I previously wrote about the painstaking process I went through to choose my new mandolin. Since then the challenge, of course, has been learning how to play it. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t do much just sitting in my room, so I’ve had to pick it up and play it every now and then.
The only formal music lessons I’ve ever taken were several years of piano in middle and high school. Those lessons were invaluable, since they taught me to read music and the basics of theory, but it was clear after several recitals that the piano didn’t come naturally to me. I could practice a piece dozens and dozens of times, making mistakes all the while, making my parents suffer and cats in the neighborhood angry, while never quite reaching perfection. I could eventually grind a piece out when I had to, but it wasn’t as if I was one with the keyboard.
Anyway, I still used that foundation and a lot of informal lessons from my friend Stuart to progress pretty well on the bass, and from that early success it seemed that the handheld, fretted stringed instruments were more of my bag. From there, teaching myself acoustic guitar wasn’t a huge leap, and that was the last instrument I learned.
The mandolin, I’ve since discovered, is a different animal and so it must be treated. It’s strung like a violin, so all of the chord structures are new to me. The doubled strings sometimes chew up my fingers more than the guitar ever did, but that’s ok, all musicians go through some type of torture in the name of their instrument. What I do like about it is the contrast it offers compared to a guitar. You can throw a mandolin into any song and some surprising tone combinations come through. It’s like adding just the right dash of spice to your chili. I love that it can stand in as a choppy, rhythmic, almost percussion instrument in bluegrass and folk tunes. But it also has almost as many moods as the guitar, softening up sad songs even more if you know how to pull off a great tremolo (which I don’t. Yet.) Like all acoustic instruments, a mandolin can come alive when in the right hands, and I love that.
I recognize that I’m not quite the right hands yet, but at least I’m not the wrong feet. Most of the time I find myself just noodling around with my mandolin, but when I focus and get through a couple of lessons in my book, I can start to play something that sounds recognizable, or at least not bad.
I think the biggest hurdle is going to be finding the time to just play the thing enough to get some repetitions under my belt. I need to memorize a few chord patterns and songs and slowly work my way up. I got through the basics of guitar by picking out tabs for pop songs that I wanted to learn how to play. It’s a little difficult to find direct inspiration like that for the mandolin, though, since there aren’t that many popular songs that are solo mandolin tunes (unless you’re a virtuoso like Chris Thile or Sarah Jarosz or something, and they’re two in a million). I guess I could dig deep into Led Zeppelin’s back catalog. And as fun as they all are, I think it will be a while before I can chicken-pick my way through a wild and wooly bluegrass tune. But hey, you never know when being able to play “Losing My Religion” or the intro to Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” will come in handy!
If any of you are ever interested in picking up the “Mando,” I do highly recommend Don Julin’s Mandolin For Dummies or any of his other instructional books. I remember when the …For Dummies books were just trying to teach people how to use Windows 95, but they’ve since expanded their offerings to include every topic under the sun, and Don packs a lot of great tutorials into the book. Plus there are play-along music files you can download.
I hope you enjoyed this little detour into my trials of learning a new instrument. More than anything, these last few months have reminded me that it’s the trying of new things that keeps the brain sharp! So everybody go out there and buy mandolins. Or, you know, whatever else floats your boat.