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Mandolin Chords Every Beginner Needs to Know

If you’re going to play mandolin well, there are some basic chords that you need to know. Keep reading to learn about chord symmetry as well as open, minor and movable mandolin chords.

Symmetry in Mandolin Chords

The great thing about the mandolin is that it’s tuned symmetrically (open 5ths), meaning that you can use the same chord shapes across all the strings.

For example, play the 2nd string, 2nd fret and the 1st string, 3rd fret. That’s G Major. Now take that same chord shape and move it down one string, so that you’re fretting the 2nd and 3rd strings. That’s C Major.

Pretty cool, right? Now let’s take a look at some other must-know open chords to help your playing.

Open Chords

The mandolin is the same as all other fretted instruments in that there are certain keys and open chords which lend themselves easier than others, due to the tuning of the instrument.

As such, let’s choose the key of G Major as our starting point. In the previous section, you learned the G Major and C Major chords, the I and IV chords in this key. Plenty of folk songs for beginner mandolin can be played with just three chords: G, C, and D.

Here’s how to play the V chord, D Major: G string, 2nd fret, and E string, 2nd fret. The D and A strings are open. Practice playing G, C, and D to a familiar folk tune, changing chords on the downbeat (usually coinciding with the start of a word in the vocal part).

Minor Chords

In the last two sections, we learned the G, C and D Major chords. You only have to change one note in each of these three chords to change the chord quality to minor. Here’s how:

Play G Major, then simply lower your index finger one fret. Now you’ve got G Minor. Do the same for C Major, and you’ll get C Minor. The same goes for D Minor, just slide the 1st string note down one fret.

The only difference with D Minor is that you’ll have to change your fingering to make it less awkward. Play the G string, 2nd fret with your 2nd finger and the E string, 1st fret with your index finger.

Movable Chords

Remember how we said that the mandolin is tuned symmetrically? That means it’s super easy to move various chord shapes across the neck. For example, let’s take a look at the movable barre* form of the A Major and A Minor chords:

(*”Barre” means that your index finger must lay flat in order to cover two or more strings.)

A Major: Barre the G and D strings, 2nd fret + A string, 4th fret and E string, 5th fret.

A Minor: Barre the G and D strings, 2nd fret + A string, 3rd fret and E string, 5th fret.

When you compare the above chords, you’ll notice that, just like the first minor chords we learned, there is only one note that is different. The third of the major chord is lowered ½ step, or 1 fret, to produce a minor chord.

You can now find any major or minor chord that you want, using the lowest note as a guide. For example, the lowest note of the A Major chord is “A.” If you want to play B Major, simply slide the entire chord shape up two frets (the lowest note is now “B”). The same goes for minor chords.

Find some tunes that incorporate a mix of major and minor, and see if you can create your own version, playing some of the chords as open and some as movable barre chords.

Ready to take your Mandolin playing to the next level? Study Mandolin online with Mike Marshall, or Classical Mandolin with Caterina Lichtenberg -- and hear the difference in your playing.

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