One of the main differences between experienced instrumentalists and aspiring beginners is their respective attitudes towards learning how to play a new instrument.
The experienced musician only wants to know how to get started — how to tune it up, how to make chords, etc. He has a sense of adventure as he picks up a new musical instrument for the first time.
But the inexperienced novice often has a bit of fear at the beginning of the process. Since it seems like there is such a large gulf between his current level of ability and the skill level needed to make beautiful music, the beginner can’t really imagine how he’s going to make progress.
Often, beginners want to start out with an “easy” instrument, to reduce their fear of the unknown.
Is playing the mandolin hard?
The mandolin isn’t a difficult instrument. But it’s a real musical instrument that takes some practice to get good at.
Here are some things that beginners to the mandolin should know.
The right hand (the picking hand)
For most stringed instruments — the mandolin included — the right hand is the hand that picks, plucks, or strums the strings. It’s the rhythm hand.
Learning the right hand skills on a mandolin is easier than learning to use the right hand on other stringed instruments.
Compared to the guitar or the banjo (for example), the mandolin is pretty easy. You play with a flat pick (sometimes called a plectrum) and there is very little skill needed. Basically, if you can pick the proper string, you’re half-way there. After that, all you need to learn is how to pick in a rapid, tremolo pattern. This tremolo picking is how mandolin players make up for the lack of sustain.
Later, if you want to get into complicated bluegrass picking rolls, or complex crosspicking patterns, you certainly can. But there’s no need to learn these advanced techniques to play most of the popular songs and styles of music. In fact, if you only learn the chop, you can hold your own in a jam session (at least as part of the rhythm section).
The left hand (the fretting hand)
The mandolin player’s left hand is the one that frets the notes.
Compared to the guitar, the mandolin isn’t quite as difficult simply because the fingerboard (or fretboard, whichever term you prefer) is smaller. Therefore, there is no need to stretch to reach the notes you’re trying to play. This makes it faster and easier to learn and get good at playing the simple chords which make up much of today’s modern mandolin music. In the time it takes a guitar student to master the infamously difficult F chord, a mandolin student can learn many chords.
New musicians often complain about pain in the fingertips from fretting the notes or chords. While the mandolin is perhaps a bit more difficult to fret than a small, nylon-stringed guitar or a low-action banjo, it’s really not that bad. Compared to a full-sized acoustic guitar with typical acoustic strings, the mandolin is easy to fret. Your hand won’t cramp up anywhere near as badly when you are learning mandolin chords, and your fingertips will be much less tender.
To solo and play melody lines, the mandolin is pretty easy too. It was not built as a harmony instrument originally; instead it was just a picked version of the violin (a lead/melody insrument). It is stringed and tuned just like a violin. And since the violin is an instrument built for speed and ease of fingering, mandolin players benefit from this logical and easy to learn configuration of the fretboard.
The small size means your fingers are close together as you play, but I’ve never heard of someone with large hands and fingers complaining that they feel cramped. Maybe a guitar player will have this complaint, but I don’t think it would prevent anyone from learning to play fast and furious melody lines on the mandolin.
Don’t fear the mandolin – it is easy to learn at your own pace
So don’t be afraid to pick up a mandolin and learn how to play. You will be able to make simple music very quickly with a mandolin, and it’s a lot of fun to learn. Give it a try!