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May 20, 2010 | Middle ground; reading jazz fake books
Many who start playing guitar or piano jump into popular music by reading PVG (piano/vocal/guitar) song sheets. Handy, the songs have some kind of simplified arrangements summarizing the important parts of the original recording, mostly the melody at the top, lyrics under the staff, and a listing of chords with fretboard diagrams above. It's easy to understand the marketability, a pianist has something "whole," the vocalist has the lyrics, a guitar player has basic chords spoon fed above the staff.
Jazz, on the other hand, involves a title, sketch melody line, and chords written above. For someone coming from the Pop/Guitar world, this can be intimidating. For a mandolinist, even more so, no suggested fingerings for the chords, and the question comes, "Where do I begin?"
A working internal library of basic chords will help, but keep in mind, these tunes are played over and over again, the "head" and multiple repeats ad nauseum. To take the "nausea" out of the equation, a good mandolinist will know many variations of the chords and splice them into different combinations. Printing one set of "suggested" chords above a lead line is a bit like putting training wheels on a bicycle. If you want to pedal fast, you have to kind of just get on and ride. You will always want to mentally frame that new chord you just learned as one of many variations.
Where does one start exploring this vast frontier of chord possibilities? Best to get a few chord variations under your belt before tackling the tune itself. The repetition of the chords in your fingers over time helps you learn the chords even better, especially if you can frame them mentality so as to think transpositions. For example an EMaj7 shape down a fret is an EbMaj7, down again is DMaj7, the same going up, is FMaj7, F#Maj7. Next time you need a Maj7 chord, you can draw on your knowledge of similar chords and transpose. Learn one Maj7, you've learned as few as three, as many as nine depending on how high you want to go up the fretboard.
Once you learn a couple variations of the EMaj7 shape (3- and 4-note chords) this isn't as intimidating as it seems, and you can read the chord symbols of a fakebook without even having to think. It gets even better when you uncover chord combination commonalities from song to song.
What we are talking about is essentially music theory, but let's also recommend you need the repetition in your fingers (and ears) before these concepts take hold in your brain. You start your working chord vocabulary slowly, and add over time, but that's what keeps the genre so fresh and exciting. You are perpetually learning new fun ways to play down an accompaniment.
So you want to get a jump start? We recommend some of the fine swing materials produced by Dix Bruce and Pete Martin. Dix has a great two-book collection of "working" Gypsy Jazz Standards, and a full band accompaniment to practice with. The tunes are already established standards, many will probably already be familiar to your ears. Pete has an online book you can try in PDF format, a little more about theory, and if you like it, pay him afterward, kind of a "shareware" approach. We suggest you get both.
Of course, you can also dive into our book, too: Getting Into Jazz Mandolin. Though it isn't full literature per se, there are some physical and intellectual nuggets that can help you get down that road to tackling a fakebook, and of course our online Webtracks Audio Support.
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Posted by Ted at May 20, 2010 1:42 PM
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