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 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
Notation and mandolin tablature for every lesson
High-quality video with multiple camera angles
New lessons added every month
Get started now!Use promo code ChadLand at checkout and get your first month free or $20 off an annual subscription. Subscribe to Theory for Mandolin and Fiddle today and get access to all of these lessons.
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 In this lesson, Chad shows you the circle of fifths and how to use it to determine how many sharps or flats a given key has. Then he walks you through two-octave scales in the “bluegrass keys” of G, A, Bb, B, C, D, E, and F, and talks about trying to see the entire scale on the fingerboard. He also shows you how the open-string pattern is always followed by the third-finger pattern, the first-finger pattern is always followed by the fourth-finger pattern or the open-string pattern, the second-finger pattern is followed by the first-finger pattern, the third-finger pattern is followed by the second-finger pattern, and the fourth-finger pattern is followed by the third-finger pattern.
BASIC CHORDS AND ARPEGGIOS
Major Chord Arpeggios Learn how major chord arpeggios are constructed and how to find them on the mandolin/fiddle fingerboard. Chad explains that major chords are constructed of roots, thirds, and fifths: the first, third, and fifth notes in a major scale. Then he shows you different finger patterns for major arpeggios in bluegrass keys, giving you handy ways to visualize each pattern and advice about practicing them in different ways.
Minor and Seventh Chord Arpeggios, Part 1 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 for these chords in open position, their symmetrical finger patterns, and how to visualize them on the fingerboard.
Minor and Seventh Chord Arpeggios, Part 2: Barre Chords In this lesson you’ll learn to find all the chord arpeggios you learned in Part 1 as barre chords. Chad shows you how to finger a barre chord, which makes visualizing chords on the mandolin or fiddle easy, because the lowest two strings are the root and fifth, while the major or minor third is played on the A string and the minor or flatted seventh, or root, is played on the E string.
The I, IV, and V Chords In this lesson, Chad talks about the importance of knowing the I, IV, and V chords in every bluegrass key. He starts by showing you the harmonized major scale and that the chords built on the root, fourth, and fifths steps of the major scale are all naturally major chords. Then he shows you how to find the IV and V chords in whatever key you’re in and use them to play what Chad calls “Bluegrass Chord Progression #1” in all the bluegrass keys.
The Major Pentatonic Scale The major pentatonic scale is a great scale to know for improvising on bluegrass, country, and folk tunes. In this lesson 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. Chad starts by showing you the major pentatonic in open position in the key of D and then shows you how to play the major pentatonic scale using the “capo position.” Then you’ll learn all the finger patterns for the pentatonic major scale.
Soloing with the Major Pentatonic Scale Learn how to use the major pentatonic scale to create solos and improvise on a common bluegrass chord progression, what Chad calls “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 then how to modify the basic G-run into other phrases that use the major pentatonic scale.
“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.
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. In this lesson Chad shows you a two-measure boogie-woogie-scale lick starting on each note of the scale and how to play the lick on all the chords of “bluegrass chord progression #1” in the key of D. This is a great way to become aware of the different places you can start your ideas from using this scale. After showing you licks starting on all five scale tones and playing through them on “bluegrass chord progression #1” with guitarist Scott Nygaard, so you can play along, Chad gives you advice on making up your own licks starting on different scale tones and using this idea in other keys. He finishes by playing each of the licks in the keys of E and G.
Minor Pentatonic and Blues Scales Learn how to use the minor pentatonic and blues scales to play over bluesy progressions. Chad starts by showing you the minor pentatonic scale, in this case A minor, and then shows you how he improvises over an A blues by using the A minor pentatonic scale. Then he adds the flatted fifth “(flat five”) to the minor pentatonic scale to create the blues scale and shows you how he uses that scale to play on an A blues. He also shows you how the minor pentatonic scale is related to the major pentatonic (they have the same notes), and 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 to major third embellishment is a staple of blues, bluegrass, and jazz licks. In this lesson Chad shows you 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.
