Mandolin tremolo is the subject of this 2nd lesson in the Mandolin Lessons for beginners concept I conceived almost one year ago targeting to teach my kids how to play mandolin and have fun, while at the same time help others learn mandolin as well, by recording here a detailed transcript of each lesson, together with videos and tabs.

The first lesson proved popular and I received nice comments motivating me to continue. I am doing that now with this second lesson that is all about mandolin tremolo, hoping that Alexandra and Panos (my kids) will continue having fun while learning how to play. I am trying my best to make these lessons interesting, as I want my kids to enjoy them and for this reason I am using a mixture of theory, practice with videos and recordings for these lessons. In this second lesson, I will begin with a discussion about the first lesson (what have you learned?), and then I will focus on tremolo, probably the most important technique for mandolinists.

So, here is the second mandolin lesson, grab your mandolin and follow Panos footsteps!

Mandolin Tremolo – Setting the stage

We start the lesson by settling in at a nice spot, near the Christmas tree and in front of a large window to have nice physical light.

Mandolin Tremolo -

Here is the spot.

Mandolin Tremolo - the student Panos

And here is the student – my 11-year old son, Panos, ready to start (really dad?).

Mandolin Tremolo – Starting with what we learned in the previous lesson

We begin remembering what we did during the previous lesson, a part of which was theory and the rest was practice.

I ask Panos what he learned and he gives me the highlights, i.e. how to hold the mandolin, how to place the left and right hands, how to hold the pick, how to read tabs. He also adds that I gave him two exercises to practice.

I begin asking questions, to see how much he actually remembers (try to answer them on your own, before revealing the answer):

Panos remembers that he has to elevate one foot to hold the mandolin steadily, but he does not remember how to avoid muting the mandolin sound. Do you remember? If not, see next question.
You have to position the mandolin in a way that is not pressed on your clothes, or it becomes muted. You can do that by leaning slightly forward. I ask Panos to try it now. He experiments with the position, till he hears the difference in the sound produced. (You should try that too!)
Panos remembers the two ways to do that, as he is also studying classical guitar at school: You can cross your legs or use a footstool like the one used by classical guitarists.
Panos misses the important point. I hear things like, make the pick vertical to the strings, or close your fist entirely, but not “hold the pick loosely“! To help him remember it , I mention stories of famous mandolinists holding the pick so loosely that some times it falls off their hand! Really dad?
That’s easy so Panos remembers they are named G, D, A, E, from the thickest to the thinnest. If you do not remember the names, you should repeat them at least three times to help your brain memorize them.
Panos remembers that. It is the frets, not the fingers!
Panos remembers the two symbols and he shows them to me (he uses the Exercice #1 tab, see lesson 1)
Panos finds it difficult to describe it, but he shows it to me correctly on the fretboard. This is how I describe it: the index finger covers frets one & two, the second finger covers frets three and four, the third finger covers frets five and six. Finally the fourth (little) finger covers frets seven and eight

Now, that we are sure that the previous lesson is well understood, it’s time to move on to new stuff!

Mandolin Tremolo – What is tremolo?

This is how I explain what is tremolo to Panos:

Tremolo is a music term that we use to describe the right-hand technique where we rapidly repeat a single note with the pick.

I play tremolo for Panos to give him a feeling of what tremolo sounds like. You can hear the soundclip above.

I then ask him to try it.

Here is Panos trying to play tremolo. He looks a little bit frustrated, but he is not disappointed you shouldn’t be either! Tremolo is not easy. Keep reading to see how you can master mandolin tremolo with practice.

Mandolin Tremolo – The two types of tremolo and Staccato

After understanding what tremolo is, I explain to Panos that we have two types of tremolo, the free tremolo and the measured tremolo.

Free tremolo, sometimes called also expressive tremolo, is a tremolo that can speed up and slow down in order to help express feelings while playing.

Measured tremolo, is timed in order to follow the music or to produce a desired effect. We may have four strokes per beat, for fast tempos, six strokes per beat for medium tempos and eight or even twelve strokes per beat for songs with slow tempos.

Free tremolo is used in music without a strong beat, such as ballads, classical music etc. Measured tremolo is mainly used in music with strong beat, such as blue grass.

So, what do we call the technique where we do not play tremolo? Then we use the word staccato, to describe the technique when he hit a note just once!

