In a local cafe at mid-afternoon, unsuspecting ears suddenly perk up and heads turn towards a mandolin’s chime. The sound commands attention. Perhaps this is due to its clarity or maybe because of the novelty of its sound, but whatever the root cause, the initial call of the mandolin unmistakeably piques the ear’s curiosity.
Continuing with a comfortable command of the instrument and a good sense of timing, the player brings attention in closer, welcoming listeners with bits and pieces, a taste of what is coming. Courted by an alluring alternation between approach and pause, a loose gathering of people is garnered into an audience bound by intrigue, affixed to the mandolin’s luring enchantment.
Of course, this all depends on the intent and creativity of the player since mandolin pays forward what is fed into it. Yet, the player who knows of the potential and has developed an intuitive relationship with this instrument can welcome listeners into the mandolin’s expansive realm.
The mandolin can be soft and delicate or robust and driving. It can be sweet or savory. The mandolin offers color, melodic agility, percussive rhythm to any musical setting. It is a traditional part of many musical genres: classical, Neapolitan, jazz, old time, Bluegrass, Country Western and is found in many other genres as well.
Learning its potential is the purpose of this blog, to share in the community of players and listeners, of composers and arrangers, band leaders and their audiences.
A Small Stature with Lots of Reach
A smaller instrument makes for a greater reach potential for any sized hand. So mandolin has an advantage over its larger friends in that more melodic and chordal possibilities are achievable for anybody’s physical reach.
Also, the mandolin’s relatively expansive tuning (in perfect fifths) widens its pitch range. Compared to other instruments (guitar, ukelele, plectrum and 5-string banjos, etc), the mandolin family owns at least a 25% increase on reach due to this tuning*. This has a profound affect on both pitch range and tonal characteristics of both chords and melodies. Chords tend to have wider voicing. Melodies on the mandolin can easily be filled with large leaps. Like a gazelle, the mandolin can be quick, light and agile. In all, the sound is expansive and penetrating, compared to the denser or richer sound of a dreadnaught guitar for example.
Symmetry in Tuning Offers Ease in Transposing
As long as a player isn’t too attached to the use of open strings when learning patterns of chords, scales and arpeggios, he or she will find that with the mandolin there is an immense flexibility in transposing from key to key or from octave to octave.
All string instruments, that is to say, any instrument with multiple strings and a fingerboard or fretboard, has an advantage over wind instruments, piano, harp, pitched percussion, et cetera, when it comes to transposing. A learned pattern on the fretboard (a “fretmap”) can be moved up or down the neck to easily change to any key without altering the pattern. However, on many instruments the traditional tunings use a variety of intervals between the strings. This means that shifting patterns across the strings demands a shift in the pattern itself in order to maintain that pattern’s intervalic structure.
Since the traditional tuning on mandolin and mandolin family instruments is all perfect fifths, any pattern can shift up or down across the strings as well as up or down the neck. For example, once a player learns a major scale, he or she can play that same pattern anywhere on the instrument. One pattern transposes to any key or any octave, ANYWHERE on the neck.
Embracing a caveat or two and moving forward.
A short neck means tiny fret spacing and therefore fingers can feel fat and crowded. The higher up the neck you go, the fatter your fingers may feel. All in all, this increases the tendency to play wider intervals thus adding to the brightness and expansivity of the mandolin’s presence. To help with this, some players prefer a wider neck or a longer string length, features that are available from some makers.
Demands on Pinky
Similarly, the tuning in fifths places more demand on the left little finger, the sometimes shy and under-developed little guy known as “Pinky”. Players may avoid the pinky and gravitate to tunes that make more use of the open strings or play in the “caged keys” (C, A, G, E, D). This is great for playing in fiddle bands but often creates a hurdle when playing with wind instruments who prefer flat keys or singers who need to transpose. But this isn’t really a limitation of the instrument as much as a need for attention from the player.
Remember that Pinky deserves attention. It’s not the little guy’s fault if he goes neglected. Although he complains when asked to do too much, when given time and patience, he will definitely pay you back.
Take Your Mandolin to a Luthier and Get a Good Setup
Tonal characteristics vary from instrument to instrument, thus, the player’s musical expression further develops with familiarity with the instrument. This is true of any musical instrument but perhaps more so with the mandolin. The mandolin’s small physical stature means that small variations in its setup make a big difference in how it plays. No matter how expensive or how cheap the instrument is, a proper set up by a good luthier is essential for the realization of any instrument’s potential. Fifty to one hundred dollars spent at your favorite repair shop just to make it play better could be the best expenditure a player ever makes in terms of return on investment. A player should be able to make use of the entire range of the instrument in order to learn the instrument’s assets all over the neck.
* That is on a “per-number-of-strings” basis. Compared to guitar the 4 string mandolin is actually 4 half-steps shy of the 6-string guitar. On the other hand, the 5 course mandolin exceeds the 6-string guitar and is one half-step shy of the 7-seven string guitar.