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Sierra Hull at breakfast
We were fortunate enough to see the following performance live at a 2014 Summer NAMM breakfast, although from about 200 feet back. It's great to
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Aaron Weinstein; LIZA
Do we ever get tired of viewing a fresh new chord melody arrangement from east coast string wizard Aaron Weinstein? Nope. Complete with walking
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Michael Lampert on iTunes
The first CD recorded by Los Angeles area jazz mandolinist Michael Lampert, Jacaranda, remains an exercise in silky smooth tone. This and his subsequent project,
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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

October 23, 2014 | Freeing us from the tyranny of the bar line

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An intriguing TED video from Queensland musician John Varney illustrates a unique way of visualizing rhythm outside the context of traditional notation. We all know how print music often fails to communicate the nuance of swing and blues. He uses an object we are all familiar with--the wheel.


His graphic crosses all kinds of genre lines in the presentation. This is another great way for you to conceptualize and communicate the often undefinable that exists in the aural.

Video Link: A different way to visualize rhythm - John Varney

Don't mean a thing. If it ain't...
On the "Up and Up": Jazz Articulations
It's a drag...
Circle of 5ths. Like a clock, especially when it is a clock.


Posted by Ted at 8:43 AM

October 16, 2014 | Zak Borden: Build Your Own Chords! Part 1


Last week, we took a step back to review the building blocks of the triad on the mandolin fretboard through the artistry of Don Julin. We're going to review similar material from Brazillionares mandolinist Zak Borden. He has a similar knack for explaining some of the music theory complexities in terminology we can all understand. The following is the first of a three part series. You'll want to dig deeper, for sure!

Video Link: Zak Borden: Build Your Own Chords! Part 1

YouTube channel: Zak Borden

Posted by Ted at 6:57 PM

October 9, 2014 | 3 string major triads with Don Julin

Music theory is most easily understood stripped down to its simplest elements. Recording artist and best-selling author Don Julin gives concise demonstration of the triad chord spelled up and down the fretboard spelled in its purest form, the 3-note chord.

Though we like to confine the 3-note spellings to the three thickest strings, Don covers it beautifully back and forth, moving across the strings, and gives a credible reason to do so, thinking the voicings from the top (3rd on top, 5th on top, root on top).

It's easy and brilliant at the same time.


Video Link: 3 string major chords

If you don't already have Don's books in your library, we strongly recommend you do!

Purchase information: Mandolin for Dummies

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An Interview with Don Julin
Creating energy with Diatonic triads.
Fitting in with triads
More Three-note chords to supercharge your comping

Posted by Ted at 4:11 PM

October 2, 2014 | Improvisation is conversation


We always enjoy articles on the science of music and how it affects the physical realm. A February 2012 Atlantic article "How Brains See Music as Language" addresses the nature of the impact of jazz, particularly improvisation, and the similar response of language--conversation with words.

From the the report, "What researchers found: The brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax. In other words, improvisational jazz conversations 'take root in the brain as a language,' Limb said.

'It makes perfect sense,' said Ken Schaphorst, chair of the Jazz Studies Department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. 'I improvise with words all the tim--like I am right now--and jazz improvisation is really identical in terms of the way it feels. Though it's difficult to get to the point where you're comfortable enough with music as a language where you can speak freely.'"

The best aesthetic experience is when players lock in to each other in dialogue.

Read article: How Brains See Music as Language

Charles Limb: Building the musical muscle/
The Jazz Brain; Improv
Fingers, Ears, Brain
Artist phrasing

Posted by Ted at 3:18 PM

September 25, 2014 | Vamps summary. How to amaze and impress your friends.

One of the series we are most proud of was our 2012 comprehensive approach to Vamps in which we mapped out some common 3-note comping patterns you can apply to a myriad of tunes. These were even placed into permanent history as a Lesson Archive at the Mandolin Cafe

If you do nothing else on the site, at least make sure to dig into them. Amaze and impress your fellow musicians:

Vamps Pt 1. Creating energy with Diatonic triads
Vamps Pt 2. Expanding the Diatonic triads
Vamps Pt 3. Scurry Dominants
Vamps Pt 4. Circle of fifths
Vamps Pt. 5 Minor Modal


Along the same lines was our series on 7th Chord Streams, Major and Minor. If you haven't already, be sure to print out the two page PDFs of the chords there. They are especially good for the 5-string mandolinist or tenor guitar/mandolaist.

Posted by Ted at 4:16 PM

September 18, 2014 | Passing Chords. Fill in the gaps.

