Mandolin Technique: Picking Hand

As part of my Mandolin Technique series, this week we’ll be diving into picking hand exercises. You’ll need a metronome for all of these, so make sure you have one available. I’ve been using the Matrix MR-500 for about 20 years – nothing fancy, but works and is small. If you don’t have a physical metronome, you could use an online metronome (like this one) or one on your phone but I strongly recommend getting a standalone metronome. I’ve found digital ones can lag sometimes if you don’t have a good internet connection or if it’s just a bad app. Your call.

Here’s a chart for this lesson. These exercises can help you with your timing and help with syncopation.

Only Open Strings?

Today’s mandolin technique is all about your picking hand, so I’m using all open strings to keep the focus there. Once you’ve gone through the exercises as written, you can make this more complex by adding chords or a simple melody to these exercises. But, start off with open strings.

Standard Notation Primer

Reading standard notation isn’t required to be a good musician – but understanding it, even just the basics, will make you a better musician. There’s lots of reasons why which I won’t get into here – but for our purposes, it’s important to understand the time values of each note (and rest). Tabs can approximate this, but standard notation is pretty easy to understand and more commonly notated with the correct timing.

With that in mind, here’s a really basic high level over view of how to read standard notation. The top line are the notes (i.e. what you play) and the bottom line are the rests (i.e. what you don’t play).

Mandolin Techniques - Picking Hand - Basic note counting

When there’s a dotted note, the note value is held for 1 1/2 times. So a dotted quarter note would be held for 1 1/2 beats. A dotted half note would be held for 3 beats etc. The below chart should help.

Mandolin Technique - Picking Hand Exercises

In addition to knowing the value, understanding the name of the note is really helpful though that’s outside the scope of this lesson. In a future lesson, I’ll cover some basic standard

Pick direction

Before we start, let’s talk about pick direction. Generally you’ll down pick for the beat (i.e. on the 1 2 3 4 etc) and up pick for the off beat (i.e. the + in 1 + 2 + etc). That doesn’t mean you’d never use a down pick for an off beat note or an up pick for an on beat note – but those are more special cases (like with triplets).

I’ve indicated the pick direction on the chart using the standard notation (the shape that looks like a gate is a down pick, while the arrow is an up pick). The below graphic shows this as well.

Mandolin Technique - Picking Hand exercises - down and up pick symbols
Mandolin Techniques - Picking Hand - Up/Down pick

Counting basics

It’s a good idea to count a tune out by the smallest note value in a song. 

  • If the smallest beat is a 1/4th note, count all the notes in quarter note fashion meaning 1 2 3 4.  Note if the smallest value was a half note or whole note, you’d still count 1 2 3 4.
  • If the smallest best is an 1/8th note, count all the notes as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +.
  • If the smallest best is a 1/16th note, count all the notes as 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a.

Screen Shot 2022-06-03 at 3.57.31 PM

Counting like this will help you stay in time with the tune.  

Things to focus on:

  • Clap, then play – before you pick one note, start by just clapping (or snapping your fingers, tapping your foot etc) along to the beat while counting out loud. 
  • Use correct pick direction – The proper direction is indicated above each note.
  • Stay on time – make sure you are hitting the notes on time and clean.  If you’re not clean, you’re probably too fast – so slow down. 
  • Count out loud – seriously, it’s more helpful than you might think.
  • Get both strings in a course – use the rest stroke and pay attention
  • Do these on each string – I used the open A note in all my charts. That said, each string has a different thickness (i.e. gauge), which means the effort needed to get through different string pairs varies a little. Make sure you do these exercises on each string.

Basic Divided Time

To start, we’ll do a straight division exercise. Basically starting with whole notes and incrementally move up to 16th notes then incrementally move back down to whole notes. The entire page is the exercise – meaning ideally you’ll play all 22 measures, then repeat using a different open string.

These exercises don’t involve the fretting hand at all. Start with open notes only so you keep the focus on your picking hand. Ideally do this exercise on all strings as well. Once you have that, you can add a fretted note, a chord, or a simple melody – but keep the focus on the picking hand at least to start.

Mandolin Techniques - Picking Hand - Divided Time

Basically, just set your metronome to a reasonable speed – which is likely slower than you think. I usually start these around 50-70 bpm. While this can seem really slow for the whole notes, the quick 16th notes will more than make up for that haha.

Skipping beats

Skipping beats can help provide a syncopated feeling in your playing. There’s two ways to practice this using the exercises here.

The first way is to simply sub out some notes for rests. The main thing you’ll want to watch, aside from the time, is that your pick direction matches the beat you’re on. Always down pick on the strong beat and up pick on the weak – so 1 2 3 4 get down picks and the +’s get up picks – regardless of what pick direction came before.

The below is a series of smaller exercises designed to be played one after the other. So play each phrase to the repeat symbol, then repeat, then move on to the next phrase. Again, play to a metronome which likely still is slower than you think it needs to be 😉

Mandolin techniques: picking and counting exercises - skipping beats

The second option is to use larger note values instead of rests. The main difference here is the note is held out with the larger note value vs being stopped with the rest.

Similar to above, these are a series of smaller exercises. Play them to the repeat, then move on to the next etc.

Mandolin Techniques - Picking Hand - Skipping Beats, held notes

Mix it up

For a real syncopation practice, you need to mix things up a bit. The below brings in a little from each preceding exercise. Remember, this is not about how fast you can pick – but how accurately you can.

Mandolin Techniques - Picking Hand - Mixed notes

Wrap Up

If you have any questions about this exercise, feel free to contact me. If you’d like to schedule a personal coaching session, use this form. If you like this content and would like to support the site, you can donate to the site here.

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Happy picking!

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