Roland White - Bluegrass Mandolin
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Mandolin Basics for Beginners

Tuning the mandolin

Use an electronic tuner for best results! The 1st string is tuned to E (the thinnest string), 2nd is A, 3rd is D, 4th is G. (Though there are 8 strings, they are tuned in pairs, so when we say the 1st string, we mean the 1st pair.) If you don't have a tuner but have access to a piano or guitar, tune the G string (4th, lowest pitched string) on the mandolin to the open G (3rd string) on the guitar, or to the G above middle C on the piano. Then work your way up. Fret the G string at the 7th fret and tune the 3rd (D) string to that. Then fret the 3rd string at the 7th fret and tune the 2nd string (A) to that pitch; fret the 2nd string at the 7th fret and tune the 1st string (E) to that. Another reference--the 1st string (E) should be the same pitch as the 1st string of the guitar fretted at the 12th fret, or the 2nd E above middle C on the piano.


How to hold the mandolin

Sit upright and rest the mandolin in your lap with the neck at a 45 degree angle from vertical. The neck should be cradled between the thumb and index finger with the palm close to the back of the neck. The wrist should be straight and relaxed, not arched outward. Use a strap and put it over your head, not just over one shoulder.

Holding the pick

Use Fender Heavy, point or side of pick.  Grasp it between your thumb and the last joint of your index finger. Your grip on the pick should be relaxed. Tuck other fingers inward but don't make a tight fist.

When you begin playing remember to pick lightly and keep your right hand wrist loose. Keep left hand fingers hovering close to the fingerboard. The large muscle below your thumb on your right hand should lightly brush the top of the strings behind the bridge as you pick. The picking motion should come mostly from the wrist and a lesser amount from the arm.

Playing the Exercises

View Exercises (pdf)

Strive for clean, even notes. Do each scale four times, then switch to the next string for four repetitions. When you are easily doing this, increase the tempo, but stay clean and don't cut off notes. Leave your left hand fingers down until you have to pick them up. 
As you play these, sit up straight but relaxed and breath deeply! This is a great warm-up and relaxation exercise. It's easy to get tense and hold your breath and get hunched over, but think consciously about staying upright with your shoulders and arms relaxed and breathing. Play lightly.

Reading Tablature

Tablature is notation that tells you which string and which fret to put your finger on, and the stems and flags on the numbers indicate time value just like standard music notation does. If you haven't read tablature or standard notation before before, we suggest you visit for a tutorial, or search the web for "how to read tablature".

Some notes about the tablature: "v" over a note means a downstroke, that is, towards the ground. "^" means an upstroke. Letters below the notes may tell what left hand finger to use or what left hand technique to use. "s" is for slide, "p" for pull-off, "h" for hammer-on, "i" for index finger, "m" for middle finger, "r" for ring finger, and "p" for pinky.

Some more views of how to hold the mandolin and pick: