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The Great Mandolin Adventure

I've never played an instrument, but there seems to be a perfect storm of events and people that has led me to trying my hand at playing mandolin.

In 2008, my younger son Josh was 18 years old, and started playing guitar the previous past summer.  He's self teaching (the internet is good for this kind of stuff). He's playing an acoustic guitar, and recently added a hybrid... he's having a ball!  The thought of playing along with him is very attractive.

When I was ruminating over which instrument to attempt, I considered a guitar, but anyone who knows me, knows that I tend to do things just a little bit out of the norm... so the mandolin seems like a great place to start.

I did some preliminary research and thought that something along the lines of a Kentucky 254 would be a good start for me.

So on January 19, 2008 Josh and I took a ride down to Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island... I did warn him not to drool over the guitars there too much.

When we got there, I immediately felt comfortable with the shop and the people.  They were very patient with this absolute novice (or sub-novice).  I don't have a particular type of music in mind, my tastes are eclectic and wide ranging... it will be interesting to see how the mandolin fits in.

I held and picked a bit at several A style mandolins, but most of them sounded very bright to me (perhaps that's a good thing for playing in public, but it doesn't sit quite right for me).  Then I looked at a couple of Big Muddy mandolins and thought their sound was much much more to my liking.  So a Big Muddy M-0W followed me home (mahogany back and sides, sitka spruce front, round hole, virtually unadorned).  Click on the small photo above for a larger image.

I picked up some extra strings, a tuner, leather mandolin strap, and an assortment of different pick style/sizes.  While I was handling the bookkeeping, my son was delighted to be playing a 1969 C.F. Martin acoustic... not something he could do at our local guitar store.

I know some folk who have been playing mandolin for years, and I'll start picking their brains soon enough.  There's a great community of mandolin players and builders at, and there are lots of other online sources for mandolin information and events.

I'll update this page from time to time as the Great Mandolin Adventure unfolds.  For the moment, I've got nowhere to go but up!

November 2008 - A few notes about music notation

I'm still only a couple of months into this, but here's what I've noticed.

Learning to read music at the same time as learning to play an instrument is like learning to ride a motorcycle without ever haven driven a car, and in particular without having driven a car with a standard transmission. In addition to learning to balance and maneuver the motorcycle, you haven't yet learned how to control the friction point of a clutch. So when you're thinking about preventing stalling, you're not thinking about the steering/balance/traffic, and vice versa. In either case, the resulting crash isn't pretty.

I read the music slowly, and try to sound out the notes on the mandolin neck. This is the "decoding" part. I never internally voice/sing the words "E" or "F#" etc. Once I recognize the note, then I have to figure out where it is on the neck, get my fingers there, and pick the correct string. Then comes the timing and pick direction.

After a while, I find myself looking at the neck rather than at the sheet music. This is a good and a bad thing. It helps with the fret positioning and the sound of the notes, and I can play the tune from memory, mentally directing/willing my fingers to go from fret to fret... sort of like memorizing how you're going to move your fingers for chord changes.

The downside to this is that I get lost when I try to look back at the sheet music while playing, because I can play faster than I can decode.

However, there are some pieces that I find easier to play without taking my eyes off the sheet music. Maybe it's because the notes are fairly linear... but the up and down positioning of the dots guides my left hand, and I have no need to look at my left hand.

So, I spend time with each technique. Not looking at the music, to pick up some speed. Looking at the music to learn the melody, timing, pick direction, etc.

Then again, when I'm away from a piece for a week or so, it's like I never knew the piece, and have to look at the music to see where to start. Sometimes it's as if I'm seeing it for the first time. Then once or twice through it brings back the memory, and the fingers and brain catch up.

I'm finally at the point where some of the notes I've been playing might actually be mistaken for music <vbg>

March 2009 - A nice treat at a Mandolin Festival

An interesting anecdote regarding my Big Muddy (formerly Mid Mo) flat top mandolin.

I attended the March Mandolin Festival in New Hampshire about a week ago. I was in the beginners class, and one of the instructors was Radim Zenkl. He took about half of one session reviewing and critiquing the setup for each of the 18 mandolins in the class.

For every other mandolin after he pinged it here and there, he advised moving the bridge, lowering or raising the nut, adjusting this or that.

When he came to my Big Muddy flat top M-0W mandolin, he asked if this was the way it came from the maker, or if I'd had it professionally set up. I explained that it was done by one of the luthiers during Mandolin Camp North last April.

He looked it over again, and said to the class: "This is the way a mandolin should be set up" and urged everyone to take a look at it.

He then surprised me and asked if he could play my mandolin during a late night jam session back at the hotel.

That night, at the hotel, I handed him the Big Muddy and he proceeded to jam with it for quite some time... coaxing sounds out of the instrument that I certainly have never been able to make.

It was a real pleasure and a treat watching him play and bang on the Big Muddy during the jam. I don't know how long he played before handing it back to me so he could try a Bouzouki, but he gave my mandolin quite a workout.

When he gave it back to me, he smiled and simply said in his understated manner "This is a very playable mandolin"

I can only hope some of his playing mojo flowed into the instrument.

So, I'm not lusting for a carved top any time soon <vbg>

February 2010 -

In an effort to get better at strumming and chords, I'm taking a side trip into another small stringed instrument... the ukulele.

Revised: December 13, 2017


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