Somewhat inspired by my other question about the pipa

I believe the Mandolin's unique sound comes from the tremolo made possible by double coursing. Is it possible in principle to get a similar sound from a single coursed acoustic guitar (i.e., 6 string not 12 string)?

I suspect the answer might yes but it is much much harder.


The mandolin's two string coursing means you get the sound of unisons in a single "note", but also it also means the plucking of the pick on each string is slightly offset in time. You can use tremolo picking across two guitar strings to get the time offset with the picking, and to some extent you can get unisons.

If you use the G and B strings on guitar, you can play unisons and tremolo picking the two strings will get a bit of the two string course sound similar to mandolin. If your guitar has a cut away you will be able to get up to the higher frets, where they are closer together, making the unisons less of a stretch, easier to play.

I think other two string combinations can give a similar effect. Playing in thirds on strings G & B or sixth on strings B & E with tremolo picking is nice and reminds me of mandolin.

Playing the high E string open as a drone while playing some melody on the B string, again tremolo picking, sort of has a mandolin effect.

The picking is tricky. To me it seems you must keep the pick at the exact level of the strings, don't dig in deep it catches the pick, slowing you down, and making the tremolo uneven. Moving from the elbow, not the wrist, seem to help.

One other idea. While not necessarily about tremolo, I have always felt that the guitar with a capo up high, maybe around the the seventh fret and higher, makes an acoustic guitar sound a lot like a mandolin.

  • 4
    Mandolins are in unison. I mean there's one song in the Bill Monroe songbook that is split-tuned, but I forget which one, but most mandolins are tuned GGDDAAEE in unison. The issue is that you cannot usually get perfect intonation on both strings with an angled bridge, so there's a slight chorus effect. – Dave Jacoby 2 days ago
  • Mandolins with octave strings? – Tim 2 days ago
  • I'll make an edit, I was thinking about 12 string guitar and the low strings were in octaves. @DaveJacoby – Michael Curtis 2 days ago

I think, first and foremost, they have thin arched bodies that give a punch. Lots of attack and not much sustain. One standard use is using that percussive punch the snare sound, the Chop. If your Bluegrass mando player does nothing else, they chop. The tater-bug mando behaves differently. The flattop guitar behaves differently, without the attack and without the punch.

There's "mandolin picking" which is much more about the Italian style and less the bluegrass style. The mando playing in the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp is all about this. And it's a big part of what Eddie Van Halen did on tracks like "Eruption". That's the tremolo picking style, but from an electric guitar through an MXR phaser into a Variac'd Marshall stack. It sounds different, more aggressive. But the core is there.

The key on is that you're not trying to align with each note, but playing a lot and changing the fretting hand position as needed.


The answer is yes - see the flamenco guitar below for example


Interestingly his right hand technique seems to involve a finger roll a lot like that used in a pipa but without the nail plectrums.

  • That's nothing like the speed of tremolo that the mandolin is expected to produce. – Tim Jun 10 at 16:45
  • 2
    @Tim Did you watch until the part where he played it at tempo? – Edward Jun 10 at 16:49
  • @Edward - no... – Tim Jun 10 at 17:51
  • But it's still a single-string tremolo, so not really what you were talkin about, is it? – leftaroundabout Jun 10 at 22:34

First off, I'm not convinced the mandolin tremolo sound actually has all that much to do with the double courses. It's more about a particular manner of including the tremolo in melodic and harmonic playing, and simply about the high pitch.

That said, as Michael Curtis explained it is definitely possible to have a “double courses” effect also on a normal six-string guitar: especially in high positions it is not to difficult to finger the same note on two adjacent strings simultaneously. But because the strings are much further apart than the two strings of a mandolin course, this feels and sounds very different to the picking hand. Still, it does definitely give access to a very fast kind of tremolo, especially with fingerpicking techniques. Here, Noam Pikelny employs such a technique on banjo:

Specifically, he seems to be using a combination of finger alternation and raking between the two strings, making this very movement-efficient.

There are many different ways something like that can be used, but again, IMO they don't tend to come out very mandolin-like. On this track, I used a similar technique in the guitar solo (section beginning at 5:40) in a way that doesn't have any semblance with mandolin at all.

  • Absolute master. I think he was like 12 the first time I saw him live. – Dave Jacoby 2 days ago

Physicist here.

Mandolin tremolo is definitely related to double courses. It's the "coupled oscillator" phenomenon. Look at it in a simpler system in slow motion. If both strings are identically tuned, coupling through the bridge splits the resonance into two modes with slightly different frequencies. The beat between the two frequencies can produce a more complicated string motion than you get with two independent strings. Exactly what happens depends on the initial motion.

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  • Interestingly, it's possible for a single string to exhibit two oscillation modes with different frequencies. If one places pickup magnets close enough to a string, it will detune the oscillation modes by different amounts which, in extreme cases, can be pulled more than a semitone apart (not exactly musical, but it shows that there are two distinct oscillation modes). – supercat 2 days ago
  • @supercat Indeed, single strings may vibrate in different planes. So, single course versus double course is really two modes versus four. – John P Doty 2 days ago
  • I know you get tartoni notes through sum and difference frequencies. I thought the tremolo was a different effect. This is turning out to be a quite interesting question. – Bruce Adams yesterday

I believe it is. Thinner strings help, in my opinion, and a very loose pick and wrist. Obviously it won't be identical, but will be a good second best. thus, a similar sound.

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