The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last three years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. Spread over two days, it highlighted in detail the various stringed instruments used in Carnatic music. Whereas the first day was dedicated to string instruments of Indian origin, like the Vina, Chitravina etc, the second day covered instruments of western origin that have been successfully adopted in Carnatic music (Violin, Guitar, Mandolin etc). The participants included top-notch instrumentalists. Wherever possible, different schools and styles were also featured. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively.

In the coming weeks, Carnatica will bring you the papers presented by the participants at these Conferences.





By Suresh Kumar


Introduction to Mandolin:

Mandolin emerged from the Mandola possibly as early as the 15th century but remained obscure until the 18th century, when it was used by Handel in England, by Hummel in Germany, by Gretry and Auber in France, and by various Italians including Vivaldi. The fashion subsided in the 19th century - it had become a popular folk instrument in Germany and America. Mandolin is the descendent of  the Neapolitan, a small lute.

The Mandolin has been in use in its original form and with its original style of playing in film music and other non-classical forms of music for a few decades now, though the usage has not been such that would have given the instrument a prima donna position. The instrument has been predominantly used to connect two parts of compositions or to render one of the specific parts of a musical composition. 

Elsewhere in the world, the usage of the instrument is much better. However, one does come across cases where Mandolin has been used as a lead instrument playing various pop or other varieties of compositions. In western classical music, the originality of Mandolin, both the style of playing and the construction of the instrument, has been retained though. Some of the prominent examples of the usage of Mandolin elsewhere in the world are:

  • Lead Mandolin in Bluegrass music (in the USA); 

  • The American group called "The Band" which featured Rick Danko on the Mandolin; 

  • In country-western music in the  mid-1980s by a competing group of Nashville based musicians such as Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, the Judds, & Randy Travis. 

Basic Design of the Mandolin:

The acoustic Mandolin: Normally one finds two variations in the original form of the Mandolin - the acoustic and the electric (solid block). 

The Mandolin in its original form is typically an acoustic stringed instrument about 60 cm (2 ft) long with deeply vaulted ribs and a table slanted downward at the lower end. It has a neck-cum-peghead attached to a hollow oval shaped sound box. It has four pairs of loop-ended double rib fastened metal strings secured to hooks on the body on one end, and passed across a low bridge (on the sound box) and a nut (on the finger board) to the pegs inserted into a rectangular peg-box. There are five or even six-string versions of the Mandolin, but they are not as popular as the four-strings (pairs) version. A small flexible plectrum is used to vibrate the strings. A feature of Mandolin playing is the constant reiterations of all long pitches, which counteracts its weak sustaining power. The thinnest string is called the 1st string, the next is the 2nd string which is slightly thicker, and so on until the fourth string. 

The Electric (solid block) Mandolin: Solid block versions of the Mandolin are also available in more or less the same form as the original Mandolin. The names of the parts of the electric Mandolin are similar to those of the acoustic Mandolin. The major difference between an acoustic Mandolin and the electric Mandolin lies in the way sound is produced and amplified in each. 

On the acoustic Mandolin, when a string is plucked, its vibrations resonate in the hollow sound box and audible sound is thereby generated. In this process, the sound box mechanically amplifies the sound.  In the case of an electric Mandolin, there is no sound box; the vibrations of the strings are picked up by a device called "pickup" (which, in basic form, consists of a magnet placed at the centre with very thin copper wire coiled around it a few hundred-thousand turns), which converts the vibrations into very low electrical signals. Through volume, tone and / or other controls, these signals are fed into an amplifier which then feeds it to the speaker. Thus audible sound is produced. 

U Srinivas' design:

Mandolin Srinivas is perhaps the greatest thing to have happened to Mandolin, for it was he who adapted the instrument to Carnatic classical music, made some structural modifications and introduced  ingenious playing techniques to take Mandolin to its present enviable position in music. It would therefore be worthwhile dwelling in sufficient detail on U Srinivas' design in order to fully comprehend the magnitude and enormity of his contribution. 

Gamakas (graces), one would agree without doubt, are quite essential to Carnatic music - so much so that, one cannot play Carnatic music without using gamakas. With the original design of the Mandolin, the musician venturing to play Carnatic music on it, faced two major problems: 

  1. The presence of pairs of strings made it extremely difficult to render complex gamakas. 
  2. The sustenance (the time period for which a note would be heard from the time the string is plucked) of the instrument, on the whole, was not sufficient enough (to some extent attributable to the presence of "pairs of strings") to admit slow-tempo compositions.

Mandolin Srinivas came up with some modifications which (i) eliminated completely the problem of gamaka rendition, (ii) to a great extent enhanced the sustenance of the instrument, and (iii) enhanced the acoustic range of the instrument. 

Mandolin Srinivas (a) chose the electric solid block (Mandolin) as the basis; (b) used single strings instead of pairs, and (c) also added a fifth string (on the suggestion of his father U Satyanarayana), which enhanced the acoustic range of the instrument. As such the acoustic range of the instrument is now three complete octaves and  a half octave.

These modifications have opened up gates which were hitherto thought impossible. The inevitable fallout of these modifications is that the Mandolin, in this new design, has lost its characteristic plink-plunk sound (attributable to the pairs of strings) and the playing style of continuous, fast up-down plucking as a means of sustaining notes. But then, in view of the stupendous vistas and the expressing potential opened up by the new design, one is more than pleased to overlook this. Mandolin Srinivas' design of the Mandolin is available with quite a few musical instrument makers in Chennai, India. 

Suresh Kumar's Design - the Dragon G2 SK-1:

Suresh Kumar started with Mandolin Srinivas' design as the basis, altered certain design parameters which have further enhanced the flexibility and expressing potential of the Mandolin. The important features of Suresh Kumar's design, christened Dragon G2 SK-1, are discussed hereunder: 

  1. The use of the truss rod: Truss rod is wedged inside the neck and brings with it the benefit of increased sustenance of notes and greater rigidity. In case of a minor warp in the neck, a truss rod helps to correct the warp. It also offers resistance to warping tendencies of the instrument's neck. The truss rod also helps improve the sustenance of the instrument.
  2. The unique tailpiece: Ideally, the thickness of the Mandolin strings (as also for any other stringed instrument) should progressively increase from the thinnest (1st) string to the thickets (5th) string. Since the original Mandolin has 4 (pairs of) strings, one can procure strings in only 4 gauges which anyway suits the original Mandolin. With the 5-string version of the Mandolin, one is therefore forced to use the 4th string for the 5th string also. This entails using strings of the same gauge for two scales which are seven notes apart - for the lower (Panchama) and lower (Shadja) - with the inherent problem of the 4th string being tightened to a more than normal tension. A neat way of overcoming this difficulty is by using matching guitar strings of a suitable gauge. But guitar strings are ball-ended while Mandolin strings are loop-ended and the tailpiece of the Mandolin will not accept ball-ended strings. For the dragon, Suresh Kumar has designed a unique tailpiece which would accept either of the two strings types - loop ended or ball ended which gives a welcome flexibility in the choice of strings for the Mandolin. 
  3. The flexi-bridge: The all-metal height adjustable bridge has individual movable bits (one for each string) with notches through which the strings pass. This design of the bridge (i) gives scope for adjusting the action (distance between the strings and the fingerboard) of the strings for varying requirements, (ii) helps achieve a better intonation (matching or equivalent frequencies on equivalent positions on different strings), and (iii) improves the sustenance of the instrument. 
  4. The neck: The Dragon has a screw-on detachable type neck instead of a glued-on neck. A glued-on neck has to have a bigger constriction at the point where the neck is glued on to the body as compared to a screw-on type neck. The screw-on type neck thus allows a better reach around the twelfth fret region (called down-the-staff region in guitar terminology). The neck is also angled at approximately 4 degrees to the body. This also improves sustenance and tonal quality. 
  5. The frets: German silver frets of Jim Dunlop (USA) also add to the rich tone and improve the sustenance of the instrument while playing gamakas. These also enable better handling of microtones. 
  6. The pickup: The use of specially wound pickups (2 in number) placed strategically give independently good tonal variations both in their original tones and altered tones obtained by taking the pickup out from different tappings, and in addition, tones obtained by combination of two pickups - all accessed through a 5-way Fender (USA) pickup selector. The pickups are also fitted with 'Alnico' magnets which provide a sweet, mellow tone - a must for classical music.

All these and more make the Dragon G2 SK-1 a performer's delight. The dragon is a made to order instrument and has been specially made for Suresh Kumar by John Pereira of Peter Pereira (makers of mandolins, guitars and violins), near St. John the Baptist High School, Thane West 400 601, Mumbai, India (Ph: 91-22-5343314), one of the best instrument makers in the country. John Pereira has taken a lot of pains to see that the Dragon is made to exacting requirements. 

Techniques of playing the Mandolin:

Tuning the Mandolin: The Mandolin is normally tuned to the notes corresponding to E, A, D & G (1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th strings respectively). 

The basics: Mandolin is a plucked instrument. The sound of the Mandolin is basically produced because of the vibrating column formed between the bridge and the nut where string vibrations are created by plucking the strings with a plectrum or the fingers. Frequencies can be altered by pressing the strings on the fingerboard against appropriate frets. The act of pressing the strings on the fingerboard alters the length of the vibrating column and the placement of the frets is so calculated that the exact frequencies as required on the musical scale are obtained. The required musical notes are thus produced and delayed. Given this technical background, let us see the basic techniques of playing the Mandolin. 

One typically uses the index, middle, ring and little fingers of the left hand to alter the musical notes and the right hand to hold the plectrum for plucking the strings. The side of the sound box rests on the players lap and the neck is held in position with the left hand.

The Mandolin is not ordinarily used to play chords. For lead playing, different scales can be worked out and played. The characteristic style of playing is that whenever one wants to sustain any note, one plucks the string with the plectrum with rapid, up-down strokes of the right hand. 

The phenomenal contribution of Mandolin Srinivas to the techniques of Mandolin playing in Carnatic music: 

The first thing that Mandolin Srinivas did was to change the tuning of the Mandolin to suit the requirements of Carnatic music in the following manner: 

String number Key/Scale to which tuned (Western notation) Equivalent note in Carnatic music
1 C Sa - Tara sthayi
2 G Pa
3 C Sa
4 G Pa - Mandra sthayi
5 C Sa - Mandra sthayi

Changing the tuning from that of the standard Mandolins not only enhanced the range of the instrument, but also the enabled the player to avail of the advantage of having the resonance of the Sa and/or Pa on tap by default. This helps the player fill the void, the emptiness which could sometimes creep into a rendition. 

With Sa-Pa-Sa tuning as the base, Mandolin Srinivas devised very ingenious fingering techniques for playing intricate gamakas and for enhancing the expressive potential of the Mandolin. 

Some of the patent 'Srinivas techniques' are discussed below. 

Establishment of the basic fingering pattern: 

In the basic fingering pattern, the left index finger is designated for Ri and Dha, the left middle finger for Ga and Ni, and the left ring finger for Ma regardless of the type of Ri, Ga, Dha and Ni. Sa and Pa are open strings, meaning, those notes can be played without pressing the strings against any fret.

The basic fingering pattern is broken while playing gamakas - this is because the very essence of gamakas lie in the continuity of notes, the graceful curves of frequencies. Gamaka playing, therefore, essentially involves using any of the three fingers identified herefore and sliding the finger down on the string whilst pressing them on the fingerboard and emphasizing only the required notes. 

Evolving the gamaka techniques suitable to the Mandolin: 

