The mandolin is just one of many instruments with a strong association with traditional, roots, and folk music. One of the things that makes it unique, though, is its double-course strings, which give the instrument a unique tonal quality.
In this guide, we’ll be looking at a bunch of easy mandolin songs for beginners. Bust out your mandolin because it’s practice time!
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“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1991
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is one of those three-chord wonders you pull out when you’ve got nothing else to jam on. The likes of Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn, Jerry Garcia, Guns N’ Roses, Avril Lavigne, and many others have busted it out on various occasions.
For the beginner mandolinist, it represents an excellent opportunity to practice basic chords and strumming patterns. Of course, if you’re feeling up to it, you could try playing the melody as well.
The song features a moderate tempo, and most of the chords are two-finger chords. The only one that might prove a bit of a challenge for the beginner is the Am chord.
“You Are My Sunshine” by Jimmie Davis & Charles Mitchell
Song year: 1940
I probably don’t even need to tell you that “You Are My Sunshine” has a long history and has been recorded by many artists – 350 to be exact! It’s a great tune to learn for mandolin, banjo, and guitar alike.
Not surprisingly, it’s essentially a three- to four-chord wonder, and it plays very nicely as a traditional, folk, country, or bluegrass song. That leaves plenty of space for the mandolin to shine.
In the video found above, you get to learn how to play the melody, which is very straightforward. I would also work on the strumming, though, for some extra mileage. The more you practice, the better you’ll get!
“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.
Song year: 1991
Considering the subject matter, I’ve always thought that R.E.M.’s early 90s hit “Losing My Religion” could have been a far angrier, far heavier song. I suppose that wouldn’t have been in keeping with R.E.M.’s musical style, mind you, and the song became huge anyway, so what do I know?
“Losing My Religion” as we know it simply would not be the same without the mandolin, which plays a key role in shaping the sound of the song.
You can cover large sections of the song with simple chording and strumming, but there is some picking as well. Learning to transition smoothly between the two can take beginners a while. So, don’t get frustrated with it if you can’t play it at first. It will very likely take some practice.
If you’re looking for a song where the mandolin is prominently featured, look no further than “Losing My Religion.”
“Maggie May” by Rod Stewart
Song year: 1971
Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” is considered a “perfect” pop song. It’s in the same league as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Hall & Oates.
The thing that resonated was its strong melody, simple but memorable instrumentation, and happy, upbeat vibes, which contrasted with the subject matter. The narrator says he wishes he’d never seen Maggie’s face, so that kind of tells you everything.
Large sections of the song can be covered with simple chording and strumming, which is always good news to a beginner. There are some especially cool mandolin sections towards the end of the song, though, and these make “Maggie May” especially worthwhile.
Of course, as a beginner, you should focus on the strumming sections before you worry about mastering more sophisticated parts.
“Ho Hey” by The Lumineers
Song year: 2012
Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about the faux folk of The Lumineers. The song truly is about as simple as it sounds. Guitar strums punctuated by “ho” and “hey.”
The good news is that the tune picks up with a bit of mandolin strumming in the first chorus. Again, nothing out of the ordinary, but that is good news for the beginner mandolinist.
Then, the mandolin remains very complementary to the guitar throughout the rest of the song – a good example to follow for all mandolin players.
“Cripple Creek” by Traditional
Song year: Mid-19th century
“Cripple Creek” is a traditional folk song, excellent for acoustic instruments, be it mandolin, banjo, fiddle, or otherwise. You may think you don’t know it, but if you hear the melody there is a very good chance you will recognize it.
The video tutorial shows you how to play the melody, which is very straightforward – perfect for beginners. It also represents a great opportunity to practice your alternate picking, which is an essential technique.
In the video, you can also learn how to play the melody with double-stop harmonies, which can be a little harder, but it sounds great and it makes for great practice.
“Jingle Bells” by James Lord Pierpont
Song year: 1857
It’s no mystery that most Christmas songs feature simple melodies that are easy to play on most instruments, including the mandolin.
Of course, the great thing about any simple song is that you can adapt it any way you want. You can add your spin to it. You can throw some fills in. You can even go off on tangents and solos.
The “Jingle Bells” lesson you’ll find above is admittedly a little more advanced than your average takes on the song. That said, if you’re willing to stick with it, you will learn some excellent techniques.
“Stonehenge” by Spinal Tap
Song year: 1984
A mockumentary on British heavy metal excess, This Is Spinal Tap mostly made people laugh, while it made some cry.
The weird thing about Spinal Tap, though, is they kind of clicked as a band. A few skilled actors (especially Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer) proved that if you had at least some basic facility on your instrument, you too could enter the 80s glam metal arena and sound quite convincing.
Anyway, there’s this progressive rock number they did, known only as “Stonehenge,” a tune that even the band hesitated to retrieve from their archives. The song features the fictional character Nigel Tufnel’s mandolin solo, which sounds kind of like an Irish jig.
Some people say the reason they even picked up the mandolin was that they wanted to learn this solo, and I’ll admit – I was even working on it myself at one point!
