Why Chords on the Mandolin?

In the 30 years that I played the mandolin and the octave mandolin in Europe, I rarely played any chords. That is because in the European, Italian and Greek mandolin repertoire, mandolins play just a few chords, unlike bluegrass where the use of chords is very common. This can be explained from the structure of mandolin orchestras in European music. These orchestras typically contain multiple guitars that are better suited to play chords on their 6 strings, while mandolins are solo instruments playing the melody.

I was therefore surprised recently when I saw a nice chord progression to be played by the mandolin in a Greek piece of music. I got my hands on this music, when asked to play mandolin in a forthcoming concert in Greece that will present a new Music Suite named Hindmost Vespers (2012), written by Michalis Keffalas, a Greek Composer.

The Hindmost Vespers suite is written for Flute, Cello, Guitar and the Mandolin and consists of seven parts that vary greatly in difficulty, mood and rhythm, presenting a small challenge for the musicians that perform it. I was asked to play the mandolin part, and I am more than happy to perform in a concert again, scheduled for January 2013. (I intend to upload a recording of the concert here, so stay tuned).

The chords progression in the mandolin part gave me the idea to further research and organise the subject in order to create an online mandolin chords guide that is suited for beginners, but to make it also unique as I think it is a good idea to include and present also the music theory behind chords, as this can be very helpful but also important in order to progress as a musician and a performer. Let’s begin!

What is a Chord?

After getting a feel of what a chord sounds like and how you can play the C Major chord on the mandolin, I think it is time to understand a little bit about music theory. It may prove to be more interesting than what you may believe, so give it a try!

chord is a combination of three or more notes played concurrently. Note that as the mandolin consists of four pairs of strings, one can play on the mandolin chords that consist of only up to four notes. This is really not a big restriction, as four note chords are good enough for any song. That said, on a guitar or even better a keyboard, one can play chords consisting of more notes than four.

Chords are built off of a single note, called the root which is used also to name the chord. Therefore, for the C Major chord, the root is obviously C. See it below written on the staff.

Mandolin Chord Major C root


The simplest type of chords one can play are triads, i.e. chords that consist of three notes, the root, the third and the fifth. To find the third and fifth, one must count notes, starting from the root. For the C Major chord and taking into account that the notes are A-B-C-D-E-F-G, we see that:

  • The second above the root (C) is D.
  • The third above the root is E.
  • The fourth above the root is F.
  • And finally the fifth above the root is G

We therefore conclude that the C Major chord consists of C, E, and G, displayed below on a staff.

Mandolin Chord C Major on staff 2


I know that many beginners are not used to the staff, so if you are one of them, do not let it stop you. In following posts I will provide more pieces of the puzzle that will help you see how easy it is to use the staff.

Finally, I wanted in this post to simplify things a bit, so I decided on purpose not to mention how a chord is identified as a Major or minor. This will be described on a following post describing the C minor chords.

About Intervals

What is an Interval?

An interval measures the distance between two notes. It is the interval types within a chord that determines whether the chord is a Major or minor (or some other types we will see later on). First you need to understand generic intervals, how they are measured on a staff, or by just counting notes. This is not difficult to learn, it is being taught to kids in elementary school, so I am sure you can master it at no time!

When two notes occupy the same line or space on the staff, they are a first interval apart. Examples include C to C, as well as D to D, E to E and so on and so forth. See below how first are identified on a staff.

Mandolin Chord Intervals



You will notice that notes of a first interval have the same name, right? When measuring generic intervals, accidentals are ignored, so the below C-C#, D-Db, A#-Ab are still firsts.

Mandolin Chord Interval 2


Moving on to Seconds and Thirds.

When the notes become further apart on the staff, the interval increases.

For example, C-D, D-E, E-F are all seconds (see below).

Mandolin Chords, Second Intervals

In the same manner, C-E, D-F, E-G are thirds. Notice how the thirds have both notes on a space or a line.

Mandolin Chords third Interval

About Fourths and Fifths

C-F, D-G and E.A are fourths.

Mandolin Chord, Fourth Intervals

C-G, D-A, E-B are fifths. Notice how the fifths have both notes on a space or a line, exactly as thirds. As the triads (chords consisting of three notes) are constructed by the root, the third and the fifth, this tip is important.

Mandolin Chords, Fifths

About Sixths, Sevenths and Eights

C-A, D-B and E-C are sixths.

Mandolin Chords, Sixths

C-B,  D-C and E-D are sevenths.

Mandolin Chords, Sevenths

Finally, C-C, D-D and E-E are eights.

Mandolin Chords, Eights

Interval Reference Diagram

Finally, you may use the following diagram to reference generic intervals.

Mandolin Chords , Intervals Reference

How Intervals Determine the Chord Type

After studying generic intervals, it is time to focus on how intervals are used on chords. To do so, we will focus on the thirds and fifths that are used on triads to see their specific intervals.

As mentioned above, when measuring generic intervals, accidentals are ignored, so C-E and C-Eb are both generic thirds, although they do not sound the same. You can play them  on the mandolin 2nd chord, C at the 3rd fret, E at the 7th fret while Eb at the 6th fret.

Let’s call the distance between two adjacent frets on the same string, a half-step from now on. So:

  • C-C# is a first with one half-step (one fret).
  • C-D is a second with two half-steps (two frets).
  • C-E is a third with four half-steps (four frets) – and we call it a major third
  • C-Eb is a third with three half-steps (three frets) – and we call it a minor third

And we just found the difference between C Major and C minor, the reason why they sound so differently and why they are named major and minor.

  • C Major (C-E-G) includes a C-E i.e. a major third,
  • C minor (C-Eb-G) includes a C-Eb, i.e. a minor third.

It is obvious that if you change in a C chord the Eb to E, you transform it from C minor to C Major and vice versa! Simple, right?

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