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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."



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September 30, 2006 | Photographing Mandolins

A look at composition; or a composition of "look?"

If you ever plan to sell a mandolin on-line or just want to document your prize possession for posterity, it might be good to review several tips on optimal digital photography. Most of these are simple common sense, but if you've never thought about how to present your instrument effectively, these points are worth considering.

  • Lighting.. There's nothing better under the sun than well.. the sun. Natural sunlight brings the best out of color and is far less expensive than a sophisticated set-up of lights and flash equipment. (Get your priorities straight; such money should be spent on more mandolins, after all.)

    You probably want to avoid direct sunlight, unless you're capturing an intense wood flame, but you do so at the risk of glare and overexposure. It doesn't even have to be a completely sunny day, and if it is, shade would probably be recommended.

  • Content. Several viewpoints are no-brainers, but you want to capture the best of your instrument. The obligatory "full-body" shots, BOTH front and back are necessary, but consider wide frame shots of the back and top, especially if the wood and its flame are something you are proud of.

    Don't forget the finer points, close ups of the tailpiece, bouts and points, bridge, headstock (front AND back), any special inlays or binding, the fretboard, and the back of the neck. If your camera has enough resolution, these shots can dazzle the viewer. Go through the list and don't be afraid to experiment with odd angles. The trick of good photography is not what you keep; it's what you throw away. Shoot about 10 times the pictures you actually use (maybe more!); ridding yourself of the bad ones are as close as your "Recycle" icon on your computer desktop. Leave nothing to chance, as what you see in the camera can be different from what you'll see on the computer monitor.

  • Edit. Most digital cameras come with a software editing program. The beauty of digital photography is right here, the ability to crop, darken, lighten, or alter the hue. We once took pictures of some beautiful instruments under very unfortunate trade show fluorescent lighting. All the reds were robbed, and it was a simple matter of adjusting the hue in the software to bring them back to reality. Don't overdo this, however, the goal is to make the picture as lifelike as possible.
  • We recommend keeping your pictures under 600 pixels high and wide for web viewing, preferably under 100K and 72 dpi to give Luddite web-surfers on slow speed or dial-up the opportunity for quicker access. (Some people still use computers made in the last century, powered by coal.) You can certainly have larger size and greater resolution, but these are better sent directly or accessed through a URL for offline scrutiny.

  • Background. If you want to show the instrument, be sensitive to the background, as well. Avoid content that might detract from the instrument, a solid background. If you want to pull the color out of the instrument, use a contrasting, but non-distracting color. For example, if you want to pull a red hue out of your instrument, a light mint color behind will make this tint leap off the screen.

    A piano salesman trick--suggestive selling. A savvy salesperson will plant the thought of owning a piano in the head of a potential customer by asking "Which room will this piano be in?" The purpose of the question is a sly one; going through the mental exercise of putting an object in the home is one step closer to ownership. That said, you can place background content in your picture (if it is to be an advertisement) that subliminally offers "homey-ness." Confession: we've been guilty of using fireplaces, front porch, dogs, and small children to make the instrument "real."

    If you opt for additional content in the background, be sensitive to color. You can use contrasting color or find things in the background that are colors in your instrument that bring them out. Flowers that match the inlay or pickguard color, we've even seen bottles of fine whiskey effectively used in the background to complement finish. (Talk about suggestive selling!...)

This can be fun and you'll only get better as you shoot more pictures over the years.

Posted by Ted at 10:30 AM


September 24, 2006 | New String Slippage

You may have noticed this with a fresh set of strings, and maybe depending on your tuners, even an older string. Fine-tuning to pitch can be an exercise in frustration as you crank the knobs up to pitch, nothing seems to happen, then all of a sudden you're way past the pitch in the direction you are tuning.

This can be the result of several things. One, the windings around the post haven't quite "settled" where they need to be (eventually they will under tension), or two, some string brands like the Thomastik or Labella have a wrapping on the headstock end that also delays the immediate settling. Certainly, they secure the string better than other brands, but even the silk needs to find its place under high tension.

