Your Mandolin is a Drum Set

Jun 15, 2021

The mandolin, with its tightly wound strings and high treble sound, is the ideal instrument to play drum parts in a string ensemble.

For example, an essential function for the mandolin in bluegrass music is playing the snare drum parts of the groove on beats 2 & 4 of every measure - the so-called “chop chord.”

When I recorded Ten From Town with The Old Yellers, an acoustic trio, the first thing I ended up doing on every song was playing the hi-hat eighth notes and snare drum 2s & 4s on muted strings behind the singer’s guitar - being a drummer instead of a mandolinist! 

You can mute your mandolin strings by stretching out all four fingers of your left hand and laying them down gently atop all the strings. Be careful NOT to press the strings down. 

Getting just a dull "click" when you strum? Good - now you’re ready for your drum lesson!

Let’s start by counting and playing four beats per measure across all eight muted strings, a basic drum sound:

Now, alternate between the low, wound strings on beats 1 & 3 and the high unwound strings on beats 2 & 4:

The low strings represent the bass drum of a drum set on beats 1 & 3. The high strings fill in for the snare drum on beats 2 & 4.

I put a little extra oomph on the 2 & 4, signified here with the accent marking. We call this groove “boom-chuck," for obvious reasons.

Next we fill in the “upbeats” in between these four numbered “downbeats," like an echo of each numbered beat. We call these sounds “and."

NOTE: use all downstrokes for every note in this example. Two downstrokes per beat, for a total of eight sounds per measure. It makes sense that we call these "eighth notes."

And finally, in between each downstroke, we have room for an upstroke. We call these two new sounds on each beat "e" and "a" respectively. These one-letter names will make more sense when you listen to me "talk" the full beat.At this point you are playing 16 sounds per measure - four pick strokes on four separate beats. So it makes sense that these guys are called "16th notes."

If you already have this basic 16th note drum groove on auto-pilot, then you can have some fun with "syncopation."

You can "accent," or put extra emphasis on, any of the 16 notes in a measure. Or you can choose to not play them at all.

In the mando-percussion improvisation I play at the start of the video, my right hand stays true to the basic 16th note pattern the entire time, moving down eight times per measure, with eight upstrokes in between.

But I often change up or "syncopate" this groove by removing or accenting random 16th notes here and there.

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