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Picking With The Right Hand

At any stage of playing the mandolin it's important not to overlook the importance of a good command over the right hand. It is after all the way in which we actually make any sound out of the instrument. Selecting the right pick/plectrum is an important first step; don't underestimate the difference what might just seem like a tiny piece of plastic can make.

I would recommend getting hold of a variety of different picks in different shapes and thicknesses, and rotate through them as you play until you find one that feels comfortable. A thicker pick may seem like a lot to handle at first, but will result in a thicker and 'rounder' sound which you may find more rewarding than the thinner sound usually produced by thin picks. If you use a thin pick you'll also find it moves around/bends a little as you play which makes it harder to get good purchase on notes.

Let's take a look at some of the principles of picking.

How To Hold The Pick

This is more or less down to personal preference. I would highly recommend watching videos of as many mandolin players as possible and studying  their different holds; you'll find quite an array of approaches. Hand sizes and positions differ, so there's no one size fits all. That being said, try to settle on something that you can keep steady and consistent. It's important that the right hand does not move too much or change shape otherwise it can affect the quality of sound we get from picking the strings. As you play it's not uncommon to rest your hand slightly just behind the bridge to anchor it, and some players will plant their hand either on the top of the mandolin or the pickguard. Whatever you choose to do, keep it loose! Avoid holding the pick too tightly and let the pick have a little bit of give between the fingers. Here are two common pick holds:

Downstrokes and Upstrokes

To make sound on the mandolin we use a pick to play a combination of downstrokes and upstrokes. As there are double courses/two pairs of each string it's important to pick through both strings on the downstroke, and then through both strings on the upstroke. This give a thicker sound than just playing single string on the down and up. The emphasis will always be on the first string you hit, and the second string is just glanced over with the pick, so don't be too heavy handed trying to play both!

DOWN

UP

Downstrokes and upstrokes are normally represented in sheet music and tablature with the following symbols:

G

D

A

E

DOWN

UP

Counting Time

The way in which we pick with the right hand underscores a fundamental part of understanding musical 'metre', the rhythmic pattern of beats in any piece of music. It's essentially a metronome that makes sense of the phrasing, rhythm and timing of a piece of music.

Counting four beats per bar is a good place to start, and can be referred to as 'common metre' or represented simply with a 'C'. It's usually represented like a fraction; this tells us that each bar contains four beats, and each crotchet/quarter note has the value of one of these beats (for more info on time signatures etc check out this site, but for the moment so long as you can count to four then read on!)

Let's put this into practice. Take this common time signature where each bar of music contains four beats. These beats can be represented by a variety of notes that have different values. A semibreve/whole note is worth the full four beats, a minim/half note is worth two beats, and a crotchet/quarter note is worth one of the beats. these can all be played with downstrokes, and by picking more beats in each bar (these examples use the open A string to demonstrate):

Semibreve/Whole Note

Minim/Half Note

1             2             3             4

1             2             3             4

Crotchet/Quarter Note

1              2              3              4

By dividing the crotchet/quarter note value we end up with eighth notes/quavers, represented by notes with 'flags' or 'beams' that connect the notes. These beats can be thought of as counting the gaps between the four beats 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &This is crucially when we introduce our upstrokes between every downstroke, and is referred to as alternate picking:

1             &             2            &              3            &             4              &

1             &              2              &              3             &               4             &

Our hand wants to be feeling the natural flow of down-up-down-up constantly as we play. Make sure to bring your hand far enough above and below each string so that you're  using a smooth motion to play across the strings. We don't want the pick to only reach as far as the string you're going to play, but move beyond it so you can play each stroke with clarity and purpose! I always describe this to my students as using brush strokes that 'sweep' across the strings.

Things get a little more complicated as we start to take notes out of the equation. Even if notes are missing, the beats are still there, and your right hand needs to behave as if it has played them irrespective of whether it actually has! Feel free to have a go at the following exercises, and we'll take a more detailed look at this in the Intermediate lesson on Scale Exercises:

1     &      2    &    3    &    4      &

1     &     2     &     3       &     4      &