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My main instrument is guitar. I have played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, classical guitar and 12 string guitar and the patterns and fingering is pretty much the same. I have tried playing a 4 string bass guitar and it's not too hard because the intervals and tuning are common to 4 of the strings of a 6 string guitar.

My ukulele is a baritone uke - tuned like the top four strings of a guitar so there was very little learning curve there.

Playing piano or harmonica are so radically different than guitar that my guitar autopilot does not try to kick in when I play those instruments.

I like the unique sound of a mandolin and I'm thinking I might want to give it a try. It doesn't look that hard to play when I watch others play it.

But since the mandolin is tuned pretty much the opposite of a guitar (GDAE instead of EADG) I am wondering if the fact that I have played guitar so long and the patterns I play have become second nature in my brain (I don't have to think about them) will it be difficult to learn to play mandolin?

I can imagine that my brain will want to default to guitar mode and cause great frustration when that fails to work. And I fear that because the guitar patterns have become so ingrained - it may be harder to undo those to learn mando - than if I had started with mandolin first - without having learned guitar.

Does anyone have any personal experience going from guitar to mandolin after many years of playing guitar? Are there any tricks to help with transitioning? Will learning mandolin cause me to start messing up when I switch back to guitar? I don't want to have to "unlearn" guitar!

I can remember how much time I spent in the beginning to learn to play guitar. If it takes that long to switch over to mando - I may just stick to improving my guitar skills and forget learning a new instrument.

  • This question seems to invite opinion. By what objective standard are we really going to judge the difficulty of an instrument? i don't see how there could be a definite answer for this question. – Neil Meyer Feb 3 '16 at 10:19
  • Whenever I've picked up a mandolin, the hardest thing for me is how small the damn frets are. I did get a tenor guitar are 20 odd years of playing guitar however, which is tuned the same as a mandolin, and the chords were the easy part. No different to just learning a new obscure chord on the guitar. Playing licks was (and is) much more difficult because I seem to have some really automatic processes going on there, and the patterns don't remotely cross over. The other thing was just finding things that "work" on the tenor, but that's just playing around really. It's fun, anyway! Do it! – Whelkaholism Feb 3 '16 at 13:02
  • @Whelkaholism, I thought the small scale mandolin neck would make fingerings easy, but I agree with you, in some ways it seems harder, or simply different. Certainly the smaller size did not magically make things easier. – Michael Curtis Feb 3 '16 at 16:44
  • @NeilMeyer I was sort of hoping I might hear from some folks who have actually gone from guitar to mando so they could give me some ideas on how difficult it might be and perhaps how they overcame the challenge. I don't think there is a right or wrong yes or no answer to every question. But there is certainly much to be learned about overcoming new musical challenges from a worldwide community of folks who may have faced the same challenges. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 4 '16 at 8:29
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I would say scales are easier and chords are just different. It's almost like learning the same chords in a different position on the neck of the guitar that you've never learned before because that "position" doesn't even exist on guitar. It's also only four courses so it's a bit simplified. For example, an open G major chord is easy on mandolin: It's 0 0 2 3 (low to high - G D B G). Open D major is just 2 0 0 2 (A D A F#). Now take those two shapes, barre with your index finger, and move them around the neck and you've got I and IV or I and V in any key depending on which one you consider the I just from knowing two shapes. You only need a couple more shapes under your belt and you're off to the races. Drop the thirds one fret to get minor chords (G minor is 0 0 1 3 and D minor is 2 0 0 1).

Overall I wouldn't worry too much about it. You should be able to be competent on mandolin pretty quickly without even hurting your guitar knowledge. A lot of people play both with no problem - Jimmy Page and Ricky Skaggs just to name the ones that spring right to mind.

I would say mandolin and guitar coexist as skills a lot better than banjo and guitar. With banjo, you have to play finger style with finger picks, you have to learn rolls, you can't re-use your strumming knowledge, the whole style is completely different. Mandolin is almost identical in picking hand work and not that different in fretting hand work.

Personally I found mandolin to be fun to learn coming from a guitar background. Banjo I found to be frustrating and never got close to where I wanted to be with it. Mandolin also has a cute little scale length and the two-string courses dig into your fingers a lot less. It's almost like playing a ukulele that sounds really cool.

Definitely don't think of the mandolin as tuned upside down or anything like that. Instead it's just tuned two frets wider, which isn't a problem because the scale length is so short you can access a lot more frets without stretching than on guitar.

You do want your guitar autopilot for your picking/strumming hand. It will serve you well and work almost right away. It's a little different picking single notes on two-string courses but surely you've played a 12-string guitar before, right?

  • I take your point about not thinking about the guitar as a shortcut, but relearning the fingerings instead, but I would take a middle of the road and say that you should use the typical mandolin fingerings, but an understanding of the guitar can help you remember certain ones. – amalgamate Feb 3 '16 at 16:34
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    ...And, while sometimes the results are goofy, for the most part I can fake knowing what the chord should be on the mandolin based on my guitar knowledge even if sometimes it turns out not the best way to play the chord (for example sometimes you miss playing the root of the chord). – amalgamate Feb 3 '16 at 16:43
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    Todd, I like your point to not think of mandolin and guitar tuning as opposite. Of course, fourths and fifths are inversions of each other, but that doesn't make them opposites. I would also worry this could create a mental block for thinking mandolin tuning is some kind of aberration of guitar tuning. Embrace the difference! – Michael Curtis Feb 3 '16 at 16:48
  • @amalgamate I don't see the part where I say not to think about the guitar... In fact I do say to re-use guitar knowledge for the picking hand and that it helps to think of it as a guitar with the tuning two frets "wider". – Todd Wilcox Feb 3 '16 at 16:50
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    That is just what I was saying. Sometimes it works perfectly, other times though, it you miss an important part of the chord, or find an awkward fingering for the mandolin. – amalgamate Feb 3 '16 at 17:01
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Having spoken to a guitarist I work with who planted a mandolin neck onto his acoustic guitar complete with bridge and soundhole, and pup, (it works really well with both!) he said that he thinks of each as a separate instrument. Guitar chord shapes belong to one set, mandolin shapes to another, and the twain never meets. So, just like learning a new guitar chord, start to learn some new chord shapes - on mandolin. Good luck, you did it for guitar, so...

  • Thanks for the encouragement. I'm trying to imagine the mandoguitar you describe. Very interesting. I am not so worried about leaning new chord shapes as I am patterns for scales. And thanks for edit of typo on EADG. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 4 '16 at 8:33
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    As you must be well aware, often, the chord shapes come from the scale pattern - or vice versa, so learning them simultaneously will be a good move. E.g. chord comes from, say, 1,3,5, so knowing where those 3 notes are gives some of the scale, as well as some (3/4!) of the chord. – Tim Feb 4 '16 at 8:43
  • That is a good point. But I have heard that it's harder to form barre chords on mandolin. Open chords may not help as much with scale patterns up the neck. But it does make sense to start with learning the chords and then learn the scales the chords are built from. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 4 '16 at 8:51
  • Apparently barre chords per se are not as good for mandolin as for guitar. – Tim Feb 4 '16 at 8:54
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If you understand intervals and chord tones, this should serve you well learning the mandolin, because you can learn a few "core" shapes and fingerings and then know how to modify then to get the full palette of chords. In this sense, your guitar knowledge shouldn't get in the way of learning mandolin.

For example: learn the basic open major chords on the mandolin, identify the roots and thirds, then drop the thirds a half-step to get your minor chords, drop the roots a full step to form dominant seventh chords.

You probably already know this on the guitar. I think this knowledge will give you an advantage when learning mandolin.

Another way you might think about it is this: how do you approach playing the guitar with different tunings? Understanding chord tones lets you adapt quickly to new tunings. Maybe think of the mandolin as another alternate tuning.

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