Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle

The other day, I wrote a post about a course I signed up for at Peghead Nation called Old Time Fiddle with Bruce Molsky. As I mentioned in that post, one of the drawbacks for me in taking this course is the notation for each tune is standard notation, not tablature. In an effort to try and take more advantage of this course, I found and signed up for another course, Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle with Chad Manning. (Note: Since I had already signed up for the Old Time Course for $20, this second course only cost me $10.)

Chad Manning is a Bay Area bluegrass, old-time, and swing fiddler who currently plays with the David Grisman Sextet, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, and Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands. Chad also finds great joy in teaching and working with all levels of adult fiddle students. He and his wife, Catherine, teach more than a hundred students at their studio in Berkeley, California.

Chad’s theory course includes:

  • In-depth instruction on chord and scale theory for instruments tuned in fifths
  • More than 28 practical, hands-on theory lessons designed specifically for fiddlers and mandolinists
  • Notation and mandolin tablature for every lesson
  • Lessons on improvising and soloing using different tonalities and arpeggios
  • High-quality video with multiple camera angles so you can see closeups of both hands in action.
  • Play-Along Tracks so you can practice what you’ve learned

Now, I guess I should also mention in case you are wondering, why would I take a course about fiddle music theory if the guy is using a mandolin. The violin and mandolin are similar in that they are both tuned in 5ths, the strings are the same (G,D,A,E) and you finger the instrument using the same pattern. Both the violin and the mandolin use the same clef, and can play the same music.

I watched the first lesson, Major Scales – Finger Patterns, with my fiddle in hand. In it, Chad discussed and demonstrated scales in different positions in the bluegrass keys of G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E, and F. He started by defining a major scale and then showed how the major scale is symmetrical on an instrument tuned in fifths. He also showed the different finger patterns for major scales, with scales starting on each finger: index, middle, ring, and pinky.

It became a bit confusing, especially since Chad was using a mandolin for this lesson, but I began to see the relationships between keys, scales and finger placement, or the geography as he calls it. I know I will have to watch this video a few times. Chad also mentions this course might be easier if you have a mandolin, because of the orientation of the instrument, so I am thinking of trying the lesson again today picking my fiddle instead of bowing, or perhaps purchasing a cheap mandolin just for this course.

One thing I know about myself is I have always had difficulty learning something I needed to learn as opposed to something I wanted to learn, a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. I have mentioned before, I really don’t want to learn music theory; I want to learn the fiddle in a more aural style. However, since I have to rely mainly on online sources to learn, and most use theory and standard notation, I am going to give it a try. No guarantees, though. But, somehow, I have this idea that learning basic theory will help me even learning aurally, since it will help me to better understand how to get the sounds I want out of those strings! I’ll keep you updated.

  2 comments for “Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle

  1. November 2, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Good for you! Theory is really fun, in my opinion. It opens up all sorts of appreciation and abilities. I play both fiddle and mandolin, and I have one tip for you: BEFORE you spring for a mandolin, buy a UKULELE and string it LIKE a fiddle/mandolin. There are special strings you can get on amazon that are listed as “fifths” tuning or GDAE for ukulele. I swear, I pick up my uke strung this way more often than my mandolin! It’s also great for working on a fiddle tune quietly. The size is comparable to a violin, too, so you will enjoy the similarity of finger stretch. Best of luck on your theory!

    • November 2, 2019 at 10:14 am

      Help me understand. Why would I need to restring the ukulele?

      Do you have a recommendation for a ukulele that is not too cheap, not to expensive, that could serve this purpose if I find it too difficult trying to learn the theory on my unfretted violin?

      I looked up the strings; there are several price points. Any recommendations for those as well?

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