Chords are collections of notes that you play at the same time, often to provide accompaniment and rhythm to a tune or song. They require a slightly different approach to playing than you’ll encounter picking tunes. Becoming familiar with some basic chord shapes can help to develop a better ‘mental map’ of the fingerboard, and will also give your right hand an opportunity to really loosen up and explore playing rhythm.

 

The Left Hand

Let’s take a look at three shapes to start with. These two finger chords only require you to use the first and second finger of your left hand, and the correct fingering is suggested along with the diagrams:

G

           1   2

C

     1   2

D

1               2

Two finger chords shapes are quite straightforward on the mandolin, and you can quickly see how easy it is to make some pleasant sounds. There are no hard and fast rules here as all hand shapes vary of course, but I’d encourage thinking about the positioning of your left hand so that you’re supporting the neck a little with the side of your palm, this will allow your fingers press down enough on the strings so that they don’t buzz and instead make a clear ringing sound.

The Right Hand

 

Now let’s think about the right hand. Let’s start with a pattern of four beats in a bar (for more info on time signatures check out this site). Take a G chord for starters, and bring the pick to strum down across all the strings four times.

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

E

A

D

G

D          D          D           D

Now let's make it a little less repetitive and a little more interesting. Even though we have four string notes on a mandolin (GDAE) it's not uncommon to mimic aspects of guitar accompaniment when playing rhythm, by separating 'bass' note strums and full chord strums to introduce some variation. This can be done by strumming down on the G and D strings on the first and third beat, and full chord strums on the second and fourth:

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

E

A

D

G

D          D          D           D

Chord Progressions

Most songs and tunes have a chord progression which moves between a few shapes to provide some harmonic context and interest.  Depending on the key of a song or tune there will be certain chords that work better in combination with each other. The chords of G, C and D are a good place to start here, as they all work when playing in the key of G Major. This can be referred to as a 'three chord trick', and as typical progression might go something like this:

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

G

G

C

C

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

D

D

G

G

These chord progressions are more or less unique to the tune or song that you're playing, but they'll often follow a formula that's likely to repeat itself in different pieces. Here's a similar pattern that moves around a little more - keep an eye on the beats per bar as one of the changes is a little quicker than the others.

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

G

C

C

1           2           3           4

1           2           3           4

G

D

1           2           3           4

C

1           2           3           4

G

1           2           3           4

C

D

1           2           3           4

G

We'll add some more chords and rhythmic ideas including upstrokes in the next lesson. For now try and keep your right hand loose, and experiment with holding the pick tighter and looser to see what effect it has on the sound of the chords you're strumming. There's no right or wrong here, just what sounds good, so trust your ears!

© Nic Zuppardi 2020