Today I thought I’d cover another topic I get a lot of questions on – proper mandolin techniques. This is a huge topic, so I’ll be breaking this up into a series of posts.
One important note before we start. Proper Technique is not a universal constant and more like a theory. When a technique works for many players, it becomes “proper technique” for whatever you are playing. That doesn’t mean it’s the only technique nor does it mean it’s the best technique for you. To prove the point, just ask various players how they hold their picks. You’ll get a lot of similar, but slightly different answers. Such is the way with all techniques in my opinion anyway. Also, by dogmatically following what you’ve heard is “proper technique” you lose the potential to stumble on to something uniquely yours. There’s no such thing as a mistake in music until you stop playing. So, try everything.
With that in mind, I’m providing techniques that have worked for me and others that I have played with and/or taught. If you disagree with a technique as I’ve laid it out or have questions on it, please let me know in the comments or contact me here.
What Mandolin Techniques we’re covering
Today we’ll be covering some important basics for the picking hand which will include:
- Pick grip
- Pressure and tension
- Rest stroke
- Skipping strings
I’ve seen a lot of different types of pick grips while playing with others. I’ve tried many methods out myself, but I keep coming back to one specific type of grip.
Start by loosely holding the pick between your thumb and first finger. The pick should be able to move up or down when it’s going through a string but shouldn’t fall out of your hand. If your grip is too tight on the pick, the pick will be rigid when you strike the strings – which will make it a lot harder to to get through the strings. With a loose grip, the pick will move slightly as you push through the strings. This requires less energy and will make the sound a lot cleaner.
Below is how I hold my pick.
The type of pick you use is another discussion completely as it’s more equipment than technique, but I feel it’d be a good idea to touch on pick types.
I’ve changed the type and weights of my pick frequently in the past, though I’ve more or less settled on 1.15 – 1.5mm picks for most picking and 2.0mm when I know I’ll want to tremolo. Something about the extra weight in the pick makes it easier for me to get a clean tremolo – so when possible, I’ll change picks. For the most part I use Dunlops – mainly because they are cheap, so when they wear out or get lost, it’s not a huge deal. I know folks swear by Blue Chips, but I can’t justify them.
Hovering Hand or Planted Pinky?
One aspect of technique that exemplifies that there is not “one” technique is whether you hover your picking hand over the mandolin, plant your picking hand pinky on the face of the mandolin, or mix the two and “graze” the face.
- Hovering – grip your pick like normal and make a very loose / open fist with your hand. Essentially you pretend you’re holding an egg in your hand – closed enough to keep it in your hand, but loose enough not to break it. Most players I’ve spoken with believe this is the true and proper technique. Considering Chris Thile uses this technique, they may have a point. You can see his hand pretty clearly in this video.
- Planting – grip your pick like normal, but place your picking hand pinky (and sometimes ring finger) on the face of the mandolin. This acts like a pivot point and doesn’t really move. Adam Steffey uses this technique. You can see his picking hand pretty clearly in this clip.
- Grazing – grip your pick like normal but keep your picking hand a little more open and let your fingers “graze” the top of the mandolin. Sierra Hull use this technique. You can see her alternate between hovering and grazing in this clip.
Given how great each of these players are in their own right, I would suggest just using the technique that fits your style best. Personally, I tend to either hover or graze depending on how I’m feeling / what I’m playing.
Pressure and Tension
Your right hand – heck your right arm in generally – should be relaxed and loose. There should be no pressure or strain at all in your arm or hand. Remember – the lighter the touch, the sweeter the sound.
If you find your right hand / arm gets tired after playing for a bit, it may be that you have tension in your hand, arm, or both. Try taking a deep breath and shaking your arm out a bit.
The Rest Stroke is a great practice and warm up that helps ensure you get through both strings every time you play. It also can help with making sure you have the proper pick grip without too much pressure.
The Rest Stroke is done by simply placing your pick on a string pair, then releasing your wrist and letting gravity bring the pick down through the string pair to rest on the pair below. If you start with the G string, your pick would end up resting on the D string as an example. You should only need a slight amount of pressure in your thumb to bring the pick down.
Up picks involve using pressure in your first finger to push the pick up through the string pair. In this case, you could rest on the string above, though often I don’t. The pressure in your first finger is slightly more than what you need in your thumb since you’re working against gravity. It’s not much more, but worth noting
Your picking hand is where the bulk of your volume and tone come from. Something to note at the start – it’s easy to confuse “quiet” with “slow” and “loud” with “fast”. It makes sense as many slow songs are quiet and many fast songs are loud – but it’s not right. To avoid this bias, I’d recommend doing this with a metronome.
- When doing the rest strokes, start with a “base” volume level – not the loudest, but not the quietest volume. You can use just down picks or down / up picking.
- Keep that same volume for a few beats, then slowly lower that down to the quietest volume you can. Remember to keep the same tempo when reducing the volume.
- Once you’re at the lowest, bring it back to your base line.
- Then slowly go to your loudest volume and keep that volume for a few beats before lowering back to your base line.
Repeat this over and over.
Skipping strings is another great picking hand practice. Basically this just means you’re pivoting around a focus string. The exercises below all use open strings so you can focus more on your picking hand than your fretting hand. Once you’ve gotten these down well as written, you can trying fretting a chord while playing through the exercises. No matter how you do it, make sure your arms are relaxed and you get clean notes through both strings.
Here’s the PDF of this exercise – Mandolin Technique Picking Hand Skipping Strings
If you like’d this post or have questions, feel free to leave a comment below.
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