MMC Lesson One: Music Theory and Monkeys

  1. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    This lesson is part of a Study Group for Mandolin Master Class by Brad Laird.
    To start at the beginning, go to this thread:
    To purchase a copy of the book we're using, go here:
    List of all lessons in this series can be found here:

    Lesson One: Music Theory and Musical Monkeys

    This lesson introduces us to some deep concepts about playing music from the soul and with a purpose. Brad Laird makes some points at the outset of his book to set the tone for what is coming. In this lesson, we’ll digest Brad’s ruminating about monkeys on typewriters, apply what we can about those concepts to our own playing, and we’ll begin our study of music theory.

    This lesson covers the section of Brad’s book titled “Monkeys on typewriters” and begins the section on “Learning to speak the language of music,” part one.


    1. Study pages 1 – 6: Monkeys on Typewriters and the first few pages of Learning to speak the language of music. As you study, you will need to pay attention to the following:
    a. Brad made an error playing a phrase early in his career, and the error led to opening up his exploring improvisation. (p. 1)

    b. The monkeys Jethro, Stubby, Bongo and Jimbo each have different results on their typewriters. How can you relate aspects of your own mandolin experience to each of them? Can you? (p. 2)

    c. What do you think about “using random motion as an experimental tool to find new things that sound good” on your mandolin? Have you ever done that? With mandolin in hand try it. (p. 2)

    d. When Brad writes about combining “the technical ability of Bongo with the intelligence and sensitivity of Jimbo” do you get his point? Can you think of at least one way you might move toward that goal? (p. 2)

    e. Starting on page three, there is a basic introduction to music theory beginning with the notes of Western music. Make sure you understand the music theory being taught, and ask questions if you need any clarification. (pp. 3 – 6)

    f. With your mandolin, play all the tablature between page 1 & 6, and think about what Brad has written about each example. (pp. 1 – 6)

    g. Spend a few minutes playing the G and G# major scales in first position each day until the next lesson. The Scales, as written, can be pretty boring. Can you think of ways to play the scales that are not quite so boring? This is part of your assignment, see if you can find ways to vary the rhythm and add notes in a few places to make practicing these scales more interesting.

    2. Study pages 44 – 45, ending with Self-Test #1 on Music Theory. When you have understood the material, take the self-test and check your answers. If you are unclear about anything in this part of the music theory introduction, ask questions below.

    3. For those who are totally new to music theory, I invite you to read the articles on music theory I’ve been working on. They cover roughly the same material Brad has covered from my own perspective. They have not been tested, so use at your own risk and let me know how you think they could be improved. The first three are visible here:

    To get feedback, just post a comment or video in this thread.


    "Monkeying Around"

    "Spicing Up Your Scales"

    "G and G#/Ab Scales Practice"

    Download a PDF File for this lesson:


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  2. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Some notes (or disclaimers )

    In the first video, I don't intend to say that Brad was playing a Dm scale in the second part of the first TAB in the book - I don't know what he was playing, only that the first part fits an A scale and the second part fits a Dm scale, or sounds good over a Dm chord. Anyway, the point I was making is that in your assignment I want you to noodle around on your mandolin to see what you can come up with creatively. I mentioned the A scale and the Dm scale only because Brad's examples were close at hand. Your own imagination can work for you. To "monkey around", use anything as your starting point: A scale you're learning, a tune you know, or just a single note or chord that you like. Depending on your current skill level, this may be difficult, or it may come easily. None of that really matters while you're "monkeying around." Try to find series of notes that you like the sound of, and see where it can lead you. We will have more "monkeying around" sessions in later lessons as a way for you to gauge how your skill in speaking the language of music is coming along. Have fun with it.

    In the second video, at one point I spoke about a G scale but I actually played a D scale. Did you catch it? I'm sure I'll be hearing about that at some point

    The variations I played on the G scale can be used with closed position scales like G# as well, although using the octave between scale repetitions is more difficult, requiring a little stretch between the index finger and pinky to play the octave notes together. It's good exercise.

