Understanding chords on the mandolin
By Jonathan Bélanger
You might have come through your mandolin studies with the task of playing chords. Either you are involved in a classical etude, jazz chord melody, pop music progressions or even solo improvising: you always face the same problem with chords.
Choosing the voicing
Chords can be played a lot of different ways on the mandolin. Certain voicings are suited for a certain sound. Open strings voicings give you a lot of volume for strumming while bluegrass chop chords give you the snap you need to keep the rhythm.
Drop 2 triads
This voicing commonly called the "3-notes-per-chords". It is the most useful voicing for understanding the entire fretboard logic on the mandolin. It is widely used in classical compositions as well as jazz comping & chord melody vocabulary.
A Drop 2 triad is a common stacked triad that has it's second note lowered 1 octave. This composers tool gives more physical space for the sound between the voices and is usually easy to play.
More music theory about chord structure here: http://openmusictheory.com/triads.html
Quality for the triads
Like in the real life ice cream shops, triads come in 4 flavors.
- Major (M),
- Minor (m),
- Augmented (aug)
- Diminished (dim)
Playing the shapes
In order to play and see these chords on your fretboard, you must memorize their shape. Over the years, i have came up with a dotted system that is easy to picture in your mind and memorize. Remember that each of the 3 shapes are attached to their respective root or tonic. The mandolin « fifth » tuning enables you to play these shape on any 3 adjacent strings.
Playing Jazz 4 notes chords
Since these 3 notes chords are limited to only 3 voices, we have 2 solutions:
- Omit one voice, generally the root or the fifth (or often avoid the 7th..)
- Superimpose the triad over a bass note that can be played or not
Technique and fingerings
Although this is not a rule, i would suggest that you play these chords mostly with the fingers 1-2-3. The pinky can be handy because it got more strength than the third finger in some shapes, but if you are into hot chord solo stuff, you might want to have your 4th finger free. Any adjacent note to the first finger could be barred, some people even bar with the second finger or third. Try all fingerings and remember the linear shape attached to the root.
I hope this helps!
Jonathan Bélanger for Mando Montreal
Founder of Mando Montreal, Jonathan has built a reputable musical career since 1998, working as a guitarist, mandolinist, teacher, arranger, composer and orchestral conductor. He studied guitar at Cégep de St-Laurent and completed a film music composition degree at Université du Québec à Montréal. Furthermore, he refined his skills studying jazz and classical mandolin in masterclasses with renowned players around the world.