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How to Play the Mandolin for Beginners

Learning to play a musical instrument like a mandolin is an adventure.

There are going to be some ups and downs along the way.

Having the right approach in your learning journey is essential to avoid any beginner traps that may make your life harder.

This article is your everything-you-need-to-know guide on how to play the mandolin.

Let’s get right into it.

How To Play The Mandolin For Beginners: Step By Step Guide

guide to learning mandolin for beginners

– What Kind of Music Can You Play on Mandolin?

The most fantastic thing about the mandolin is the versatility it offers its players.

If you pick this instrument, you can play all types of melodies from various genres, complete with chordal accompaniments.

For example, if you love listening to various tunes, you can easily use your mandolin to pick up the melodies.

This explains why this instrument has been famously used in various recordings over the years.

A good number of musicians have used the mandolin in their folk and blues jams.

The same case applies to classical music performers, although there are currently very few pieces from this genre using the mandolin.

Also, violin players who can play the mandolin find it easy to play their tunes using this instrument, thanks to their range similarity.

For example, in the United States, the mandolin is best identified with bluegrass music, with Bill Monroe being highly recognized as its pioneer.

– Choose Your Style

As a beginner mandolin player, who is yet to identify a musical path, it’s advisable to listen to all (the above-mentioned) music styles.

As you get acquitted to each style, you will develop a list of your favorites. This will help you decide the specific genre to focus on and work towards advancing your skills.

But, if you find yourself torn between various sounds and tones, just play whatever you feel is best.

Some players are comfortable working this way, and there is nothing wrong with this. You will find your right footing as you progress.

– How To Choose The Right Mandolin For You

Once you decide on the style of music you want to play, it’s advisable to choose the right mandolin to suit your needs.

We have a guide that will help you with this. Check out our recommended beginner mandolins.

Remember, each music genre emphasizes various aspects of your instrument.

Therefore, even if it’s true that a mandolin can play any kind of music, don’t just rush into buying any instrument. Some genres will come out better if you use a specific design of mandolin.

For example, if you settle on playing the bluegrass music, it’s better to use an F-style mandolin. Why?

Because F-style instruments come with smooth flowing curves around their neck. The A-style teardrop instrument will also come in handy.

But if you prefer playing classical/ folk music styles, you might want to invest in a bowl-backed mandolin, for playability.

Lovers of Irish music often use Mandola. And if they can’t seem to find any, a massive A-style mandolin performs just fine.

– Learn About Mandolin Strings

Your mandolin isn’t complete with its strings. They are the ones that determine the sound produced. Therefore, you should learn how to choose the best strings for your instrument (follow our guide here)

When selecting strings for your mandolin, you should consider the following criteria:

The string gauge: do you need light, medium, or heavy strings?

String materials: what material are the strings made of? Is it bronze, phosphor bronze, or copper? Or is it any other material?

Strings construction: Are the strings roundwound, silk, steel, or flattop?

For most beginners, it’s confusing to identify the correct strings for their instruments right away.

And although there is no single answer to such worrying questions, it’s comforting to know that mandolin strings aren’t that expensive.

In fact, you can get a set as cheap as $5 and the expensive type for as much as $50.  Therefore, you can experiment with as many mandolin strings as you want before settling for one.

Another commonly asked question is: “Why all mandolin are strings not the same?”

First, even if most mandolins for beginners use eight strings coming in a unison set of four, they still exhibit differences, as mentioned earlier.

This is in terms of the material used, their thickness, and the construction.

But does this make heavy mandolin strings better? Or should you get light strings?

When we speak of the mandolin strings gauge, we refer to the tension they place on your instrument.  It could be heavy, medium, or even light.

Heavy strings are known to bring more tension than light ones. And because of this, they produce potent tunes.

But, due to the inexperienced nature of beginners, most of them find heavy strings challenging to finger. Therefore, they prefer light strings.

Also, since light strings produce less volume, learners have nothing to worry about because their focus, at this stage, is mastering the basics.

You can upgrade to medium range strings as you progress and finally, the heavy strings if necessary.

Heavy mandolin strings present great difficulty in playing.

