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 mandolintremolo, 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.
Here is the spot.
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):
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 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 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
Once we are finished with the questions, I ask Panos to play for me the exercises I gave her during the first lesson, to see if he has any problems before proceeding.
A good idea is to record yourself playing the exercises, and upload the videos to youtube. You can then share slink of the video as a comment in this lesson, where I can give you my comments on how you are doing!
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.
You can see me playing tremolo in a video below.
I explain that the key with tremolo is to understand that you have to play:
the same note many times in a series of down-up, down-up strokes. The faster you become with this movement, the better sound you produce.
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.
I give him a music score that contains notes with hash marks.
I show this picture to Panos to help him identify the hash marks. I ask him:
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 .
If measured tremolo seems difficult, don’t worry. We will dedicate a whole lesson to this useful technique.
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.
I show this picture to Panos to help him identify the slurs. I ask him:
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.
If free tremolo seems difficult as well, don’t worry. I have included simple exercises below to help you start practicing this beautiful technique, as well as an arrangement of a famous piece from Fernando Sor for you to play along with your mandolin.
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.
These exercises are very simple for the left hand on purpose, to let you concetrate and improve your righ hand technique. As G strings are the thickest strings of the mandolin, you may find it more difficult to play tremolo there than the other string pairs. This is ok!
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 practise this exercise, as homework, for the next lesson.
As these exercises are not really interesting, I also give him the following exercise that is much nicer, as it is played with mandolin and guitar. If you don’t have a guitar don’t worry. I have recorded the guitar part for you below to play along.
Mandolin Tremolo- Real Homework for Next Lesson
I now give Panos his real homework. This is a piece of music from Fernando Sor, so I start with a short biography of the composer and some trivial facts for this particular piece of music.
Josep Ferran Sorts i Muntades (baptized 14 February 1778 – died 10 July 1839) was a Spanish classical guitarist and composer. While he is best known for his guitar compositions, he also composed music for a wide range of genres, including opera, orchestra, string quartet, piano, voice, and ballet. His ballet score Cendrillon (Cinderella) received over one hundred performances. Sor’s works for guitar range from pieces for beginning players to advanced players such as Variations on a Theme of Mozart. Sor’s contemporaries considered him to be the best guitarist in the world,and his works for guitar have been widely played and reprinted since his death.
I describe to Panos, that this particular piece of Sor music that I give him is identified as Op.35 No.22 and is really an inspiring piece of music, although very simple. It is an exercise for guitarists (that is why it does not have a proper name), but it so beautiful that some of the greatest guitarists in the world have performed i at concerts. Julian Bream for example, probably the greatest classical guitarist of all times, plays this piece in his DVD while explaining that it is the first piece of music that he ever played in front of an audience when he was very young (if I remember correct he was eleven years old), so he is very fond of it, like me.
So, here it is, Fernando Sor’s Op.35 No.22 arranged for mandolin and guitar:
Mandolin Tab and score
I now give Panos the mandolin score and mandolin tab.
If you want to print it, here is a pdf (adobe Acrobat file type) that is more convenient to print: