Learn the basics of music theory as it relates to four-string instruments tuned in fifths. Chad’s practical approach will deepen your knowledge of chords, scales, and arpeggios, and help you integrate them into your playing.
Chad Manning is a Bay Area bluegrass, old-time, and swing fiddler who currently plays with the David Grisman Sextet, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, and Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands.
Over the years he has toured with many bluegrass greats such as J.D. Crowe, Curly Seckler, Alan Munde, and Tony Trischka, to name a few. Chad also finds great joy in teaching and working with all levels of adult fiddle students. He and his wife, Catherine, teach more than a hundred students at their studio in Berkeley, California.
Download a PDF list of all the Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle lessons so you can keep track of your progress.
Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle Lessons
A Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle subscription includes:
In-depth instruction on chord and scale theory for instruments tuned in fifths
More than 30 practical, hands-on theory lessons designed specifically for fiddlers and mandolinists
Notation and mandolin tablature for every lesson
Lessons on improvising and soloing using different tonalities and arpeggios
High-quality video with multiple camera angles so you can see closeups of both hands in action.
New lessons added every month
Play-Along Tracks so you can practice what you’ve learned
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Major Scales, Part 1: Finger Patterns Get started in your exploration of music theory for mandolin and fiddle by learning major scales in different positions in the “bluegrass keys” of G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E, and F. Chad starts by defining a major scale and then shows you how the major scale is symmetrical on an instrument tuned in fifths. He also shows you the different finger patterns for major scales, with scales starting on each finger: index, middle, ring, and pinky.
Major Scales, Part 2: Circle of Fifths and Two-Octave Scales Learn about the circle of fifths and how to use it to determine how many sharps or flats a given key has. Chad walks you through two-octave scales in the “bluegrass keys” of G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E, and F, and talks about learning to see the entire scale on the fingerboard.
BASIC CHORDS AND ARPEGGIOS
Major Chord Arpeggios Learn how major chord arpeggios are constructed and how to find them on the mandolin/fiddle fingerboard. You’ll learn the different finger patterns for major arpeggios in bluegrass keys, with advice on visualizing each pattern and different ways to practice them.
Minor and Seventh Chord Arpeggios Learn how to construct minor chords and various kinds of seventh chords, including major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh, and minor/major seventh. Chad shows you the arpeggios in open position, their symmetrical finger patterns, and how to visualize them on the fingerboard. You’ll also learn to find all the arpeggios as barre chords.
THE HARMONIZED MAJOR SCALE
The I, IV, and V Chords Learn about the harmonized major scale and how the chords built on the root, fourth, and fifth steps of the major scale are all major chords. Chad shows you the importance of knowing the I, IV, and V chords in every bluegrass key, explaining how to find the IV and V chords in whatever key you’re in and use them to play “bluegrass chord progression #1” in all the bluegrass keys.
THE MAJOR PENTATONIC SCALE
The Major Pentatonic Scale The major pentatonic scale is useful for improvising on bluegrass, country, and folk tunes. You’ll learn the four main finger patterns for the major pentatonic scale and learn to see them as shapes. You’ll also learn to identify the sound of the pentatonic scale and how to make up your own melodies.
Soloing with the Major Pentatonic Scale Learn how to use the major pentatonic scale to create solos and improvise on “bluegrass chord progression #1,” which is used in songs like “Your Love Is Like a Flower,” “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and others. Chad shows you how to use the pentatonic scale to play “G-runs” on the E, A, and B chords (the I, IV, and V chords in the key of E), and how to modify the basic G-run into other major pentatonic scale phrases.
“Bluegrass Chord Progression #1” Play-Along Track: Key of E Use this video to practice soloing on bluegrass chord progression #1” in the key of E at slow and medium tempos with guitar accompaniment. Check the Play-Along Tracks page for play-along tracks of bluegrass chord progression #1 in all the bluegrass keys: G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E, and F.
MORE PENTATONIC SCALES
Boogie-Woogie-Scale Licks Chad refers to the five-note scale that consists of the 1, 3, 5, 6 and b7 of the major scale as the “boogie-woogie scale.” It’s very handy for playing bluesy licks and lines. You’ll learn a two-measure boogie-woogie-scale lick starting on each note of the scale and how to play the licks on all the chords of “bluegrass chord progression #1” in the key of D. Chad also gives you advice on making up your own licks starting on different scale tones.
Minor Pentatonic and Blues Scales Learn how to use the minor pentatonic and blues scales to play over bluesy progressions. Chad shows you the A minor pentatonic scale and how to improvise over an A blues with the A minor pentatonic scale. Then he shows you how to add the flatted fifth “(flat five”) to the minor pentatonic scale to create the blues scale and how to use the blues scale to solo on an A blues. You’ll also learn how to use the A minor blues scale to play in the key of C major.
