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Thread: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    There are a number of posts in the Forum regarding jam etiquette; however, scanning a few of them, I don't see any reference to playing chords.

    In recent years I've had the chance to periodically play at local senior center jams. The group has changed over the years and now seems to consist almost entirely of pretty good musicians who seem to play mostly bluegrass.

    My question is in reference to the type of chords mandolin players are expected to play at a bluegrass jam, as I've described. I've never had much interest in chopping, and, in fact, play a lot of 2 finger chords. At a jam like this, considering several guitar players are present, do you suppose it's rude for a mandolin player to play more traditional type chords (for lack of a better term) rather than to chop?

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Quote Originally Posted by Sherry Cadenhead View Post

    My question is in reference to the type of chords mandolin players are expected to play at a bluegrass jam, as I've described. I've never had much interest in chopping, and, in fact, play a lot of 2 finger chords. At a jam like this, considering several guitar players are present, do you suppose it's rude for a mandolin player to play more traditional type chords (for lack of a better term) rather than to chop?
    As long as you're making a useful contribution to the overall sound, chopping two-finger chords shouldn't be a problem. You may have to learn new patterns for some chords, but they're not too hard.

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    Registered User Captain Kirk's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    This is a good question and I will be watching this thread with interest.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Chopping is a nice effect, which more or less emulates a snare drum. It has its place.
    I find it to be an important element in up-tempo, cut time bluegrass songs.

    I do not feel that chopping fits ballads.
    A lot of people don't understand that.
    That's why I don't try to play "Are you Tired of Me, My Darling?" at jam sessions anymore.

    I find open chords to be very useful, and use them more frequently than many others.
    I often approach rhythm on the mandolin much like I approach it on the guitar.

    Bill Monroe did not chop nearly as often as some people think he did. He varied his approach depending on tempo, dynamics, and mood.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Depends on what kind of "bluegrass" jam it is. If it's bluegrass by the vast majority of the public's definition (country/folk/old-timey/bluegrassish repertoire, loose timing, too many guitars, harmonica, maybe a dulcimer or autoharp in there), have at it. If it's a tight trad/neo-trad Bluegrass jam with a good rhythm pocket going, the ringing open strings are not going to fit in.

    There's way far more to bluegrass mando rhythm than just chopping on the off-beat, but pretty much all of it requires control of all four strings.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Depends on the tune and the jam I think.

    For a faster song, I generally steer clear of open chords because they can bleed over each other and I don't personally like the way it sounds. So for moderate to fast tempo tunes, I use more of a chop (though not always the "big G chop")

    For slower songs, I do use open chords like the 2 finger G, C, and D from time to time along with closed position chords. I find these open chords fit well in moderate to slow songs.

    That said - regardless of the speed - the jam setting has a big influence as well. Too many instruments playing open strings (with slightly varying levels of being "in tune" in most cases) can detract from the jam. It can really muddy up the sound. If there's a lot of people in a jam (especially if those others are playing open chords), I tend to play more closed position chords regardless of the speed.
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Iím not too enamored of the chop but in this situation, Bluegrass, it sounds fine.
    The higher pitch drum-like sound will fit in well with the guitars and the ears of the older folk, and of course itís on the up beat while guitars may be playing heavier on the down beat. So yes, pretty good.
    If you have an octave and surfs up for the guitars, then double stop runs might sound good but then again thatís maybe getting more Irish/Folk.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    I think there's a good distinction I forgot to make. Playing a percussive "chop" is one thing, and the "Big G Chop" chord is another IMO.

    The Big G Chop is just the closed chord shape that would be 7523 in G.

    The Percussive Chop on the other hand is the bluegrass "Boom Chuck" (or just "chuck" sometimes)

    You can play closed position chords (like the Big G Chop) without playing the Percussive Chop. In my Grateful Dead style band for example, I used these closed chords but often did not use a percussive chop since many songs don't call for it.
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    If you play quietly in the background so it does not interfere with others while you learn that is ok. I did that for several years. I still do with a new group or unfamiliar material. One lady friend would heckle me about playing so quietly. I had my reasons mainly that I was not ready to really keep up but I needed exposure to other players. Now I can keep up most of the time.

    At the same time you need to be pushing yourself to learn to do it properly over time. If you are saying I am here to get exposure to other players and to learn, it is ok if you are not quite there yet. If you are saying I can't do it the correct way and everyone else should adjust because I am not going to try to learn it then you should play at home and not bother others or find a beginner group that does not care.

    On your two finger chords you can only play the two strings and damp them out like a chop but you have to be listening and have control of your right hand. This can work especially with the two lower strings and when there are lots of other players. If you do not have control over your right hand then that is what you need to work on. No matter what rhythm style you use there should be control over the right hand, not swinging over all of the strings all of the time.

    A friend of mine says: "No one has the right to kick you out of a jam but you do not have the right to ruin it for everyone else." There are two parts to that equation. People should be welcoming but you should be the kind of player they want to welcome.

    You should be listening at all times. Playing by sight is a bad thing. Even if you are reading notes or chords your ears must still always be open. If what you are doing interferes with other instruments, if it does not contribute positively then you should not do it. Your ears should be able to tell you that. And if you read it off the paper in the correct order but out of time or in a form that disrupts everyone else then it is wrong no matter what the paper says.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    I think somebody at one time called them Doo Wacka, Doo, chords. I'll say that when it's my turn to call the tune, I play just this way. It's loud, simple, I can sing to it, and it seems easier to follow. When it ain't my turn I pick my fiddle back up and play fills. Well, at least it's better than lying to you.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Quote Originally Posted by Sherry Cadenhead View Post
    I ... play a lot of 2 finger chords ...
    Playing just 0023 and 2002 type chords in a 3 hour jam can get old pretty quick.

    Make it a game, "how many different D chords can I find on the fretboard?". Some of those will be open chords like 7005, some of them will be bar chords good for chopping like 7-7-9-10. Throw in some D5, D7, Dminor chords for flavour. Experiment, to discover what works best on that day for that song or tune.

    In a bluegrass jam there is usually no drummer, and one or two mandolins running steady chop can fill drummer's role quite nicely, so the 3rd and 4th mandolins do not need to chop all the time.

    Some full chop chords are hard on the left hand, so experiment with partial chop chords, 20xx, 70xx, 77xx, etc. Depending on your mandolin, 1-string chops and x-x-x-x chops can work quite well.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    After trying all the above, also consider arpeggiating. That is, just play the chord notes one at a time; let 'em ring but only as long as that chord should be heard. This can fit nicely with guitars playing full chords. It's probably not "standard bluegrass."

    If you get the arpeggios working, try sliding from one to the next. That's a bit further outside the bluegrass box, but I'm pretty sure I can hear Sam Bush doing that in my mind's ear. 6th intervals are really nice for this purpose; just play two notes in the chord, then slide to two notes in the next chord, and extra credit if they're not the same notes (e.g, don't slide 1,5 to 1,5.) Even more extra credit when one note stays the same but the other moves. There are all sorts of variations here, only playing two notes per chord.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    If all we did at jams was chop, it's hardly worth going. Mandolin has a unique space in the sound spectrum that you can fill. Chord wise, work on inversions that go nowhere near the big chop chords, and search for them all over the neck. Pick one set for the verse, another for the chorus. Visit cross-picking and work that in wherever it sounds right. "Chucking" was mentioned: I'll start a song chopping, and gradually move to a busier percussion, and end with letting strings ring when it fits. The only rule I truly try to follow is not to walk over others while they're taking leads (although answering a phrase can be cool), and never walk over a vocalist.
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    When I first got into mandolin, there was a "beginner-friendly" acoustic jam that hit on any & all of the ususal styles, but mostly classic rock. And, recovering from shoulder/arm reconstruction, it was convenirent to switch from guitar to mando every half-hour of so. Trying to NOT copy other players (mostly guitars but often 2-3 mandos), my bluegrass/bluegrass-ish chop could fit in with any number of styles. Even 2-finger chords can chop if the fretting-hand pinky gets fast & agile enough to mute. (Hard-core BG'ers need not comment, please!)
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    A few examples of what not to do and similar attitudes to basic accompaniment practices on other instruments.

