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John McGann's Smart Fanned Fret 10 String
We're coming up on three years since the untimely passing of multi-instrumentalist teaching legend John McGann. It's with bittersweet sentiments, we noted the listing of
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Wintergress Weekend 2015
Though we've never had our February calendar free enough to attend, we've always wanted to head west to the Pacific Northwest's acoustic music festival jewel,
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Guitar Face. Be your best...
We try to teach a variety of ways to enhance your playing. Pick grip, smooth position changes, proper posture, and we've brought you helpful
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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."

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

January 15, 2015 | Zak Borden; Circle of 5ths Part 2


This is as good as it gets, pedagogical genius Zak Borden once again bringing to light what's under the hood with a second installment in his video series on the Circle of 5ths. With his personal charismatic charm, playing examples, and graphics, he takes advantage of the medium and brings this essential material home.


Video Link: Circle of 5ths Part 2

In case you missed it, Part 1
Sign up for Skype lessons with Zak.

Posted by Ted at 6:51 PM

January 8, 2015 | Best of JM: Chord Economy

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From March 8, 2012 | Chord Economy

It's easy to go through life just acquiring chords. Find a new fingering in context and slap it on to your personal chord vocabulary. Years of playing experience, you'll accumulate a healthy arsenal of chords, but sometimes knowing what's under the hood can put the fretboard journey into hyperdrive.

We've talked about this before in expanding the library, exploring what we call "chord economics." The fact we only have four voices with our eight strings limits how many notes of a complex extended chord we can express. The good news is despite the six note complexity in a Maj13 chord, we don't have to cut the proverbial baby in half. Knowing which tones are important, which are superfluous, we can walk proudly into a jam session and still speak the jazz dialect fluently. You just have to know some of the chemistry of the chord.

Tonality: (Someone else's job!)
Third: Majorness/Minorness
Fifth: (always implied except when diminished or augmented)
Seventh: Stability resolved or "to be" resolved)
Color: (Extensions)

On the above list, if you're playing in a group, the tonality of the chord (the root) is generally covered by the bass (or the lowest note of an instrument lower than the mandolin), so you can chalk that one off. The 3rd is important because of its disclosure of majorness/minorness. The 5th is implied (unless your playing a b5 or Augmented chord), so leave it out. The 7th is important because of its stability, the "resolve me" factor. The last note(s), the 9th or 13th are your color tones. They aren't necessary but they are the delicious frosting on the cake.

In other words, you really only need three, 3rd, 7th, and color extension. Nothing wrong with having a root in there, and if you're playing solo, you want it injected as often as possible. Now you can see the fluidity that remains in four voices. Add the dimension of time, the aural permanence for the ear playing several inversions of the same chord before it changes in the music, and we really strut our harmonic prowess.

Check out some of our other articles on the nature of chord economics.


Three's company. 3-note chord
Axis of the 3rd & 7ths
Mandolin Chord Economics
Need a chord?
New ways to comp with V7 chords

Posted by Ted at 9:25 PM

January 1, 2015 | Top Six Tips & Tricks of 2014

We wanted to take a little time to point out our "Tips and Tricks" section of our site by highlighting some of our favorite articles out of the weekly submissions of the year. Listed below is the link and a brief introduction. Take some time to read these, and feel to continue to dig through other years for some insightful gems.

Mike Marshall on Tremolo
Tremolo is inarguably the foremost recognizable character of mandolin technique. Even the non-musician can recognize the sound of the mandolin in a movie score or commercial when it's used. It's that unique to the instrument.


Keying into FFcP
So you've been practicing your FFcP Scales, mastering the 3rd, 4th, and arpeggios, major and minor, and you feel pretty good about them. Now you're in a funk because despite the pride you have in this accomplishment, you wonder what's next? What do I do with these skills?

More Reverse FFcP! Free Arpeggios PDF
Last week, we mentioned the problem with always learning scales from the root up. We naturally think the scale from the bottom up, but never get very good about starting at the top and going the other way. It's like building strength in your right (or dominant) hand, and never bothering to develop muscles in the other. Just like you need both there, it's a good idea to be able to do your scales in reverse. We started the with the major (Ionian) FFcP exercise last week (see New FFcP... In reverse!).

Can you trust your ears?
Musicians can be notoriously arbitrary and dogmatic. So much of what we experience in the arts is based on intuition and context rather than hard science, and the following video highlights some of the controversy in nailing down verifiable judgement in the aesthetic experience. A Major 7th interval, say a C and a B natural can sound dissonant. Add an E and a G, and you have a Major 7th chord, arguably one of the prettiest in jazz. Play that chord in a bluegrass jam and you'll be thrown off the stage


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


5 Steps to Mastering Sight-Reading
If you're a simple folk musician, sight-reading is not a priority item in your took bag. You may function completely in an aural world, but if you've ever wanted to participate in an orchestra , or sit in with a reading band, you want good sight-reading chops.

Posted by Ted at 8:03 AM

December 25, 2014 | Chestnuts roasting on an open 5th.


It's been posted before, but in honor of the day, we had to rerun this clever learning tool...

The catchy, clever reincarnation of a traditional Christmas favorite, "The Music Theory Song" is not only good for a few chuckles but an astounding insight into the nature of interval labels and some harmonic functions. Kudos to David Rakowski and Dave Swenson for this delight.

The Music Theory Song (Intervals Roasting)

Print PDF: The Music Theory Song

May all your supertonics be prolonged and bright.

Posted by Ted at 1:20 PM

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