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Thread: Tips for Learning - Beginners

  1. #1
    Eternal Beginner Seamus B's Avatar
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    Default Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Hey all - I thought I might pick your brains about good, interesting, or less well-known tips and tricks for learning the mandolin for a relative beginner.

    I bought my Eastman 305 a couple of years ago and I love it dearly, but without clear tuition or structure I found myself ignoring the hard stuff or moving on frustrated from playing difficult chords. It meant that I eventually hit a wall and stopped playing.

    I picked her up again in the summer and decided to seek out private tuition which has been amazing and very helpful. For instance, I never learned scales before because I found them boring and hard to learn. Now, I see their point, it's rather like the wax-on/wax-off part of The Karate Kid. You don't understand their usefulness until you start playing songs that use scale structure. A good example of this would be my inability to strum the A chord, or reach the 7th fret on the E-string. Playing scales has meant I can now do this - I learned the Kesh Jig just this week and can play it pretty well thanks to also learning the E major scale. My pinky jumps straight to that 7th fret without me having to modify my hand position - something I never thought I would achieve.

    So here is my regimen:

    - Every day I practice scales (at the moment just the major scales G, C, D, A, E). I also practice them with double notes to build in variation.
    - I practice strumming and picking a couple of simple songs, to help with rhythm which is my achilles heel
    - I learn a song per week, usually by accessing the latest songs on Mandolessons
    - Each day I play through the songs I know, which now totals about 12

    So my weak points are rhythm, strumming (particularly tricky notes like the F), and I have to say I struggle to learn scales. The pentatonic scales are throwing me completely but I am trying my best.

    So, it's a general question, but is there anything that beginners can learn or try out that helps with overall playing in your experience?

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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    I've been playing for a little over ten years now, and am still learning a lot of the "foundation" theory material that you describe. I tend to go through spurts where I go back to it every couple of months, then get busy with work or playing with our praise band, and lose focus for a while. I'm getting motivated again to get back on it. Even with this inefficient approach, it is sticking little by little.

    The one thing that has always spurred growth, without fail, has been playing with others, and particularly those that are better than me. "Performing" also motivates me, not because I want to look good (my willingness to humiliate myself far outweighs my lack of talent ), but because I want those watching (or, in church, participating/worshipping) to have a good experience, and I want to do whatever I'm playing justice. I always leave jams, regardless of how informal, motivated and a little smarter/better.

    So, try to find some one or several some ones to make music with. You'll be glad that you did!! Keep working on the stuff you're doing, too, but playing with others will accelerate things for you...
    Chuck

  3. #3
    Be Wild Zach Wilson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Find others (jams) to play with. You'll be encouraged, frustrated (good-growth), stretched, ECT.

    Don't worry if you don't know a tune, just sit out (listen-enjoy) or follow the chords.

    Playing with others is good for learning rhythm (strumming).

    My other advice is; don't sleep on your hands.

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    Orrig Onion HonketyHank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    It sounds to me like you are building a good base. And you have identified some weaknesses that you want/need to work on. That's a huge good start. I don't have any specific solutions to offer as I am a Newbie myself. But I would like to invite you to take a look at the Newbies social group where we all struggle with and discuss the same types of issues.

    Plus, I am confident you will get some great discussion here in this thread, as demonstrated above. Welcome back to the mandolin!
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    Registered User mandocaster's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Congratulations on your decision to learn the coolest instrument.

    I've been playing mando for around 40 years. Periodically, I imagine what I would have done differently if I was a beginner. There has already been good advice here.

    I would add ear training. Try to connect what you hear to what you play. Think of some very familiar tune, Jingle Bells or whatever, and try to work out the melody. Try to figure out what key it's in and what the chords are. (Not necessarily in that order) You get better at this process the more you practice it.
    I don't mean to imply that you should neglect theory, scales, arpeggios, or sight reading. Those things are great and have their place. I feel that I spent too much time with the technical aspect of music early on.

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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Every day I practice scales in every key, starting with C and working backward through the circle of fifths, which is the circle of fourths. Do this in the first position and you have all the possible major scale patterns. This really gets your pinkie working, and develops your ability to stretch. I need to work on minor scales next. I vary the scales, sometimes jumping in thirds, sometimes three and four note patterns, but I always try to do a picking exercised at the same time. Tremolo one day, lagato or staccato the next. Also trying to make up and down strokes sound the same is a big one. I can play the D flat scale along with the G.

