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Cosmic Country: Decoding Mando Motifs

Nashville guitar sensation Daniel Donato shows you how to blend jazz-influenced licks with riffs inspired by the guitar’s twangy cousin.


Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how to create variations on a motif.
• Learn how to alter a phrase to fit a chord.
• String together a series of motifs to create a solo.


Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Let’s talk about motifs—short melodic ideas you can use as building blocks to craft a cohesive solo.

A soloist I’ve always admired is Billie “Tiny” Moore, who played electric mandolin with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. (Rather than the typical dual-course, 8-string mando we associate with bluegrass, Moore played his Gibsons as single-course, 4-string instruments and later wielded a custom 5-string solidbody made by Paul Bigsby.)

Moore also released several solo records and collaborated with another legendary mandolin player, Jethro Burns. Many of Tiny’s solos are prime examples of how to weave slight motivic variations throughout a solo.

We’re going to look at something Tiny might have played over a rather standard Western swing progression: A7–D7–G7–C. The tempos of these songs were quite brisk, but Tiny had flawless technique and his execution is swinging.

In the following examples, we’ll first break down a phrase over each chord and then put them all together.

On this episode of Austin City Limits, Tiny Moore joins two other legendary mandolinists, David Grisman and Jethro Burns, to play “Tiny’s Rag.” On this occasion, Moore picks an acoustic 8-string mandolin, and his solo at 2:00 is a prime example of his harmonic awareness and inventive vocabulary.

On this episode of Austin City Limits, Tiny Moore joins two other legendary mandolinists, David Grisman and Jethro Burns, to play “Tiny’s Rag.” On this occasion, Moore picks an acoustic 8-string mandolin, and his solo at 2:00 is a prime example of his harmonic awareness and inventive vocabulary.

Ex. 1 is over an A7 chord, and we outline the sound with a 1–2–3–5 (A–B–C#–E) motif. (You can hear saxophonist John Coltrane play this all over his “Giant Steps” solo.) After repeating this three times, we keep the notes the same while moving to a triplet rhythm. Altering the rhythm slightly is an easy way to create more variations.

Click here for Ex. 1

In Ex. 2, we alter the motif slightly to fit D7. Simply moving the C# to C natural does the trick and yields 5–6–b7–9 (A–B–C–E), relative to D7.

This type of motivic variation is similar to how voice-leading works with chords. The idea is to move the notes around as little as possible to make everything fit.

Click here for Ex. 2

Our next variation on the initial motif (Ex. 3) is all about chromaticism. The chord is now G7 and we’ll start on the B, the 3 of G7. We’re simply walking up the 2nd string until we hit the 5 (D). At the end of the second measure we add triplets again to set up the transition back to C.

Click here for Ex. 3

Although Ex. 4 is identical to the line played in Ex. 2, simply moving the underlying chord changes things a bit. Here, in the context of a C chord, the motif follows a 6–7–1–3 pattern, rather than the 5–6–b7–9 shape.

Click here for Ex. 4

This tune’s tempo can make things tricky. When I first approached the triplets in Ex. 5, they proved to be challenging for me. I phrase the A–B–C# on the 2nd string and then plucked the E on the 1st string with my right hand’s middle finger. Hybrid picking!

Click here for Ex. 5

I use the same hybrid-picking technique in Ex. 6. To make the phrase flow, focus on playing smoothly. It can’t sound choppy. The majority of the example is based on a six-note pattern (5–6–b7–9–b7–6) that can be looped endlessly. Bonus: Try playing each one of these “formulas” over every dominant chord possible. It will immensely help both your ear and fretboard knowledge.

Click here for Ex. 6

I found Ex. 7 to be the hardest section to get up to speed. Conceptually, it’s simple: We’re just moving chromatically from the 3 (B) up to the 5 (D) and back again. This is another motif that’s pretty easy to move to different keys.

Click here for Ex. 7

We move away from our motivic variations with Ex. 8, which offers a quintessential Western swing lick. It works out of the major scale, has a bit of chromaticism, and offers a shockingly smooth transition into the A7.

Click here for Ex. 8

Finally, we put all these elements together in Ex. 9. Even on a mandolin, Tiny Moore was able to navigate chord changes with the finesse and sophistication of a bebopper. Learning about motifs is all about turning the big picture into smaller, more usable elements that you can apply in other situations.

Click here for Ex. 9

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