Players need to apply more force while trying to achieve speed and balance simultaneously, which isn’t easy to achieve even for experienced players.

Also, if you decide to use heavy strings, consider the type of instrument you’re using. For instance, the old bowl back instrument can easily get damaged with heavy accessories.

But if yours is the newest model of mandolins, especially those made in the US, you can rest easy since they’re usually strong and can withstand heavy strings.

Best Resources for Beginners to Learn Mandolin

resources to learn mandolin

While it’s advisable to hire a private tutor for your mandolin lessons, sometimes circumstances can’t allow it.

Some beginners don’t have enough cash for this, and others prefer having extra resources at their disposal for alone-time practicing.

Therefore, if you ever find yourself in such a situation, tons of resources will help you get to the next level. Most of them are cheap and free, so you’ve no excuse for not trying.

Here are some excellent examples:

  1. Irish Mandolin Playing: A Complete Guide

This book is the fantastic work of Philip John Berthoud. It has both the Kindle and the hardcopy editions and focuses on teaching mandolin beginners the essential playing basics.

It also includes useful tips and takes readers through advanced topics such as variation creation and effective practice.

It also includes access to an online video.

  1. Mandolin Cafe

This is the website to run to whenever you have a pressing question concerning the mandolin.

There’s nothing better than learning from fellow players.  And they do identify with your issues because they are probably going through the same or had in the past.

Their forums are educative.

  1. Chord App

In these digital times, it’s always comforting to know you can access the right information anywhere, anytime using your phone.

The chord app takes you through all chords and fingerings, allows you to write and import tunes, and even share with your peers.

It works perfectly fine with various string instruments such as the ukulele, guitars, and mandolins. Therefore, if you’re a double instrument player, it will be more advantageous for you.

The best part is that you can download it from Google Play or Appstore.

  1. Bank Ben Clark Website

This website is full of Mandolin lessons led by Ben. The lessons are quite well done, and most of them are free.

If you want to buy individual lessons, you can also do so at a lower price.

  1. MandolinTabs

We actually can’t discuss matters resources without covering YouTube. This online platform has tons of resources you can benefit from without paying a dim.

The MandolinTabs, for example, is a YouTube channel, containing multiple videos and tabs for mandolin players.

So, if you want to learn new mandolin songs, the best place to find and request one is here.

The channel also contains some useful mandolin tutorials.

Is the Mandolin Easy To Play?

Like every other instrument, playing the mandolin can be easy or a bit difficult, depending on several factors.

For instance, if you’ve ever played any string instrument in the past, it might be easy to finger the mandolin. But, it will also depend on your skills and the type of instrument you played.

In fact, some individuals believe that if you can easily find your way around the Ukulele, you shouldn’t struggle with the mandolin.

Some go as far as to recommend that mandolin beginners consider learning the Ukulele first before trying it out. (check out ukulele vs mandolin)

But, I see no sense in that because why would you waste a lot of time mastering an instrument that you have no interest in instead of going directly to your target? It’s a waste of resources.

Well, not unless you want to learn them both and have to prioritize which one comes first.

Besides, if you’ve got a passion and are dedicated, nothing can stop you from learning the mandolin.

Yes, it might be easy for some individuals, while others might have a hard time, but that’s normal.

We are all different, with various understanding capacities. Some individuals grasp concepts faster than others, and that’s absolutely normal.

What matters is the result. When you master your instrument and get very good at it, your audience won’t be focusing on how long you took to learn, but how excellently you can play.

Therefore, in this regard, the end justifies the means. Whether you found the mandolin easy or hard to learn, if you can’t sustain it and grow at it, no one will recognize your starting point.

The only important thing you should be aware of is that achieving string bends on a mandolin is difficult.

They are usually strung tighter than the guitar or the Ukulele. You will, therefore, require a lot of finger agility and finger strength.

You will have to focus on building your picking techniques. But, other than that, a mandolin is pretty easy to learn.

So, if you can withstand the little pain that comes with it initially, you will reap the rewards as you sharpen your skills. And yes, the journey is rewarding.

The mandolin has a unique rich treble, which makes it very captivating to the audience. It’s a charming instrument, and you are likely to enjoy learning it.