    I find that when learning fiddle tunes, your fingers remember the patterns from the scales and when unsure of where the next note is, your guesses are more often right. I'm also using the scales to try to learn where all the notes on the fretboard are. I think scales help you pick up tunes by ear faster too.
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  9. #7

    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Do you want to improvise or to just be able to play some tunes?
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    Eternal Beginner Seamus B's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Thanks all - much appreciated. It's been interesting catching the mandolin bug - waking up thinking about scales or a tune, or a section of a tune that is evading me. I seem to pick it up at any given moment and use it to relax in the evening and before bed.

    One thing I noticed as I started learning more scales is that I would always do the major scales in a particular order, but the problem of that is you learn the pattern. So, I would do G, C, D, A, E. But if you asked me to do D I would be thrown because I learned how to do it after C only. So now I mix them up willy-nilly and it is much easier. But hell, learning scales is really hard for me - much harder than learning a tune.

    CES & Zach - I absolutely know that I have to play with others at some point soon. I live in the UK and therefore there are lots of Irish Centres here (I am British/Irish). I asked my local one about their weekly sessions and they gave me a song list. But I am too intimidated to go along because I am still such a beginner. But I guess if they want someone to strum G, C, D and A along to a song I could manage that!

    HonketyHank - thank you, I will seek out the newbies section - I didn't know that existed or I would have posted there.

    mandocaster - that is a really good idea, and I am learning to play songs now by my growing intuitive awareness of where my finger should go next. In fact. I learned Star of the County Down last week not by constantly playing through using the tab sheet, but by knowing the song well, and then finding the right chords through trial and error. Great confidence moment when I eventually nailed it!

    br1ck - great advice! The scales are helping massively in the way you describe, the D and E major scales are really helping my pinky positioning on the E-string. Finding those 11th and 12th frets seemed impossible a couple of months ago but I eventually cracked it! Putting variance into my scales is the next step but I find it hard.

    Jonz - ultimately, I want to learn tunes and understand music theory better. I would like to be able to find a note by strumming or picking if asked, so that I can join in with songs. I still do not understand why a tune is in the key of G or C - and my ear cannot pick this sort of thing out.

  11. #9

    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    You say the scales are helping you, but my suggestion is to just drop them and spend the time on learning tunes. If you do stick with the scales, start to practice them in different patterns. Running through things you can already do is not a good strategy.

    The same goes for tunes. Eventually you will know enough tunes that you can’t practice them all every day. Practice the tunes that need some work.

    At first everything is new and everything needs work, so your practice time is all pretty effective. But as time goes on, you can’t treat all practice items equally. You will need to make decisions on practicing items that refresh an old skill or move a new skill forward. If you don’t make this transition, you will plateau.
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Only play as fast as you can--- correctly ! You don't want to learn the wrong way and than have to unlearn and learn all over the correct way ! This I have done and it takes a lot longer to relearn the correct way ! Practice slow until it becomes boring and than speed up ! Speed will come ! Band in the Box is a great tool for learning ! Even taking lessons from a great mandolin teacher will get you off on the right foot !
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by JonZ View Post
    ... If you do stick with the scales, start to practice them in different patterns.
    I was about to say this anyway, but Jon forces me to:

    At Jazzmando.com, the FFCP exercises (Four Finger Closed Position) might seem to be aimed at more advanced players, but they have benefits for players at all levels. Besides the obvious scale patterns, there are huge benefits in finger strength and flexibility, which we all need early on and ongoing! Plus you will be, inadvertently & somewhat painlessly, learning more advanced skills, saving the effort of having to attack them in the future. Nothing to lose, lots to gain!
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    Mangler of Tunes OneChordTrick's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    We also have a thread about this in the Newbies group: https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/g...093&do=discuss

    I’m still very new but the 3 things that help me are: breaking a piece into sections; playing slowly at first; finding a recording of the same arrangement that I’m learning to see how it should sound

  17. #13

    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    I think what you’re doing is great....and keep practicing scales and learning theory. There are those who will chime in and say who needs it but theory is the foundation of the music we play so why wouldn’t you study it. It’s like speaking a language without learning grammar, you’ll probably do ok but you’ll do so much better if you study the structure of language.

    Look at some of the method books out there...they generally start from the beginning so the first volume or two may be to easy (or be a great review) and it will help you advance in a structured way. I’ve been at music camsp with some of the best players in the world and they practice scales every day so I figured if it’s good enough for them then I should do it too.

    For rhythm find a jam and if you can’t get an app like iRealPro or play along with Bluegrass Junction (or whatever channel you like) or Pandora, keep learning tunes as well although one a week is pretty ambitious, they will solidify your learning and get the notes and patterns under your fingers. Have fun!
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    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Welcome to the Cafe Seamus!

