Ahh, the sweet sounds of the mandolin! This tiny stringed instrument often takes the spotlight as a lead voice in bluegrass and country music. It's also made its mark on several rock tunes from Led Zeppelin to R.E.M. In traditional folk music, mandolin chords can provide rhythm and a textural element to songs. While some chords can be difficult to master, many basic chord shapes use only two fingers. These chords are popular ones that work with common chord progressions.
Those who have never strummed a mandolin can find the instrument intimidating. The spacing between mandolin frets is small. Guitarists who normally have a lot of room for fingering chords can find a mandolin fretboard restrictive. Some of the higher register frets are so close; it's near-impossible to make an audible sound. If you are new to the mandolin world, forget about these higher frets and focus on the first few. Folk music chords reside in a mandolin's sweet spot — from frets zero to five. Let's demystify this beautiful instrument, and add some chopping rhythms and plucky chords to your musical enjoyment.
All About The Mandolin
A mandolin is a stringed instrument. You play it like a guitar. It is not as popular as a guitar or bass guitar, but it has played a role in classical, bluegrass, jazz, folk, and popular music over the past three centuries. A modern mandolin can be an elaborate instrument, such as an "F-style" mandolin, or the more rustic "A-style." There are even electric models that amp-up the classic mandolin sound. Where did this little strummer come from?
From Classical Roots To Bluegrass Popularity
A mandolin might look a bit like a ukulele, but it's more closely related to the lute and violin. It evolved as an Italian and German instrument in classical music of the 18th century. Since it is a portable instrument that is relatively easy to learn, it grew in popularity as an instrument of the people. While several classical pieces feature a mandolin, it is rare to see the instrument in today's orchestras. Less a chamber instrument, the mandolin began to thrive in the countryside. That is how it became a beloved component of folk and bluegrass music.
A Brief Detour In Music Theory
A mandolin has eight strings, with four pairs tuned to the same tone. Standard mandolin tuning is G-D-A-E, the same as a violin. The mandolin mirrors violin tuning, but the instrument has always been plucked or strummed rather than bowed. The resulting sound is not lush like an orchestra, but rather plucky like a banjo. The interval from string to string is a perfect fifth. We don't want to get bogged down in music theory, so a simple way to explain a perfect fifth is that it is a chord that sounds pleasant. Think of guitar power chords that feature two notes adding punch and a pure, harmonious sound. Since a mandolin has perfect fifth string tuning, open strings are melodic. It makes several mandolin chords, especially those that feature the G-D or A-E perfect fifth, easy to play.
Folk Chord Progressions
While we are dipping our toes a little in music theory, we should talk about chord progressions. Self-taught musicians tend to bristle as discussions of music as the result of formulas and rules. The concept of a chord progression is an accepted and tonally pleasant arrangement of chords. Folk music follows the chord progressions of most western music. Whether you study music theory or just noodle away at an instrument, you will likely find yourself landing on common chord progressions, because they sound nice when played together.
Common Chord Progressions In Folk
The most common folk chord progression is called the I-IV-V-I progression. These Roman numerals refer to the major key chords in a certain order. With I-IV-V-I in the key of G, for example, the chords in the progression would include the "I" chord of G major. Then, the "IV" chord of C, which is the fourth note in order when G is in the first position. Then, the progression moves to the D chord, before returning to the G. For novices, chord progressions can seem overly complicated, but many popular songs follow this formula. Luckily, the mandolin works well with this common progression.
Simplified Chord Voicings
While the standard folk chord progression in G is easy to play, all one needs to do is shift the root key to a more difficult mandolin chord and the progression can quickly induce finger cramps. There are some tools to help. First, a more complicated chord can be simplified to two notes, as in the case of a perfect fifth chord. For example, a B chord on a mandolin is tricky for beginners. But, a simplified form of this chord only needs the B and F notes. These can be found on the fourth frets of the G and D strings.
Bring On The Hardware With A Mandolin Capo
Another tip to avoid overly complex mandolin chord fingerings is to use a capo. Not to be confused with the title of a mob leader from "The Godfather" or "The Sopranos," a capo is a clamp-like device that can quickly change the tuning of a stringed instrument. Folk musicians use capos extensively. The common basic chords of E, G, A, C, and D can be bumped up a step or two, or even more on a guitar. The same method works to some extent on a mandolin. One of the easiest chords on a mandolin is G major. If you need to play a song in the key of A, putting a capo on the second fret converts the tuning from G-D-A-E to A-E-B-F#. The G chord fingering now produces an A chord. The C chord form creates a D chord, and so on.
Some popular guitar songs feature capo use on a high fret, such as on the seventh fret in The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," but the mandolin's tiny frets make such a capo use quite tricky. If you want to bump up the tuning a few notes, however, a capo can be a useful tool.
