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Do you want to learn how to play the mandolin but worry that your fingers are too big for you to be successful? Well, let’s start by getting rid of that negative attitude and move on to the real issues: technique and practice.
You can play the mandolin with big or fat fingers, though you may need to experiment with various playing methods or practice more often. Most difficulties in playing an instrument often result from poor technique or lack of experience.
If you have attempted to play the mandolin but struggle with clean fingering, it can make for a frustrating experience. Maybe it’s not the fingering you fret, but instead, your strumming hand is muting other notes as you play. Whatever your issue, this article looks at various ways you can overcome it.
Problems in Playing the Mandolin
So, you think your fingers are too big to play the mandolin, do you? If Israel Kamakawiwoʻole were alive today, he probably would argue otherwise. Although he wasn’t a mandolin player, he was a well-known ukulele player and the size of the ukulele is similar to the size of the mandolin. Both are small instruments with a small amount of fret space along the fretboard.
But there are some common beginner “mistakes” that can lead to frustration and difficulties when learning a new instrument, and odds are you may be facing one or more of the following issues:
- You are holding the mandolin incorrectly or unnaturally
- Your fingers are not curled enough or placed properly
- The muscles in your hands have not developed/adapted to playing yet
Maybe you have yet to pick up your mandolin, or you’ve been staring at it, and you’re intimidated by those strings set so close together. But you shouldn’t let any of these things deter you from playing. If there’s a will there’s a way. So let’s start covering all our bases here, shall we?
Playing a String Course
If you are worried about needing to fit your big fingers in-between those tiny spaces to get at each one of the mandolin strings, well, worry no longer. The mandolin is a coursed instrument, which means it has groups of two or three strings set together, which is called a course, that should be played simultaneously as though they were one string.
If you have played a single-string instrument like a guitar before, playing a coursed instrument isn’t much different. With the strings being so close together and the fact that mandolin strings are generally thinner than other strings, it feels pretty much the same when fingering the fretboard.
Don’t Fret the Fretboard
The small spaces on the fretboard of a mandolin can cause challenges for big fingers. Most problems can be solved or avoided by playing with a tight curl in your fingers. If you are pressing using the pads of your fingers, the part where your fingerprint is, curl up your fingers to utilize more of the tips of your fingers. This may require some fingernail care and maintenance on your part.
When you play, you must be sure to hold strings firmly against the fretboard and strive to be as centered as possible within the fret. Without a firm hold on the string length, the tone may sound muted or distorted.
Also, know that some of those mockingly tiny frets require perfectly placed pinky nails by anyone to play. It isn’t just you and your bigger fingers that struggle.
As far as strumming and plucking are concerned, you’ll find that it’s much harder for your finger or pick to get caught between the two strings than you’d think. In fact, when playing the mandolin, each course of strings feels like it is only one string. The only difference being that it may be a little more difficult to press down than a single string would be.
Holding Your Mandolin
If you already play another stringed instrument, such as guitar, the change to mandolin can come with some challenges. But even if this is your first instrument, you must hold the mandolin to develop good habits in proper playing techniques. This may come with some experimentation on your part.
Sit and Support
For this holding method, what you chose to sit upon is just as important as anything else. Ideally, you’ll want a supportive, straight-backed chair without arms or anything where you can sit up straight and play without knocking or hitting anything. In this position, you support the mandolin in your lap. Some people find it helpful to cross their legs so that the mandolin is raised slightly.
You may choose to hold your mandolin in the center or off to one side or the other, whatever feels most comfortable. The best placement should feel natural and allow easy interaction with the strings.
The Arm Tuck
With this technique, you essentially press your mandolin up against the body on the same side as your strumming arm. Tilt the neck about 45 degrees upward. This can be done sitting or standing. Sitting offers additional support by resting the mandolin on a crossed leg.
This video is clipping from an old interview with a master mandolin player, the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Notice how he sits and rests his mandolin on his leg and utilizes an arm tuck for support.
Notice also that Mr. Monroe is making use of a strap to help stabilize the mandolin.
