Having fun with scales

When I was learning the violin I used to think playing scales was really boring and I didn’t pay them much attention. My teacher didn’t explain to me why they were important and how they were the key to successful fingering patterns, versatility, tone production, accurate intonation and crucial for understanding, what I later understood to be, chord scale theory.

The seven notes of the major scale are the building blocks for both melody and harmony. They are the gateway to understanding western music. To have scales literally at your finger tips, and in your minds eye and ear, will generate confidence and flexibility along with the knowledge to support your understanding of musical structures.

With this in mind I’d like to offer some ways you can use scales that are fun and creative as well as developing your musicianship.

1. The slow approach
The unconscious mind learns through slow repetition. Us your scale practice to concentrate on tone with down strokes. Is each note clear and round? does it have a clean attack and a good sustain? As you slowly play each note say its name out loud so you learn the notes in the scale and their position on the fingerboard.

2. Tremolo
Play scales using tremolo. Play very slowly giving four beats to each note as you really listen to how even your strokes are. This is great for developing an even tremolo. Use a metronome to check your timing. If you have the Ranieri books you will find most of the major and relative minor scales there with some excellent harmonised accompaniments.

3. Ascending and Descending
It is as important if not more important to play scales descending as well as ascending. Why? Because we are used to our alphabet starting on A. Saying and playing your notes in reverse means that your site reading improves as feel as comfortable playing G F# E D C B A as A B C D E F# G.

BIG EXTRA TIP Practice saying your note alphabet A to G backwards G to A whenever you are at a loose end like sitting in a traffic queue or the dentists waiting room or even to get you to sleep at night. Start on any note to the octave above and back again. This is good brain gym.

4. Be creative with scales
As well as playing linear scales, mix up the note sequences into patterns. Here are a few to get you started then make up more of your own.

Up a third down a second e.g. in D major:
Ascending D F# E G F# A G B A C# B D C# E D
Descending D B C# A B G A F# G E F# D E C# D

As well as thinking using the notes of the scale you can also think of the notes purely as a pattern using the notes position in the scale. So the exercise above would be :
1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 5 7 6 8 7 9 8
Once you have this pattern it becomes transferable to any scale. However when you apply the pattern don’t forget then to interpret the pattern back into the notes from each scale.

Here’s another pattern:

Ascending 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 2 3 4 5 3 4 5 6 4 5 6 7 5 6 7 8
Descending 8 7 6 8 7 6 5 7 6 5 4 6 5 4 3 5 4 3 2 4 3 2 1

In the key of C this would be

Ascending C D E C D E F D E F G E F G A F G A B G A B C
Descending C B A C B A G B A G F A G F E G F E D F E D C

5. Add Tempo and Rhythm variations
Once you have these patterns working well at slow tempos then increase the tempo and experiment with rhythm changes. For example with alternate dotted quarter notes and 8th notes (dotted crotchets and quavers)

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Cheap music source

Charity shops are a favourite hunting ground for me and they are a great source of cheap music if you are prepared to spend time going through the sheet music racks. Amnesty Bookshop and Oxfam Art and Music are very good, though Oxfam can be quite pricey its all for a good cause. Although there is a growing body of music for mandolin there is much to be gained from browsing through violin music, tutor and exam books. These turn up regularly in my local Amnesty book shop, where they have a very well organised music section, and are instantly adaptable for mandolin. You will need to replace bowing markings for appropriate plectrum strokes but apart from that there is a huge choice for the adaptable mandolin player.

I recently picked up a complete scales and arpeggios grades 1 – 5, a scale syllabus to grade 8, a very old, but fascinating, mandolin method which I hadn’t seen before which had some useful exercises. A few weeks ago I found a Hummel mandolin sonata and there are often plenty of compendiums of popular tunes to expand your repertoire.

