Plant or Don't Plant?

Posted by Bradley Laird

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This is a little email exchange which discusses a very good begninning mandolin question. The questioner gave me permission to reprint it here for the benefit of any other mandolinists with the same question. It deals with the subject of whether one should or should not keep a right hand finger in contact with the instrument while soloing. Touching like that is called "planting", "anchoring" or "posting" a finger.

I'll let Keith from near Vancouver put it in his own words:

Hi Brad,

I play guitar and have noticed that it definitely creeps into my mandolin playing. I always brace my strumming hand (on the guitar) on the bridge, or with my pinky. Is this a "no no" on the mandolin?

Any advice is appreciated.



This was my reply:

Hi Keith!

It's not a "no no". I'd call it a "yes no". Or maybe a "no yes".

I know what you are saying about your guitar technique creeping into your mandolin playing. The same thing happened with me when I started in the late '70s. I had played banjo for about a year before getting a mandolin and the banjo book I had said to plant the ring finger on the head. (The banjo head, not my head.) When I played the mandolin I did the same thing.

I'd classify my "planting a finger" during lead playing as a habit I developed early on and worked for years to rid myself of to no avail. So, I started studying the playing of some of the great mandolinists and realized that there are a lot of ways to skin a cat.

Take Chris Thile for example. Perfect textbook right hand action. Incredible player. No fingers anchored.

Take Adam Steffey. Another incredible player... who always keeps his pinky anchored on the top during soloing. He sorta sticks the tip of it in the little circular end of the treble side F hole. I have seen him describe it and I have watched him do it from the front row at Everetts Pickin Barn when he played there with Mountain Heart. He does not anchor during rhythm playing though.

So, those two examples right there are enough to prove that one can be a great mandolin player and possibly do it either way. In the guitar world just compare Doc Watson with Tony Rice and you see two completely different ways to use the right arm. They both are right because they are both doing what is right for them.

If you forced Chris Thile to anchor and you forced Adam Steffey to not anchor you would probably destroy their ability to play great. In other words, they are doing what works for THEM. You must do what works for you.

I think the general correct opinion is that not planting or anchoring is best. (That means it works best for most folks.) The same goes for playing with a "loose wrist" compared to "playing from the elbow." So, give the no anchor method a fair try. Yes, it is harder to accurately find the strings but in time you will. The anchor gets you finding the strings sooner as a beginner but can drastically slow you down as the years go by.

Next, with regards to touching the bridge, I assume you mean you rest the heel of your hand, as a sort of pivot point, around the bridge pins on your guitar. A lot of players do that. A lot don't. On the mandolin you have to be careful that you don't deaden the strings if the heel of your hand contacts the strings near the bridge. Obviously you cannot rest right on the bridge or you will kill a lot of your volume and mute the strings.

When I started playing mandolin I did the same thing you are talking about. Contact with the strings just behind the bridge (towards the tailpiece) caused me to be picking very close to the bridge and I didn't like the tone. To get a more mellow, darker tone I needed to be playing my leads closer to the end of the fretboard extension and that made it impossible to be in contact with the heel of the hand. Picking nearer to the fretboard solved that problem on its own and elevated my hand over the strings.

My way of playing is seen here. My right arm is in contact with the instrument edge. It is the underside of my forearm sort of rolling side to side on the binding along the upper edge like this...

brad laird mandolin


Not a hard pressing, just loose contact with the flesh of the underside of the forearm. My hand is not touching the bridge at all. My ring finger is touching the soundboard in this photo though it is hard to see from this angle.

If you really want to get confused on this issue pull up a video of the great Jesse McReynolds. He might convince you to rest back there behind the bridge. It certainly works for his cross picking style.

Ultimately there is no right or wrong. There is only right or wrong for you. I sometimes joke with my students that if they play better with their toes they should do it.

I do support the idea of teaching the most likely methods to suit the most people, but I cannot truly say if that is the right way for you.

When you get a chance take a look at my mandolin books and practice tracks here. I talk about this and a hundred other things that could benefit your playing. The concepts taught in the books go hand in hand with my video lessons and adding Mandolin Master Class, Mandolin Training Camp, etc. to your "stack" will really propel you forward. A lot of folks incorrectly think they should get some beginner stuff under their belt before diving into the books. They put it off and miss a great chance to direct their "beginner stage" efforts in the same way as the "old pros" think. Check 'em out and see if they help...

Take care and if you like what I am doing spread it around with your folks and on the various mandolin forums.

Thanks and sorry for being so long-winded. I just had two cups of coffee!


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