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Exploring Modal Sounds on the Mandolin in Bluegrass Music


Bluegrass music is renowned for its fast tempos, intricate melodies, and virtuosic instrumentals. The mandolin, with its bright and percussive tone, plays a central role in shaping the sound of bluegrass. One of the most fascinating aspects of bluegrass mandolin playing is the use of modal sounds. In this blog, we'll delve into how mandolin players can explore modal sounds to add depth and variety to their music. Whether you're taking mandolin lessons or learning through online mandolin lessons, understanding modes can greatly enhance your playing.


LEARN MORE: Want to learn how to play bluegrass mandolin from a master musician like Mike Marshall or Sierra Hull? Try some free online mandolin lessons now!


What are Modes?

Modes are scales derived from the major scale but starting on different scale degrees. Each mode has a distinct sound and emotional quality. For example, the Dorian mode (starting on the second degree of the major scale) has a minor, yet slightly hopeful sound, while the Mixolydian mode (starting on the fifth degree) has a major feel but with a bluesy twist due to its lowered seventh note.


Common Modes in Bluegrass Mandolin


  • Ionian (Major Scale): The foundation of Western music, the Ionian mode is bright and happy.
  • Dorian: A minor scale with a major sixth, offering a unique blend of melancholy and warmth.
  • Mixolydian: A major scale with a flattened seventh, perfect for that bluesy bluegrass feel.
  • Aeolian (Natural Minor): Darker and more somber, often used in minor key songs.


Incorporating Modes into Your Mandolin Playing


  • Learning the Shapes: ​Begin by learning the different modal shapes up and down the neck of your mandolin. Focus on one mode at a time to understand its unique sound and feel.
  • Modal Exercises: Practice scales and arpeggios in each mode. Use a metronome to keep time and gradually increase your speed. Play through familiar tunes in different modes. This can help you internalize the sounds and how they change the character of the melody.
  • Improvisation: Improvisation is a key skill in bluegrass music. Experiment with modal improvisation over bluegrass chord progressions. For example, try using the Dorian mode over a minor chord progression to add a new flavor to your solos.
  • Learning from the Masters: Studying the work of bluegrass mandolin legends like Sierra Hull and Mike Marshall can provide deep insights into modal playing. Listen to how they incorporate different modes into their solos and compositions.


Sierra Hull and Mike Marshall: Modal Masters

Sierra Hull and Mike Marshall are two contemporary bluegrass mandolinists known for their masterful use of modal sounds. Sierra Hull’s playing is marked by her fluid incorporation of modal scales, creating rich and expressive solos. Mike Marshall, on the other hand, blends classical, jazz, and bluegrass techniques, using modes to craft intricate and innovative mandolin lines.


Online Mandolin Lessons at ArtistWorks

For those looking to dive deeper into modal playing and other advanced techniques, online mandolin lessons are an excellent resource. ArtistWorks offers comprehensive courses taught by both Sierra Hull and Mike Marshall. These courses provide detailed video lessons, personalized feedback, and a community of learners to support your journey. Whether you're a beginner or an advanced player, these lessons can help you explore the full potential of your mandolin playing.


Exploring modal sounds on the mandolin can open up a new world of musical possibilities in bluegrass music. By understanding and practicing different modes, you can add emotional depth and variety to your playing. For a structured approach to learning, consider taking online mandolin lessons with bluegrass masters Sierra Hull and Mike Marshall at ArtistWorks. Their expert guidance will help you master the art of modal playing and enhance your overall musicianship. Whether you're just starting out or looking to refine your skills, these lessons are an invaluable resource for any aspiring mandolinist.



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