    A jam I used to attend had a guitarist who would noodle leads all of the time. He apparently did not know or didn't like or was bored by boom chick rhythm and chords. That is pretty much like refusing to learn to chop. The sole exception to his noodling was when actually asked to take a lead break. Then he would say "No, I can't do that "! But he was fine stomping all over everyone else's breaks. One lady mandolin playing friend came very close to strangling him over it. A lot of people would have helped her hide the body.

    One fairly decent banjo player I know will not do pinch backup. He will roll all of the time. He has enough sense and ability to control his volume, better than most banjo players, but sometimes the rolls are too much busyness and kind of a distraction. It would be nicer if he had more tools in his box. He at least is not horrible to play with and has respect for his fellow musicians.

    Another banjo player was actually awful He may have the crown as worst banjo player, which is a major accomplishment. I rarely outright refuse to play with someone, no matter their level of ability, but he got there. It was largely on account of playing by sight and having ears closed. He refused to learn to roll or pinch or clawhammer properly. One instructor finally fired him as a student over refusing to learn rolls. He would strum all of the strings with the ends of his fingers, very loudly and out of time. There was a Youtube video, now mercifully taken down or perhaps banned, in which he could be heard over a group of about eight people playing randomly up to three fourths of a measure off from everyone else, sometimes ahead and sometimes behind, bashing away on the five string with his random strums. The incident which ended it for me was a time when he jumped in on a practice session I was having with a singer and proceeding to play a verse and a half in the wrong key then getting mad when I told him he need to move his capo to the right place. Ears were completely closed and, like a mandolin player refusing to chop, he refused to learn basic accompaniment skills.

    Jam etiquette is fundamentally about respect for the other musicians and being willing to learn and understand the genre you are playing. I do not know why the attitude of not wanting to acquire basic skills and expecting others to accommodate happens so much around bluegrass jams. No one would go into a jazz jam session and expect to not have to learn chord forms or how to comp. No one would go into a blues jam and expect to not have to learn shuffles and to respect the groove.

    Sure, just chopping the same chord forms relentlessly is boring and not particularly good music. You can change up some within the chop forms adding little upstrokes and shuffles occasionally, add fills, arpeggiate tastefully and switch chord forms around. Developing some voice leading and chord walks within the boundaries of taste and form is cool. Those are musical skills to be developed over time. Playing the full four finger chord forms is often too much for a lot of reasons, especially when there are a lot of players and high volumes already. You can mess with two and three finger chord forms within the same framework.

    Listen to the best players, including Monroe. They do not chop relentlessly. But they do know how to chop,and when. They do not refuse to do it then impose inappropriate accompaniment styles just because they do not want to be bothered to learn it.
    Last edited by CarlM; Jun-24-2022 at 1:45pm.

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Thanks for everyone's input.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Hey, late to the party here. I play a lot of oldtime and bluegrass both in jams and in band/performance settings. As many have indicated there are a lot of ways to skin a cat on the mandolin. A couple of things I tend to do in the various situations:

    --look at what the other mandos are doing. If there are already multiple people chopping away I'd likely opt for double stops, open chords, etc.

    --if it's bluegrass form with individual instruments taking breaks I'd expect the chop to sound better behind some instrumental breaks than others, and I'd adjust accordingly. Also, if you're sitting next to a fiddle, banjo, or guitarist that's taking breaks you can ask if they have a preference. They may or may not.

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    I don't play the 4 finger, 4 string chop chord often. I popped a ligament in my ring finger and both it and the littlest are slow on the uptake. If I want a chop (not always), I play 2 or 3 finger chords and palm mute.

    D.H.

  25. #19

    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    It never hurts to ask your fellow pickers how they feel about your backup. Or if there are some particular players that you get along with the you think are more experienced maybe ask them when you have a moment. Seems like a pretty supportive group and if they are asking you back you must be adding something or they are open to people learning as they go.

