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"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."
May 21, 2015 | Don Stiernberg on chord voicings
Don Stiernberg & Scott Tichenor, late night jam
Five years ago, jazz mandolin royalty Don Stiernberg offered some pearls wisdom in the Mandolin Cafe resource pages in a personal interview. One of the questions asked had to do with rooted voicings vs. rootless on the mandolin, and what contexts would determine the choice between the two. For example, how "modern" did he want his jazz playing to sound?
Of course the bluegrass or Bill Monroe voicings have roots in them, sometimes two! And that's how that style should sound, as you know. The repeated notes and lack of color tones yield a more percussive sound that the ensemble needs. Once in awhile I'll sneak in a rootless chord, a sixth chord like G6 fingered 4-2-5. Other modern bluegrass players do this too, I notice, mostly as punctuation at the end of a phrase.
In jazz playing the root chord can be expressed as a Maj6, Maj7, or just plain major. I'll avoid roots there too, since that's what the bass or guitar or piano might play, and the additional color tones (6, 9, 13, etc.) fit the style and "widen out" the sound of the band. Looking at the common denominator progression, ii7-V7-I, I usually play the minor chord straight, with a root, maybe adding a ninth if anything. So if the chart says Am7, I just play Am! Not sure why, I just hear the cadences better that way I guess. Similarly, the dominant chord usually contains a root too, but I'll freely add tensions or color tones. So D7 would have the D in it, but perhaps be replaced by a b9 or #9, or have a #5 or b5 or 13 added.
Now the "tough" question! Certainly the aspiration is to be as modern as possible, in terms of being able to improvise and have something to say in any harmonic situation or groove. The reality though is, I've got my hands full trying to cope with major and minor ii-V-Is, connecting chords, and a few very basic chord substitutions. Some of my improvisational heroes seem to be able to play cool melodies, inside or outside, over ANY type of progression. I'm thinking now of George Benson, Mike Stern, Toots Thielemans. I'd like to have that type of vocabulary and flexibility, but... hey, I'd like to play for the Cubs too!
Also, this question could be answered various ways depending on what constitutes "modern." Certainly some of the things Bix Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong did in the '20s are as modern as anything that came since. Wes Montgomery's concepts were modern, many unique to him, others assimilation of Parker or Coltrane ideas. But as fresh as his work sounds, he unfortunately left us in 1968. Is that modern? Thinking that way, I seem to be drawn most to jazz styles up to about the 1950's I guess--Swing, Bebop, and the like. The modal things, Coltrane changes, and post modern things don't come as naturally to me, but again, I'd like to become more conversant in all the concepts and have them at the ready. I really like playing tunes with lots of changes and trying to make connected melody lines: standards, Bop heads, Latin things, even pop tunes from my time. But the concepts for improv that I apply to these were probably all worked out by Charlie Parker time in the late 1940s.
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From September 16, 2010 | Pick propulsion
Last week we looked at the "strike," the articulation point of attack where pick meets string. It's an important concept to understand, but it's only a part of the picture. The next issue in good mandolin tone is timing, coordinating the left and right hand to get the maximum amount of sustain through a succession of repeated notes.
The metaphor of a playground merry-go-round is our picture in a fourth dimensional look at picking. We've used it before where you imagine pushing a child round and round, keeping the speed constant. Once you get it going, any variation in your push can cause the speed to falter. Hold your grip too long, you slow it down. Don't push in sync, and you interfere with the smoothness of the turn.
The "stop and start" impact is not unlike bad pick technique. Unfortunately, the professional Bluegrass realm is full of examples of this kind of "motorboat" effect, the propeller-like sound of pick and string at high tempos, and that "thup-pa thup-pa thup-pa thup-pa" sound is arguably unpleasant even at pyrotechnical speed. The start of a pick should never drastically impact the end of the next note, and in show-off soloing, you hear this once in awhile. Good picking is about starting the sound, not stopping it.
Effective pick control starts at slow tempos, and progresses in players only when developing the ability to intentionally drive the tone one note through to the next. We introduced an exercise to help you hear this in our Lydian DUDU drill from the Getting Into Jazz Mandolin book. The goal is to be able to play it when moving fret to fret, as well as crossing strings. The single note repetition at the end of the 2nd measure gives you the opportunity to setle into a well-timed swing of the pick.
May 7, 2015 | Mandolin Set-up E-Book by Rob Meldrum
The whole DIY (Do it Yourself) mode is not something we wholeheartedly embrace. Leaving things into the hands of the trained professional is not necessarily lazy, and it more often yields better results. That said, there's still something to understanding how things work, so you can assure they can continue to work. You may not be one to change the oil in your car, but knowing the basics of what the components of the engine are, what oil does for them and why frequent changes are critical can be the difference of years in the life of an automobile.
We feel the same about the mandolin. Never one to tinker, it still is a good investment in the upkeep and optimum performance to know what it is that makes a bridge intonate properly, what causes fret buzz, what an adjustable truss rod can do to address seasonal changes, what tweaks can (and can't) be made with an adjustable bridge, and a myriad of tiny tricks with pencil lead, vaseline, and painters tape.
Several years ago, Pacific Northwest based Robert Meldrum started to document his own personal journey in understanding these basics of mandolin set-up, and it paid off for him in playing enjoyment, let alone shop set-up charges, although the hobbyist is the first to admit the hands-on approach can be the preferred option for those who'd rather not tinker. He's created an ebook that he's given freely to the mandolin world, and we've had a chance to look through it and glean some keen insights.
Again, the book doesn't replace a good repair tech. He's posted a couple YouTube videos that demonstrate an extreme--taking a $50 import and making it somewhat playable. Frankly, there's not a lot of risk in that level of quality, but with some attention you can often get an okay starter.
The book is available in PDF format (electronic) by contacting him directly. Send an email to rob.meldrum at gmail dot com (use proper format, not bot protected) with "mandolin setup" in the subject line and he will mail the link.
April 30, 2015 | Use neuroscience to impact your playing?
Greg Gage is on a mission to make brain science accessible to all. In this fun, kind of creepy demo, the neuroscientist and TED Senior Fellow uses a simple, inexpensive DIY kit to take away the free will of an audience member.
We've covered more sophisticated, jazzed up 12 bar blues patterns in major keys. Most likely you have experimented, but have you ever gone into the cool variations on minor blues?
In addition to the more pure traditional minor (and a spiced up version), there's an alternate, and a modal version. We introduced these in our February 2011 Mandolin Sessions article, but here they are in the key of D minor:
On an online mandolin community, members were discussing the nature of sustain on their instruments. One of them was actually complaining that he had too much sustain on his E and A strings, and was looking for a way to rid of it. Too much sustain? That's like one saying "I've got too much money."
Maybe there's a case for the imbalance of string sustain, say your D strings sustain more than your Gs, but a good mandolinist wishes he/she had the sustain of a clarinet like Pinocchio wishes he were a real boy. Then there's the bluegrass "motorboat" approach to picking, which is percussively akin to playing cards on clothespins snapped by bicycle spokes, and only slightly more melodic.
Our unabashed bias is for mandolin tone that retains its energy through long phrases, notes connecting from the end of one to virtually overlapping the beginning of the next. It's the wind driven sonority of a clarinet versus the decaying resonance of a xylophone. To get that you have to understand the basic mechanics of the plectrum.
You cannot add sustain, you can only diminish the rate of decay.
Good tone can only be because of a good pick stroke.
One note must bleed into the next to connect a strand of notes into a phrase.
Shortening the string adds energy (vibration), lengthening it reduces it.
Maximum closed-fingered tone only happens at the sweet spot between the frets.
These are all principles that take conscious, intentional practice. At slower tempos, you have the ability to concentrate on each component, but they aren't any less important at higher speeds. This is why you need to practice good tone slowly, whole notes and half notes, before you worry about executing quality sustain at pyrotechnical speed.
Review out our October 2009 article, Whole(some) notes. In this we look at ways of building deliberate tone through whole notes.
Knowledge of the chord tones both intellectual and tactile can be one of the best ways for your improvisation to make sense. Scales, both pentatonic and modal are great for producing smooth linear phrases, but once in a while you want to jump around, and if you're fingers can find the chords better than your brain, your soloing can reflect the harmonic identity of the song.
Best way to get this skill? Learn your arpeggios in all 12 keys. Remember though, with FFcP, there's only four ways to finger these. Taking our approach can super charge your development of subliminal chord awareness.
We give you drills for two 7th chord forms, Major and Minor.
For some, the idea of improvisation is like jumping off a diving board. You stare at the vast surface of water, knowing it's deep but you're unsure what to do with yourself along the way, and you kind of short circuit.
Knowing some of the tools, scales, arpeggios, licks (motifs) can help, but it can also intimidate. We can try to do too much. Zak Borden in his continuing YouTube video sessions has a three part series on improvisation. His is a masterful approach to diving in without fear. A simple direction: know where you are going to do to start and how long you have. Then, it's just a matter of filling out a skeleton with the very basics of melody.
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.
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.
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.
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.