    If you're going along to any of the trad sessions at the local Irish centre it's probably best to avoid strumming along or backing on the mandolin as that role is generally fulfilled by bouzouki or acoustic guitar, plus it's also an art unto itself if it's to be done well. You might ask the folks there if they hold or know of any "learners sessions" or "slow sessions" in the area.

    Another great resource for getting to grips with playing along with other instruments is the Wellington Sessions website - it has loads of tunes and a function that allows you to slow them waaaay down. It's a great way as well to start incrementally building up your speed when you're ready.
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    I forgot something really important. Practice with a metronome. Don't increase speed until you can play something with clarity. No almost fretted the note cleanly allowed. Strive for precision.
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    By all means if you don’t play with others, practice with a metronome. You’ll not develope timing playing only by yourself and with no timing no one will be able to play with you. As for speed I can work and work trying to play at a certain speed and just can’t do it, I’ll purposely speed up to a total botch for several trys and find that I can slow down to the speed I was working on an suddenly I can do lt.also every note perfectly clean is overrated in my opinion. If I could only listen to one player for the rest of my life, I’d rather it be Ron Thomason than Doyle Lawson better yet Bill Monroe. I like to listen to Lawson, not taking anything away from him but he’s so polished that I could tire of his playing, where the others have some ragged soul. YMMV

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    Mandolin Friendly Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by Seamus B View Post
    So my weak points are rhythm, strumming (particularly tricky notes like the F), and I have to say I struggle to learn scales.
    About the scales, not pentatonic, but Ed's tip is a good one; if you're not already using the FFcP approach in addition to others, you should check it out. Don't expect to "master" these exercises quickly. They can provide fun learning, practice and entertainment for a long time. They're from Jazzmando.com, but you can actually find them here at the cafe ... two pages (parts 1 & 2) and they come with mp3 tracks and PDF: First page here Second page here

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandoplumb View Post
    By all means if you don’t play with others, practice with a metronome. You’ll not develope timing playing only by yourself and with no timing no one will be able to play with you.
    A lot of wisdom there. You can play along with records (or the modern equivalent) to get the feel for rhythm, strum patterns, etc. and using a metronome otherwise, when you're alone, is great for keeping in time, but there's really no substitute for playing with others and paying attention if they have anything to suggest about your timing ...

    Happy Traum (to Sam Bush): "When you were first starting out, did you work on developing your sense of time? Because obviously, playing in rhythm is more than just strumming along, you've got to really have that sense of time - did you work with a metronome?"

    Sam Bush: "I did work with a metronome, but it was really more in practicing lead playing, I think. No, I found that the greatest practice of all for rhythm playing is to play in an ensemble."
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Practice with purpose. Doesn't hurt to have a chart/list, etc. Works pretty well for Evan Marshall, got me to use one.

    Don't practice sloppy. Slow down until its clean, more than one pass through. You'll soon go to jams where you'll play sloppy enough trying to keep up. You can get sloppy on purpose, but if you only practice sloppy, you can't get clean on purpose.

    Listen to the tone. Keep the clean tone the highest virtue.

    Sing/hum along with the melody, even only in your mind. It will help your ear training.

    Be patient with yourself. You probably have a few weeks before you go to the studio

    Relax and have fun. Its a great trip.
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  26. #19
    Registered User Tim N's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    [QUOTE

    Another great resource for getting to grips with playing along with other instruments is the Wellington Sessions website - it has loads of tunes and a function that allows you to slow them waaaay down. It's a great way as well to start incrementally building up your speed when you're ready.[/QUOTE]

    What a great resource! Thankyou for mentioning it
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by Br1ck View Post
    Every day I practice scales in every key, starting with C and working backward through the circle of fifths, which is the circle of fourths. Do this in the first position and you have all the possible major scale patterns. This really gets your pinkie working, and develops your ability to stretch..
    I love hearing about scales in ALL keys and using the 4th finger.

    Quote Originally Posted by JonZ View Post
    You say the scales are helping you, but my suggestion is to just drop them and spend the time on learning tunes. If you do stick with the scales, start to practice them in different patterns. Running through things you can already do is not a good strategy.
    It's hard to play a tune if you can't play the scale the tune is in.

    Quote Originally Posted by EdHanrahan View Post
    At Jazzmando.com, the FFCP exercises (Four Finger Closed Position) might seem to be aimed at more advanced players, but they have benefits for players at all levels. Besides the obvious scale patterns, there are huge benefits in finger strength and flexibility, which we all need early on and ongoing! Plus you will be, inadvertently & somewhat painlessly, learning more advanced skills, saving the effort of having to attack them in the future. Nothing to lose, lots to gain!
    I am also in favor of learning this way to play; you will be able to play in any key, any style of music and have the chops to play a wide variety of melodic material.

