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November 12, 2006 | Cataloging Bad Tone

Not the instrument...

Outside of the obvious reasons a mandolin can sound bad, improper intonation, old strings, improper bridge and fret adjustment, poor quality instrument, really all the faults of bad equipment, it's a good idea to examine all the things the player is doing wrong. We think this is a crucial area of self-discovery in improving playing capability. It's easy to blame the engine when the problem is "operator error." In order to truly understand what good tone is, one must unravel the causes and components of bad tone.

  • Missing, not milking the sweet spot with the fretting fingers
  • Inaccurate pick timing (RH/LH coordination)
  • Choking or failing to hold the tone through to the start of the next note.
  • Running out of gas, prematurely losing phrase intensity
  • Tepid pick stroking, lack of "follow-through."

The above is a good, comprehensive start in common faults and areas of player imperfections. You don't hear the really great players struggle with any of these; they've worked hard enough to play well and make getting beyond these appear effortless.

The best way to deal with a checklist like is the strategy of isolating. In your practice regimen, find exercises that deal with only one aspect and extend the amount of time on these and increase the focus by simplifying. If it's a picking problem, don't complicate things by putting lots of notes in the left hand. If it's a sustain or accuracy issue, for goodness sake, slow it down. If you can't play a passage cleanly or accurately slowly, it's not going to sound any better when you speed it up.

Problem: Missing, not milking the sweet spot with the fretting fingers.
Solution: Whole notes and half notes may seem elementary, but not when you try to make each sound resonant and perfect. Your fingers need to be conditioned to where these are, and this can't be subconscious until you've made it thoroughly conscious. Use your ear and allow no half-fretted, fracks, or clams as you play snail-speed scales.

Problem: Inaccurate pick timing (RH/LH coordination)
Solution: If you want your pick to coordinate with the fretting fingers, again you need to slow things down and work on uncomplicated passages. Avoid lots of string crossings, preferably scales or modes, starting with consecutive notes, A, A, A, A, B, B, B, B, C#, C#, C#, C#, etc. and then start to double up the motion A,A,B,B,C#,C# and then on to A, B, C#, etc... Articulation and sustain are a team effort in tone, you can't have a good sound with out both hands working together.

Problem: Choking or failing to hold the tone through to the start of the next note.
Solution: You don't want to "cough" notes with the left hand, so start with all down strokes on a scale or mode. Listen to where finger placement between the frets yields maximum tone and sing it through to the start of the next note. After getting comfortable with this, start alternating with upstrokes.

Problem: Running out of gas, prematurely losing phrase intensity.
Solution: Similar to the preceding problem, the way to make your phrases sound like phrases is to section them off mentality and insert "breath" marks. Plectrum players aren't driven by breathing the way wind instrumentalists are, so we need to be conscious of where phrases start and stop, and not lose intensity along the way. Practice breathing or singing the line as you pick.

Problem: Tepid pick stroking, lack of "follow-through."
Solution: Isolate the pick stroke mechanics in slow scale passages and consecutive notes. Think about a golfer hitting a ball off the tee; it's not just the wind-up and stroke before the ball, it's good contact, and the follow-through stroke. If your attack is sufficient, the pick has to continue on so focus in on where it goes. If you're into the Gypsy Jazz "Rest-stroke" technique, this is a crucial measure; consistently driving the pick to the next string (and stopping) is the way to get maximum tone out of both slow and fast passages.

These are the major components of bad tone to overcome. Some additional minor ones to watch out for include picking too close to the bridge, clicking the extended fingerboard or pickguard, and failing to mute unwanted open strings. That said, the most important thing you can do to improve you playing is not trying to learn how to play many notes, it's how to play them all with good tone.

Check out the many free resources here for exercises and technique.

Posted by Ted at November 12, 2006 8:29 PM


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