The Basics to Picking a Mandolin

by Mitchell Land
Mandolins evolved from the mandore, a soprano instrument in the lute family.

Mandolins evolved from the mandore, a soprano instrument in the lute family.

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The mandolin belongs to the lute family, with varying types holding a range of strings, from four to sixteen. This small, stringed instrument is most popular in bluegrass music in the United States, but it holds its place in music from countries around world, including Ireland, Portugal and Greece.

Picking Devices

There are multiple ways to pick a mandolin, either using picks or fingers. Many players start using fingers in order to learn finger placement and chords, but flat picks allow a player a bit more control and force. There is no correct form of pick to use, so a player should choose whatever feels and sounds best. Picks range in thickness, material, color and size. Thicker picks are stronger and give a fuller sound whereas thin picks are easy to hold but can make loud slapping noises as they come across the strings.

String Placement

The mandolin's action, or the height of the strings from the fret board, can completely change the way the instrument is played. If the strings are too far away from the fret board, they will be difficult to press down without powerful finger muscles. If the mandolin's action is too low, the strings will make buzzing and rattling sounds as they vibrate against the frets. Some musicians do not mind a high action, but ultimately string placement is an individual preference.

Wrist Action

Practicing and developing a flexible wrist can add greatly to mandolin-playing proficiency. The more accurate and flexible a player makes the wrist, the more specific he can become when playing. Learning how to operate the wrist properly allows a player to learn more technically difficult songs. Once a player is comfortable with his wrist flexibility, he is then able to focus more on the fingers and how to operate them better.

Hand Placement

Many mandolin teachers stress the importance of hand placement on the instrument. Rest the base of the palm of the right hand right on top of the bridge yet without muting the strings. Even though it may initially feel awkward, this placement will eventually allow a player to move the fingers dexterously and play smoothly and evenly. Different players feel comfortable putting the left hand in varying angles, but most teachers advise keeping the thumb of the left hand on the neck instead of the palm of the hand.

About the Author

Residing in Bristol, Va., Mitchell Land began writing for various websites in 2010. He worked as a writing center tutor at Baylor School for three years, where he also contributed music reviews to "Baylor Notes." He attends Greensboro College in North Carolina and studies theater and French.

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