Is It Hard to Play the Mandolin?

By Wayne Erbsen

Heck no! It’s easy as eating pie if you approach learning the mandolin in the right way. Of course, there is no shortage of free information, tab, and musical notation of mandolin music on the web. The challenge is finding information that’s geared to your style of learning.

A lot of the music for mandolin is written out in a system called “tab.” Numbers on lines represent the fret that you play on a string. This might be OK at first, but it’s actually a ridiculous way to learn. Why? Because learning from tab will insure that you will always be playing the song exactly like the tab. You’ll never be able to improvise, or change keys.

Here is an example of tab/musical notation for the song, Nine Pound Hammer, that I found online:

To me, this is a cluttered and confusing mess. Even as a professional mandolin player and teacher, I’d rather pull teeth than to have to try to decode this awful stuff.

In contrast, here is Nine Pound Hammer from my book Bluegrass Mandolin for the Complete Ignoramus!:

As you can see, in my books I use both standard musical notation as well as tab that I invented. The letters on the lines represent the names of the notes. Yes, this simplified method requires that you learn the names of the notes. And if you do, it will reap great rewards. Knowing the names of the notes will mean you can easily change the key of a song any time you want. It also helps with improvising.

If you’re in the key of G, for example, you can play part of a G scale to fill in between phrases of the song. If you only know you’re numbers, you won’t have a clue how to play a G scale. But if you know the names of the notes, you’ll see that knowing a scale is as easy as knowing your alphabet. Finally, if you still need convincing that learning the names of your notes will be incredibly useful, you should know that learning the names of your notes will enable you to quickly learn to read standard musical notation.

Good luck on your mandolin journey!


Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

1 thought on “Is It Hard to Play the Mandolin?

  1. Great little tune to play in a log cabin!

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