    And by the way, if you're really, really new at playing strings, don't be discouraged if you can't quite get the variations. Just learn the simplest form of the scales, and study the music theory and ask questions. Everyone has to start somewhere.

    We're going to learn all the scales in first position coming up. So, if you are very new, please don't fret about learning variations and swing rhythms. I'm offering those for the guys who are bored with straight scales. It is important first to learn the scales and try to understand how they work. For many newbies, this is plenty to deal with.
  3. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Following are some excerpts taken from responses to the original Lesson One thread in the Newbies Social Group:

    BJ O'Day:
    Part of the problem I have with using books is they can be very dry. What you are doing is making Brad's book more interesting because I'm not doing it alone. Thank you and Thanks to Brad for being supportive and provided his material at a very reasonable price.

    I am glad I am here and I am looking forward to more. Meanwhile, practicing that G# scale and variations. If I can get that down pat, the Ab scale will be easy, right?

    I've only scratched the surface of the reading....I really want to do this and will do my best

    Mark: I am impressed by the questions you put forward. This is exactly the kind of thought process I had in mind for the reader.

    Everyone: If I need to clarify anything in the book I will be delighted to attempt to do so. I must, however, state that book arose over the course of a few days of rapid-fire, "stream of consciousness" style thinking so direct quotes and page numbers would make it easier for me to review what I scrawled years ago. Also, it would be very easy to miss something directed to me so, if it is vital, please email me to rattle my cage. I have a feeling that, in most cases, it would be more interesting to hear what you think something "means."

    Have fun, everyone. This is a great start. Thumbs up!

    One more thing... The observant may have noticed that many of my mandolin video lessons (free and otherwise) seem to go hand in hand with Master Class. If that is you then you read my mind because when I was asked to do those video lessons I chose many of the topics to serve as illustrations and demonstrations of things I put in Master Class.

    What I will do, from time to time, is link to a video lesson (from memory, I think the bulk of them are freebies) which was conceived exactly to do just that. They illustrate an important musical idea stated, perhaps in a single sentence, in Master Class. That was, more or less, my mindset in choosing what I would turn into video lessons.

    So, in keeping with Mark's "study group" item 1e, here is the first such video. It is simply called "What Is A Major Scale?" I am linking to the page on my own site, even though it is hosted on YouTube, because the tab/notation that goes with it will be on the page right below it. YouTube doesn't do that and having it handy is helpful. So here is my link which will help anyone who is at "1e":

    Now I have to go find my calculator and try to get my tribute paid to the IRS.

    And, lastly, the initiated will understand my twitter avatar, Jimbo: (By the way, I am not doing shameless self-promotion here. I don't often look at my own twitter account either! haha But that's where Jimbo is the star of the show.)
  4. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Following is feedback received for lesson one in the original Newbies Group post:


    Feedback on Lesson #1 as I start #2

    First I should mention that in Jr and Sr High School (secondary education in the USA, usually age 12 - 17), I was in the band. FWIW I played clarinets and saxophones. That was over 50 yrs ago. Have not really had to read music since, but I still do. Somewhat ploddingly. After high school I played 5-string banjo about 10 years and got well acquainted with reading tablature. I say all that to establish that I did know scales at one time on some wind instruments, I did read music pretty well, and so while my musical backround is very rusty now, it is still there. Thus in some ways, some of these lessons may be review, but it is much needed review. Furthermore, my fingers and brain both need to learn the mandolin and my fingers need to regain youthful dexterity (and then get even more agile).

    1. I am finding the 'telephone number trick' (221-2221)to be very helpful as I stumble through a scale with 18 sharps or whatever. I never knew that trick before; I guess because back then we only had 5 digits in a phone number. Lots of folks had even fewer. My aunt's phone had a hand crank and her 'number' was two long rings and a short ring.

    2. I have been very comfortable with the G and A scales for a long time, but I have avoided anything that requires fretting at the first fret. So the G# scale has me stumbling around. It is getting smoother though.

