A useful feature of the mandolin is the way in which patterns repeat themselves up and down the neck; you've probably already picked up on this when looking at the various scale patterns covered in previous lessons. We've already touched on changing the position of our hand on the neck in order to reach more notes, so let's examine this in a little closer detail to reveal how this can help us to play in numerous keys.
Let's once again start with our G Major Scale. However, we'll substitute the open strings for fretted notes on the seventh fret, which is the same as the note above it. Use your little finger on these strings.
G Major Scale:
When we do the same with the A Major Scale we remove all open strings, which is referred to as playing in a closed position.
A Major Scale:
Moveable Scale Shapes
Once you're comfortable with this closed position A Major Scale play exactly the same pattern but start with your first finger on the third fret. As we've moved up a step the scale becomes Bb Major:
Bb Major Scale:
And then up one more step, and we're in...B Major:
B Major Scale:
See where this is going? If we begin with our first finger anywhere on the neck and play this pattern of notes, we can truly be masters of transposition. Whilst the keys of B and Bb are useful (say if you're playing some specific bluegrass repertoire or happen to play in a band that features a brass section), this approach to scales also helps when playing in E Major and F Major, which are also common.
Here are both the scales of E Major and F Major in open position:
E Major Scale:
F Major Scale:
And again using the shapes from before in a closed position:
E Major Scale:
F Major Scale:
When moving around the neck like this we use a number system to refer to the position that we're playing in. So for example, our G and A Major patterns are in First Position, as they adhere to the basic rules of finger placement, with our first finger covering the first and second fret, second finger frets three and four etc.
However, when we start with our first finger on the third fret as in Bb Major we refer to that as playing in Second Position, with the first finger covering frets three and four, second finger five and six etc. When our first finger covers frets five and six, we call this Third Position.
Over at Mandozine.com you can read an overview of these position shifts as described by the legendary David Grisman. A set of my own exercises that run through various position shifts and optional fingerings can also be viewed here.
It's normal to combine different positions when playing scales up and down the neck, but also in certain tunes. It's also worth noting that there are more ways than one to skin a cat when it comes to using different positions on the neck. The reason for selecting one way over another is that one position might suit the particular phrasing of a tune or improvised passage, or open up particular open strings that work well in combination with other notes. It's important to grasp a familiarity with playing in closed positions, and then you can work backwards and make decisions about when to use them in your playing.