Apparently I need to learn how to play another instrument at a mediocre skill level, so I just picked up a mandolin. I chose a Washburn M1K, a cheap beginner mandolin kit from a reliable brand, and it showed up at the house last night. I set the bridge as low as I could and tuned it up. Thanks to my mediocre guitar skills, I was playing simple songs in half an hour or so.
The mando definitely is different. A guitar typically is tuned E-A-D-G-B-E from the sixth to the first string, but the mando has eight strings that are doubled — they’re tuned exactly the same, in pairs. It typically uses the same tuning as a violin — G-D-A-E — and this means you have to re-learn how to finger all the chords. But many of them can be played with only two fingers, especially at first if you don’t mind less full-sounding chords.
And — again, thanks to my mediocre guitar skills — even the stretch-y chords, where you have to skip a couple of frets between finger positions, often weren’t that bad. In fact, one of the most appealing aspects about the mando is that it’s much friendlier to my hands than a guitar. But if you’ve got ham hands, you’re going to find the mando a lot more difficult to pick up because your fingers will get crowded quickly.
If you’ve never played a string instrument or you don’t understand how to set one up, this first part of mando playing will be more difficult. I pity the fool who’s trying to tune a mando for the first time without any previous experience at tuning a string instrument. It’s gonna be a long haul for you even if you use a digital tuner. And unless you understand how to set up the bridge and/or how to pick an instrument that’s both cheap and reasonably well-constructed, you’ll find that chording is a fresh hell. And finally, until you build up callouses on your fingertips, playing the mando is gonna hurt.
But honestly, at the beginner level, it’s clear to me that a well-set-up mando is easier to play than a guitar. Now, when you move to that next place — the place where you try to learn those blazing solo runs and really squeeze the tone out of the instrument — the mando has its own unique challenges. I’m a very long way from that. I probably won’t ever get there. But as a fun instrument in its own right, the mandolin has much that appeals.