Skill Levels

Every year we’re asked, “what skill level am I?” Most folks have a fairly good idea of their level, if they’re being honest. And many who are early into their musical journey rate themselves lower than they actually are. That said, a few rough guidelines to follow.  We will also post a more detailed “fiddle” skill level guidelines.


This level starts when you’ve figured out that that thing your uncle had stored in the attic is not a ukulele, but a taterbug mandolin.

Players should be able to:

  • Tune by ear or with tuner
  • Know the names of the strings
  • Have a basic idea of the right hand pick grip
  • Know how to play and move somewhat easily between 4-6 chords in first position.
  • Be able to strum along to slow jams in the keys of G, C, D and A.
  • Be able to play alternating strokes (tremolo) and downstrokes at slower tempos with reasonable competence
  • No knowledge of how to read tab/notation is necessary at this point, but would be helpful.


A lot of us fit into this category.

Players should be able to:

  • Tune. This pursuit never ends. It’s a mandolin, remember? As Tim O’Brien says, that’s Italian for “out of tune”.
  • Have a much higher proficiency with the pick
  • Be able to play with some fluency in the keys of B, Bb, E and F as well as the rest
  • Have developed an ability to play basic improvisations on familiar tunes/songs and transpose up/down the fingerboard
  • Be able to use tremolo and downstrokes at medium tempos with relative ease
  • Have a working repertoire of at least a couple dozen tunes/songs
  • Have a good knowledge of how to play full bluegrass “chop” chords in 1st and 3rd positions
  • Be able to play simple melodies by ear


If you’re at this level you’re probably teaching at camp, or out playing gigs. What does your schedule look like for 2020?

Players should be able to:

  • Play at most tempos comfortably
  • Be able to improvise in major and minor keys with relative ease
  • Play a large repertoire of tunes/songs
  • Be striving for higher technical proficiency and tonal excellence
  • Tune. Nah. It’ll never happen. Don’t kid yourself.
  • Jam comfortably with other competent musicians on a wide variety of material
  • Should have firm ideas about how the style you’ve chosen fits together and have developed creative ideas of your own

Okay, These guidelines are pretty commonly recognized, so I hope this helps you sort it out. Next time someone asks you what skill level you are, you say, “Genius, Thanks”.