Mandolas/Medicine/Dr. B’s music lesson

        Now I know you must wonder.  What the heck do mandolas and medicine have in common?  Well, it is more than you might think.  And after you read this post, you’ll forever remember more about mandolas than you wanted to know.  But just remember.  Like medicine, half of what I’m gonna teach you is wrong.  I just don’t know which half.

        To keep straight the difference in the two, all you have to do while you play is think of a mandolin with a thyroid condition, in particular a hypothyroid mandolin.

       You see, a mandola is shaped just like a mandolin except it is larger, a bit heavier, and has a bigger waist.   Also, it’s voice is lower.  And my hand tires faster on the mandola, so the fatigue factor is there too.  I don’t know if mandolas are more intolerant of cold than mandolins, but I do not recommend you leave either out in the car any longer than you would a baby, which is zero time.  Hypothyroidism offers no protection against extremes of temperature.  Instruments, fine as they are, can be replaced.  Babies- well, take no chances with them. 

        To be exact, a mandola is but a mandolin tuned one fifth lower.  For those of you who had kids in school orchestra, it is the exact same relationship of a violin and a viola. 

        Now before you get confused about fifths, in bluegrass music a fifth can also refer to a quantity of corn liquor, but in the case of mandolas it does indeed refer to music theory.  And by the way, I do not recommend children who play violins and want to try the viola be told about corn liquor- bad doctoring there.

        Here’s how it works when you play.  Make you a ‘G” chord on your mandolin.  Now close your eyes.  Get your assistant to hand you a mandola.  Now make the ‘G’ chord again, but when you open your eyes and see you have a big ole hypothyroid mandolin in hands, and if you memorized lesson one, just think one fifth (not booze) lower, and voila, you know you have made a ‘C.’  (Chord, not grade)

        Then, as you pick along, all you have to do is pretend your are working out of ‘G’ when they call for a ‘C’ tune.  Same thing for “D”- think ‘All I gotta do is make ‘A’ noise.  Now, to be sure you are with me, I am talking an ‘A’ note, not to be confused with ‘A’ style mandolin.  Or, if they want a ‘G’ tune play outta ‘D’ position on your mandola, etc.  However, this only works if you are a mandolin player at heart.  If mandola was your first instrument reverse all that.  And if the tune clips along pretty quick, you have to think fast. 

        To go back to the mandolin construction styles, (space limitations prohibit adequate room for discussion of playing style in this post- maybe later) there are two basic ones, the ‘A’ and the ‘F.’  (there are more but I don’t want to confuse everyone on the first lesson.) 

        The ‘F’ mandolin is so named for the little curly cue scroll and it has apertures called F holes.  The ‘A’ style mandolins are named for for the round body shape and not for ‘A’ holes.  Bluegrass is fine people and we don’t have any of those.  Well, once there was a band that was mean to folks, and everyone took to calling them ‘The Bluegrass Holes.”  They broke up.

        Now that I’ve posted my first (? last) on-line lesson, I will tell you I once told my teacher I might take up giving lessons myself, and he recommended against it.  I’m not sure why.

         If you want to hear a good example of mandola work, listen to Wayne Benson of Russell Moore and III Tyme Out.  His version of ‘John and Mary’ is the best one I’ve heard.

        The reason all this works for me is I never got around to reading music.  Most of the guys I pick with don’t.  One year the Philharmonic came to town and a real nice lady asked Raymond the fiddle man if he read music and he said, “Not enough to hurt my picking, but I do read ‘Rasslin Weekly.”

        Now the disclaimer.  The demographics on bluegrass indicate a very high educational level.  But it also is true that we don’t just march to a different drummer, we didn’t even know there was one.  So, if we seem a tad different we are, but we’re harmless.

       Hope you enjoyed the lesson.  See ya,

Dr. B

Explore posts in the same categories: Advice- Five Cents


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8 Comments on “Mandolas/Medicine/Dr. B’s music lesson”

  1. Cindy Carter Says:

    Thanks for the lesson.

  2. drtombibey Says:

    Ms. Cindy,

    Oh one other thing. The mandolin to the mandocello is like the violin to the cello. With another fifth, one can play it too.

    Dr. B

  3. Ted Lehmann Says:

    I used to underestimate and not show due deference to the mandolin, even though it was Mr.Monroe’s chosen instrument. Now, some years later and having continued to live with a spouse who’s becoming pretty good on hers, I’ve come to realize it’s a subtle and supple instrument with beautiful tone and surprising power. The banjo. on the other hand, is neither subtle nor mellow. It’s loud, raucous, and, to many people, obnoxious. It’s also extremely difficult to play well. The intricacies of bluegrass music never end. – Ted

  4. drtombibey Says:


    I got into mandolin ’cause we couldn’t find a player. We couldn’t find a fiddler either, but even the dog ran for cover when I pulled it out.

    Banjo jokes go on and on, but I’ve often thought they mostly came from folks who couldn’t play one. I too find it a beautiful instrument.

    Dr. B

  5. pandemonic Says:

    Are these the same strings as a mandolin? Just asking. I might want to take up another instrument one day, and it’s easier if you already have some knowledge under your belt.

  6. drtombibey Says:


    They are very similar, but a heavier gauge. Look on a web site like Elderly Instruments and they probably have the exact string gauges outlined there.

    You could get by with mandolin strings in spots, but you’d break a bunch.

    Good mandola players are hard to come by and fit into jams nicely when there are already a bunch of little mandolins around.

    I play mine in a duet with my wife in her band. (Bye, Bye Love- the Everly Brothers I think)

    Dr. B

  7. anotherjoy Says:

    I was thoroughly enlightened and confused by that lesson. Thank you.

  8. drtombibey Says:


    Hey thanks for dropping in- come visit anytime.

    You ought to see my left handed pal who plays one upside down and backwards. Now that is really confusing! But, I can steal his licks if I watch him play in the mirror and stand on my head.

    Dr. B

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