  1. Kampita (and its variants): Kampita essentially involves moving up and down between two notes. The various colours of the Gandhara of raga Todi can be obtained by (i) the Mandolin's variant of the 'kampita' technique (as elucidated in Sangeeta Ratnakara of Shaamgadeva) - where the 'kampita' is obtained by rapid up-down movements between the corresponding frets giving the Chatusruti Rishabha and Sadharana Gandhara notes; and (ii) by sliding back and forth twice or thrice between the corresponding frets giving the Shuddha Rishabha and Madhyama notes whilst emphasising the Todi's Gandhara tinge. The same technique with due changes when required can be used for various other ragas viz, the Madhyama and Nishadha of Begada. 
  2. Brigas: By brigas we mean a complex inter-twining of a series of notes played at a high speed, where some of the notes are played twice. The notes played twice are called brigas points. Briga points can be played in two ways, viz, (a) using two fingers - by playing a note with a left finger (say the middle) and sliding hard to that note from its previous (chromatic) note with another finger (in this case, the index) and (b) using one finger - by playing a note with a finger and very rapidly moving the finger back one note (chromatic) and bringing it back to the note with which the gamaka process was started. Playing brigas is difficult on the Mandolin on account of the amplification because even the smallest imperfection in playing the briga would be clearly audible and would jar the listener.
  3. Hammer-on' as a means of gamaka playing: Hammer-on is not a new technique in that it has been and is being used extensively in western guitar playing. But the way Mandolin Srinivas has used it in Carnatic music, is amazing. Hammer-on means hitting a note sufficiently hard with any of the left fingers against a fret - the note may be plucked or unplucked. Hammer-on is used as an alternative to sliding down hard to a note or to a note higher on the musical scale (e.g., in a sequence in raga Kalyani the notes Ma-Pa-Da-Ni-Sa, the Ma can be played by hammering-on Pa or by sliding down hard to Pa. 
  4. Nalinam: Suresh Kumar's nomenclature. This involves sliding gracefully to a series of notes which are not necessarily in the serial order of the raga. E.g., in raga Sankarabharanam (equivalent to the major scale in western music) the sequence Sa-(pause) -Ri-Ga-Ri-(pause)-Sa is played by plucking Sa (third string played open) and sliding one left finger (usually the middle or ring) across the following notes: Sa-(pause)-Ga-Ri-Ga-Ma-Ga-Ga-Ri-(pause)-Sa (It is to be noted in this phrase that Ma is not emphasized, in order to render a proper feel of Sankarabharanam. Nalinam can be used in innumerable variations, and by appropriately using emphasis points, a variety of bhava (feelings) can be expressed and gana-naya (modifications) can be achieved. 
  5. Octavo: Octavo involves playing a note in two or three octaves simultaneously. Doing this makes the Mandolin sound like the Chitravina. 

Making the Mandolin sing - the 'gayaki' style:

Since Carnatic music is sahitya-pradhana (meaning, importance is given to lyrics), the ultimate goal of every instrumentalist is to make the music played on the instrument as close to singing as possible. This process, however, becomes difficult because of the technical limitations posed by the instruments. A lot of work has been done by Mandolin Srinvas, and in turn, by Suresh Kumar, vis-a-vis Mandolin, towards realization of this ultimate goal on Mandolin and making it sing. 

When one sings, the transition across two or more notes is usually seamless. The same cannot always be translated onto instruments. Speaking specifically of the Mandolin, oftentimes one is forced to break the continuity of a sequence of notes because the sequence is so long in its musical range that it cannot be practically played without switching from one string to another. Both Mandolin Srinivas and Suresh Kumar have evolved different ways of getting around the technical limitation. 

a. Bridging the gap between the strings: Suresh Kumar's nomenclature. This is a technique which is used to play a series notes virtually seamlessly even though such playing would involve switching across two or more strings. This technique essentially involves an analysis of the series of notes sought to be played and the identification of "breathing points" in the series of notes and fixing the exact points where the switchover can be made virtually seamlessly, plus the manner in which the switchover is to be played.

To play the series Ri-Ma-Ri-Sa (all Tara sthayi notes) Ni-Da-Ma-Pa-Ni-Sa (corresponding to "Yagayoga tyaaga, bhogaphalamosangay" - lyrics of "Ragasudharasa", a composition of Tyagaraja in raga Andolika), the phrase would, in the ordinary course, be played in the following manner:

Ri-Ma-Ri-Sa - on the 1st string; Ni-Da on the 2nd string; and Ma on the 3rd string; Pa-Ni-Sa on the 2nd string.

However, "bridging the gap between the strings" technique would involve playing notes in the following manner:

Ri-Ma-Ri-Sa - on the 1st string; Ni-Da-Ma on the 3rd string; Pa-Ni-Sa on the 2nd string. Playing this way would ensure that the continuity is not broken.

b. Vocalisation: When one sings, it is easy to pronounce the syllables like Ra, Bha, as also the vowels like aa,oo,e,ee. To achieve vocalisation on the Mandolin however, there are some evolved techniques: 

The syllable "Ra" can be played by plucking equivalent/harmonising notes on two strings simultaneously. "Bha" can be played with a heavy slide and pluck, while playing the desired gamaka. The open string would give the "aa" (as in the pronouncement of the word "part") or "a" (as in "pat") sounds (depending on where the note is plucked - near the bridge or away from the bridge), while the same note when played not as-an-open string, would give the oo-ee sounds. 

