Mandolin Improvisation – Colin Blair

Most new (and even some experienced) mandolin players feel constricted by the higher register of the instrument and tend to play only in the open position. Playing or improvising in the second or third position can be a challenge, but there’s a simple method for learning the basics. Using the tune “Waterbound”, we’ll learn to extend melodies or improvisations up the neck.

“Waterbound” is in 4/4 time and in the key of D. Here is the basic melody of “Waterbound” in open position:

The first phrase:



The second phrase:



The third phrase:


There is a 1/16 rest immediately before the slide.

And the fourth phrase:



Once you put all of these phrases together, you have the entire tune. Become familiar with this melody by practicing it several times.

Now let’s play the tune in second position.

The first phrase:



The second phrase:



The third phrase:


Don’t forget the 1/16 rest before the slide!

The fourth phrase:



Now you have the melody in two positions. Try playing the melody in first position and then playing in second position. Do this until you are comfortable and fluid with these changes.

On the subject of improvising, you can use this tune as a springboard. Place your first finger on the fifth fret of the “A” string, then place your little finger on the tenth fret of the “E” string. You will be playing two “D” notes one octave apart.

Now the space in between those two notes is where all the magic happens. Try to visualize the tune we just learned in between your fingers, and notice how the fifth, seventh, ninth, and tenth frets all play a role in this high register. Experiment with these notes and you will familiarize yourself with a closed, moveable pattern that can be used to jam in any key.

In a future article, we’ll extend this simple lesson into a more complicated improvisation exercise.


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