I see that Panos finds it difficult to understand the differences, so I play it for him.

Mandolin Tremolo – Why do we play tremolo?

I then ask this question: “Why do we play tremolo?”

I get no clear answer from Panos, so I proceed to explain it.

Tremolo is mainly used to play notes of long values (duration), as when done properly it produces a sound that is like the note becoming one long sustained constant note.

The thing with mandolin tremolo is that due to the string pairs, the tremolo sound is so characteristic and beautiful that it has become something like a signature for the mandolin. Nevertheless, you should not use it anywhere!

Mandolin Tremolo – Comparing the mandolin with the cello

A good way to understand the neccesity and importance of the mandolin tremolo is to make a comparison with the cello.

I watch with Panos the above video of a cellist playing long notes and I ask him if he sees any similarity in how the cellist uses the bow with the mandolin tremolo. This is what he answers:

The movement of the bow produces a sustained note. Can you do this with a mandolin? Not really, unless you use tremolo.

That’s an excellent answer, we are now ready to continue.

Mandolin Tremolo – When do we play tremolo?

Till now, I explained to Panos that tremolo is used to produce long sustained constant notes. But is this the only case when we play tremolo with the mandolin?

The answer is no, and so I explain to Panos that we also play tremolo when we want to create a special effect and to express a specific feeling.

As this complicates things, and Panos looks puzzled,  I give him three generic rules that will help him decide when to use tremolo.

Rule 1: Hash marks in music scores or tabs

  • First rule: The composer or arranger has indicated that you should play measured tremolo by using hash marks on the stem of the note or under the number in the tab.
Mandolin Tremolo - Lesson #2 Example

I show this picture to Panos to help him identify the hash marks. I ask him:

Panos looks at the piece and shows me the four notes in the second bar of the music score. “Maybe these one dad?” He is correct.
Panos is confused. I explain him that one line in the hash mark means two notes per beat. Two lines in the hash mark means 4 notes per beat, four lines means 8 notes per beat. Everything is clear now. In the music score above, each note is played with 4 notes (per beat).
Panos looks at the piece and sees the whole note at the end. “Maybe this one dad?” He is correct again, and he has actually discovered the second rule for playing tremolo .

Rule 2: Notes with long values

  • Second rule: The piece has slow tempo and notes with long values, so the only way to achieve the sustained sound required is to play these notes with tremolo. In this case the composer does not need to add any indication.

We now move on the third rule.

Rule 3: Free tremolo is indicated with slurs

  • Third rule: Free tremolo is sometimes indicated with slurs over the notes. To indicate where the tremolo should stop, the composer usually places a dot (staccato symbol) on the first note after the tremolo.

I give him a music score that contains notes with slurs.

Mandolin Tremolo -Mandolin free tremolo indication

I show this picture to Panos to help him identify the slurs. I ask him:

Panos looks at the piece and shows me the three A notes in the third bar of the music score. “Maybe these one dad?” He is correct, so we are ready to proceed.
Panos is confused. I explain him that when you see a dot over a note that follows a slur, this is the first note that should be played staccato. Everything is clear now, as he identifies that the fourth A note in the third bar has a dot and is just after a slur.

Mandolin Tremolo – Time to practice!

How easy is to play tremolo? The truth is that it is difficult, it requires practice and the usage of the pick and the right hand when playing mandolin tremolo is essential.

I give to Panos some exercises and I emphasise again that he must not get disappointed at the beginning. Tremolo will improve over time.

Mandolin Tremolo - Exercises

Here is a link to the exercise in PDF format for you to print: Lesson 2 practice exercises

I ask Panos to play each exercise slowly, three times. To make each note last enough to practice tremolo, I ask him to count to four before moving to the next note.

Here is Panos trying the exercises.

Once he seems to understand the exercises, I tell him he needs to practice this exercise, as homework, for the next lesson.

Mandolin Tremolo Lesson is over!

That’s it! I cross my fingers and hope that this second lesson was easy enough for Panos to follow and it will not scare him off!

He looks happy and continues trying to play the exercise after I leave him alone. Success!!!! I am a happy dad…

Motivate me to create the Next Lesson

What do you think my chances are for Alexandra and Panos wanting to continue the mandolin lessons and do a third one? Please leave a comment to give me motivation to continue!

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