Easy And Essential Mandolin Chords For Folk Music
Enough talk about history and music theory. Let's learn some easy, and not-so-simple, mandolin chords so you can start churning out some folk masterpieces of your own. We listed these essential mandolin chords from easiest and most popular to more difficult and less popular. We didn't list every single mandolin chord, as there are many. An excellent resource for all of the chords is here. The following are essential mandolin chords that, for the most part, only require two fingers of your fretting hand. Unless noted otherwise, all of the chords are triads or chords that contain three notes.
The G Chord, Or The Natural Mandolin Chord
The G major chord includes the following notes: G, B, and D. You can find these notes anywhere on the mandolin fretboard. Play them together, and you have the G major chord. The easiest way to play this chord on the mandolin is to fret the third fret of the E string (a G note) and the second fret of the A string (a B note), then play the open D string. The fretting looks like this:
The G major chord is one of the most used in mandolin playing. You can turne into a minor chord quickly by moving your index finger to the first fret, swapping a B-flat note for the B. A mandolin player can also quickly slide the bottom notes of the chord up two frets to play an abbreviated A major chord.
Grab The Center Of Your Fretboard With The C Chord
On a mandolin, a C major chord is almost identical to the G chord. All you do is move your fretting fingers from the A and E strings to the D and A string, respectively. The resulting notes are G, E, and C. Here's how it looks on the fretboard:
Again, this simple chord is somewhat moveable. Slide your two fingers up a fret, and you have a diatonic (or two note) version of a C#. Slide up another fret, and you've turned your C chord into a D. However, a proper mandolin D chord is just as easy to finger and sounds fuller.
One Of The Most Pleasant-Sounding Mandolin Chords: D Major
The D chord is common in all sorts of popular music. It has a loud, resonant tone, and is one of the essential guitar and mandolin chords. What are its notes? A D major chord contains the A, D, and F#. On the mandolin, this chord shape uses all four (eight to be more precise) strings. Fret the second fret of the G string (an A note) and the second fret of the E string (an F#). Leave both the D and A strings open, and you have a rich, lush-sounding D major. Here's what it looks like from the perspective of a mandolin player:
Since the root note of this chord is an open D string, it is not easily movable to other chords. If you slide your fretting hand up a step, you won't end up with a D#, but a mixed bag of notes including both an A and an A#. The resulting chord is a monstrosity called an A# major 13 chord, and now you're shuffling down an endless path to jazz. Slow down Daddy-O, let's keep things as simple as possible.
G, C, and D, by the way, are the chords in the I-IV-V-I progression from the key of G. After these basic and comfortable examples, we enter the realm of more challenging mandolin chords.
Putting Four Fingers To Work With The A And Am Mandolin Chords
Folk music and many other popular genres use both the A and A minor chords frequently, so they are both good to know. The A major chord features the A, E, and C# notes. To play the chord, place your index finger on the second fret of the G string (A note), middle finger on the second fret of the D string (E note), and ring finger on the fourth fret of the A string (C# note). Your pinky finger fretting the fifth fret of the E string, doubling the A note for a shimmering tone.
To form an A minor, take the same chord shape and turn the C# note into a C note by moving your ring finger to the third fret of the A string. An easier method is to let your index finger cover the second fret of both the G and D strings, and use your middle finger to fret the C note on the third fret of the A string. You can omit the high A note since it is a double of the root A note, just one octave higher. That is what a simplified A minor chord looks like:
Spread Out Three Fingers To Make An F Chord
The F chord is another popular chord, but it requires finger dexterity. This chord sounds great when played with the A and C mandolin chords because its triad notes are F, A, and C. The F chord is tricky to play on both the guitar and mandolin, but the smaller frets of a mandolin make stretching fingers a little less taxing. To play an F chord, place your pinky on the fifth fret of the G string (C note), middle finger on the second fret of the D string (F note), and index finger on the first fret of the E string. Keep the A string open to grab the A note. That is how the F chord looks when properly fretted:
The trickiest part of this chord is clearly hitting the notes while still allowing the A string to ring open. It may take practice, but once you master the F chord, your mandolin world will open up. Chords such as E, B, and many of the sharp and minor variants of other chords require some twisting and turning of your fingers.
Mandolin Chords Are The Perfect Introduction To Folk Song Craft
These mandolin chords will help you in your quest to play some folk songs and will prepare you for the game of fretboard Twister that more advanced chords require. So, grab an affordable mandolin, download a chord chart, and practice the finger gymnastics in this article. After a short time, you'll find these easy to remember, and you'll be strumming, plucking, and chopping away at some catchy folk mandolin tunes in no time.
Just remember to take occasional breaks. Music is wonderful. Mandolins sound sweet and plucky, but tendonitis is no fun. Enjoy your folk music journey.