The mandolin is a very old instrument, the origins of which go back to the lute of Medieval times. There are three prominent types of mandolin available: the Neapolitan bowl-back, the arch-top and the flat-back, it is the flat-back mandolin that is most commonly used in the Irish tradition.
Paddy Cummins, the resident mandolin tutor for OAIM, teaches two courses: one for absolute beginners and a progressions course as a follow on. In these two courses you will learn all there is to know about one of Ireland’s most recognisable and traditional musical instruments from a teacher who is as relaxed as he is knowledgeable about the instrument.
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Mandolin Frequently Asked Questions
answered by tutor Paddy Cummins
Is the mandolin tuned the same as the Irish tenor banjo and fiddle?
Yes, the tuning system is GDAE (low to high) with each string doubled-up. It is in the same octave as the fiddle and one higher than the banjo.
Can I play Irish music on a neopolitan or F-hole instrument?
Whilst, in my opinion, the flat-back, oval hole variety have the nicest sound for Irish music, you can play on any kind of mandolin. With the neopolitan versions, they can be quite suited to slower pieces of music and the repertoire of composers like O’Carolan such is the classical influence on the compositions. They are a smaller instrument so can be quite claustrophic and may not be entirely suited to the highly decorated, faster paced dance tunes. Arch-top, F-hole instruments have a strong tone but it isn’t as “Celtic” a sound as the oval hole, flat tops. If you really want to have that Celtic sound, the oval-hole, flat top is the best but by no means necessary.
What kind of pick should I use for Irish mandolin?
It needs to be pretty thick. If you come from a tenor banjo background you may be used to playing in the 0.5mm – 0.73mm range. If you play an arch-top, you need to start working in the 0.9mm – 1.5mm range for mandolin and this is because the tone is so important. This is comparable to bluegrass picks. You could probably work in the 0.73mm – 0.88mm range for oval hole instruments. Neopolitan are a different kettle of fish and some would recommend tortoise shell variety for these instruments.
Is the technique on mandolin the same as tenor banjo?
There is a lot of crossover in technique but the greater sustain on the mandolin affords other kinds of technique not possible on the banjo. The opposite is also true. Tremolo, for example, is much more suited to mandolin.
Can I use the mandolin to provide chordal accompaniment at an Irish session?
No. The mandolin is not used in this context in Irish traditional music. The accompaniment section is exclusive for guitarists, pianists, bouzouki players and rhythm (bodhran). Using old-time style chords or bluegrass chops will not be appreciated in an Irish session. Mandolin must play the melody.
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