    I do think it is helpful to try to add different tools to your toolbox. You could listen to source recordings of the songs you play in the jam and try to hear what the mandolin is doing. That is a great skill to practice. Also continuing to work on ways to add the right sounds. You can just mute the strings with your left hand and do percussive chop without having to do the big chop chords. I play big chop chords but there are times when I will "cheat" and just mute and make it percussive. This is also a good tool to have if you are struggling to follow the chord progression. Not even noting anything particular but just covering all the strings and giving a little squeeze to mute.

    One other thing to consider if there are multiple guitars they probably have the open chords covered. At times when everyone is hammering away on open chords it can become really loud and hard to hear soloists or vocalists and it almost becomes a sort of competitive energy that can detract from musicality. That's when you get people that say "my mandolin isn't loud enough to be heard over X." In a good jam people are constantly adjusting their volumes appropriately so everyone can be heard. Always something to be considering, but not always attainable in a big jam or beginner/intermediate jam.

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    Registered User Tom Haywood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    If the players are actually playing or trying to play bluegrass, it is entirely likely that they will insist on the mandolin playing chop technique, chop chords and bluegrass timing, as well as breaks and maybe some fills. This is because the mandolin has a specific job in bluegrass to create the bluegrass rhythm, among other things. If bluegrass is the genre to be played, then I would say the players have the right to expect that the mandolin players will have some bluegrass techniques. Otherwise, the mandolin players will prevent the proper rhythm and sound from being achieved.

    I say "if" because you say they "seem to play mostly bluegrass". I know it can be confusing, because I have been to quite a few officially bluegrass jams in the past 2 or 3 years where nobody is actually playing bluegrass. Everyone is playing country, western swing, cowboy, folk, delta blues, southern rock, Americana, fiddle tunes, you name it, using acoustic "bluegrass" instruments and calling it bluegrass. Some of them don't even know a bluegrass song to play. One or two often show up with no songs to play and nothing practiced, but they have an acoustic instrument and think they are going to play bluegrass.

    Folks around here think a country beat is fine for bluegrass songs. I won't say any more about that, except that it makes it almost impossible to play the mandolin well.

    As I said in one of your threads about a year ago, two-finger chords are usually the chords of choice for all the styles mentioned above, except bluegrass. They have a place in bluegrass, but it is somewhat limited. Three finger chords are necessary in some styles to varying extent, but mostly so that you can quickly pick out the chord progression as the song gets underway. I'll add now that rhythm technique will vary depending on the style of music. The mandolin is a loud instrument, so the rhythm needs to be played tastefully in the background. Less is more, especially when you have guitars covering the rhythm. Chop technique generally will not sound very good in non-bluegrass styles of music.

    I would say proper etiquette starts with discussing what style of music we are playing here, then listen at home to some of those songs on youtube and see what you can work on to add the next time you play with them.
    Tom

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    Registered User Sherry Cadenhead's Avatar
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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    So much to digest here. Sounds like I should observe other mandolin players in the group and possibly have a conversation with one who stands out.

  30. #22

    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    Hi Sherry,

    With "several guitars" it will be very easy for your simple chording to be overrun. Tom makes some very good points in his post above. If you haven't learned some closed chord shapes up the neck, this maybe the incentive to do so. For example, instead of playing D as 2-0-0-2, try it up the neck with 7-7-9-10 and instead of letting the chord sustain through the measure, just give it a quick swipe. D can be played 2-4-5-X.

    Many bluegrass mandolin players hit the backbeat with the chord, but it's quickly muted. It's the punchy nature of the f-hole mandolin that makes it a strong rhythm driver in a way that guitar can't be. As you get more comfortable with the speed, you can play a dah - - da/da pattern with the dah being punching the chord and the da/da being a quick up/down chop with the strings muted.

    If you take note of which songs are played regularly at your jam, you can look on Youtube for examples of bluegrass bands playing them and focus on what the mandolin players are doing with it. Enjoy the journey!

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    Default Re: Jam Etiquette re: Playing Mandolin Chords

    I don't think it matters. Several teachers I've had were very direct about chopping only and on being very accurate on playing the correct chords at the correct time and timing of the chops. So, in practice I've noted that no one cares what you do. With a bunch of guitars wailing away and if there are fiddles and banjos there - well, no one will even know what you're up to. Just go and have fun doing it "your way" Just my 2Ę.
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