Adding Flat Thirds to Major Triads and Pentatonic Scales The flat-third/major-third embellishment is a staple of blues, bluegrass, and jazz licks. Learn how to add the flat third to major triads and substitute the flat third for the second in the major pentatonic scale and boogie-woogie scale.
Dominant Seventh Chords Learn about dominant seventh chords and arpeggios. The dominant seventh chord (often just called a seventh) consists of a major triad and a flatted seventh and is often used as the V chord in a progression. Chad walks you through dominant seventh chord construction and gives you some exercises using dominant seventh arpeggios moving around the circle of fifths.
Dominant Ninth Chords Ninth chords are used like dominant seventh chords, so whenever there’s a dominant seventh chord in a chord progression, you can add the ninth to give it a jazzy sound. Chad shows you a basic ninth chord arpeggio and gives you exercises using ninth arpeggios on the chord progression from “Sweet Georgia Brown” in the keys of F and G.
MAJOR SCALE PATTERNS Learn to play major chord arpeggios over “bluegrass chord progression #1” in the key of G. You’ll also learn a couple of simple quarter-note scale patterns that connect chord tones as well as a more complicated eighth-note pattern.
MODES In this lesson on modes, you’ll learn both how each mode relates to its parent major scale and how each mode is constructed individually. Chad starts by showing you how the modes are derived from the major scale, using the G major scale as an example. He walks you through each mode, naming them and showing you how each one starts on a different step of the major scale. He also shows you how the Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Lydian modes (the modes most often used in bluegrass and old-time music) differ from the major scale.
10-MINUTE PRACTICE ROUTINE Chad helps you create a practice routine for working on theory that includes two-octave major scales, modes, diatonic triads, seventh chords, pentatonic scales, and more. The routine will take you 5–15 minutes depending on your fluency with the material. Chad goes through the routine from beginning to end in the key of A, calling out each scale, mode, etc., as he goes.
SOLOING AND IMPROVISING
Playing in F Chad gets away from all the heady theory and shows you how to take all the theory you’ve been learning and play in a key that may not be too familiar for fiddle and mandolin players: the key of F. You’ll learn the first-finger “capo position” in F, the major pentatonic scale in that position, and how to improvise on bluegrass chord progression #1, a 12-bar blues, and a standard swing progression (“rhythm changes”) using the major pentatonic and other scales, including the F blues scale, D minor blues scale, and F minor blues scale.
The Harmonic Minor Scale and Gypsy Jazz Learn how to use the harmonic minor scale to improvise on a Gypsy jazz tune like “Minor Swing.” Chad reviews the harmonic minor scale in the key of A minor and shows you how you can play it over the “Minor Swing” chord progression, which uses Am, Dm6, and E7 chords. He also talks about targeting different notes and introduces you to a diminished chord arpeggio, which you can use to play over the E7 chord.
Improvising in D Modal In roots music, the word “modal” usually does not refer to a specific classical mode, but to a tonality that often uses the flatted seventh and either the flatted third or major third (and sometimes both). Chad explains the sound, sometimes called “mountain modal,” and shows you the D modal scales, one with the major third and one with the minor third. He also shows you how to add drones on the A and D strings, slides and hammer-ons, and unison drones, as well as where to find the notes in second and third positions.
Improvising on the Circle of Fifths: “Sweet Georgia Brown” The trad jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a great tune for practicing improvising on circle-of-fifths progressions. Traditionally played in the key of F, the chord progression for the first half of “Sweet Georgia Brown” consists of four bars each of D7, G7, C7, and F, giving you ample time to practice your dominant scales on each chord. Chad begins by showing you the melody to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and then gives you an exercise outlining dominant-nine arpeggios for D7, G7, and C7.
Approach Notes Learn a common swing and jazz technique for improvising with arpeggios, using the “Sweet Georgia Brown” circle-of-fifths progression. Chad shows you how to “approach” each note of an arpeggio from a half step below, as well as a scale tone above, to create phrases that add tension and variety to arpeggio-based phrases.
Major Six Sounds Chad continues using the “Sweet Georgia Brown” circle-of-fifths progression to demonstrate another harmonic choice you can make: the sixth degree of the major scale, which can give your playing a bright, swingy sound. Chad demonstrates the major six sound and then shows you a number of places to find it on the fiddle and mandolin, with some cool double stops and swingy melodic licks.
Chords Within Chords In this lesson, Chad shows you some of the chords that exist within larger chords. For example, the fifth, seventh, and ninth of a dominant nine chord equal a minor triad built on the fifth of the chord. Chad demonstrates how you can use this on the “Sweet Georgia Brown” circle-of-fifths progression to focus on the higher notes of the chord you’re playing. He also shows you how to use a Dorian scale that starts on the fifth of the chord to achieve a similar effect with a scalar melody rather than just an arpeggio.
