Amazing Grace: Three keys and transposing
We’ve talked about this before —the mandolin is tuned in intervals of fifths. That means that each open string is a musical interval of a perfect fifth, seven half steps, from each neighboring open string. Big deal, right? Yup, very big deal with huge repercussions for mandolin players! This regular arrangement, unlike the standard tuned guitar which mixes fourths and thirds, allows us to easily move chords and melodies across and up and down the fingerboard. One can learn a set of chords or a melody by position and then easily move that position to different keys without worrying too much about the specifics of scales, sharps, flats, and key signatures. Of course it’s still very important that a mandolinist know where scales and melodic tones are on the fret board.

I’m astonished every time I think about how easy it is to transpose on the mandolin once you understand the system. It is the absolute coolest thing and makes playing so much simpler, so much more understandable and manageable. I’m tearing up just mentioning here!

In this lesson we’ll map out a basic melody and learn it by position with emphasis on specific fretting finger numbers. We’ll use the world’s favorite hymn “Amazing Grace” both because it’s so well known and also because it lends it self perfectly to this exercise. If you’re not used to playing “up the neck” this drill will help you get away from first position and open string notes and on to the upper stratosphere of the mandolin fingerboard.

Look at the first closed position (no “open string” notes) version of “Amazing Grace” in the key of G. Click here. Fretting fingers numbers are shown in italics below the lyrics. Memorize the melody using these fretting fingers. Notice that all the notes are played on the fifth, seventh, and ninth frets with no open string notes. (If we used open string notes, we wouldn’t be able to move the melody around as easily.) Most mandolins have fingerboard dots at the fifth and seventh frets. Use these dots to define your home base. MP3s of all the keys are below:

“Amazing Grace” in the key of G MP3
“Amazing Grace” in the key of Ab MP3
“Amazing Grace” in the key of C MP3

When you can play this first version of “Amazing Grace” from memory, try moving it up one fret to the key of Ab. (This exercise will be much easier if you first memorize the melody as written and can play it with your eyes closed.) You’ll need to preserve your basic hand position and use the same fretting finger numbers. In the key of Ab, all the notes will be found on the sixth, eighth, and tenth frets. In the key of G, most of the notes fell on dotted frets. In Ab, none will so you’ll have to adjust your thinking accordingly. All the notes will be on non-dottted frets. Most people find this a little distracting at first. You can still use the dots to get your bearings, you just have to adjust your point of view up one fret. If you have difficulty in Ab, print out the Ab.pdf and follow along.

As I mentioned above, you can also move melodies “across” the fingerboard in addition to up and down. Let’s move “Amazing Grace” to the key of C. Instead of playing our first note on the fourth string seventh fret, play your first note on the third string fifth fret. We’ve moved the original key of G version down two frets and over one string. Again it’s essential that you use the same fretting finger positions that you used in the G and Ab versions. If you run into trouble, print out the key of C.pdf.

When you have these three versions nailed, that is, when you can play them in your sleep without thinking, go back to each and practice moving them up and down and across the fingerboard to as many positions and keys as you can reach. Be sure to identify each new key. It won’t do you much good if you know how to move a melody around but don’t know what key it’s in!

Once you’ve mastered the melody to “Amazing Grace” in this position, try to pick out other familiar melodies while maintaining the same basic hand position. With a little work, you’ll be surprised at the progress you’ll make and ease with which you’ll ultimately be able to play in any key. Think of it: some bozo demands that a song be played in the key Bb. It won’t even be a challenge to you if you’ve mastered this lesson and understand the real estate of the mandolin fingerboard! You will laugh in the face of adversity!

If you’re really motivated, work through “Amazing Grace” again and define the other possible closed positions. The exercises you worked through here all used the second finger to play the first note. Try starting with your first, third or fourth. Each will lead you to a different and equally important position. You can do the same thing with closed position major and minor scales. Learn them in four different positions, each beginning on a different finger. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you this … now you’ll be getting all the gigs! 😉

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