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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."

March 26, 2015 | Best of JM: Fresh improv; spicing up your V7 chords

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From August 15, 2013 | Fresh improv; spicing up your V7 chords

We're looking for a little "flavor" when we improvise. Great improvisation doesn't just come out of nowhere, it's derived from simple mechanical tools and taken to the next level with inspiration and intuition. You know about using major and minor scales, modes and the elementary fodder that some great music can come out with some simple tricks.

You know that the major scale contains a pattern that all the modes come out of. It's just a matter of starting the major on a different note to express the pattern that we know as Dorian, Mixolydian, Lydian, and the others. You know the minor scales are based on variations of the Aeolian mode, manipulating the 6th and 7th scale degrees to create the Harmonic, Melodic, and Natural minor scales, depending on the vertical (chord) context of the music.

We've mentioned a fun scale that takes the Major scale, raises the 4th and lowers the 7th. We call it the Augmented 11th scale (the 11th is the 4th) with its implied (lowered) dominant 7th scale degree. We've also looked behind the curtain to reveal it's the same pattern of notes that you find in a Melodic minor, and Altered scale, but like the church modes, the sequence starts on different notes.

If you aren't already familiar with the Aug 11th scale, review this article:
Cool sounds with a simple new scale

We claim it's the second most important scale for a jazzer to learn, only surpassed by the Major scale. What we want to do now is introduce a way to inject this into one of the most important progressions in Western European music, the 'V7 I' cadence.

Tonic/Dominant with Aug11th

Using our FFcP approach, here are 4 different ways to finger an Aug11th scale, on four different pitches:


Here's your trick of the day. If you get this into your fingers, ears, and eventually brain, you'll be able to inject this into about any V7 (Dominant 7th) chord for a tasteful departure. What you want to do is start the scale 1/2 step above the tonic.

Sub Aug 11th scale 1/2 step up:


The above pattern is in the key of C, but rather than stick with the boring notes of the G7 chord, a C scale based on the chordal notes of G, B, D, F, and the passing tones of A, C, E, substitute the Aug 7th scale based on Db (1/2 step above tonic C). Theory Nerd alert: You may already be aware of Tritone subs, this variation of the Db scale gives you some important tones, the G and Cb , which is the root G, and enharmonic spelling of B natural in the key of C.

One of the dangers of playing any scale in improvisation is sounding like you're playing scales. We want to immediately suggest a simple variation of the scale to introduce some skips as you practice this.

Steppin' out: vary from scale.


Here's a PDF of an exercise you can use to expand these to the other FFcP possibilities. Download it and give it a try. We give you a 'V7 I' in the arbitrary keys of C, B, A, and D.

Download PDF pdf_sm.gif Tonic/Dominant: Aug11th FFcP

At the end of the exercise, we give you more variations of the Aug 11th FFcP you can use to journey farther than the 1st variation. Try injecting these in your practice as you familiarize your fingers and ears.


How about some accompaniment:

sound.gif 'V7 I' Audio


Cool sounds with a simple new scale
Hungry for music theory
Aug7th FFcP
New FFcP! Augmented 11th Exercises
Fresh Material for the V7 Chord; Django's Castle.

Posted by Ted at 8:33 AM

March 18, 2015 | Melodic "progression."

There are two different perceptions of the "direction" in music, horizontal and vertical. Music can be melody, it can be chords, and usually a combination of both. When one is expressed, the other is often implied; in the case of chord melody playing, a stream of chords, the highest note is perceived aurally as a melody. When you listen to a melody, there is always some degree of harmonic implication. Both are subject to interpretation and context, but a good musician will always take this into account, whether consciously or intuitively.

We've mentioned the concept of "Gravity" notes in previous articles (see links below). Within a major scale, you have note are part of the chord, notes that pass to notes that are in the chord, and a third very important function, the notes that propel harmonically to either the notes in the key of the tonal center or the upcoming tonal center in the song.