It might prove a little harder than your average beginner mandolin tune, but it’s well worth tackling as you continue to improve on your instrument.
“Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry
Song year: 1997
Most four-chord songs make for great beginner tunes, and that includes this popular mid-90s alt-rock number.
As with anything, learning to switch between the chords is probably the toughest part for a beginner. The good news is you can mostly play “Save Tonight” with two-finger chords.
This is also a great tune to master if you want to learn to self-accompany. This is a relatively easy song to play and sing, so learning to do both is only to your advantage.
“3AM” by Matchbox Twenty
Song year: 1996
The great thing about many mid to late-90s pop songs was that while they had underlying complexities, at the core, they were very simple. That includes Matchbox Twenty’s “3AM,” which is another four-chord wonder.
Of course, that means it’s a great tune for beginners to learn. The chords – G, C, D, and Em – only require one or two fingers. The strumming could prove a bit of a challenge, but the video tutorial above covers that too.
As with “Save Tonight,” this is a great tune to learn if you’re interested in self-accompanying or even getting others around you to sing along to your strumming.
“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
Song year: 1988
Quite possibly one of the greatest songs of all time. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is catchy, romantic, and sentimental.
When you break it down, it’s a very simple four-chord tune. You can play it using the same four chords you learned in “3AM.”
The video tutorial will also show you how to play the riff that made this song so famous. You shouldn’t have any trouble with this either!
“All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1968
Bob Dylan has a knack for writing songs that get covered by other artists, and that includes “All Along The Watchtower,” which has practically become synonymous with Jimi Hendrix, thanks to his epic rendition.
But the song has also been jammed out by the likes of Eric Clapton, Lenny Kravitz, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder, U2, and Dave Matthews Band too. You will not find a version better than Jimi’s but if I’m being honest, Clapton and Kravitz’ “duet” is quite superb too.
The song is just three chords over and over. That makes it a great beginner-oriented tune, and one you can jam endlessly and put your spin on.
“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song year: 1969
If you’re looking for good beginner-oriented songs to try on your mandolin, just about anything by Creedence Clearwater Revival will do the trick, including “Fortunate Son,” which you can play with just four chords.
The strumming patterns you learn from songs like these offer a great foundation for branching out in other directions, so be sure to get this under your fingers.
“Lean On Me” by Bill Withers
Song year: 1972
Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” may well be the ultimate barroom singalong. Its catchiness? Undeniable. Its popularity? Beyond reproach. Its chord progression? Remarkably simple (not surprisingly).
As a beginner, you may be surprised to find there are many songs you can play with just three chords. And “Lean On Me” happens to be one of them. Spend some time on this one. It’s worth it.
“Friday I’m In Love” by The Cure
Song year: 1992
The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” is an excellent example of how to write a great pop song. The chord progression provides the backbone to the song, the melody is strong, and the additional instrumental layers decorate the tune with hooky color and texture.
If you want to be able to play the whole song, you will need to learn five chords, which is more than your average pop song. Most are quite easy though.
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
Song year: 1983
I’ve often said it, but I still hold to the notion that Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” is one of the happiest-sounding songs in existence (although other female pop stars of the time like Madonna, Paula Abdul, and Tiffany came mighty close).
Now, with most songs, you may be able to get away with holding chords for one or even two bars. This song, however, has some rapid chord changes. You may not want to begin your mandolin journey on this song, but once you’ve picked up a few simpler tunes, it’s a great one to tackle.
At some point, you will want to practice more rapid chord changes anyway!
“Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls
Song year: 1998
Many 90s alt-rock / pop songs truly do make for the best tutorials, and that includes the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” You will remember this one for its dramatic chord progression and lyrics.
At its core, you will find a relatively simple song. There are more chords in it than in your average pop song, so it would be a good idea to try “Iris” after you’ve mastered a few simpler tunes. Nevertheless, its many progressions and rhythms make for great study material.
“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison
Song year: 1988
Plenty of glam metal bands showed their softer side. I mean, how else were they supposed to attract the female contingent to their shows?
Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” is as cheesy as it is notorious. But at least it’s not emo.
It’s okay to like the song, though, even if it’s just because of Bill & Ted’s influence. And it just so happens that you can play the entire song with just four chords too.
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty
Song year: 1989
If there’s something Tom Petty (and his cohorts like Roy Orbison or George Harrison) were good at, it was writing simple songs. “Free Fallin’” is based around three chords, but it may well be one of the best examples of how to add interest and excitement to a song that repeats the same chords throughout.
The video tutorial is a good starting point, but I would suggest listening to the song for the rhythm because YouTuber MunsonCovers doesn’t quite nail it here.
Give this one a try and you should be freefalling in no time.
Easy Mandolin Songs For Beginners, Final Thoughts
Well, you should have your work cut out for you now. Don’t forget that learning songs can take time. If you find any parts challenging, slow things down, and work on problem areas intentionally and mindfully. You will not get better on autopilot.
Repetition is key to improving as a musician. At times, you will need to repeat certain melodies, chords, and passages repeatedly to get to the point where you feel comfortable with them. Stick with the process, and I promise you will get better.