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« Sharing chords | Main | More on sustain »

April 1, 2010 | The virtues of sustain

We recently overheard some mandolinists talking about 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.

  1. You cannot add sustain, you can only diminish the rate of decay.
  2. Good tone can only be because of a good pick stroke.
  3. One note must bleed into the next to connect a strand of notes into a phrase.
  4. Shortening the string adds energy (vibration), lengthening it reduces it.
  5. 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.

Check out our October 2009 article, Whole(some) notes. In this we look at ways of building deliberate tone through whole notes.

You can never have too much sustain!

Convert quarter notes to whole notes

Further:
The Crack of the Bat
Forsaking the notes for the music
Starting with good tone
Using the picking hand to start Good Tone.
What makes a jazz mandolin?

Posted by Ted at April 1, 2010 3:54 AM


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