These are other standard and non-standard gamakas and /or fingering techniques which help in achieving the gayaki style. Conservatively speaking, the extent of gayaki achievable on the Mandolin is at least 85%. 

One may be inclined to think that since Mandolin can be classified into the Vina family (if classified with Indian musical instruments ), the Dasa-gamakas of Vina may be applicable to the Mandolin without much of a change in the fingering technique. It needs to be stressed that most of the fingering techniques of the Vina cannot be planted to the Mandolin verbatim, because of the structural differences in the construction of both these instruments. 

Importance of the amplifier:

Without an amplifier, not only is the audible range of the sound of the Mandolin restricted to a radius of two feet, but the color of the sound is also not reflected in the correct perspective. So what the amplifier ("amp") does is (i) amplify the low electrical signals tapped from the output (from the pickup) of the Mandolin (ii) gives a color to the sound of the Mandolin while amplified.

The color of the sound depends heavily on the type of amplifier and the purpose for which it is built. The best amplifier makers in the world together probably offer at least 500 models suitable to guitar /Mandolin to choose from. 

The color of the sound given by an amplifier depends on whether the amplifier is IC (Integrated Circuit) based, transistor-based or a tube (valve) based amplifier. No, transistors and valves are not extinct in the guitar-amplifier world - many guitarists prefer the extra-mellow tone of the tube / transistorised amplifiers. 

For a Mandolin amplifier, an audio output of 10 to 30 watts is preferred. The wattage is sufficient. As for concerts, there is always the secondary amplification - in the form of the auditorium address system components.

Effects processing:

Unlike Western music where importance is accorded to "sound effects" as a means of expressing creativity, in Carnatic music, the imagination of the performer rather than his choice of effects is of prime importance. In Carnatic music, in order to give an account of the performers breadth and depth of creativity and imagination, a standard sound is required rather than a "basket of sound effects". Therefore, for Mandolin in Carnatic music, hardly any "effects processing" is done. 

Nevertheless, in order to have a wider perspective in this paper, "effects processing" is covered in brief.

Effects processing essentially involves altering the sound of an electric/electronic musical instrument using electronic circuit based equipment. A host of effects processors are available in the market which can alter the sound of the Mandolin to give effects like reverberation, flange, chorus, delay, compression-sustain, octavo, distortion, heavy metal, trash metal etc. A popular effects processor called Zoom (a small independent unit) gives all these effects and is controlled digitally. Electronically controlled analogue effects processors (called pedals) are also available, each of which give one or more of the aforementioned effects. Some amplifiers have built-in reverberation units. 

Interface with computers/digital electronics:

The analog signals of the Mandolin and digital electronics can be interfaced using what is called the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology. For Mandolin, one would need a MIDI pickup which can be interfaced with an electronic keyboard or a computer and the sounds of the Mandolin can be digitally altered for greater flexibility. While MIDI with an electronic keyboard would help for an on-stage live performance, the computer can be linked up for recording compositions and then altering the sound to suit specific needs. 

The Mandolin paraphernalia:
(i) Mandolin
(ii) Amplifier 
(iii) Connecting cables + spares 
(iv) Power supply unit, if required (e.g., an amplifier needing 110 Volts AC power supply) + Power extension cables 
(v) Effects processors, if used 
(vi) Pitch pipe (to fix the pitch to which the Mandolin is tuned - normally C) 
(vii) Plectrum sets (flexible triangular or oval shaped thin pieces of plastic or nylon or other material which are used to pluck the strings of the Mandolin ) 
(viii) Bridge adjustment screwdriver 
(ix) Other accessories.

Looking toward the future:

One can expect a lot of digitally processed recordings of Mandolin playing and better use of "effects processing" to help achieve the exact color of the sound of the Mandolin which one might want. The key lies in knowing and recognizing the precise extent to which these gizmos should be used - overuse is definitely not recommended. One may also expect to see increased use of effects processing to attain higher levels of "gayaki" style.

Related links: Mandolin - A brief history by U Srinivas
                     Other articles from the Chembur Conference
                     Musical Expressions