Branching Out: 4 Fretted Instruments You May Want to Try

fretted instruments

If you’ve been listening to popular music lately you’ve probably been hearing some instruments other than bass, guitar, drums and keyboards in the mix.  From the Avett Brothers to the Dixie Chicks, many popular artists are bringing more ‘traditional’ fretted instruments, such as the banjo and mandolin, into the mainstream. If you’ve been playing guitar for a while and want to broaden your musical palette with some other sonic colors, there’s a plethora of fretted instruments out there that may lend themselves to your already burgeoning guitar technique.  To say the skill set is 100% transferable would be an overstatement, but there are enough similarities that will keep these from being completely alien to you. Making Music takes a look at four fretted instruments that may further enhance your recordings or songwriting and will certainly allow you to return to your guitar with much greater appreciation.



The ukulele is a fretted instrument and a member of the guitar family. It is most commonly associated with music from Hawaii. Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s 2003 medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” is probably the most popular contemporary use of the instrument. It generally employs four nylon, or gut, strings and the most common tuning is C6-tuning, also know as re-entrant tuning, where the strings are not ordered from the lowest pitch to the highest pitch. Playing the uke relies on a variety of right hand strum patterns, played without the use of a pick. Because of the tuning, chords and scales will be fretted differently, but hopefully this will provide you with some new and interesting ideas when you return to the guitar.

Check out Ohana Ukuleles:



The mandolin is one of a few fretted instruments in the lute family. It descends from the mandore, a soprano member of the lute family. The mandolin features paired adjacent strings tuned in unison and/or an octave apart. They are usually picked or plucked together as if a single string. The most common tuning by far, GDAE, is the same tuning as a violin. The mandolin’s modern popularity in country music can be directly traced to one man: Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. But Rod Stewart’s 1971 No. 1 hit “Maggie May” features a significant mandolin riff in its motif and is probably attributed with introducing the instrument to mainstream radio. Flatpicking (using a pick and developed when guitarists began arranging old-time American fiddle tunes on the guitar) is probably the most common right hand technique for playing the mandolin. It’s this skill that should enable you to get around the instrument without much resistance. But again, because of the tuning, chords and scales will be fingered differently.

Check out Breedlove’s Mandolin Series:



The banjo is a four-, five- or six-stringed fretted instrument with a piece of animal skin or plastic stretched over a circular frame. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music, before becoming popular in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Nowadays, the banjo is usually associated with country, folk, Irish traditional and bluegrass music. Two techniques you’ll likely encounter with the banjo are rolls and drones. Rolls are right hand accompaniment fingering patterns consisting of eight eighth notes subdividing each measure. Drone notes are quick little notes, typically eighth notes, which are always played on the 5th (short) string and are used to fill in around the melody notes. Clawhammer picking is another technique you’ll likely encounter. It is primarily a down-picking style in which the hand assumes a claw-like shape and the strumming finger is kept fairly stiff, striking the strings by the motion of the hand at the wrist and/or elbow, rather than a flicking motion by the finger. The banjo ‘duel’ from the Burt Reynolds movie Deliverance is probably the most oft-quoted banjo lick in popular culture. Also, the song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles features some blistering banjo playing.

Check out the Deering Banjo Company:


Cigar Box Guitar

If you play slide on your six-string, the cigar box guitar is probably the instrument most closely related to your skill set. Cigar box guitars employ an empty cigar box as their resonator, making them the most primitive (and we use that term endearingly) instrument of this bunch. Historically, the origins most cigar box guitar performers are found in poverty. They were made and played by Depression-era jug band members who specialized in making instruments out of anything. More recently, however, the cigar box guitar did receive some major exposure when Paul McCartney played one with Nirvana on the song “Cut Me Some Slack” during their performance for the 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy Relief Concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The earliest versions had one or two strings, whereas more modern incarnations typically use three. It’s played primarily with a slide, employs right-hand finger picking technique and uses open tunings such as G or open D for a great Delta Blues vibe.

Check out Daddy Mojo:

Instead of being dedicated to one instrument, young musicians, or professionals, is a lifestyle resource for all music makers, regardless of age, instrument, or ability. We focus on providing educational articles teaching people how to play an instrument, but we also favor travel pieces, music related health articles, interesting news stories, and plenty more.

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