Mandolin Chords Every Beginner Should Know

Photo of author
Written By Will Fenton

Founder of MidderMusic. From numerous bands to stints working in music shops, read more about me on the 'Here's My Story' page!

Without a doubt, the mandolin is a fantastic instrument to learn.

It’s lively, versatile, and suitable for beginners.

And with all the great online mandolin lessons, you can even work on your mandolin skills without leaving the house.

Regardless of what your learning source is, there are some basics you should go through first.

Like any other stringed instrument, the mandolin has different chords and keys.

It’s understandable you want to start playing songs as soon as possible, but it’s important that you master basic chords before jumping into more complex stuff.

To help you out in your first steps, we’ll show you the most popular mandolin chords and teach you how to read them!

Mandolin Chords Overview

As you probably already know, a chord is a collection of three or more notes played at the same time.

When it comes to mandolins, chords might seem a bit abstract.

The mandolin is used in many different music styles, each with a slightly different technique.

In this article, we will stick to basic mandolin chords. With these chords, you’ll be able to play numerous popular and folk songs.

Standard Tuning

Firstly, it’s important to know that standard tuning in mandolin is done symmetrically (in open 5ths.)

Therefore, you can play the same chord shape on different strings.

Let’s make things clearer with an example: you can play G Major by playing the 2nd string, 2nd fret, and the 1st string, 3rd fret.

If you move this exact shape down one string (then you’ll fret 2nd and 3rd strings), you’ll get C Major.

Basically, the mandolin is traditionally tuned like a violin, so it’s tuned G-D-A-E.

But how do you tune it the same as a violin if the mandolin usually has eight strings?

Well, each pair of strings is tuned to the same tone. So, it’s actually tuned G-G-D-D-A-A-E-E, if you consider each individual string.

Mandolins have double strings in order to provide a fuller sound and longer resonance.

Now, if you want to learn how to play mandolin chords, you should get acquainted with mandolin chord charts.

How to Read a Mandolin Chord Diagram

Mandolin charts or diagrams will start making sense once you understand all of their parts.

Essentially, a chord diagram is a visual representation of a mandolin fretboard. So, the grid shows the six frets of the mandolin.

In other words, horizontal lines represent frets and vertical lines represent the strings (G, D, A, and E.) The thick top line is the nut.

Mandolin Chords Chart

A chord symbol will tell you the type of chord (in this case it’s G.)

And black dots indicate which notes and strings to fret. In the example below, you can see the G string fretted at the third fret and the other strings at the first fret:

How to Read Mandolin Charts

Open circles will tell you if you need to play an open string (a string played without placing your hand on any of the frets.) Many chords combine fretted and open strings.

If you see an ‘X’, that string shouldn’t be played.

And finally, the numbers will tell you which fingers to use to play each note in the chord:

1 – index

2 – middle

3 – ring

4 – pinky

You might come across variations of the mandolin diagram, but if you understand the basic concept, you won’t have any problems reading it.

On the other hand, a mandolin tablature (or tab) is a form of musical notation based on fingering instead of on musical pitches.

So, four horizontal lines represent the four pairs of strings, and the numbers indicate which fret to play.

Mandolin Tablature

If all of this seems a bit confusing or overwhelming, don’t worry; everything will make sense once you start practicing.

Let’s go back to our mandolin chords!

Open Chords

Open mandolin chords are formed on the neck of the mandolin by playing open strings.

Major open chords are relatively easy to play due to the tuning of your mandolin.

We’ve already explained how to play G Major (the 2nd string, 2nd fret, and the 1st string, 3rd fret) and C Major (move that same shape down one string).

And to play D Major, you’ll have to use the G string, 2nd fret, E string, and 2nd fret (while the D and A strings are open).

If you want to see how Major chords look like in a mandolin chord chart, here it is:

How to Play Mandolin Chords

You’ll be happy to hear that many beginner folk songs can be played with these three chords. Therefore, it’s fair to say that G, C, and D are the most popular beginner mandolin chords.

Minor Chords

If you want to change the chord quality to a minor, you need to change one note in each of the previously mentioned chords.

So, to play G Minor, lower your index finger one fret. The same goes for C Minor and D Minor.  

It’s not that hard, right?

The only thing to remember is to change fingering for D Minor so it feels more natural.

You can play the G string, the 2nd fret with your second finger, and the E string, the 1st fret with the index finger.

How to Play Mandolin Chords

In the previous paragraph, we’ve shown you how to play open Major and Minor chords.

And as the mandolin chords are movable (because the mandolin is tuned symmetrically), you can easily move different chord shapes across the neck.

There are plenty of chords for you to learn. But there’s no rush. You should feel comfortable with the basics first.

One of the best ways to start playing the mandolin is by strumming chords. You have to hold down certain strings with your left-hand fingers and strum.

And once you become familiar with mandolin chord charts, everything will be easier and less abstract. You only need to start playing.

Try to memorize basic Major and Minor chords and then practice them by mixing them up (changing them.) Try to be as accurate as possible.

You should practice until you can change them smoothly.

Of course, it’s normal to make mistakes from time to time, but playing chords should feel fluid and easy. If you have to think too much, it means they’re not in your fingers just yet.

Even when you start learning songs, you shouldn’t forget about the basics. Practicing chords can be nothing but beneficial; it will improve your coordination, technique, and rhythm.

If you feel confident with the mandolin basics, you’ll be able to learn new material more quickly.

Final Thoughts

We hope you understand mandolin chords a little bit better after reading this article.

But the best (and perhaps only) way to learn chords is by trying them out on your instrument.

The important thing is not to rush; take your time to get to know mandolin charts, learn basic chords, and play them correctly.

The most common mandolin chords are G, C, and D. They can be found in many beginner songs.

A great thing about mandolins is that standard tuning in mandolins is done symmetrically. This means you can move the same chord shape across the strings.

And after enough practice, you can start exploring advanced chords, different keys, and styles. The mandolin is a very versatile instrument that becomes more and more interesting as you progress.

We assure you that improving your mandolin skills will be a fun and rewarding process. Learning chords is only the beginning!

FAQs

What are the basic chords for mandolin?

The basic chords for the mandolin are G, C, and D. These three chords are used in lots of beginner folk songs.

Is mandolin harder than guitar?

No, the mandolin is not harder to learn and play than the guitar. The simple answer to this is that the mandolin has fewer strings. The more strings an instrument has, the more chords you need to learn.

Is it difficult to learn the mandolin?

The mandolin is not a difficult instrument to learn. It has fewer strings than other instruments such as the guitar, which makes playing it and learning chords much easier.

Are mandolin chords the same as guitar chords?

No, mandolin chords are different than guitar chords. This is because guitars are tuned differently than mandolins, therefore the chord shapes and fingering is different.

What is the easiest song to play on the mandolin?

Here are a few of the easiest songs to play on the mandolin:

“You Are My Sunshine”
“Old Joe Clark”
“Greensleeves”
“Cripple Creek”
“Boil ’em Cabbage Down”
“Hand Me Down My Walking Cane”
“Angeline The Baker”