Its also worth looking at music for flute and recorders as these are also within the mandolin’s range. I’ve found some great 4 part arrangements some of which I’ve adapted for my mandolin ensemble. Most shops charge about £1.00 per sheet or maybe £2.00 for a book, and if you buy several at once will usually give a discount. Its also great fun because you can find things to play you might not have considered if you were paying full price. This way if you don’t like a piece when you get it home and play, it hasn’t cost much and you’ve donated to a good cause so you can feel good any way. Its a win win.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Well are you? I’ve watched players practising a new chord or negotiating a tricky passage and concentrating so much on getting their fingers in the right place they haven’t noticed their body folding into wild contortions, as if it is their arms and legs that will make the difference rather than their left and right hand. Not surprisingly strain can occur as a result of poor posture. For both guitarists and mandolin players the traditional positions for playing used to be with one leg crossed over the other with the guitar or mandolin supported on the upper thigh. Although this feels natural because it places the instrument in a useful playing position it is in fact forcing the spine to curve and the pelvic girdle to twist. As a double bass player I used to lean into my bass and had painful back problems. When I finally got to see an Osteopath he took one look at my spine and asked “Are you a bass player? You have a classic bass players curve distortion in the spine”. I changed my playing positions leaning the bass into my body so I could stand straight and shift my weight easily from foot to foot and my problems disappeared.

So finding a comfortable, and skeleton friendly playing position, is very important. Not only for health but also for your playing. Both feet on the ground is a good place to start. If you need to raise your lap then use a foot stool for both feet so both are raised. Check your shoulders are level and you are sitting straight and relaxed. Check for tension and practice releasing it in your arms, neck and shoulders. I experienced quite a lot of muscle pain in my thumb and back of hand from switching between bass and mandolin until I consulted a Feldenkrais practitioner who spotted a problem in my shoulders.

One good tip I was given was to practice in front of a mirror so you can see how you are sitting as you play and also where you are holding tension. Change your posture until you look at ease and balanced and notice how much easier your playing becomes when you do this.

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort as a result of playing then first of all STOP before any permanent damage occurs and seek some professional advice. A good place to start is with an Alexander Technique teacher.

Look after yourself.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

New Year Resolution

At this time of year many people make resolutions to do or achieve new things. As a musician what do you want to achieve this year? Will you work towards the next grade, perform a new piece, develop your technique or maybe play in a new style or genre? A good way to think about this is to imagine you are now at the end of this new year looking back now at what you have achieved. How does it feel to have achieved your goal? As you look back over the year how did you achieve your new skill, your new piece or technique? How much practice did you put in, did you go for some lessons, did you join a group or go to a Summer School? As you look back and notice all the things that made it possible for you to advance your playing this will tell you now how to make your new year resolution effective and lasting. It will tell you how to plan and what time to dedicate to your playing. And you can do this with the thrill and excitement of having already imagined having the skill you are now setting out to achieve. Try this method with any of your other new year resolutions and see how much more achievable and real they become.

I wish you well in your new year and hope you have lots of fun playing your mandolin as you create all the time you need to practice and experience that great feeling of achieving something new that you haven’t done before.

Happy New Year

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Expression loud and soft

How many different volumes can you achieve with one note? There are many expression markings for volume from ppp to ff and sfz. The full range would go something like ppp pp p mp mf f ff fff sfz. That’s a staggering nine differences of volume. Can you achieve that by choosing one note say a B on the A string and achieving an audible difference for the listener of nine discernible changes in volume from your quietest whisper to your loudest down stroke? Can you then achieve the same thing with tremolo? If you find that difficult its not surprising because plucked string instruments are not renowned for their range of expression.

A good place to start is to take just four different volumes p mp mf and f. Start with playing your quietest p, then for your loudest ƒ. Alternate between these two playing four notes of each. Can you be consistent are all the ps the same and are all the fs the same. When you have control of these then you are listening for two more divisions. One a bit louder then p and one a bit softer then f. Practice going from p to mp and back. Again four notes each. Do the same from f to mf. Now play through, four notes of each, from p to mp to mf and f and back again. Is there a difference between mp and mf? When you have practised this with down strokes then do the same with tremolo. Ask a friend, partner or fellow musician to listen to you play then sound them out to see if they can tell you when have changed from one volume to another.

