As part of my Mandolin Techniques series, this week we’ll be diving into Divided Time exercises and picking hand exercises. You’ll need a metronome for all of these, so make sure you have one available. 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?
These exercises are all for your picking hand, so I’m using all open strings to keep the focus on the picking hand. 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.
Before we start, let’s talk about pick direction. Generally you’ll down stroke for the beat (i.e. on the 1 2 3 4 etc) and up stroke for the off beat (i.e. the + in 1 + 2 + etc). 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).
It’s a good idea to count a tune out by the smallest note value in a song. So:
- If there’s 1/4th notes in the tune, you should count all the notes as 1 2 3 4
- If there’s 1/8th notes, you should count all the notes as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +.
- If there’s 1/16th notes, you should count all the notes as 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a.
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
- Get both strings in a course (i.e. both E strings etc)
- Do these on each string – since each string has a different gauge (i.e. thickness), the effort needed to get through different string pairs varies a little. Make sure you do this on each string
Basic Divided Time
To start, we’ll do a straight division exercise. Basically starting with whole notes, then moving up incrementally to 16th notes and back down. These exercises don’t involve the fretting hand at all. You could add some fretting hand practice with chords or a simple melody – but keep the focus on the picking hand at least to start.
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.
Once you have the basics done above, it’s time to make things more interesting. Skipping beats can help provide a syncopated feeling in your playing. Basically just drop out notes on a regular pattern and loop that a bit. The main thing you’ll want to watch, aside from the time, is that your pick direction matches the beat you’re on. If you drop an 1/8th note for example, the next note will be picked in the same direction as the last (so if you play a note on the 1 with a downstroke, skip the “+” note, and play another note on the 2 – you’d use a downstroke etc).
The below is a basic example. Once you get this down, try modifying it by mixing up where the beat is dropped.
Mix it up
For the final exercise in this review, it’s time to mix things up. 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.
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