Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

How long before you could

How long (for you guys who’ve been playing a while, this may be hard to remember!) after you picked up the mandolin were you able to COMFORTABLY sit and play with others?

I’m still not there on the guitar. Only been flat-picking for a short time. But, I can hold my own on “most” rhythms. I’ve sat in on some friends’ gigs, back in my fingerstyle playing days (and, when I had the desire to do that kind of thing). Flat-picking, to me, is another animal. On one hand, bluegrass chord progressions allow us to play a litany of songs (rhythm) with little to no knowledge of them, previously. Breaks/melodies? Different animal (from my playing background). I can’t help but think that time spent practicing the mandolin will at least NOT hurt my right hand technique on guitar.

I fully understand this is highly subjective (re: how much time you put into it; God-given talent; etc…). Just a feeler post. If you want to list your musical background, prior to picking up the mandolin, that would be great.


Hey jv,
For reference, here’s my background: I have been playing various instruments since I was about 8 or 10. In the last dozen or so years, I played mainly fingerstyle up until about a year and a half ago when I started into practicing bluegrass with some seriousness. Maybe 10 years ago, I traded some instrument for a little Ovation Applause mando and was tinkering with it for a few months. I quit playing it when my wife informed me it was annoying. A a couple months ago I got asked to fill in for someone for a four song set on mando. I got out the old mando and worked on those four songs and had a blast playing it. I got interested again, and one of the guys on the forum had a mando that interested me. I contacted the guy who made it and I received mine a few weeks ago. In anticipation of receiving the new mando I worked through Ben’s rhythm video. Two days after I got my mando, I took it to a bluegrass jam populated by very good players that I did not know. I chopped away for an hour or so before switching to guitar for a bit. I didn’t do any breaks on the mando, but playing rhythm was an absolute blast. Here’s a cool tidbit about a mando: in a grass rhythm situation, it’s main function is typically rhythmic, not tonal. You are kind of like the snare and hi-hat of a drum set. So, when a song had a goofy progression, or they were doing something I couldn’t translate into a mando chord in my head, I just muted the strings and chopped away. At times like that, I was adding to the overall sound and didn’t play a single proper note. Surprisingly, I only had to do that on a few songs. It seemed that most the songs at that jam were in A and the next most common was G. Ben’s rhythm series had me prepped for the 1 4 5 of those keys (the videos are in G, but you just move up two frets for A).

In answer to your question… it all depends on what your goals are. Within a few weeks of working on mando rhythm, I was not only comfortable playing moderately high tempo grass with others, I had a really great time doing it. To be clear, I am not a good mando player at this point. I was kind of hanging back and only upping the volume when I thought it would help the overall sound. I got asked a few times to do a break or lead a song until I explained that I was a newbie and wasn’t ready for that. It would have been nice to have had a song or two ready to roll (other than “she’ll be coming around the mountain”), but I still had a great time. I wouldn’t have changed a thing (as far as spending more time getting better). Playing with the group of better players has really inspired me to work on it for the next jam (coming up in 10 days!). I encourage you to play with others as soon as you get the chance. I think in a surprisingly short amount of time you will find that you can add something worthwhile to the music being made. I also think it is probably one of the best ways to both improve and enjoy what you are doing.

When you first had the original mando, how much playing did you do? I guess what I’m asking is…what kind of base did you have, prior to picking it back up?

I’m hoping I can learn enough to play most rhythm in 6 months or so. Honestly, the “no capo” thing has me spooked, though. I can capo up the D-28 and play most any bluegrass song. With the mando, it “appears” that the capo is frowned upon (even though I’ve seen video of a VERY adult Ricky skaggs playing with one several frets up (I’ll try to find the link and post it).

Thanks for your reply.

Here’s the link…

Here’s another link (just because I think it’s incredible) of Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent doing the same song. I think this is the mark (no pun intended) by which all bluegrass harmony singing should be judged. Darrin Vincent (on the mandolin on this song, although he plays several instruments, remarkably) outdid himself (harmony vocals) on this one.

When I originally got the first mando, I tinkered as opposed to regularly working on it. I played mainly chords with open strings. I worked on trying to make a closed G “chop” or “4 finger” chord. At that time, I didn’t get comfortable with it. One thing on that… just stick with it. It’s not comfy for most to begin, but it gets there with just a bit of regular effort. It seems almost impossible for a bit and then one day you get up and it just works. In a related thing on the capo… Fear not! It is really no big deal. With two closed chord forms, you can then do the 1 4 5 chords (in the key of G, that would be G, C and D) AND you can do it in any key! Two chord shapes is all you need, just move them up and down the neck. There are many other chord shapes that make things easier or better for a given key, but two are all that are required. Since there are only 4 strings and the fret spacing is much closer, you can span frets in a way unthinkable on a guitar. And let’s say you just physically can’t do a 4 finger G chop (and I strongly doubt that will be the case) there’s other chord forms you could use to replace it.

Looking at the Gillian Welch video, I am not sure (fuzzy vid, soft sound), but it appears Ricky is playing open G shape chords capoed up like 5 frets (which would be C). Ricky is a phenomenal player, and I am sure he can play in the key of C in multiple ways in multiple positions up and down the neck. However, the open G chord on a mando has a unique sound compared to closed chords. G, C and D open are wonderful sounding chords. An F chord (which you will use in the key of C) is not the most intuitive thing, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Ricky is playing with a capo to achieve a particular sound, as opposed to out of convenience. Sure, you can capo up and play open chords on a mando, but you can’t truly chop an open chord. You can mute it, but it’s a slightly different sound (and not what you typically hear in grass).

I suggest you go ahead and start watching the mando rhythm series. I think it will help alleviate your spooked-ness (I made up a word!) I think you are going to really enjoy mando.

I have been playing guitar since I was teenager. Playing in various nonbluegrass I would sometime pick a mondo up and play open chords, just on the theory it was a guitar backwards. I have taken it more seriously off and on between kids over the past five years. In bluegrass jams I probably jumped in before I was ready after a year or so, (sink or swim thing).

That said, I would note for rhythm playing in bluegrass, the mando’s first job is the snare drum on 2 and 4. (2 & 3 in 3/4) If you are lost in the song or struggling with a chord, no shame early on In a no chord chop. Just hand across the string type thing. In jams it is more important to be in rhythm than on the correct chord, and a no chord chop is kinder than a wrong chord chop. Most wrong chords people don’t even notice, but out of time can be an issue. This also why not a lot of capos, because you want that chop.

Now, like Skaggs, if you need an open chord in Ab then use a capo, and in Celtic music they basically play mandolas and octave mando’s and capo the crap out of them, even when a regular mando uncapo’d would do. If you check out The Transatlantic Sessions on youtude ( bluegrass and Celtic musicians jamin) you will see the Irish guys capoing. Here is a clip of Sarah Jarosz playing an octave mando arch top, along with a Celtic player also playing a octave but flat top, both capo’d. Btw jerryvdouglas is there too.
[video] [/video]

— Begin quote from "verneq"

Playing in various nonbluegrass I would sometime pick a mondo up and play open chords, just on the theory it was a guitar backwards.

— End quote

:laughing: That’s exactly how I figured out my open chords when I first picked up a mando. I don’t think I read or heard it anywhere, that was just how I thought. It’s nice not to be alone.

Group play alongs or jam sessions can seem intimidating due to our own thinking that we need to be good to be able to participate. The truth is, most likely there’s others sitting in that circle that are just starting out or maybe aren’t at a higher level yet & still learning too, so no need to feel alone.

Most of the people are there to have fun & do what they love to do not criticize those who aren’t at their level. They’re usually more than willing to help out & show us a few things & teach us some the things they have learned. And at the same time, they’re still learning too. No one knows it all & most of the best players think they still need to learn more & get even better.

So I say, get to a jam session as soon as you can & start learning. Tablature is good, dvd’s are good & internet lessons are all good, but there’s nothing better than actually being in a group watching & listening to others.

Mike, my wife hates when I get the mandolin out. It annoys her as well. I get out the mandolin, sit down next to her on the couch, turn the ball game on & start picking. Seems like quality time well spent to me. I just don’t understand.


— Begin quote from "jwpropane"

I get out the mandolin, sit down next to her on the couch, turn the ball game on & start picking. Seems like quality time well spent to me. I just don’t understand.

— End quote

:laughing: Maybe she wants more interaction. Perhaps, you could ask her for a foot rub while you are picking and watching the game. :laughing:

jv, I was thinking about your question, and it occurred to me that there were several milestones that happen pretty quickly. I thought I might pass them along so you could be watching for them. For me, I focused on rhythm initially, and not everyone is going to do that. If you do, here’s what you might expect.

The first one is that it takes some time to get used to such a tiny instrument… how to hold it (I use a strap, even when seated, even though I do “hold” the instrument more than a guitar), how to pick it and how to navigate such a small fretboard. Ben’s introduction to mandolin series is a wonderful resource for that. I refer to it often to help ensure I am not picking up bad habits. I think you will stop thinking about those basics as much within just a few playing sessions.

The next milestone is playing some open chords. It’s fun just whanging away on them, and they are easy to pick up. You can hammer-on and embellish them with altered notes and have a great time. To get a few open chords down, my wife did it in minutes and was playing along with me in her first sitting. I think three or so open chords are discussed in Ben’s rhythm vid.

At this point, add the knowledge that you can do what verneq called a “no chord chop,” and you have enough in your arsenal to make some fun music. So in answer to your original question… If you play regularly (like many do when they get a new instrument) I think you will be ready to play with others in perhaps as soon as just a few days.

The next milestone is ANY closed chord. The closed 3 finger C shape will probably come almost immediately. Getting changes fast and proper muting will take some practice, but the basics will be a matter of minutes. Again, reference Ben’s rhythm series.

Next is the four finger G chop. It’s gonna take some time, but realize that is normal. Some might get it in a session or two. It took me a few weeks to get comfy with it. I suspect it might take someone with no string background months. Again, reference Ben’s rhythm series.

Once you get the above down, you are ready to play some good sounding grass. You will likely have picked up a break or two in the mean time (Ben’s cripple creek is easy and fun).

I’ve been playing mandolin for about 9 months. But guitar for 35 years. So, it was perhaps 4 months before I could do some primitive playing along in our group setting. We do alot of folk and blues. It’s just in the past month or so I’ve been able to add some very basic breaks and fills to a few of our songs.

Over the weekend we played a private party along with a professional bluegrass band. Later in the evening we bagged the stage and amplification and sat around a couple of tables to do a song swap for the folks who remained. And when the BG guys came around and and offered a break, I had to pass every time. Way over my head at the moment, and way too fast. I was able to chop a few chords, or at least fake them. And that was about it. Seemed like everything they were doing was in G. I don’t know much about bluegrass, but it does seem to offer a great opportunity to do alot more jamming, so I have lots of woodshedding to do.

Hey guys,

I want to thank you for this posting because I am sure that is a very common question for most beginners. I have only been playing this mandolin for about two weeks now and am so frustrated. I did not see this post before I e-mailed Ben about how long it takes him to perfect a song that he learns, or I wouldn’t have even bugged him. I too have been playing the guitar for about 30-35 years and feel that I am pretty good at it so this mandolin should be a cinch…WRONG! Those dadgum frets are so small and I have tried to learn some of the licks that Ben throws into his solos and I cannot believe he can play that fast as I’m sure most of you veterans can. I will practice the tabs and think I’m getting pretty good at it and then put on the rhythm tracks and try to play the slow part and I still can’t keep up without missing a lot of notes and the regular speed is just ridiculous. I sincerely hope you are right about it just clicking one day. I have tried to commit 1 hour per day to practicing with the tabs and videos and it has improved quite a bit since I first started, but still leaves a lot to be desired. I am in too much now to get out. I started with a Fender A style electric mandolin and hate the way it sounds, so I bought a Loar LM-500, but am thinking about sending it back and getting the LM-600 because from the forums and reviews, it just sounds like it is set up better right out of the box and I can afford the difference and I don’t want to regret it later.

Anyways, thanks for the encouragement and advice as it is very helpful and uplifting when first starting as I’m sure you remember because it is so easy to get discouraged. I tried banjo last year and sold it. Once I get decent on this mandolin, I am going to get another banjo because I feel like I lost that battle and I’m a retired Marine and it is hard on the ego. I have people tell me how good I am on the guitar and I have never felt anywhere close to good, so I guess it is all relative to the other musicians you are with as I hope is the case with the mandolin.

Congrats on the new mandolin! One thing that is a bit different from guitar to mando is that your fretting fingers are “responsible” for two frets in the first position. Ben has a chromatic drill in one of his intro videos that is very helpful. It and other drill type videos may not be as fun as learning a fiddle tune, but they may be more beneficial early on. I learned alot from his beginner drills and I think they probably helped me avoid establishing some bad habits.

Welcome Marv, and hang in there. I’m just a little over a year into the mandolin now myself. It’s only been in the past month or so where I can do those awful Monroe chop chords even close to where they need to be. And I’m still struggling a little bit with the switch from the D shape back to the G. For some reason going G to D is easier.

I don’t use them much in the style I play, but it’s probably good to have them ready if I need them.

As for my solos, it’s been taking a while to get them sounding fuller. The right pick, and the proper pick attack seems to have alot more influence on the tone you get on a mandolin than on a guitar. I am getting there, but again it’s going to take a while. I’ve been playing guitar about as long as you have, and while it helps the transition, they still are two different instruments.

Besides all the great information available here, I can’t say enough good things about that Don Julin ‘Mandolin for Dummies’ book. I absolutely hate the title, but it’s packed with alot of great information.