When you have achievedfour you can experiment with ever more subtle variations in volume. Can you make your quietest even quieter and can you make your loudest even louder? Does it make a difference where you strike the string in relation to the sound hole or f hole?

If you want to spend some enjoyable practice time working on expression I highly recommend Alison Stephens’ book ‘Six Episodes’ as a starting point. The first piece ‘Reflections’ demands a range from f to ppp. It looks deceptively simple on the page and its true value as are all the pieces in the book is to encourage a full range of expression and precision from the player. Her books can be bought from

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Changing Strings

This is a quick tip. I was asked about the best way to wind strings, either if a string breaks or when replacing with a new set. I usually change a pair of strings at a time unless the frets need a good clean. This keeps the instrument under tension

This is an easy reliable and time saving method. First attach the loop and of the string to the appropriate hook on the tail piece. Stretch the string over the bridge slot and then over the slot in the nut. Making sure the tension is maintained. Now, from the direction of inside to outside, wind the string twice around the tune peg BEFORE slotting the end through the hole. As you slot the string through the hole make sure you keep the tension. Now when you turn the machine head the string is secure. With the G strings you may only need to wind round once or one and a half before slotting through the hole. If you are tired of winding the machine head by hand you can buy a handy little machine head turner that speeds up the process while the string comes up to pitch.

When you have the string in tune gently pull the string outward for a final stretch and retune. Now you can trim the excess string with wire clippers.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

4th Finger strength and stretch

Developing and using the fourth finger increases versatility and tonal range and tonal choices. The fourth finger in first position offers a choice between playing an open string D,A or E or playing the same notes on the G, D and A string at the seventh fret. Play an open A then play an A at the seventh fret with the fourth finger on the D string and listen to the difference in the sound. The open A is bright and rings and can even sound harsh. The A played with the fourth finger on the D string is softer and more mellow in tone. 

Now play a D major scale from open D string to D 5th fret on the A string using open strings D and A. Now play the same scale without using 4th finger instead of the open strings, in other words starting in D 7th fret on the G string and playing A seventh fret on the D string. What difference do you notice in tone between the two?

As well as the tone choices, when you move out of first position the 4th finger becomes essential. If the fourth finger is week the notes will often sound clipped, muffled or buzzing when the note cannot be sustained or the fourth finger can;t quite stretch to be placed just behind the fret and is landing in the middle or even at the back of the fret.

Here is an exercise I developed from Ranieri’s “L’art de la Mandoline” Book II. 

Starting with the A string play open A followed by E at the seventh fret with the fourth finger. Now play B 2nd fret 1st finger followed by E again. Leave the first finger on the 2nd fret and play C# 4th fret 2nd finger followed by E again. Now leaving the first and second fingers in position add the 3rd finger D 5th fret followed by E again 7th fret 4th finger. Now lift the 3rd finger to play C# again followed by E then lift the 2nd finger to play B again followed by E and finally returning to open A followed by E.

It is important while ascending from A to leave each finger in place so the muscles are stretched each time the fourth finger reaches for the E at the the fret. So the sequence is: 

A E, B E, C# E, D E, C# E, B E, A E.

Play slowly and evenly using down strokes placing your attention on the 4th finger each time stretching it to play a clean note with a full tone at the 7th fret. Repeat 5 times, take a rest then play the same pattern on each of the other strings. You may notice the G string is more of a challenge. 

After practising this sequence for a week change the C# to a C natural 2nd finger 3rd fret. Notice how this is more of a stretch. Again practice this sequence using the same finger pattern 5 times on each string. After a few weeks of daily practice you will notice the 4th finger gaining strength.

If you notice any strain or pain on the back of your left hand stop immediately and rest. Practice for short periods and regularly.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Commissioning a mandolin

So you want a handmade instrument?

I’ve had two mandolins made for me. One by Phil Davidson a round hole Brazilian style flat top bandolim, and recently one by Paul Shippey a f hole carved top A5 style. Two very different mandolins in style and sound. It was fun working with both luthiers. They each had their own ways of working and both were extremely helpful and keen to make me the instrument I wanted. For those of you who are thinking about having an instrument made I thought it would be useful to share my experience.