This is easiest to understand in the context of a major scale when we listen to the pull of the 7 to 1, the 4 to 3, the 6 to 5, and the 2 to 1. Arguably, the first two (7 to 1, 4 to 3) are the strongest and most compelling. The other two can be somewhat tamped, especially when we add the extended members to 7th chords, G9, Eb13, etc.

Why is this important? If you aren't conscious of it, at least intuitively, your improvising can be very bland. Knowing which notes lead, and which notes land can make your solos exponentially more intentional and focused. Simply put, the audience will think you know what you are doing. The solo is less happenstance, more expressive.

This is a big problem for the folk/bluegrass musician who relies heavily on pentatonic scales. Even though the meat of the chord is in the scale, the tension notes of 4 and 7 are absent. In more progressive jazz chord vocabularies, the sound comes off as blather. We won't go into detail here, but the jazz musicians famous for using pentatonic aren't playing ones based on the roots, rather on some of the upper extensions of the chord (see Jazzed Pentatonics).

Back to the major scale, we've integrated the "pulls" into our FFcP exercises (the last two measures of the patterns), and provided a more concentrated exercise to develop this called "Guides & Gravity." Playing through these in all keys will help your fingers get used to their place on the fretboard, and over time, your ear gets better acclimated to the sound.

Have fun! Print exercise: Guides & Gravity.

Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes.
Three Four Pull: Foregoing the Fourth Finger Frack.
Enhanced Pentatonics: What Goes Up Must Come Down.

Posted by Ted at 4:36 PM

March 12, 2015 | Giving up open fingerings?

We see this question posted on the message boards every now and then regarding FFcP versus scales with open strings. We're compelled to remind everyone that this was never meant to be an "either or" situation. The FFcP approach is always meant to be a tool for playing and not and end to itself. In our book, Getting Into Jazz Mandolin, we even mention, now that you've mastered FFcP, go back to adding open strings again.

We offer the following review...


For the folk/bluegrass musician, the notion of closing up fingerings and forsaking the open strings seems very much counterintuitive. The majority of the repertoire is based on open string keys, songs played within the relative comfort and safety of of G, D, or A. In those keys, you not only have the root of the key in an open string, you have that important 5th (D, A, E) to ring out in the Tonic chord and Dominant. You can strum and ring all you want, sometimes with a forgivable dispensation of missed strings. So why worry about closing things up and torturing the pinky with that 7th fret stretch? Let's look at four reasons:

Horn Keys. The church hymnal strikes fear in the heart of many a novice mandolinist. Keys of F, Bb, Db are not uncommon as the literature is written for voice register. Same thing with Broadway tunes and you have an entire body of jazz written for the sax and trumpet. Understand if an Eb alto sax is trying to play in the key of A with the rest of the band, he/she has to think in F#, which explains why so much "horn" music is in the keys of Eb (C on the a/sax) and Bb. Friendly to the mandolin? Definitely not if you're expecting to use much in the way of open strings, especially on those critical notes of tonic and dominant.

Transposability. So you learn the FFcP, study and master all kinds of patterns that are now movable. So what do you gain? THE WORLD! You can move intuitively across strings and frets, and now you're not thinking note names, you're thinking scale degrees and patterns. Some might argue you aren't "thinking" at all any more--just "doing." In other words, you improvise through an intuition based on sound and feel. You "sing" the music through your fingers. We've enjoyed the feedback of many who have achieved this sate of FFcP Zen. "The notes are just coming to my fingers from nowhere!"

Range extension. This goes along with the transposablity; you now aren't limited to the lower frets of the mandolin but are free to securely wander in the upper altitudes of the fretboard. Once you adapt to the closer spacing of the 9th through 15th frets, you are practically handed a new instrument. This is a cool way to get around.