Circle of Fifths Review in D Chad reviews all of the concepts he’s been illustrating using the “Sweet Georgia Brown” circle-of-fifths progression, but this time in the key of D. “Sweet Georgia Brown” in F allows you to practice on D7, G7, C7, and F chords, but if you move it to the key of D, you’ll be able to practice on B7, E7, A7, and D chords. Chad reviews the major and dominant nine arpeggios for these chords as well as approach notes, major sixths, and “chords within chords.”
Building Bluegrass Vocabulary in the Key of C In this lesson, Chad helps you build a vocabulary of bluegrass phrases in the key of C, using some call-and-response exercises. Most of these phrases are based on the major pentatonic scale, with the addition of the flatted seventh and flatted third, as well as some chromatic lines.
The Altered Dominant Scale In this lesson, Chad takes a little digression from the path he’s been taking, with a lesson on the altered dominant scale, which is used in modern and mainstream jazz to give a dissonant or exotic sound to dominant chords. You’ll learn to use the altered dominant scale on the D7 chord in a ii–V7–I progression in the key of G.
Improvising in B Modal To improvise and play solos on bluesy bluegrass songs in the key of B, you can use the B minor pentatonic scale, as well as a version of the scale with a D# substituted for D♮. Chad starts by showing you the B minor pentatonic scale and giving you ideas for improvising with the scale. Then he shows you the scale with the D# and how to improvise with that scale, and alternate between the two scales.
How High the Moon “How High the Moon” is a jazz classic that changes tonality every two to four measures. In this lesson, you’ll learn the melody as well as the scales and arpeggios you can use to improvise on the melody.
Improvising on “How High the Moon” Chad gives you advice on improvising on “How High the Moon” using the scales and arpeggios you learned in the previous lesson. He shows you how to make musical phrases out of the scales and arpeggios by playing with dynamics and expression, and how to create melodies out of the notes of the arpeggios. Chad also shows how to play a chorus of Ella Fitzgerald’s classic recording of “How High the Moon” on the fiddle or mandolin, and how her notes correspond to the arpeggios and scales you’ve been using to improvise on the tune.
DOUBLE-STOPS AND DOUBLE-STOP SCALES
Double-Stop Vocabulary in the Key of A In this lesson, Chad shows you some typical bluegrass double-stop licks in the key of A. He shows you licks on all the string sets, how to combine them to make longer licks, and how to phrase them in different ways.
Double-Stop Scale in the Key of F Learn the double-stop scale in the key of F, both with a low harmony and high harmony. After showing you the F major scale, Chad walks you the F major scale with a low harmony, which has four double stops on the G and D string pair, and four double stops on the D and A string pair. Then he shows you the F major scale with a high harmony, which has four double stops on the D and A string pair, and four double stops on the A and E string pair. Chad also shows you which major and minor chords can be used with each double stop.
Double-Stops Up the Neck For this lesson, Chad enlists his son Jasper Manning to show you how to think about using double-stops up the neck in your solos. Jasper walks you through the three main double-stops on the top two strings for G, A, D, E, B, C, Bb, and F chords and shows you how to find the same double-stop shapes on the other two sets of strings. He ends by playing a solo on the bluegrass fiddle tune “Big Sandy River” using double-stops and licks based on double-stop positions.
BUILDING BLUEGRASS VOCABULARY IN MULTIPLE KEYS
Bluegrass Lick #1 in All the Bluegrass Keys Chad gives you an exercise using a typical bluegrass lick (which he calls “Bluegrass Lick #1”) in a I–IV–V–I progression in all the bluegrass keys (B, E, A, D, G, C, F, and Bb). It’s a great quick way to learn some bluegrass vocabulary and get used to the circle of fifths in a lot of keys.
Bluesy Pentatonic Lick in All Bluegrass Keys This lesson continues on from the previous lesson, which featured a bluegrass lick played in all the bluegrass keys (B, E, A, D, G, C, F, and Bb). In this lesson Chad expands on the lick using the pentatonic scale, and shows you the lick over a I–IV–V–I progression in all those keys. This will help you build your bluegrass vocabulary in all the keys you’re likely to play in and make it easier for you to improvise on bluegrass songs.
Kickoffs in All Bluegrass Keys In this lesson, Chad shows you kickoffs in all the bluegrass keys (B, E, A, D, G, C, F, and Bb). He gives you an exercise that includes kickoffs to the root of the key, to the third, and to the fifth, as well as an ending lick. In some keys you’ll learn the exercise in two octaves.