    You can still use open strings and first position too!

    OP: " Every day I practice scales (at the moment just the major scales G, C, D, A, E)"

    I would highly recommend learning Jazzmando.com's FFCP system, and adding the other keys to your scale practice.

    As in G, G#/Ab, A, Bb, B, C, etc.

    Learn them with AND without open strings - without is where the FFCP system will help immensely.

  29. #21

    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    I inadvertently use the FFcP concept by playing all 12 scales in the first position. Of course, there is some open note scales in there too, but all basses are covered.

    If you are trying to noodle over chord changes, I find a looper very helpful. If you can lay down a chord progression on guitar, mando, or both, you can play with the scale patterns you've been practicing.

    I've gone so far as to add bass so as to simulate playing with a band. As for developing a strong rhythmic sense, playing bass in a band for a couple of decades works wonders, especially if blessed with a good drummer.
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Jill’s point is well put. You do need to have same understanding of the mandolin’s role in the type of music you want to play, and work on that role. That said, don’t put off playing with others until you think you’re good enough to do so. Even if it’s just playing some three chord rock with a guitar playing friend, it will help develop your sense of timing and symbiosis needed to fit in well regardless of what you play!
    Chuck

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  32. #23
    Orrig Onion HonketyHank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by Jill McAuley View Post
    ...Another great resource for getting to grips with playing along with other instruments is the Wellington Sessions website - it has loads of tunes and a function that allows you to slow them waaaay down. It's a great way as well to start incrementally building up your speed when you're ready.
    Wow. What a nice repository of tunes! The slow downer slide is great. Plus the loop button. Plus many of the tunes are actual recordings instead of midi cartoon music. Thanks for posting that link. I will be using the website. For sure.
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  34. #24

    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    Quote Originally Posted by DavidKOS View Post
    It's hard to play a tune if you can't play the scale the tune is in.
    I played dozens of tunes well before learning any scales.

    Learning scales can help with learning to play by ear, because it tells you where the likely notes are, but if you can sight read, it isnít necessary. I know my scales now, but it still takes about the same amount of time to learn a tune.
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  36. #25
    Registered User Tim N's Avatar
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    Default Re: Tips for Learning - Beginners

    In humility, and realising that not all will agree with me, I'd like to offer my experience as a learner. And I certainly wouldn't dare to contradict any of the wisdom and experience already written!

    An important aspect of learning is motivation and maintaing attention, which I believe are related, and there is nothing more motivating than actually learning a tune, or a tune section, and being able to play it through, even if not very well at first. When a toddler starts walking, he or she still falls over an awful lot, but doesn't reason that it would be better to wait until later before trying again. The child learns by doing. And I believe that with discipline, and attention to all related aspects of playing (posture, clean picking and finger positioning etc), using tunes primarily is a great and encouraging way to learn, right from the begining.

    My primary interest is in learning Traditional Irish Music (Jigs, Reels etc ) as a melody player, to help and complement my playing as an accompanist on bouzouki. I've noticed that many of these tunes (but also other tunes,such as Christmas carols, which are a bit less complex) in themselves provide a lot of practice opportunities with scales, or parts of scales, or patterns within scales. OK, this might be largely limited to the keys of D & G and related minors, but, well, for me, that is what I want to play, and I 'm not personally interested in other styles, or becoming a mandolin master or all-rounder. I spend a lot of dedicated time practicing a number of popular session tunes, occasionally adding a new one to keep the interest up and stretch the repertoire. I'm at a stage where I'm beginning to see that buckets of regular practice and repetition really does stimulate the brain and produce fruit in the form of better playing and the ability to remember tunes - and even better, to distinguish between tunes that previously all sounded the same to me!
    This is hugely motivating, and encourages me a) to move on, but also b) to go back and consolidate and improve my playing of what I can already do. I freely confess that I do not spend time with learning scales on their own - so yes, that will limit me in some ways, but at 55 I am anxious to get on and get on and enjoy the fruits of playing - within the parameters I have chosen for myself, and in that context I find that tunes themselves are a wonderful means of learning, because they are what it is all about. And I really DO work hard, and have found much good advice here on the Cafe.

    I'm not saying it's necessarily the best way to learn - obviously that is not true, because I will never go very far as a mandolin player. However, I beg to defend that for some of us it may be sufficient and give us enough challenge and room for growth for the rest of our lives. I'm getting a lot of joy out of it - which is also what it's all about, and I'm hopeful that it's doing alot of good for my little grey cells
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