Therefore, if you’re sure this is the journey you want to take, don’t give up no matter how painful it gets or slow, you think you’re.

Remember, most learners are slow in the beginning, and it’s their perseverance that makes them admirable today. Keep going!

Tips for Beginners on How to Get Started with Learning Mandolin

a). Listen to As Much Mandolin Music as Possible

You can’t work on bettering yourself without motivation. If you listen to good mandolin tunes, you will aspire to produce similar sounds.

With the many easily downloadable music online, you can’t run out of options.

b). Get an Accountability Partner or Teacher

When you’re trying out something new, such as playing mandolin, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re heading in the right direction.

Therefore, having an accountability playing partner will help you learn from your mistakes. It’s easy for someone else to point out issues as you play and suggest useful corrections.

When choosing a tutor or a partner, choose one that focuses on the kind of music you’re playing. You can’t expect a bluegrass professional to be the best choice for your classical music performances.

c) Always Have Your Mandolin Close By

Your mandolin should always be within reach. Think of it this way, when you see it, you can create time to play it.

This should be your mantra, especially if you have a busy schedule.  And the best way to achieve this is by getting a quality mandolin stand to accommodate your instrument.

Practice during your free time, no matter how squeezed it might seem.

If other people are using the room or have small kids, store it in the nearby room/space, where you can easily see your mandolin and won’t be challenging to access it.

d) Play Everyday

Just like learning a foreign language, you can only get better mandolin playing skills with regular practice. Therefore, if you can, play your instrument every day.

If you find the pre-arranged training sessions boring, start playing it your favorite tunes for fun. The important thing is to get a hold of your instrument as much as possible, to improve your skills.

e). Record Yourself

Ensure you record yourself playing. Afterward, listen to yourself and see if you like what you hear. Do you like your sound? What can you do to improve it?

Since it’s easy to store recordings, you can use them to measure your growth.

The good news is that you don’t need an expensive recorder for this. Use your mobile phone or a cheap handheld recorder.

If you have a playing partner or tutor, let them help with the recording. Family members and friends will also come in handy.

This video will help you get started:

How Long Does It Take to Learn Mandolin?

First, I would like to say that how fast you learn the mandolin primarily depends on how much time you’re willing to dedicate to it.

Assuming you have enrolled in a teacher-led lesson, and can comfortably play for around an hour every day of the week, then you should have a decent knowledge of your instrument by the 3rd month.

But it won’t be until the lapse of another year of practice that you can confidently say you’re proficient.

Also, this depends on the type of music you wish to play. For example, if you have a liking for classical/orchestra performances, it could take you up to two years to master sufficient playing skills.

As you can see, patience and consistency are key.

FAQs About How to Play the Mandolin for Beginners

What Is A Good Mandolin for Beginners?

A good mandolin for a beginner should be easy to pick and pretty affordable.

For that, I would recommend the Vangoa Mandolin A Style Acoustic Electric Mandolins and the Kentucky KM-150 Standard A-model Mandolin.

For more details, check out my previous article on the “Best Beginner Mandolin.”

Do You Strum or Pick A Mandolin?

Both. You can strum the chords when accompanying a singer or another instrument, or pick tunes and melodies, though the latter is less common.

Why Does Mandolin Have Double Strings?

The main reason for double strings in the mandolin is to help players achieve desirable volume and a sustainable note, which could otherwise be too quiet with single short scale strings.

Also, most string instruments were paired in olden days, and it’s the mandolin that has managed to maintain this.

Can A Mandolin Be Tuned Like A Guitar?

Yes, you can. But it will be hard for you to play. You need space on that tiny mandolin fretboard. It’s better to learn those mandolin chords.


Beginner mandolin players need to identify their style, know how to select the right instrument, and maximize the use of the various available resources if they want to make the learning process easy.

If you diligently follow the insights offered in this article, there’s no reason why you can’t learn how to play your instrument.

Also, don’t forget to remain positive, always!

Lee Cardwell
Owner and Chief Editor of Music Tech Hub. I play banjo, mandolin and I am currently learning how to play the harmonica.

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