Thursday, February 20, 2014

Holding the Mandolin – A Beginner Looks At Fretting Hand Placement

How do I grip the neck…where do I put my thumb?  Aaaarrrrrgggghhhh!!!!

After a half-dozen blissful, ignorant years of playing tenor banjo, I am starting to learn mandolin.  It is harder than I expected!  Sure, the mandolin tuning is the same as the “Irish” GDAE tuning I use on tenor banjo but the different fingerings means that I am having to unlearn some tenor banjo things that have become second-nature.
On tenor banjo I employ a cello or guitar influenced finger placement of one finger per fret – with finger 1 (index finger) covering fret 2, finger 2 (middle finger) covering fret 3, finger 3 (ring finger) covering fret 4, and finger 4 (pinkie finger) covering fret 5.  If you need frets 1 or 6 you just slide slightly out of position to reach those, and in lieu of playing fret 7 you simply play an open string whenever possible.

With the shorter scale of the mandolin, you'd think the stretches would be easier, but you end up having to splay the fingers out a lot more.  On mandolin the fingering assignments call for finger 1 on frets 1 and 2, finger 2 in charge of frets 3 and 4, finger 3 responsible for frets 5 and 6, and the pinkie finger on frets 7 and 8.  Because you can theoretically reach all these frets in first position, with mandolin you should be able to play melodies without the use of open strings. 
I’m struggling with getting my fretting hand into a comfortable position on the neck while still being able to reach all of the necessary frets with the proper finger.  My mandolin teacher has me practicing 4 different mandolin finger position combinations/stretches.  (I’m using fret 2 as my starting point for the example below, but these can actually start on any fret on any string as long as you keep the whole/half step spacing consistent.)  

Pattern
Index
Middle
Ring
Pinkie
1 and 5
Fret 2
Fret 4
Fret 6
Fret 7
2 and 6
Fret 2
Fret 4
Fret 5
Fret 7
3 and 7
Fret 2
Fret 3
Fret 5
Fret 7
4
Fret 2
Fret 4
Fret 6
Fret 8

Finger patterns 2 and 6 are pretty doable, but try to simultaneously place your index finger on fret 2, middle finger on fret 4, ring finger on fret 6 and pinky on fret 7 (patterns 1 and 5), or index finger on fret 2, middle finger on fret 3, ring finger on fret 5 and pinky on fret 7 (patterns 3 and 7) or index finger on fret 2, middle finger on fret 4, ring finger on fret 6 and pinky on fret 8 (pattern 4). 

Pretty tough stuff, and it seems to be the most difficult on the lower strings.  It’s hard enough to get your fingers into these positions in the first place, but try lifting them off the fretboard and then putting them back in the same place.  OK I'm signing off now to go work on this for like the next thousand hours.

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