You're probably familiar with passing notes or passing "tones." These are the notes that connect the important chord relevant tones in a melody. They aren't part of the chord, but they give a linear dimension, creating melody. You can do the same thing with chords, though.

We've written about this before, how you can take static measures of chords, say an AbMaj7 for two measures, and color them with passing chords. Instead of two measures, eight beats of Ab, you follow two beats of AbMaj7 with two of Bbm7, two Cm7, and two DbMaj7. It supports the tonal center of Ab, but injects progression, motion if you will.

You can move this pattern up the fretboard based on roots and create a whole new approach to your comping. Learn several more simple inversions and you can be a master of motion in your comping.

We covered this in a October 2006 Mandolin Sessions article. If you'd like to add a few more of these to your arsenal, check the article out: Chords in Passing; Exploring Diatonic Chord Progressions


Fitting in with triads
Creating energy with Diatonic triads.
Static Changes: V7 chords
More Three-note chords to supercharge your comping

Posted by Ted at 3:33 PM

September 11, 2014 | Best of JM: Fretboard Geometry

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From October 14, 2010 | Fretboard Geometry

Intellect. Touch. Space. Sound. Everyone attacks the way they master their instrument differently, utilizing these individual components of playing. Initially, most of us just feel the position of the finger or fingers on the strings, and hopefully, we're rewarded by a pleasant sound. As we progress, we start to notice relationships. These can be as complex as music theory, the mathematical relationships between notes and their function through time, or it can be as simple as the just the way the notes or chords feel after repetition in the fingers. Even the spatial relationships can register as a part of motor function and how the music feels in the hands.

We talk a lot about the theory behind the mandolin here on the site. The dirty little secret of our 8-string wonder is you can move similar patterns with ease because of the magnificent symmetry of the 5ths tuning. It's as much a function of geometry as anything, and we want to take a look at some simple visual patterns and how they can be repeated up and down the fretboard, and across strings. You might absorb this tactilely eventually too, but we've blocked out some graphics to assist demonstrating the concept.

The instrument is traditionally tuned in 5ths. This means open string pairs will give you the drone Perfect Fifth, but it also gives you the same pairs relationship as you close up the strings and move it up the fretboard. That Power Chord A5, A and E is simply two strings next to each other. Move it up five frets and you have a Power D5. Shift it across a string and you have an E5.

So what? This is in essence your 'I, IV, V' chord, repeatable in numerous keys and transpositions. Whole musical careers have been launched on little more than these chords, and you can do it with just one finger on the mandolin. The Power 5 chord is not just a Rock and Roll sound, it offers some delicious ambiguity in contemporary music, the with the lack of definitive "major-ness" or "minor-ness." It was also a big hit with the Gregorian Monks back in Medieval times.


You can get a similar sound from its inversion, putting the 5th of the chord in the bottom, and the root at the top. This is also as important melodically as it is harmonically. Think of several tunes that start on the 5th of the scale, "Here Comes the Bride," "How High the Moon," "Ornithology," as examples. If you have identified the root of the scale or chord, the relationship on the fretboard is always the same, down a string, up two frets. That geometric relationship is a good trick to know. Now you have two notes you can immediately jump to when your improvising. It's just a matter of filling out the notes of the scale in between.


When we close in that two fret span to just one, we have an alluring aural treasure, the Tritone or the diminished 5th (#4). This is fretboard geometry you can exploit any time you play a Dominant 7th chord. It's the guts of the V7 chord, and powerful harmonic fodder. When you recognize and physically internalize this relationship, you can have all kinds of fun landing on it while improvising.

A7tris.jpg D7tris.jpg

You can also slide it down some frets and develop a whole sequence of Circle of Fifths patterns. You don't need all four notes of the chord, these two are powerful enough on their own.

These are 5ths and 4ths, easily grasped on the mandolin fretboard, but you can also have some fun with 3rds. The following is a great little pattern you can move up and down in different keys and and harmony to your own melody. Notice graphically, sometimes there is a one fret span and sometimes there are two, depending on where you are in the scale. Getting to know where those are will give you some powerful tools for creating melody and harmony in almost any genre of music.


Many feared studying geometry in school, but ultimately found it useful in life, whether shopping for carpet or learning to parallel park. On the mandolin, geometry is your friend too. Use it as yet another tool for fretboard mastery.

Exploring Diatonic Chord Progressions
Mobility--chord transit
Two-chord jam; feed the beast.

Posted by Ted at 1:30 PM

September 4, 2014 | Best of JM: Turning scales and arpeggios into music

Enjoy the popular archive material below.

From September 29, 2011 | Turning scales and arpeggios into music

Teachers of of beginning musicians will tell you practicing scales and arpeggios are crucial to learning how to play music. Teachers of advanced musicians will tell you practicing scales and arpeggios teach you how to sound like you're playing scales and arpeggios...