SEVENTH CHORDS AND MORE
Dominant Seventh Chords In this lesson, you’ll learn about dominant seventh chords and arpeggios. The dominant seventh chord (often just called a seventh) consists of a major triad and flatted seventh and is often used as the V chord in a progression. Chad walks you through dominant seventh chord construction, explaining how it wants to resolve: from I7 to IV or V7 to I, for example. He also gives you some exercises using dominant seventh arpeggios moving around the circle of fifths, from E to Bb, and showing you how to create dominant seven double stops by lowering the root to the flatted seventh.
Dominant Ninth Chords Ninth chords are used like dominant seventh chords, so whenever you see a dominant seventh chord in a chord progression, or whenever someone is playing a dominant seventh chord, you can add the ninth to it, for a pretty, jazzy sound.The ninth is a third above the seventh and is also the second step of the underlying scale. Chad shows you a basic ninth chord arpeggio and then gives you some exercises using ninth arpeggios on the chord progression from “Sweet Georgia Brown” in the keys of F and G.
MAJOR SCALE PATTERNS
Major Scale Patterns Learn to play major chord arpeggios, as well as some scale patterns that connect the notes of the major chord, over bluegrass chord progression #1 in the key of G. Chad starts by reminding you of the major chord arpeggios and then shows how to play them in quarter notes over bluegrass chord progression #1. You’ll also learn a couple of simple quarter-note scale patterns that connect the chord tones as well as a more complicated eighth-note pattern.
“Bluegrass Chord Progression #1” Play-Along Track: Key of G Use this video to practice your major scale patterns (or improvising) on bluegrass chord progression #1.
Modes, Part 1 In this lesson on modes, you’ll learn how each mode relates to its parent major scale and you’ll learn 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.
Modes, Part 2 In this video, Chad 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 In this lesson, 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 probably 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.
PLAYING IN F
Playing in F, Part 1 In this lesson, Chad gets away from all the heady theory and shows you how to take all that scale theory you’ve been learning and play in a key that maybe not be too familiar for fiddle and mandolin players: F. He shows you the first finger “capo position” in F, and then shows you the major pentatonic scale in that position and how to improvise on bluegrass chord progression #1 as well as a standard swing progression (“rhythm changes”) in F. Then he reviews how to add the flatted third and flatted seventh to the major pentatonic scale and shows you how to improvise with that tonality to play “rhythm changes” in F.
Playing in F, Part 2: D Minor Blues Scale If you take the scale you get by adding the flatted third to the major pentatonic scale and start on the sixth of that scale you get a minor blues scale. In F that would be the D minor blues scale. Chad shows you the scale and gives you ideas on improvising by thinking of the scale as a minor blues scale. He demonstrates this on “rhythm changes” and a standard 12-bar blues progression in F.
Playing in F, Part 3: F Minor Blues Scale To get a darker blues sound in F, Chad shows you how to use an F minor blues scale up the neck, which you’ll find by moving that D minor blues scale up three frets (or half steps).
“Bluegrass Chord Progression #1” Play-Along Track: Key of F Use this video to practice improvising on bluegrass chord progression #1” in the key of F at slow and medium tempos with guitar accompaniment.
“Rhythm Changes” Play-Along Track: Key of F Use this video to practice improvising on “rhythm changes” in the key of F with guitar accompaniment.
“Blues in F” Play-Along Track Use this video to practice improvising on a swingy 12-bar blues in the key of F with guitar accompaniment.
THE HARMONIC MINOR SCALE AND GYPSY JAZZ
The Harmonic Minor Scale and Gypsy Jazz In this lesson, Chad talks about using the harmonic minor scale to improvise on a Gypsy jazz tune like “Minor Swing.” He reviews the harmonic minor scale (in the key of A minor) and then 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, for example the B note on each of the chords, and introduces you to a diminished chord arpeggio, which you can use over the E7 chord.
“Minor Swing” Play-Along Track Use this video to practice improvising on “Minor Swing” with guitar accompaniment.
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, which is 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”
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–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. He finishes by showing you how he would improvise on the progressions using only the notes in the arpeggios.
Circle of Fifths Practice Track Use this video to practice improvising on the first half of “Sweet Georgia Brown” (D7–G7–C7–F) with guitar accompaniment.