You can help this along by pressing the string between the nut and machine between cranks when close to pitch. This will tension the string into its final resting place. Tune (very) slightly higher than pitch and push down the string at the headstock. You may not have to do this once the windings have settled.

Another trick is to dress the string slot on the nut with graphite, or simple pencil lead. This lubricant will "grease" the slot, freeing the string. Simply draw where the string rests; it doesn't take much, though!

Also, when putting a new string on, you can do this between the post (loop end) and bridge, pressing the string as you bring it close to final tension. This allows the loop to settle as well, speeding the string settling process much quicker.

Stay tuned...

Posted by Ted at 09:26 PM


September 18, 2006 | Ralph Patt Website Resources

If you haven't found this already, we recommend checking in on Ralph Patt's web site. His Vanilla Book covers chord changes to over 400 of the most commonly played Jazz Standards. It's an incredible starting point for these treasured tunes, allowing the player to jump off with chord substitutions, embellishments of chord extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc.), without starting terribly complex.

Ralph is a veteran studio guitarist working in New York in studios, Broadway theatre shows, and as a staff musician at ABC in the 60's & 70's. Thirty years ago, he switched carreers, as well as coasts and resides in Portland, Oregon where he's a consultant in hydrogeology for the U.S. Department of Energy on nuclear waste ground water contamination issues.

Wow, from Jazz guitar to nuclear scientist... Good thing he didn't play banjo.

Another amazing section of his site is on Tonal Centers. He explains and categorizes common chord progressions and temporary tonal shifts, citing specific examples in tunes you know and love. Exhaustive and fascinating at the same time, you'll find this a terrific resource in uncovering the secrets of Tonal Centers.

Check it out: Tonal Centers

Home Page: Ralph Patt

Song Index (alphabetical): Vanilla Book

Posted by Ted at 06:00 AM


September 13, 2006 | Pull My Finger...

It bears repeating. Though we've discussed this before, the importance of strength and independence of the 3rd & 4th fingers on the left hand, we thought we'd bring up the topic and point to an exercise that can help you get a grip on this. (Pun intended...)

A previous Mandolin Sessions article went into a bit more detail, but if you want a printable copy of the exercise we included, you can get it right here.

Three Finger Pull PDF

A good hint for practicing this, begin the intellectual exercise of memorizing this drill. If you grab a Circle of Fifths chart, or better, buy one of our Circle of Fifths Polish Cloths (shameless plug), you can go around the "clock" and internalize the scale degrees as you play.

What, me play in Db???

No sweat.

Read: Mandolin Sessions Back Issue.

If your muscles get sore doing these, we recommend you buy one of these: GHS Handmaster Plus

Posted by Ted at 03:36 PM


September 08, 2006 | Third Position

Violinist refer to regions on the fingerboard as "positions." If they had frets, they would designating placing the first finger on the 3rd fret as "Third Position," 5th fret as "Fifth Position," etc. The concept of movable scales like this is centuries old, but if you are new to mandolin, you might not have made that leap out of the lower frets, trapped by the comfort of open strings.

Hopefully, you've already discovered our FFcP lessons, and if so, you are prepared to make this jump into the upper regions of your fretboard. We suggest something practical to start, using the 3rd position as a starting point.

Move FFcP up a couple frets by starting the 1st FFcP on the 3rd fret (Bb), and subsequently, the 2nd FFcP with your second finger on the 5th (C). Getting familiar with this region gives you a consistent timbre; notice the way closed strings postion gives you better control over the way the notes sound, as well as the opportunity for occasional vibrato.

Instead of thinking of your pinky as the open string replacement, the 3rd finger becomes the "conceptual" open string.

Pick literature you are familiar with and play it in 3rd position. We recommend doing Real Book tunes, melody only, although Fiddle tunes can work as well. The idea is to make this position comfortable for you in sightreading.

This is a great way to get started, and you'll find the move to 5th and 7th position much less intimidating as you explore even further up the neck.

Posted by Ted at 06:54 AM



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