Having an instrument made by a professional luthier is a big step to take and a big investment. It’s also a step into the unknown and a leap of faith. When you buy an instrument in a shop you can try it out and decide if it has the right sound, the right feel and quality that you are looking for. You pay your money and take it home. Having one made means you have to be very certain what you want and be able to communicate that to the luthier you have chosen.

So why have one made? There could be many reasons like the prestige of owning a hand built instrument or knowing your instrument will be unique or maybe you had played someone else’s handmade instrument, liked it and wanted one for yourself. In my case it was because I couldn’t find an instrument in the shops that fulfilled all my criteria.

Choosing a Luthier
Make sure you do your research. Most luthiers have a web site, visit their stands at festivals or try their instruments in music shops. Keep listening until you find one that inspires you. Choose a maker because you like the instruments they make for quality, looks and sound. Although you can ask a luthier to make your idea of a whacky design, if you ask them to do something they haven’t done before then they have to start from scratch with new moulds and templates. It can cost a lot more and it might not meet your expectations.

Many makers will not have a lot of stock for you to try as their instruments are often sold as soon as they are finished. So find someone who has one of their instruments and ask them if you can try it.

One plus for me in choosing Paul was that he is player himself. It is not essential but as a player he was able to interpret what I was looking for and was able to demonstrate through playing the differences between instruments.

It takes a while to make an instrument so its important you strike up a good relationship as you will be communicating with each other at each stage of the build.

Knowing what you want.
As you do your research remember that descriptions of sound, looks and ease of playing are all subjective. What one person, however good a player they may be, describes as a good sound, a deep, sound, a bright sound, will only be according to their ears and what they individually like to hear. So you must have a clear idea of the sound you want. A good way to explain this is through recordings or borrowing a mandolin to play to your chosen maker that is close to the sound you want. With Phil I played him recordings, showed him photos of Brazilian instruments and said “That’s what they sound like, this is what they look like, can you make me one?” With Paul I wanted an instrument almost the opposite in sound to the Davidson. It was more difficult to describe and went something like..”The honey sound of my Gibson A1 with depth and volume and a clear and even response across all strings and the fingerboard…an instrument that will sound good for jazz and blues but that I could use for classical..” No pressure then?

Waiting list
You may have to wait some time for your instrument to be made. Waiting times can be anything from 6 months to 1 to 2 years. Most Luthiers will have a waiting list and from the time it is started can take 6 to 9 months to complete. When you collect your finished instrument though its well worth the wait.

NOTE: Even though you may think you know what you want remember the Luthier is the expert who has years of experience and knowledge. If you are not sure or really don’t know what you want listen to their advice and be guided by it. They know what they are doing and will build you a very fine instrument.

So you want a handmade instrument?

Part 2

In part one I talked about making the choice to have a mandolin made. Once you go ahead you will need to consider the options for customising your new instrument.

Decisions you need to make
The following are the things you will need to be certain of or at least have thought about before talking to a luthier. Remember though to listen to the luthier and ask for advice to get the best instrument.

The style – Flat back, carved top, A style or F style, round hole or f hole
If you are a bluegrass player you will probably want an F5 style because that is what nearly all bluegrass players think they need to be credible. Folk players tend to lean to towards flat top mandolins while classical players will be looking for a traditional bowl back or the more modern carved back and flat top combinations.

The sound – e.g bright, silky, smooth, woody, deep, loud.
The sound may depend on the type of music you are to play on it. A big bluegrass sound with a hard chop feel, a versatile classical sound, a bright brazilian sound or a woody blues sound.

Fret Board Scale length – distance between frets.
Early mandolins had shorter scale lengths than say the modern bluegrass mandolins. This is quite a consideration particularly if you intend to play classical or early mandolin music or indeed if you have small hands or short fingers. There are some classical pieces that are almost impossible to play on a modern longer scale length because of the cross string stretches involved. Try different scale length mandolins before you decide. Mike Vanden makes a long scale length model after a mandolin he made for Simon Mayor. Simon wanted more room between frets at the top of the fingerboard to make access to the higher registers easier.