We're big on conquering these fundamental ingredients, scales, modes, and breaking chords into linear melody, but there's no question you can't stop there. This skill is merely a jumping off point, an ability that makes you more efficient in the aesthetic process of improvising and creating your own music. So how do you NOT sound like your playing scales in your solo? Here are a few tricks up your sleeve, and we suggest you implement this into your own practice routine. Don't just play a scale. Once you get it into your fingers, try altering it in some of these ways.


Reverse course. Bottom note G, High note G, and all the notes of the G Major scale in between. You ascend, then you descend. Sounds great, but how many times does this incarnation of the scale happen in real music? If you really want to master a major scale, try starting on the top note, descend, and then ascend again. Guarantee this is a new skill and somewhat uncomfortable if you haven't tried it before. Still, this is what happens in "real life," so practice this way once in a while.


Start in the middle. Next step to this altering direction is to alter the starting point. Try starting from the 3rd scale degree and play up, down and back. Again, this is real life. Start on the 5th scale degree. Rarely does a passage of music starts on the first note of a scale, so once in awhile you should practice this way.

Break it up. In our FFcP studies we practice broken 3rds and 4ths, another good way of playing a scale--without sounding like a scale.


Syncopate the harmonic rhythm. When you start a scale on the tonic, at least the first half of the scale as you playing 1, 3, 5, on the strong beats, which outlines the chord on the strong beats. If you started on 2 instead, and went, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., you'd have the 1, 3, 5 chord on the upbeats. The end result is harmonic rhythm "syncopation." It's a nice effect you should plug into your solos.

Add chromatic leading tones. Determine a staring note of the scale, but precede it with a half step (up or down) leading note. For example, lead into a Bb Major Scale with a single Ab. Ornamenting your scales in this way conditions you to solo with more creativity. Playing the blues in G, you could precede any D with a Db. Instant blues!

These are great spice "condiments" to add to the culinary routine of practice. See how musical you can make a vanila scale routine sound.

Approaching Improvisation
Improvisation: Pattern Based VS. Theory Based
Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes
Suspicion of Melodic Intent
Spelling out the chords melodically

Posted by Ted at 9:01 PM

August 28, 2014 | Pencils for All Musicians


If you come from a classically trained background, or played in the school band or orchestra in your youth, the following pencil admonishing will have meaning for you. It's the teacher/conductor nightmare, trying to get students and performers to physically mark places in their music where there might be some special instructions, or in the case of private lessons, bracketing trouble spots that need intense wood shedding.

If you don't have a pencil, you're doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Even if you learn your music aurally and never use staff or paper, there's immense merit in the notion of tagging the moments of consistent imperfection. Great players don't work on what they do well, they woodshed their mistakes. To perfection!

Driving the point home is this parody. Enjoy!

Video Link: Pencils for All Musicians

Good players practice until they get every note right...
Great players practice until they can't get it wrong.

Deliberate Practice
The Regressive Method (Learning it backwards...)
Drilling for tone
Keeping it honest: metronomes

Posted by Ted at 9:23 AM

August 21, 2014 | Easing into Modal Jazz

In the December 2008 issue of, we took a look at a kind of throw-back in jazz history back in the late 50's. It was elegant in it's simplicity, and a kind of reaction to the explosion of speed and harmonic intensity. It was the birth of the "Cool."

From the article:
Many think of jazz as being extremely complex harmonically and rhythmically. More often than not this is true, at least in comparison to its roots in American folk songs, but at one point during its century long history, the harmonic cadence took a drastic turn for something dramatically slower: during the development of "Modal" Jazz. Note, we aren't referring to tempo or speed, rather to how fast chords change. Classic Modal Jazz is extremely sparse in chords, using a different scale, or, more appropriately, "mode" for a long period of time. A very early example of this would have been from trumpeter Miles Davis' 1959 album "Kind of Blue," the classic standard, "So What," which used only two chords D minor and Eb minor throughout its entire 32 measures. Through the intense repetition and lack of distraction from the rapid-fire chord changes and tonal center ambiguity characteristic of the 50's Bebop era, jazz had taken a brief detour into something more similar to its earliest roots. Another kind of sophistication emerged: the only thing different was the "attitude" of cool.
Read more: In the Mode; Easing into Modal Jazz


Animated Sheet Music; So What
Minor 7th chord streams. So What?
Vamps. Minor modal
Reverse Dorian/Minor Arpeggios
Reviewing Scurry Dominants

Posted by Ted at 9:33 AM

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