Classical Mandolin Technique

by Ellie Maclin
The flatback mandolin is the most recognized in the United States.

The flatback mandolin is the most recognized in the United States.

Hemera Technologies/ Images

The mandolin, an instrument of choice for bluegrass and folk musicians in the U.S., has a long and storied tradition in Europe. The mandolin is well-suited for classical music and has been used successfully in solos, mandolin-only outfits, mixed ensembles and even orchestral settings. You can play classical mandolin on the two styles -- the flat "box" style best known in America and the traditional bowlback European mandolin -- but many professional classical mandolinists prefer the rich tone of the bowlback.

Classical Mandolin

"Classical mandolin" can refer to mandolinists who play the early classics, such as mandolin pieces written by Mozart and Beethoven, those trained in a particular style, or those who play exclusively classical music, including modern classical pieces. Trained classical mandolinists rely on particular techniques to coax the desired sound from their instruments. Mandolinist Marilynn Mair wrote in "Mandolin Quarterly" in 1999 that "classical mandolinist" is "part technique, part repertoire, part sound, part interpretation, part venue, part intent, and all about music ... I'd have to say that it's mostly a matter of style."

The Basics

Expression and timing are key in classical style. Only proper basic technique allows the classical mandolinist to achieve the necessary flexibility and dexterity. For a right-handed player, the left hand -- at the neck of the instrument -- should support the mandolin near the third joint of the index finger. The thumb should be extended either straight up or slightly away from the neck, acting as support only. The fingers that depress the strings should move from the third joint only, with the first and second joints fairly fixed. The strings should be depressed with the tips of the fingers. The right hand holds the pick, or plectrum, loosely between the second knuckle of the index finger and the pad of the thumb. The other fingers should be curved under, with the pinkie or fourth finger slightly more extended than the others.

Tremolo in Classical Mandolin

Classical mandolin is concerned largely with individual notes played in succession, rather than strummed chords. For this reason, classical mandolin music uses classic five-bar staff notation rather than the chord charts and maps favored for notation on other stringed instruments. Sustained notes, such as those produced when you draw a violin bow across a string slowly or hold down an organ key, are important for playing individual notes. The only way to produce a sustained note on the mandolin is the tremolo, in which the pick plucks the string repeatedly in rapid succession using a series of upstrokes and downstrokes. Only a loose grip on the pick and a smooth, even stroke can produce a proper tremolo.

Chords in Classical Mandolin

Classical mandolinists occasionally use chords, though chords are more often reserved for a guitar, piano or other instrument accompanying the mandolin. Chords should be played smoothly with a quick, usually decisive pick stroke. "The two, three or four notes of the chord are to sound as though practically struck on the piano," Zarh Myron Bickford wrote in his classic instruction manual from the 1920s.


The tremolo style became popular in the 19th century. World-class mandolinist Caterina Lichtenberg, in an article by Bill Graham on Mandolin Cafe, said her technique is based on the tradition of the classical mandolin school from the 18th century. Lichtenberg experiments with many styles, and sees the style accompanying a genre of music to be similar to language -- immerse yourself, learn the language of the music, and the nuances of note and rhythm will become second nature. "In classical music, you need this long breath for a phrase in music. You play with the tempo and the beat," she said.

About the Author

Ellie Maclin is freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience. She contributes to online and print publications, specializing in topics such as historical places, archaeology and sustainable living. Maclin holds an M.S. in archaeological resource management from the University of Georgia, as well as a B.A. with honors in anthropology from the University of North Carolina.

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