Using a Strap
Since the mandolin is relatively small and light, they are not always made with a strap to help hold them up while you play. However, a strap may assist in holding your mandolin correctly, especially if you’re struggling to play cleanly. Straps are also particularly helpful if you play standing up or if you have been unsuccessful in developing an effective arm tuck approach.
On an A-type mandolin, the strap can usually be placed underneath the raised fretboard where it attaches to the body and the endpin on the other side of the body.
An F-type mandolin makes it easy to attach a strap since you can usually run the strap through the scroll on the body. The other side of the strap can then be attached to the endpin on the body.
Adding a strap can be a fun way to personalize your mandolin by choosing a strap that reflects your personality.
Finding a Comfortable Hand Placement and Neck Angle
The way a mandolin neck should be angled and positioned is a heated debate among those who play the mandolin, as there seems to be little consensus on what is proper or correct. Ultimately, it has come down to instructors teaching best practices but empowering their students to experiment with what is best for them.
Typically, you will find many players hold their mandolin in one of two ways. It is either held similar to a guitar, with the strings facing fully forward or held on an upwards angle. Some well-known players have been observed as having some pretty unique styles in holding and playing their mandolin, including one who puts the neck nearly to his shoulder and another who holds it down by their hip.
Keep in mind that learning to play any instrument may feel a bit awkward at first, but it shouldn’t be difficult or painful. You should feel comfortable and relaxed when fingering and strumming, not contorted, cramped, or super awkward.
Whatever works for you is fine, but you should strive to pluck the strings at a perpendicular angle, as that will produce an optimal sound. Aim to achieve that with a natural hand placement when figuring out what is best.
To Pick or Not to Pick
While it is possible to pluck the mandolin using your fingers, it can come with some struggle. For one, the high string tension makes it difficult to produce a loud sound. Conversely, striking the string with a pick more appropriately called a plectrum creates a stronger vibration in the string and throughout the mandolin body (which is directly related to volume and amplification).
Furthermore, many players will tell you that the only way to get a true mandolin sound is to use a plectrum.
Pick Your Plectrum
Plectrum or picks come in a variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and thicknesses. A sturdier, thicker pick is often preferred as a thin pick can feel very flimsy. The most popular material used to make picks these days is plastic, though you can find some made from metal, stone, wood, nylon, and other materials. Each will provide their own unique characteristics in sound, including tone and resonance, as well as varying degrees of durability.
- Big fingers may benefit from a triangle shape pick as it allows more separation between your fingers and the strings. If you have been accidentally hitting and muting strings previously played when you reach for another one, this could help with that.
- Another solution could be to utilize fingerpicks, which you wear like a ring at the tip of your finger. It has an extended and pointed end used to pluck the strings. These also come in great variety, so you can play around with what feels and sounds the best. This Dunlop 9010R Shell Plastic Fingerpick may feel more comfortable on your fingers, or this Ernie Ball Pickey Pickeys Metal Finger Pick may produce a brighter tone.
Have Patience and Practice
Did someone say, Carnegie Hall? This is the key solution to all problems you may encounter playing the mandolin, or any instrument, for that matter. Being a great musician isn’t just about talent so much as it is about skill and study.
There will be some physical challenges that you’ll encounter that simply require doing the action over and over again until you strengthen the muscles and teach them what to do. After a while, like many things done in repetition, you will develop muscle memory, and over time, once difficult actions will become easier and easier to do.
Find or create various exercises for yourself where you can practice difficult chord changes or awkward fingering. A good idea would be to play several scales or chord progressions but add a note or chord you have difficulty with as a pivot between each step.
For example, if you had a hard time cleanly fingering an A chord, place it inside a scale, let’s say the C scale, and play: C, A-chord, D, A-chord, E, A-chord, F, A-chord, G, and so on until you reach the octave, then practice coming down the scale as well.
It takes time to become fluent with an instrument, so have patience and take your time when practicing. Stick with it, keep at it, and before you know it, you’ll be a natural, even with big fingers and all.
Playing the mandolin with big fingers is neither impossible nor unheard of. You may encounter a few challenges when learning, but many of these issues are common for most beginning players. Experimenting with different techniques can help, but at the end of the day, study and practice will prevail.