Tonal variety. Yes, the resonant zing from an open string is natural sonic beauty. There is also an articulation consistency when a succession of notes is completely closed in fingers. Play the open D on your mandolin and follow up with a 7th fret (G string) D; you'll hear a tonal difference. One isn't necessarily better or worse, just more consistent with the other notes you're playing in a sequence. Also, if you're really in control, you can get a subtle vibrato on a long sustained note. This is why orchestral musicians actually prefer closed over open fingerings.

Posted by Ted at 4:18 PM

March 5, 2015 | What you're making isn't so good...


It was posted four years ago, but it's as relevant as ever, an excerpt from writer Ira Glass about the creative process. It should prove encouraging to many who struggle learning a new skill, especially on a musical instrument.


Video Link: Ira Glass on the Creative Process

It's short enough to watch a couple times.

Posted by Ted at 8:03 AM

February 26, 2015 | Minor 7th Chord streams up the neck

We reprised our dominant 7th Chord Streams up and down the fretboard last week.

These are an incredible tool for energizing your blues accompaniment, but don't forget you can do the same thing to minor 7th chords, too. This is a terrific resource for modal jazz in minor keys.

We not only mapped out the inversions, we inserted an appropriate filler chord so you can walk this up the neck.

Download PDF: pdf_sm.gif Minor 7th Chord Streams.


For you theory geeks, these are Root, 1st inv, 2nd inv, and 3rd inv. Recall, in mandolin chording, the bass note is kind of irrelevant because it's being sound out by a lower instrument in the ensemble. Our point was to let you know with 7th chords, there are only 4 inversions. If you were to go up a hypothetic neck of infinity, each of them would repeat again, 12 frets up (one octave).

Ready for all your Modal jazz standards, including:
So What
Maiden Voyage
Cantaloupe Island
Little Sunflower
Black Narcissus
Freedom Jazz Dance
Take Five
My Favorite Things

Posted by Ted at 7:07 PM

February 19, 2015 | 7th Chord Streams up and down the fretboard

We think one of our most overlooked treasures on the site is our two page PDF that TABs out all the inversions of the 7th chord in 3-note shapes. It even goes a step further and inserts a passing or "filler chord" that allows you to give motion to any long section of music that has multiple measure of V7.

Take a 12 bar blues pattern for example. In it's simplest form, you have three V7 chords. That's it!

Entire careers have been built on the ability to make this classic form interesting. It's great if you're soloing, but what if you're the poor sap that has to play chords behind that.

How boring...

D7 D7 D7 D7 D7 D7 D7 D7
G7 G7 G7 G7 G7 G7 G7 G7
D7 D7 D7 D7 D7 D7 D7 D7
G7 G7 G7 G7 G7 G7 G7 G7


Not really, though. With the patterns we've mapped out, everything changes. Not only can you get your sanity back, you can amaze and impress your friends with these chord variation "streams" of V7.

How do you go about learning them? We recommend you be just as versed playing them down the neck (starting in the high frets) as you do going up, but that takes practice. Take them in chunks:

Novice Level:
1. Play two strokes per chord.
2. Play them in pairs. 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8.
3. Play them in two pairs, 1 2 3 4, 3 4 5 6, 5 6 7 8, etc.
Intermediate Level:
1. Play them in sets of pairs, up and down.
2. Start on the higher frets and work backwards
Advanced Level:
1. Start transposing to other keys.
2. Apply to songs.

Download PDF: 7th Chord Streams

Don't stop there! Transpose them up a fret or two, or down one.

Ab blues anyone?

Posted by Ted at 2:16 PM

February 12, 2015 | Best of JM: 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From January 17, 2013 | 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks

In our series of Vamps, we looked at movable blocks of 3-note chord patterns, how they could fill in gaps of long, static areas of progressions. We took the same approach to V7, Minor7, and Major7 in all the possible inversions. If you haven't already, you should spend some time with these and try to get them into the subconscious of your fingers. (See links below.) The meatier lower three strings of your mandolin (especially if you're wielding a 5-string) can give you a strength to your accompaniment duties, and as we mentioned, set you up for some logical steps to chord melody when you add the E string.

We've previously introduced a very common chord progression in our FFcP series, the 'I vi ii7 V7' pattern we want to exploit in a chord state. Recall, they're broken arpeggios in the exercise, and the goal was to get this sound rooted in your ear through repetitive motor conditioning. It's a pattern you hear in Rock (think Doo Wop), ballad (think "Heart and Soul," "I Can't Get Started," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," etc.), and tons of other pop music.

I vi ii7 V7_Block1.jpg

These are great for economy of movement. You may have learned other inversions, but this combination works well because none of the chord members every have to move more than a couple frets. Once they are comfortable, try moving down two frets for the key of F (FMaj Dm Gm C7), and up two frets for the key of A (Amaj F#m Bm E7). Of course you can go in between for F#, and Ab, as well as move the patterns all the way up the neck until you run out of frets (or good, clean tone).

Tackle another inversion:

I vi ii7 V7_Block2.jpg

Again, a simple economy of motion, and an opportunity to move down two frets for BbMaj, up two for Dmaj, the keys in between, and as high up the frets as you want. The third:

I vi ii7 V7_Block3.jpg

You don't have room to move this down more than one fret unless you use the open strings, but you certainly can move the blocks on up. You're probably wondering why we haven't used more m7 for the minor keys, and this decision was arbitrary. Feel free to add and subtract the 7th chord of these (i.e. GMaj7, Am7) at will; the function will still be the same.

This gives us the excuse to introduce a "color" version of the 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks. Don't worry about the theory if you don't want to, just bask in the radiance of the sounds of these chords:

I vi ii7 V7_Block4.jpg

You have even more range to move this around. You can even move any of the four blocks across a string if you don't mind a more treble sound. The only problem in comping is sometimes you can interfere with the soloist playing in his/her register. Be sensitive to that.

Enjoy these? You can also implement them in areas that are more static. Let's say you have a four bar pattern C C G7 G7. You inject the Am7 and Dm7 and play C Am7 Dm7 G7, and everything should fit nicely. Use them to expand areas of harmonic "wilderness."

Here's a printable PDF you can use for reference: pdf_sm.gif 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks

Vamps. Creating energy with Diatonic triads
Vamps. Expanding the Diatonic triads
Vamps. Minor modal
Static Changes: Connecting Chords
7th Chord Streams. Under the hood

Posted by Ted at 2:55 PM

February 5, 2015 | Tenor Guitar & Tenor Banjo Chords

We've been digging into variations of the 5ths tuned tenor range incarnations of the mandolin family. CGDA is a great register for accompaniment and offers a much more interesting partnership with voice and soprano instruments. You can always play higher up the fretboard, but a mandolin can never play lower than a G.

Many may not be aware that the mandolin's bigger sister, the mandola is tuned the same as a tenor guitar and (Irish) tenor banjo. There is a rich tradition of both these instruments in mid early 20th century ensembles, banging out rhythm and often setting up a rich, sonorous harmonic foundation--often with just 3 or 4-note chords.

Tenor banjo/guitar books can help introduce chords to mandola, but an important consideration is scale. The tenor guitar scale can be as long as 23-26", and the mandola is generally 16-1/2 to 18", with the tenor banjo somewhere in between. Don't expect every chord to work identically from mandola to tenor--that fret span can be a killer on the fingers.

Check out the beta version of the Mandolin Cafe's latest expansion of mandolin and mandola chords into the tenor banjo and guitar. They are tuned the standard CGDA (not Octave GDAE). We recommend trying to learn these the same way you first learned mandolin chords. Begin simply, chords with just a few variations, but learn them as simple patterns of block finder movement. Avoid thinking "one 5th lower than mandolin" or transposing notes down a 5th. Think of it as 'that chord' until it becomes automatic.

Visit Cafe Link: Tenor Guitar & Tenor Banjo Chord Generator


You might notice some of the "Bluegrass" fingerings are conspicuously absent, the infamous "G-chop," for example. The simple reason is the fretspan is unattainable for most human hands. Another good reason is doubling the 3rd of the chord in this register sounds horrible.

Another thought--if you're tackling learning a 5-string mandolin, we suggest taking the approach of conceptualizing this as a mandola with extension--a high E string. Don't think mandolin with range a 5th lower. Try learning it the same way you first learned the mandolin, a few chords at a time on some simple, familiar songs. Eventually they become automatic.

CDGA is your base. E is the extension

Mandolin Family Specs
Resources for Mandola
Sample Stock ii V7 I Mandola Chord Fingerings
5-string Mandolin Chord Sets: Major 'ii7 V7 I"

Posted by Ted at 9:38 PM

January 29, 2015 | What makes a jazz mandolin

Five years ago, we posted an article "Brilliance isn't always smart," in which we examined the notion of what makes a mandolin a "jazz mandolin." Most instruments will work for jazz; some may have more potential than others for communicating line and playing chromatically than others, but we offered our own consensus on what works for the genre.

Understand there will be some disagreement even on the notion of "jazz." If you talk to a group of European gypsy jazz acoustic musicians, they need to be armed to live in a world of decibel wars with other instruments. They need the piercing crunch of a chop, much as a bluegrass musician, and that's simply not the sound we're talking about. We are more about ballad and single-note melody with a smattering of accompaniment polyphony. This is a concept where a mandolin is more like a clarinet than a cowbell. It's not about punctuation or percussion, it's about line, subtlety and harmonic nuance.

This kind of tone is maximized on an instrument when attention is focused on string fundamental. Without going too deeply into the science of acoustics, let's just say when sound is produced it includes a composition of fundamental and the harmonics above that pitch. Tuvan throat singers and Digeridoo players make their music by varying the harmonics above a low, droning tone (or fundamental), and this is a simple example of what we are talking about. The same happens when you mess with the tone controls on a stereo; the bass and treble give you a different emphasis on which end of the spectrum the speakers will emphasize.

Understand treble yields definition. This is why microphones designed for speaking are an entirely different animal that one for a musical instrument. The "punch" of highs are necessary for enunciation and word articulation shaped by the percussive impact of lips and teeth. The highs also project across the room, something needed in a bluegrass jam, but not in a musical serenade. Bass wavelengths betray no proximity.

The need for harmonic purity.
There's another reason why the emphasis is on string fundamental is relevant to harmonic conflict. The upper partials of an open triad are great for the sympathetic resonance of a barbershop quartet singing pure triads, and the zingy resounding drones of a celtic drone, but once you start throwing upper chord extensions of complex jazz vocabulary, you really get a conflicting harmonic mess. When you listen to the tone of a good jazz guitar, you'll hear a flatter tone (often flatwound strings), less piercing treble, and a string fundamental that allows the harmony to create the complexity and character of the music, not the instrument.

We're prone to use instruments that are capable of sustain, rich fundamental, and ease of closed fingering for the chromatic variety in the often rapidly shifting tonal centers of jazz. We'll sacrifice the percussiveness.

It's a mandolin, not a cowbell.


What makes a jazz mandolin?
Jazz and Bluegrass; how close?
Blowing Through the Phrase
Thinking Good Tone Part 1

Posted by Ted at 9:14 PM

January 23, 2015 | How modes affect mood


In trying to explain the difference between minor and major modes, we'd use emotion. "Minor is a sad sound. Major is happy." Often the harmonic makeup of the song had as much (or more) to do with the impact than the lyrics. The following Steve Terrebery video is a great tongue in cheek demonstration of this notion.


Video Link: Happy Black Metal

Posted by Ted at 8:28 AM

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