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The Fifth Course

Stupid Mandola Tricks

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This quote from the recent Mike Marshall interview got my attention:
I just borrowed a nylon string mandolin from Caterina Lichtenberg that with a little work, I think is going to be very very hip. I have always wanted one of these. I think I may tune it to a E, B, F#, C# (low to high) to make it a little looser. This will put it right in between a mandolin and a mandola. I know we all really don't like the Key of E, so imagine playing a G chord and sounding an E! You can do this if you put a mandolin set of strings on your mandola. It works nicely.
I have been looking around for a way to use a mandolin family instrument as vocal back up in place of guitar, and the above suggestion seemed like it might hold some promise.

So I yanked the mandola strings off my mandola and installed mandolin strings. I tuned up to EBF#C#, checked the intonation, and started playing. At first I wasn't sure I liked it. The mandola had a nice rich low end tuned CGDA, and this tuning is naturally higher. Also, transposition from G down to E is not as quick and easy in my head as transposition from G down to C.

But as I've been playing it more, it has gotten easier. I only need to transpose once. If I get the key right, then the changes usually happen accordingly by muscle memory.

Now I'm pretty comfortable with it and beginning to develop a repertoire of cover material.
  • Across the Great Divide
  • When You Say Nothing At All
  • Last Train From Poor Valley
  • People Get Ready
  • Under African Skies
  • The Bird Song

I have even been toying with Hotel California. Indeed playing it on a mando family instrument has opened it up to me. I kind of get why it's so freakin' catchy now. But playing that progression on this instrument is a little labored. It takes a guitar. Or maybe a mandocello strung with octave mandolin strings and tuned EBF#C# and octave below where I am now.

Ok so this isn't Bluegrass. If you're a BG purist, you wouldn't be playing a 'dola anyway. But if you're into 'dola chances are you love tuning in fifths. You might live fifths so much that you have done something radical to a guitar. So this might be a nice way to get the 'dola into a sweet spot for you, especially if you sing.

One more thing. Buy a banjo capo. Capo the first fret and you're playing the G scale in the key of F. Capo the third fret and you're playing the G scale in the key of --You Guessed it!-- G! Ta da! Mandolin!

I've already used the capo 3 trick in band practice on a soft folk tune in G (or C, I forget). It sounds sweeter and the sustain is better with the larger body. But do not expect "chop" this way. You still need a real mandolin for that.

So if you're looking to change things up, play in different keys, and/or sing to the 'dola swap the strings and crank on those tuning machines!

Here's a video of me using the 'dola:


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Acoustic Adventures


  1. mculliton123's Avatar
    Fantastic, great video great playing.

  2. Daniel Nestlerode's Avatar
    Thanks MC!
  3. John Hill's Avatar
    Great playing & singing Daniel.

    So is this the 'dola (Bridger or Aspen?) with mando strings tuned to EBF#C#? Sounds good.

  4. Daniel Nestlerode's Avatar
    The model name of my 'dola is Alder. It's a #2 because it has a maple neck and maple body. The #1 uses mahogany in those places.

    Thanks for the kind words!
    Subscribe to my YouTube Channel, there'll be more soon!

  5. Greg Ashton's Avatar
    Daniel, That does sound good. I'm going to have to give it a try. I used to have an Alder #1 - it had maple back and sides. I thought that the # 1 just had simpler binding and finish than the #2.