Fretboard – flat or radius
Traditionally mandolins have been made with flat fingerboards like classical guitars. However concert model bowl backs like the Embergher mandolin were made with a radiused fretboard very like the curve on a violin fingerboard. You can now find most styles of mandolin available with both flat and radius fretboards. The choice is simply a matter of personal preference. It’s worth trying both, to discover if you have a preference. It will be important to know as it makes a difference to the nut and bridge construction and is slightly more time consuming to build.

You must also consider how many frets you want as some players find the full length concert F5 fingerboards modeled on classical concert bowl back mandolins get in the way as they extend over the plectrum playing area. Unless you play very advanced classical pieces you will not need to go beyond 22 frets. Its worth having the top D though to accommodate the many pieces written for mandolin in D minor.
Mandolins are usually made from woods that give good tonal response. The body is often made from a hard wood like mahogany, maple, or rosewood and the top is usually made from Spruce because is has a long straight grain. On quality mandolins the fretboard is made from ebony. The choice of wood will often depend on the sound you want. Some woods will change over time giving a richer tone as the wood ages while, with others, the sound you get to start with is the way it will stay.

Wood colour
The choice of wood will affect the look of the mandolin. The final colour is governed by the wood itself but also by the the stain you choose for either a light honey, a dark mahogany colour or even a sunburst effect. Discuss colours before the final finish is applied.

The strings of a mandolin hold a lot of tension. Its good to let the luthier know which gauge strings you prefer as the instrument can be built according to the tension of the strings you use. This doesn’t mean you can’t then use different gauge strings but will help get the best from the instrument

Machine heads.
If you are spending on a hand built instrument ask the luthier about the choice of machine heads. S/he will probably have their own preference but Paul found some very light Gotoh machine heads for mine. They are very accurate, they stay in tune and they look fantastic being in black. Quality makes include Grover, Gotoh and Schaller. If you want to pay a lot more then consider Waverly and Alessi.

Traditionally f style mandolins use adjustable bridges and flat top or folk mandolins have fixed fitted bridges. The bridge can have a significant impact on the sound. It is the means by which the sound is transmitted from the strings to the instrument body. The thinking behind adjustable bridges is that the action can be raised or lowered easily. You might want to do this for better ease of playing or for changes in action as a result of atmospherics. Classical string players have a different bridge for winter and summer as their instrument expands or contracts slightly with heat. When I asked for a fixed bridge Paul and I were really impressed with the better sound quality on the A5 compared to an adjustable bridge. This is personal choice but worth thinking about.

The Neck
The width, depth, taper and shape of mandolin necks vary a lot. I have a Gibson A1 which has a flat fingerboard short scale length and very distinctive V profile shaped neck. Some mandolins have an almost parallel fingerboard and neck while others taper getting wider from nut to the mandolin body. Some have slim necks like guitars while others are more chunky. Neck size and shape can help or hinder your playing. The great mandolinist Radim Zenkl prefers a very wide neck while bluegrass F5 style instruments as played by David Grisman have a narrow neck. Discover which suits your playing style and the size of your hands and fingers.

Pick Up
If you intend to amplify your mandolin then you will need to consider having a pick up built into the mandolin. It is easier to do this while it is being made than to fit one later. There are many options including pickups requiring phantom power. They are usually fitted inside the mandolin or built into the bridge. I have tried both contact pickups and bridge pickups and without a doubt the bridge pickup gives a superior rendition of the acoustic sound and in my experience no feedback. Ask your luthier about options and do some research online.

The other option of course is to amplify using a microphone but I suggest you buy a good quality instrument microphone that you know does your instrument credit and carry it with you at all times.

Strap Button
If you use a strap you will also need a strap button unless you use a piece of string round the machine heads. This can be fitted retrospectively but worth discussing position and aesthetics for comfort and looks.

