Class/Camp Prep for Novice Mandolin Players
By Mark Roberts, former jam camper, Argyle, TX
In bluegrass mandolins provide the back beat or off beat. This is done with the mandolin “chop.” It’s not hard. You make a chord – say G – and then strum it but just as it starts to ring you let you fingers up just a little on the strings, dampening them and the sound. You get a nice snare drum chop sound.
That’s your job: to keep the band in rhythm with your chop. The bass player will play ON the beat, and you will play the OFF beat. Boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick. You’re the chick.nGuitars do both the Boom and the chick. Fiddles, banjos, resonator guitars sometimes hit the chick, but the mandolin virtually always does.
Playing on the off beat is a little different. It is very easy to roll over to the on beat and it requires some practice to stay on the off beats. If you can’t do it you should work on this relentlessly until you can. This is the single most important preparation you can do so you need to work on this until you can do it. I’m not kidding. You’ve got to be able to chop on the off beats. Get a metronome and set it at a slow tempo. Hold a chord. Beep – Strum the CHOP – Beep – Strum the CHOP. If you can’t chop in between the beeps slow it down till you can. Then work on it until you can do it faster.
If you can’t do it you may want to try playing the G string (furthest from the floor on your mandolin) ON the beat and then chopping. This helps a lot of mandolin players. They play G string, then CHOP. In effect, they are playing boom-chick, boom-chick – playing “both parts”, as the guitar does. Work on this. This is what the mandolin does when playing rhythm in bluegrass.
You also should work on changing chords as you chop. You need to be able to smoothly and quickly change from G, C, and D chords. Get the song sheet and use it. Play boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick as you sing the words in your head and then smoothly, without breaking tempo, shift to the next chord and keep right on boom-chicking in rhythm. The better you are at this the better you’ll do at Jam Camp. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t work on fiddle tunes or solos. Just work on your chop chords.
By the way, I knew some two-finger mandolin chords and thought I’d just use those. Wrong! You can’t make that nice mandolin “bark” with only two strings chorded. You need to use the full chords that fret all the strings if you want to be a bluegrass mandolin player. [However, if you can switch quickly between the 2-finger chords, it’s acceptable to use those. But practicing the full chords is worth the effort.]nnIf you can chord chop your way through the songs Pete sends at a good pace (like 80 bpm) then you’re ready for Camp.
If you can’t chop and chord and you aren’t getting it on your own then order Pete’s Slow Jam video. It contains a ton of songs and gives you plenty of slow songs to work on your chop. I bought one at the Camp and it is a huge help. Get one before Camp and you’ll be just that much better before the Camp starts.