? With these wooden plectra, it seems that slightly more pressure than is required to keep it from falling is almost all that is required. This light pressure, in turn, keeps the right-hand wrist and arm very loose and relaxed.

2) Its hard to decide just how the plectrum should contact the string. I presume that its best to have a slight angle so that the curved edge of the plectra slides along the string as it is plucked? Assuming that this is true, which edge should go first? Given the acute angle I see (by this I mean that the pick is held acute with regard to the plane of the string, leaning towards the peg-head), it seems that having the back edge of the plectrum (toward the tailpiece) should strike the string on the downstroke, with the front edge (that toward the peg-head) striking the string on the upstroke. This position seems to have the most in common with the 18th-century tutors to me.

Or... is it simply that the flexibility of the plecra is
all you need for a good tone?

Questions, questions...


Alex Timmerman
Jun-19-2004, 3:24pm
Hello Eric and others,

Yes, the long part of the plectrum that ticks out has to be free to enable its pointed tip to move up and down in the opposite direction of the point with which the actual(down and up) stroke is made.

The plectrum itself is held very, very lightly between the thumb and index finger. With this light toughing of the plectrum a natural mf sound is found. From there #p, pp and ppp are made by holding the plectrum even lighter between the fingertips. Also the other way around; creating f, ff and fff is done by toughing the plectrum more firmly. But always in a such a way that part of the plectrum that sticks out can move up and down freely. #

It is really up to the skill of the performer to bring the range of dynamics of the mandolin to live with the possibilities of his right-hand plectrum technique.

The early quills made of cherry wood and the ones made of birds feather - both being of the long plectra type - funtion in exactly the same way.

The photo below obviously shows how the Embergher /Ranieri plectrum should NOT be held.



Alex Timmerman
Jun-19-2004, 4:10pm
The outstretched little finger and the placing of it on the scratchplate (in this way) is also something that I would advise against.
Not only because the right hand becomes easely ´locked up´ and therefore tensed (because of the opposite direction of the little finger with the other fingers), but also since it hinders the important movements of the right-hand wrist.

If one wants and likes to have contact with the little finger on the soundboard/scratchplate it is best to have this with the bent inwards last phalanx of the little finger as shown in photo ´And from the front ´ in one of my previous post here.

Alex Timmerman
Jun-19-2004, 4:50pm
Here are some close-ups of the plectrum when a down- and up-stroke on the 3rd string are made and on which the down- and up-ward movements of the outer part of the Embergher/Ranieri plectrum can be seen.

When one wants to study this type of plectrum it is adviced to start playing with a thin and flexible example. And because of reasons of volume, gradually move to a more heavy and rigid one.

The flexibility of the Embergher/Ranieri plectrum is not so much to be found in the plectrum itself, but lies in the free movements that it can make when it is held losely between the fingertips of the thumb and forefinger.



Alex Timmerman
Jun-19-2004, 5:58pm
Hello again,

Eric, the Embergher/Ranieri plectrum should fall flat on the string. So not glide from the string on an edge of the plectrum.
It glides from the string(s) by the very tip of it´s point. One should also take in account that this plectrum type is filed radious on both of it´s sides.

However, when a certain technique for a musical phrase is needed like for instance ´staccato´, playing down strokes with the back edge of the plectrum (toward the tailpiece -as you so rightly pointed out- ) can surely be effective.

With the more flexible wooden and birds quills (the Embergher/Ranieri plectrum are made of tortoise shell or celluloid) it is indeed not easily said how the plectrum should fall best on the string.

When a flat wooden quill is prefered I think you are right; its best to have a slight angle so that the curved edge of the plectra slides along the string as it is plucked. Down-stroke = back edge (toward the tailpiece) and up-stroke = front edge of the plectrum (toward the peg-head). #

But also here one can imagine that the edges of the quill are sharp and the sides are filed radius.
Especially if one wants to have more sound (and that was what they needed around 1800 ´competing´ with the harpsichord and Hammerklavier) a more rigid and thicker wooden quill seems best for the Cremonese and Milanese mandolins.

The feather quill, as I have pointed out in the Birds Feather Topic somewhere here at the board, does have one radius and one hollow side. And as you can see on the images, I hold that quill with it´s hollow side upwards. Held in this way the down-stroke - which has to be the strongest in music - is played with the radius side of the feather quill (in a way quite similar to the Embergher/Ranieri plectrum). #



Jun-20-2004, 4:48pm
Thank you again Alex. Very intersting indeed, and food for much more experimentation on my part. Unfortunately I've changed most everything about my right-hand finger-style technique this week... so the plectrum will have to wait a little while if I am to keep my small brain from exploding! :-)

I very much like the idea of a single plectrum technique that can be applied across multiple types of mandolins, and multiple types of plectrum material. Especially since that technique seems to be historically-informed.



Jun-23-2004, 10:18am
As always, I'm amazed at the depth of knowledge
and experience displayed on this forum. I've
struggled with the usual guitar picks and the
right-hand from the start, only to find that the
problems were solved 400 years ago. But where else
would I learn what the solutions were? I had
decided that I needed to "customise" the picks,
but I am now saved hours of experimentation.
...and I wasn't even the original writer...
Thanks to all.

May-27-2011, 3:11pm
Also this thread from the past - I thought it had been gone - is worth to be saved !

Thanks, Schlegel !


Jun-19-2013, 4:51pm
Just a bump to this thread as I'm in the throws of experimentation with the E/R plectrum. (Though I've been using a black fibre material used in electrial bulkheads which seems just perfect. Even if it looks disconcertingly just like ebony)