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Blog - "It's a Mandolin, Sir"

May 06, 2017

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I often get asked at shows what instrument I’m playing.  My mandolin gets mistaken for a ukulele a decent amount.  (And once during my solo during our song “Jennie” my friend Umstead yelled “PLAY THAT BANJO, BOY.”   It was unclear to me if he was joking or not; I’ve decided I don’t want to know the answer.)


This is Umstead, btw

The mandolin is basically a violin crossed with a guitar.  It’s tuned just like a violin, G D A E from low to high and it has doubled strings (known as courses), with the pairs tuned to the same pitch and each string of the pair very close together so that you always fret both simultaneously with your left hand.


The mandolin developed out of the Lute in the 17th century in Italy.  It became pretty popular at the start of the 20th century in North America on the vaudeville circuit and in mandolin orchestras that sprung up.


Mandolins, because of the high frequencies of the sound they produce, can cut through an ensemble pretty well and they occupy approximately the same sonic space as a snare drum.  You can hear this in a lot of bluegrass music where the mandolin chop (muted strums, released quickly) are used as a percussion element on the 2 and the 4 backbeat for a boom-Cha boom-Cha feel.   When we’re playing live, if Justin isn’t there to play percussion, I’ll often revert to playing mandolin chops in the spaces between guitar parts to give us some forward drive, essentially mimicking his snare drum.


(As a side note I’ve always been interested in how the ubiquitous rhythm instrument of the day changes over time.  The acoustic guitar, such a staple now, was kind of useless in most band settings prior to amplification.  In a lot of 20s jazz it was actually instruments like the banjo which were common “guitar-ish” instruments because you could actually hear them over the horn section.)

There’s very little sustain on a mandolin, even less than an acoustic guitar.  You pluck a note and it dies very soon after.  This lack of sustain forces you to make choices when you’re either adapting songs for the mandolin or playing violin music on the mandolin.  Playing a part that requires long drawn out notes, which is easy on a violin, horn, or electric guitar, isn’t really possible on a mandolin.


One of the techniques we use to get around that is tremolo picking, where you pick a single note very very quickly to mimic sustain.  You can hear me do it at the end of She Don’t Run and on the pre-choruses of Jennie, among other places.   (It’s also my get out of jail free card if I get lost during a song on stage, usually with one I don’t know very well.  If I know what key the song’s in, tremoloing on tone center notes always works.  Don’t tell anyone, but if you see me tremeloing for long period’s of time on a song I don’t play often, there’s a decent chance I either can’t hear very well or I’m completely lost.)

Mandolin’s are most associated with bluegrass but they show up in rock music (e.g. “Going to California”, “Losing My Religion”, folk, Celtic, classical, jazz, and of course Beemo music.   


Some interesting videos that show some of the versatility of the instrument:

Going to California - Jazz Mandolin Project at the Social.   (Historical note: Sean (from Beemo) and I were at this show.)

Jethro Burns - The Lady is a Tramp

(an American standard that Frank Sinatra did a popular version of, and Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett also recorded on their 2011 Duets II album)

Sarah Jarosz - Mansinneedof

from her “Song Up in Her Head” album

Irish Medley - Modern Mandolin Quartet

In that Modern Mandolin Quartet video, you see what look to be mandolins of different sizes. The Quartet, in addition to the two standard mandolins, have a Mandola and a mandocello, which are the equivalent to a viola and a cello.  In addition to mandolins, I have (the considerably rarer) mandola that I want to start using more; I can’t read the alto clef which viola music is written in anymore, but re-learning it is on the list of goals for the year.  Unfortunately Mandocellos are even more rare and basically custom, so they are very expensive.  They often look like mandolins but are about the size of an acoustic guitar.  


This is one of my favorite videos of a mandocello in action, played by Mike Marshall with Chris Thile on their “Goldberg Variations”

Their Into the Cauldron album is fantastic, I highly recommend getting it if you even remotely like mandolin music.  Both players are amazing and they span a wide variety of styles on the recording.

I first became interested in the mandolin after a friend gave me Nickel Creek’s first major release many years ago.  I bought a mandolin shortly after and started flailing away.  I should have aimed lower when starting out.  Chris Thile is an absolute virtuoso and trying to learn the instrument by playing his stuff was daunting.  


(Sort of sad biographical note: on the day I learned to play one of his songs, Road to Wrigley, note for note I was pretty satisfied with myself until i realized it was a song he wrote and recorded when he was about 12.  The feeling of accomplishment passed swiftly and I went back to practicing.)


I like adapting songs to the mandolin, including Beemo songs.  One of my goals is to be able to play anything I play on the guitar on the mandolin, partially so I don’t have to take both instruments to shows.  Apparently laziness is actually the mother of all invention.  Adapting parts is good practice both for your ear and to keep you from falling back on the same patterns; nothing teaches you new tricks like adaptation. It also forces you to look at songs in new ways as some things on a guitar or piano are basically unplayable note for note on the mandolin.  


Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t.  When working out our version of “Take On Me” I found that the main synth riff happens to lay pretty nicely note for note on the mandolin, as opposed to Barricades which is basically unplayable if you are being very faithful to the guitar version.  I haven’t quite cracked the code on a mandolin version of that one.   


Occasionally classical mandolin can work in reverse from an adaptive difficulty perspective and the mandolin actually makes the piece easier.  Bach’s G minor Fugue is absolutely murderous on the violin as there’s constant 4 part moving harmonies on an instrument that is unsuited to playing more than 2 notes at a time.  The mandolin, being a picked chordal instrument, makes the piece merely brutally difficult.  

Bach’s G minor Fugue for Solo Violin by Anna Savkina.  

Some recommendations if you’re interested in hearing more mandolin work:


  1. I can’t recommend Nickel Creek enough.  They’re my favorite band and a big musical influence.  All of their albums are great and the musicianship is inspiring, daunting, intimidating, and brilliant.  Albums: Nickel Creek, This Side, Why Should the Fire Die, A Dotted Line, Celebrants.

  2. Chris Thile - Bach Sonata’s and Partitas.  The Nickel Creek alum playing J.S. Bach’s solo violin repertoire.

  3. Mike Marshall and Chris Thile - Into the Cauldron.  Duets from two masters, across many genres.

  4. Sam Bush - Late as Usual.  Another Genre bender; Russian Rag and Funk 55 are two of my favorites.

  5. Sarah Jarosz - Build Me Up from Bones.  She also plays banjo and guitar (and probably others) on this album and she’s a great vocalist, too.

  6. Jethro Burns - Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin.  A collection of standards.

  7. Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza - Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, David Grisman, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Ricky Skaggs, Frank Wakefield, Buck White, and Del McCoury.  As you can tell by tracklist and the billing, this album is exactly what it says it is.





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