    3. It is more difficult for me to get a cleanly fretted and crisp sounding note on the G string than on any other. Especially with my pinkie (little finger) up on the 6th fret. My reach is just not quite long enough and I have to move my left hand a little bit to get to the 6th fret and then move it back again to come down to the 1st fret with my first finger.

    So in summary, I would say that the music theory part of this lesson was mostly review for me (albeit needed and welcome). The practical part (G# major scale) was and still is challenging.
  5. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Thanks for the feedback, Hank, it has helped me to focus. I'm going to add a couple more supplemental videos to both lessons that will more closely follow what Brad is actually presenting there.

    I was also pretty impressed with Brad's "telephone number" trick. Like you, I learned some basic music theory in grade school band class. 40 years later, I was somehow still able to recall almost verbatim the definition we had to memorize on the major scale. A few years ago, I started using that knowledge to write out major scales in longhand, finding relative minor scales that way, building chords, etc. This past January, my birthday present to myself was to have the circle of fifths tattooed on the inside of my right forearm. As my forum signature suggests, I love studying, playing and sharing music! Bottom line, with my own sketchy knowledge of music theory, I could easily make scales in a heartbeat from any note on a single string. But Brad's distilling that down to a "phone number" approach is an impressive way of teaching it to pretty much anybody. Brad is a gifted teacher. I included that particular video along with a link to his page on my website page on Major scales.

    Concerning the G# scale - You're doing the right thing, which is taking your time to practice it. I have issues with arthritis in my hands, and some techniques can be a little painful, but the stretches get better over time with practice. In my own experience, playing stringed instruments and pushing the stretches to improve clean picking techniques has actually helped my arthritic hands. It doesn't cure anything, or eliminate all the pain, but it keeps a healthy range of motion possible. The key is to take the time to practice safely. Some pain is OK, but there is a fine line between gaining ground and injuring yourself, so slow and steady does it. When I play up to speed, I sometimes miss some notes altogether and have trouble keeping it clean, but I believe that slow and steady practice with a metronome can improve it.

    Here's a short clip of a guy with small hands making this G scale look so easy; he's stretching the index and pinky five frets across on a big guitar fretboard. Stuff like this inspires me, but I can't even do this slowly without pain, and my fingers are longer than his.

  6. bradlaird
    I loved that video of Brian Sutton. His comment about "the neck all the way through my arm" is so important. He gets it. It's the whole body, not just the fingers.

    I would caution mandolin people that the way he is playing the guitar (knuckle line parallel with the side the fingerboard) is not how most mandolin players approach the neck. With mandolin it is more efficient to keep the hand "open"... that is: base of 1st finger near or touching neck near the nut and edge of hand (that part you break boards with when practicing your karate) pretty far from the neck. Mandolin fingers (except when odd notes require it) angle across the strings, not fanned out like a classical guitarist.

    What he is doing is perfect for what he is doing. But, we play mandolin, so keep that in mind. My advice, is get the back of the hand vertical with reference to the floor as much as you can, with the neck somewhat elevated, and angle across the frets. You'll get amazing reach and "stretch" with NO stretch. It's all just extension at that point.

    And lastly, "being aware of any tension in the left arm and shoulders"... he states that and just moves on very quickly, but that is IT. Crack that nut and you are the new Thile. Ignore that simple advice, or don't learn to manage it, and you will be forever in the league of crummy pickers who struggle. We don't want that, now do we? Be aware of tension.
  7. Sherry Cadenhead
    Sherry Cadenhead
    I finally started these materials! How accomplished should I be at playing the "odd" scales prior to moving on to lesson 2? That stretching is really painful, which I suppose is to be expected initially - even with proper hand position.
  8. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    You don't have to be accomplished, Sherry, beyond just learning how to play the G scale and the G# scale. You have the rest of your life to practice them, lesson 1 introduces those two & lesson 2 introduces the other ten.
  9. Guitfiddle Mike
    Guitfiddle Mike
    Ok guys and gals,
    Bumping MMC Lesson 1 up for those wanting to get started. I've read most of the book and am ready to do some monkeying around on my mando.
  10. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Cool, chimp away at it, Mike!
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