Some luthiers will provide a case or find one for you. Its worth buying a good case to protect your new instrument having made such a big investment. Carlton Cases now located in the states will make custom interior fittings to match your mandolin exactly but at a hefty price. The Kingham Case Co. also make custom cases. You can pay between £200 – £400 for a custom case. If you intend to put your instrument on an aircraft hold a strong case is essential.

Depending on the style of mandolin and the maker expect to pay between £1,500 to £6,000 or more. Costs tend to increase with the reputation of the maker. However the cost does not necessarily reflect the relative quality of the instrument.

Most luthiers have a set design they use for each model they make. Inlays are used for fretboard dots, hole surounds and often the makers name on the headstock. If you want more than the design offered, for example your name inlaid the length of the fingerboard you will pay extra for the inlay design, the intricate work involved and the materials. These are usually Abelone , Mother of Pearl, Shell Laminate or plastic ivory substitutes. Decoration adds nothing to the sound, more to the looks according to your taste and a lot to your pocket.

Have fun

David Griffiths

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Starting a tremolo

Tip 1. Starting a tremolo

I was asked by a player in my mandolin ensemble “How do I get a good start to a tremolo?” She said “Once I get going I’m fine but I can’t get a smooth start”.

I suggested she imagine she was already ‘in the flow’ of a good tremolo. Then imagining the hand was already moving, to drop the plectrum onto the string ‘on the fly’ as it were. So instead of starting with a stationary plectrum start with a moving plectrum, dropping in to the first down stroke as if it was the twenty first in a long tremolo.

A ragged start is often experienced because the player is ‘thinking’ of getting going instead of thinking as if they are already going. In other words start as if you are already straight into the flow.

To practice this start a tremolo and wait until it is flowing smoothly. What does this feel like? How are you achieving this regular motion? Is it now easy and relaxed? Now imagine this is how it will be right from the start. Now stop. One cause of a ragged start to a tremolo is an increase in tension due to anticipating the start. So relax and breath gently. Now hold the plectrum above the string, bring back to your consciousness what you felt when you were in the flow. Lift the wrist first then drop into the string with a light and relaxed flick. Continue practising this until you can go straight into the flow.

A week after I suggested this approach another of my ensemble players said he’d been practising this and it had made a huge difference, he was now getting a really smooth start.

Have fun practising.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Developing a sense of pitch (Ear Training)

Tip 18. Developing a sense of pitch (Ear Training)

When I was learning how to improvise I realised I needed to develop my ear so I could easily hear chord changes and melody intervals. I bought tapes and CDs on ear training and spend hours at the piano keyboard trying to teach myself to recognise and sing intervals. I then discovered a very simple and easy way to remember and hear intervals. I already knew lots of songs and tunes so I used these to learn different intervals by using the first two notes of songs in which they occurred. For example the first interval change in the song “Happy birthday” is a major second. Sing it to yourself now. As soon as you start to sing the word birthday that note is a major second above the first two. 

So all you need to do is find a song that you know for each interval. Get to know them well and sing them. Singing is very important for developing your ear. If you can sing an interval you’ll be able to hear one. I’ve learned that students who have a good sense of pitch can learn tunes easily. Those that haven’t usually find learning tunes difficult.

Here is my basic list to get started. Then you will need to go and find your own tunes and maybe learn some new ones for the less common intervals.

minor 2nd – Bye-bye blackbird
Major 2nd – Happy birthday
minor 3rd – Work song
Major 3rd – Oh when the Saints
perfect 4th – Auld lang syne
Flat 5th – Maria
perfect 5th – The last post
Flat 6th – Mana de Carnival
Major 6th – My bonny lies over the ocean
Flat 7th – Somewhere [ West side story ]
Major 7th – Ceora
Octave – Somewhere over the rainbow

These are ascending intervals and you will need a similar list for descending intervals. I hope you enjoy searching for your favourites.

A very comprehensive list can be found in the Jamie Eabersold free handbook available on his web site.

There are also plenty of ear training websites and free software to download to test your knowledge using your computer. Just type in “Ear training” into a search engine.

Have fun

If you have a tip you would like to share. Email your tip and I will publish it here. If you like you can include a photo and your photo will appear with your tip. email me now

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips