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Thread: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

  1. #1

    Default Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    I played bluegrass, mostly back-up, in a small band for many years. I enjoyed it but didn't love it. I was classically trained on the flute, particularly enjoying the baroque style, and thought to change up my playing on my old Kentucky with some classical mandolin.

    The trills and other ornamentation in the book I purchased, with accompanying music examples, seem to be impossible to duplicate in sound, however. I was hoping a switch to a lighter gauge would help, and perhaps mellow the bright sound a bit as well. Any suggestions on strings to try?

  2. #2
    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    I bought my 'used' Ellis "A" style 4 years or so ago. I'd recently discovered DR brand strings which i'd put on my Lebeda & Weber mandolins. Having got my Ellis,i did no less than put a set of DR MD11 strings on that one as well. Now DR strings are a pretty powerful sounding string compared to others brands & of the same gauge. However - a guy i know very well at one of Manchester UK's major music stores, is a Classical mandolin player. I took the mandolin down for him to have a look at & to play. His first remark was 'It's strung for Bluegrass' - which it was. Nevertheless,he produced some of the most sublime tones i've ever heard from any mandolin !. To my mind, that told me that it was more the actual player than the strings - or even the mandolin. He was also using my own Primetone 'teardrop' shaped pick.

    Maybe a pick with more rounded 'points' would help,or, a slightly thicker one. Either of those would reduce the brightness to an extent. Reducing the string gauge might help,but it might make your mandolin sound a bit 'thin toned' as well. Tone production is very much about technique (IMHO) regardless of string brand / gauge - although some common sense has to be applied according to mandolin quality.

    A 'Kentucky' mandolin,is in my opinion,a very good make of mandolin & should respond to any good brand of strings ie. D'Addario EJ74s or you could try a set of GHS A270's ( .016" A strings instead of .015"),but still very sweet sounding on my Ellis. I'm sure that other Cafe members can come up with their own recomendations for strings for use in Classical mandolin music - but a lot of it is down to technique,as my own Classically trained friend demonstrated in spades !!,
    Ivan
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    Gibson F5L Gibson A5L
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Well …. any music may be played on any instrument. Tone may or may not match up with a players aural expectations. Technique will always be a dominant factor in achieving your musical goal. A good teacher that plays and teaches the music in the style you want to play will be able to show you the "tricks of the trade". Ornaments and styles are learned with patient practice. I expect you learned this during your study of flute. Experiment with your strings gauges and materials and your picks thickness point and materials also. Check out Chris Thile's Bach recordings. It may also be time to look into your instruments setup. Chopping chords and playing trills are as far apart as two techniques can be. R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

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    Registered User Jon Hall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    It's been my experience, that either, silk and steel strings or Monel strings are less bright than phosphorus bronze.
    Since the tremolo is often played in classical music, consideration must be given to producing enough volume for the tremolo. It has been my experience, that playing with the point of a thick (1.3 or 1.5) tear drop pick will increase the volume without having to play very hard.
    Playing hard increases the tension in my entire body, which keeps me from playing and sounding my best. I hope you receive a lot of enjoyment in your pursuit of classical music.

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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by konk View Post
    The trills and other ornamentation in the book I purchased, with accompanying music examples, seem to be impossible to duplicate in sound, however. I was hoping a switch to a lighter gauge would help, and perhaps mellow the bright sound a bit as well. Any suggestions on strings to try?
    What exactly are you having difficulty in duplicating? Actually picking the ornaments?What book do you have? It might help if we could see examples.
    Tone is affected by a ton of factors. Someone mentioned a rounded pick which will tone down the brightness. I also find that a slightly rounded pick tip makes tremolo and other ornaments easier.
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    I feel any music can be played on any mandolin. I have a very light action which helps with playing. I use heavy strings as they drive the mandolin better, and allow me a lower action which actually plays, for me, better than lighter strings with a higher action. Lighter strings vibrate more and need a higher action unless your touch is very light.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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  11. #7

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    This is where an old Gibson will shine. The resonance and sustain during slow passages is really something. A cheaper route would be a Flatiron 1N.

    Yes you can play anything on anything, but the right tool will reward you.
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  13. #8

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Try a set of D'Addario EFW-74 flat wound strings. I use them on my 1916 F-4 and because they're stainless steel, they make a nice tonal difference from phosphur/bronze strings. They will definitely mellow the sound for you, more like an oval hole sound which you may like better for classical.

    Len B.
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  15. #9

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Thanks everyone! I ordered the book "Baroque on the Mandolin" because I was semi-familiar with some of the music and it came with a recording. I'm listening to the recording and I can tell he is doing some trills and mordants that don't sound like the notes are picked individually, but I lack a teacher and doubt there is one in this area. BTW, trills are super easy on a flute, but I get what UsuallyPickin was saying above about technique taking time. But a great teacher once lamented the cheap equipment always goes to the beginners who sometimes need the extra help by not having a poor instrument to fight against. For this reason, I just want to make sure the things I can do to ease the way are done first. I have a couple frets that need replacing and it needs some work on the set-up, but since I recently bought a guitar, the mandolin will have to wait a bit.

    I will start with trying the more rounded pick. I do usually use a sharp pick. I may also try the silk/steel option for strings and scour youtube for videos on dealing with the technique.

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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    A rounded pick is easier for tremolo, but you can achieve and easier tremolo with a pointed pick by angling the pick and not hitting the strings flat on.
    THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE JUST FOR YOUR SMILE!

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  18. #11

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    I'll join the club that says any mandolin can be used for classical - to a point, here goes:

    Actual classical mandolins (bowlbacks), are slightly shorter scale, and typically strung with very light strings, are played with a lighter touch than bluegrass.

    So basically, if you want to get closer to a classical mandolin feel, you want a low-action, very lightly strung, easy to play mandolin, one that rings nicely when played gently. As a relatively beginning classical mando player, I don't own a bowlback yet. I use GHS A240's on a standard scale mando, which gets down to about the same string tension that the shorter scale strung with lights (A250's) provides.

    The shorter scale also makes it easier to reach certain stuff. You can't get that on a normal mando, sorry.

    Some more advanced tips include:
    - classical mando left hand (including thumb) position is more like a guitar player, and c-necks tend to be friendlier for that. I can play on any neck, but C-neck is preferred.
    - wider nuts also tend to be more classical friendly, as precision in not muting adjacent courses is pretty much required.
    I 'fixed' my narrow nut mando by cutting a new nut that made the courses narrower and thus increased the spacing between courses, made a huge difference in playability.
    - I also like taller frets, it allows for gentler fretting pressure, just makes everything feel better and easier to play.

    Classical is all about a light touch, a softer ringing nuanced sound (compared to bluegrass where raw acoustic power is the main goal).

    May I suggest Catarina Lichtenberg's class at ArtistWorks. It will get you going pretty quickly. it assumes the ability to read music, and some skills playing mandolin. Sounds like you got that covered nicely.

    FYI trills (and other ornamentations) are used in classical mando, but they are a lot harder to play on mandolin (I was a classical trumpet player, where trills are also very easy).

    Classical mando is also a little different than baroque flute (or trumpet) style. It tends to be more about lots of arpeggiation with multiple courses of strings ringing with cleverly composed mandolin specific literature. That's why you need a mando that rings (sustains) under a light touch (and one where muting adjacent courses isn't a problem) to really bring classical to life.

    The darker (fuller) sound of an oval hole (even if not a bowlback) also helps with classical, having a rich full G string ring while arpeggiating over it is a common figure, so a thinner low-end (typical for an F-hole) weakens the rich vibrancy of classical music IMHO.

    FYI I went through the entire progression, started on an F-hole, went to an oval hole, played the string, action, fret, and nut games, and now am exploring a custom pancake, and almost certainly a bowlback will be in my future eventually.

    I see non-bevelled BC picks popular among classical students too, darker sound with no bevel, (the germans like rubber picks and flatwound strings, but that's a whole 'nuther discussion).
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  20. #12

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Thank you, kurth83! This helps a LOT! I have used ArtistWorks for saxophone for my daughter and had mixed results, but some of this may be her youthful immaturity and lack of understanding. She does better with me teaching her directly, but I think I could gain from a similar program. I'll look at that.

    I will also experiment seeing how close I can get the Kentucky without major changes (you never know - bluegrass may be back in my life again sometime and I'll need to swap it back) and if I find I enjoy the style like I suspect I will, even if I can't get those trills quite right, I'll start saving for a pie-in-the-sky bowlback. I have been planning on getting a wooden keyed flute for forever so I'll add a mandolin to my bucket list too. I'll start by experimenting with lighter strings and rounded picks, then hope it doesn't buzz, which it has been known to do with light strings and lower action, so I will need to play with it for a bit to see what gets close enough for starters.

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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Konk, keep your eyes open, I have found 4 bowlbacks for about $200 each on ebay (NFI) but you have to watch carefully when buying there.

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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    You don't really need a new mandolin. Not all players of classical even prefer the shorter scale. And you don't need a bowlback. I am a big fan of bowlbacks but I always warn players that you have to commit to a different feel. I know many players, even classical ones who have decided to put their bowlbacks aside after a time and jst don't like the awkwardness. There are ways to overcome that but some just don't think it is worth it. I do and play mine often.

    Stick with your Kentucky for right now. You might invest though in a professional set up. That would work above all. Try different strings too if you are so inclined but I would put the time and energy into playing not futzing with hardware. Just my 2 cents!

    Also, one thing I do recall about ho to approach classical ornaments: I believe that in most cases, esp baroque music, you usually pick every note and not rely on hammer-ons or pull-offs.
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  25. #15

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    I don't actually use a rounded pick. My limited exposure to other classical players suggests classical folks prefer pointier picks, like a BC TP60, since that gives more control. I don't think this is cast in stone, but I have seen Catarina suggesting pointy picks to students who aren't using them. She doesn't mandate anything, but the suggestions do come from time to time. Best if you discover what you like on your own, just don't go into it thinking you have to use a rounded point.

    If I had only one mando, I would restring it, maybe refret it (this won't hurt bluegrass), and put on a new nut (if the neck was narrow), and save the old nut. I have a mando where the nut is not glued in, it is held there by the string tension, so I can swap nuts with a string change if I want.

    That would leave me with a mando that could be swapped back easily if desired.
    Eastman MD-605SB, MD-604SB, MD-305, all with Grover 309 tuners.
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  27. #16

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    You can get a BC pick with one rounded tip in the TAD series. Highly recommended.
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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Many years ago I wanted to do photography. I had a friend who was also interested but IMHO put the cart before the horse. He had bucks so went out and bought a fine camera and a half dozen lenses and close up attachments etc. i bought a camera with one lens and when I learned more bought what I needed.

    I would do the set up on your mandolin, maybe lower the action a bit and try lighter strings but hold off on spending loads on other things. I used to use thinner and pointier picks when playing classical but I think it all depends on what works and no matter what folks recommend here the final decision is personal and subjective. I would dive into the music and if possible get your self a teacher or some good videos. Don’t get bogged down with stuff.
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  31. #18

    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Good plan, Jim Garber. That's exactly what I was thinking. I have done a bit more practicing and I think I give a softer touch and my tone is a bit better with the rounded pick, but I suspect that is as much due to a mental change in my approach to the strings as anything else. Who knows, but I will play for a bit, then see about spending some on an updated setup.

  32. #19
    Registered User Bruce Clausen's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    Don’t get bogged down with stuff.
    Words to live by!

    Great discussion here. For what it's worth, in classical situations (symphonic works, operas, chamber music, mandolin ensembles) I've mostly used the same flattop "Celtic style" mandolin I use for everything else (jazz, folk, choro). But whatever instrument you're used to playing is the one you'll sound best on.

    So that's the ticket, konk: work with what you have now, and keep your eyes open as your musical ideas develop. Good luck!
    Last edited by Bruce Clausen; Jan-15-2019 at 11:54pm.

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  34. #20
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    Yes, Bruce is an excellent player and sounds great on whatever he plays.
    Jim

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  35. #21
    Registered User mandobassman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Classical on an A-style Kentucky Mandolin?

    If it is the tone of the accompanying music examples that you are trying to achieve, then I would be willing to bet the player in the examples is using a bowlback with flatwound strings. That's what the majority of Classical players use. I agree with many of the other responses that say you can play any music on any mandolin, but using flatwound strings would get you a bit closer to that typical Classical mandolin sound. A oval soundhole would also get you closer. Many Classical players use Thomastik flatwound strings, which have a very distinctive tone. They are very pricey, but last an eternity compared to most any roundwound string. However, the D'Addario EFW-74 flatwounds get you somewhat close to that sound at a fraction of the cost. They also last a very long time.
    Larry Hunsberger

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