I have been playing the mandolin since the late Reagan years. I remembering picking out the theme music to the PBS show “Masterpiece Theater” (which is actually the very fancy Mouret’s “Rondeau”) way back in the early 80’s. The mandolin was not cool enough for me then (high school…the 80’s…electric guitar), but I picked it up again when I needed its sound for a soundtrack/sound design I was doing for a theater piece here in the Boston area sometime in the late 80’s. Since then I’ve enjoyed playing lots of music on my mandolins, at times professionally in performances and studio sessions.
This instrument makes simple melodies sound great and has a bunch of easy-to-play chords for strumming, and so is usually very kind to beginners. The double-courses (four closely-placed pairs of strings tuned and played in unison) give a beautiful and amazingly full sound for the size of the instrument. Due to that diminutive size, it’s great for kids or adults with very small hands. And for fiddlers/violinists who want to double on a fretted instrument—it shares exactly the same range and tuning. Guitarists can learn it easily as a second instrument.
Strumming partial chords on the mandolin always sounds cool- instant medieval vibe! A partial chord is when you play just a few notes in the chord rather than strumming across all of the strings. This maneuver is usually easy to execute, and it always sounds good. A little goes a long way when the sound of the instrument is good.
Bill Monroe is probably the first name that comes to mind with the mandolin, but this instrument (like any) will play its version of the music you give it. I’m always happy to teach what ever music the student is inspired by, and this has included Zydeco and early jazz as well as the music of Link Wray. Of course, I also teach a lot of old-time/bluegrass/country rock and traditional songs. Classical pieces sound beautiful too. In addition to the above mentioned styles, I’ve also played and taught blues, rock and, yes, even metal on the mandolin.
A student of mine was featured on the PBS show “Arthur” for her exceptional bluegrass mandolin skills and equally exceptional joie de vivre. Plus—I get my cameo appearance halfway into the clip!
Aside from the many excellent teachers I’ve had, I’ve learned a lot of music from attending concerts, listening to recordings, and studying books—that’s why I suggest that my students do all of this. Lots of what you need to know is in the books—as for the rest, a live teacher is necessary (plus, I gotta pay rent).
Here are some good books that I have enjoyed helping some students work through:
Southern Mountain Mandolin, by Wayne Erbsen. Mel Bay.
Mandolin for Beginners, by Joe Dalton. Alfred Publishing.
Beginning Mandolin, by Greg Horne. Alfred Publishing.
Mandolin Scales and Studies, by Ray Bell, Mel Bay.
Fiddle Tunes and Irish Music for Mandolin, by Dan Gelo, Mel Bay.
Here’s a web site with loads of great-sounding free stuff: mandolincafe.com
There’s far too much great music to listen to in a lifetime, but if you wanna hear some fancy mandolins, I suggest getting started with the following: