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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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February 25, 2007 | Developing Your Voice

In preparations for upcoming article for Mel Bay's, we had the privilege of interviewing eleven of some of the best mandolinists in the world on the subject of tone, including Evan Marshall, Will Patton, Paul Glasse, John Reischman, David Grisman, and many other masters of tone. We used our "Tips and Tricks" submission on Cataloging Bad Tone as a starting point, by the way. An interesting tangent we got off on was the subject of "voice."

Scott Tichenor, MandolinCafe Website Administrator and premier mandolinist in his own right offered this rather poignant observation, "Everyone at some point should make a point of working on developing good tone. Unfortunately, in the desire to develop rapidly, too many students focus all of their energy on learning tunes, licks and chords, often at the expense of developing a good "voice."

This is rather profound. We invest much time learning to play a "lot of notes," be it scales, chords, arpeggios, literature, but are we really conscious of developing our instrument's voice? Note, we aren't necessarily addressing the topic of individuality here. Nothing wrong with trying to sound like your favorite player. Ultimately it's a physical impossibility, not only are our instruments different, our fingers, our touch, our size, our mental capabilities and experiences make us as unique and individual as a snowflake.

That said, if you've been playing awhile, it might be time to do a little aesthetic inventory of the current state of your (hopefully evolving) voice. We offer several areas to consider and explore while on your personal journey into playing perfection.

Influence of Style. That you are on this website betrays at very least a mild interest in playing jazz. This means you're likely curious and eventually less fearful of the "chromatic" aspects of playing. This may direct you to explore more closed position alternate fingerings, or at least less dependency on open string droning a Celtic musician thrives on. Blistering speed might be your desire, but not near as much of the pyrotechnic skills a festival-winning Bluegrass competitor invests in honing. Your personal preferences in musical styles will influence your sound and your voice.

Articulations. A good tremolo might be a huge concern for you. If so, plan on spending plenty of time on it as it really doesn't come natural for most players. (Nothing worse than bad tremolo!) A good healthy downstroke is a major voice component of the Monroe-style picker, as well as the Django jazz enthusiast. This proficiency should require a huge portion of your daily warm-up and practice regimen.

Sense of Line. Do you play "lotso' notes" or play musical phrases? Is your melodic construction a string of "words" or comprehensive sentences? Filling out the line means good Left Hand sustain and practicing long held notes is a discipline. Right Hand/Left Hand coordination also falls into this realm. Only with both hands working together can this be a part of your voice.

Accuracy. What's your "acceptance continuum" in regards to imperfections in your playing? Say you've got ten notes to play; is nine out of ten played perfectly enough for you? How about seven notes perfect but two cut short and one plucked a micro-second late?

The best musicians don't just play over and over until they get it right, they play until they can't get it wrong! Do you hear Mike Marshall or John Reischman "flam" in a performance? Their standard of perfection is a critical but subconsciously noticeable part of their voice.

Improvisation and Harmonic Content. Listening to the jazz greats like John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, and Michael Brecker, even though they play the same instrument, you can distinguish their distinctive sax persona by their harmonic content when they solo. The modes you study and practice, the chord substitutions you hear in your head will all be a recognizable part of your improvisation. If all you play is pentatonics or blues scales, this will be your voice. If you like to play "outside" using Alternate Scales, or just temporarily improvising in a key a half-step out of the tonal center, this becomes recognizable as "you."

Personality or Mood. Far less tangible is the element of personality. Do you communicate Miles Davis' distant cool aggression or Kenny G sentimental saccharin? Do you caress strings and pick in Don Stiernberg charm or spank them in Andy Statman intensity? Certainly you are entitled to a wide range of mood (at least we hope so), but have you ever listened to recordings of your playing within this perspective, outside of the notes?

If you want to make your voice heard, it's a good idea to know what it is in the first place. You know the notes of your mandolin; now start working on its voice...

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at 12:35 PM

February 16, 2007 | Enharmonic Reduction

Enharmonic Reduction

Remember in your early musical journeys, the first time you unraveled the fact that an A# and a Bb were the same note? An F# and a Gb? Even more confusing, an E and an Fb?

If you went on to learn some elementary music theory, it started to make sense in context. If you were playing in the key of Bb, an A# would be a fish out of water, unless it were leading somewhere (B natural), and even more advanced theory would reveal this sort of accidental "anomaly" (pun intended) was a clue that some kind of key modulation was going on.

For us, accuracies in accidentals are critical in notation. Sure, it means nothing aurally, but if you're reading music, there's no better clue to a key change than an accidental (# or b) to let you know some kind of tonal mischief is up ahead. This is critical in jazz, if you want to rapidly identify a tonal center change, and employ the mode or scale you need for improvisational fodder. You get to the point where these visual clues are quite valuable in harmonic analysis! And nothing like a courtesy accidental (in parenthesis) to tell you you're back home again from some kind of harmonic vacation.

Interesting how different musicians have a different threshold for "accuracy." Most will agree that an Fb is useful in playing in the key of Db (not E!), and occasional double sharp (F## in G# minor), but what does one do with the theoretical keys (which do happen in jazz if you're doing any sort of transposition) like Gb minor or B# major? Probably something you don't worry about often, but what if you're a software designer like Craig Schmoller who writes program code that ventures into this tricky area of practical, vs theoretical?

We recently had some dialogue over an improvement he made in his magnificently useful tool, Mando ModeExplorer (you do have your copy now, don't you?) on Enharmonic Reduction. "I don't pretend that there will be complete agreement on my rendering of these names, nor do I contend I've got it all 'right.' However, my objective is to make a note of all the multiple sharps and flats that are generated by a synthetic mode based on any tonic, and at the same time use the simplest equivalent in the chords derived from that scale...

"A straightforward example might be A# melodic minor. The notes of the scale are A# B# C# D# E# F## G##. We would not see chords names B#, E#, F## or G## in the Real Book or any charts I've seen, so these are reduced to a reasonable enharmonic equivalent. (Reasonable to me, anyway) When you mouse over the 'Component Chords' node of the scale, if there are oddballs, a Tool-tip pops up and informs you: 'Actual scale note names A#, B#, C#, D#, E#, F##, G## reduced to enharmonic equivalents in chord names.' In this case, the chords are listed as A#, C, C#, D#, F, G, and A. Given the situations that arise with synthetic scales and the reality of chord charts, it's a good compromise."

View example: Mando Mode Explorer Tool Tip

Interesting but apropos term, "Enharmonic Reduction." Glad Craig didn't call it "Enharmonic Dysfunction" or you wouldn't get "E.D." past most good spam blockers to email your friends...

Seriously, this is a cool improvement, and a great answer to this rare but significant analytical "disorder." It's also a good example of Groveland's attention to offering the best in comprehensive solutions for musicians. It's a terrific program and one you'd find most helpful in your mandolin-based music theory, mode, and chord studies.

Our review: Mando ModeExplorer

Purchasing information

Posted by Ted at 6:10 AM

February 8, 2007 | Jazzed Pentatonics

Excerpt from the TV show Seinfeld, "The Wizard:"

Morty: "Attaboy! Helen, Jerry got me a hot Wizard computer!"
Helen: "I'm right here."
Jerry: "And you can do everything with it. You can get e-mail,fax, there's a calculator."
Morty: "So, I can use it in the restaurant to figure out the tip?"
Jerry: "Yeah, I guess. But the really cool thing is the daily planner."
Morty: "Helen, we go into restaurants and figure out the tips."
Helen: "Jerry, you're getting your father too excited."

A legendary "Seinfeld" script favorite, Jerry buys his father a Wizard calculator. Unwilling to delve into its vast potential, the technology-impaired Morty comes to resolution acknowledging his son just gave him a "tip calculator." Content, he will ignore the incredible muti-faceted convenience of a pocket wizard and settle for toting a "Tip Calculator" instead.

Pentatonic Scales can be like this. At JazzMando, we're on record as largely frustrated with the folk/bluegrass community for relying too heavily on Pentatonic Scales. You know their benefit, based on five notes of the Major Scale, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, they offer all the safe tones, but forego the "direction notes" 4 and 7. We discussed this in greater detail in a article in April of 2004, on "Gravity Notes," if you're unfamiliar with the concept. The Pentatonics are terrific as pedagogical training wheels, but in Jazz you really need to learn to exploit the "committal" notes of tension builders 4 and 7 if you want to say something, to give your melody direction.

That said, there are some fun things you can do with Pentatonics in jazz that you might not be aware about. If you have drilled these scales into your frets, we want to introduce you to a way of injecting them into your music as a way of voicing the upper chord extensions of some juicy chords. If we improvise these 5 notes with certain 7th chord variations, we get to voice melodically, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, without thinking 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths.

Here are some Pentatonic "Opportunities" for Maj7, Min7, Dom7, an m7b57 chords. Especially effective in modal jazz where the song sits on a chord for several measures, these can bend the year in an interesting but tastefully appropriate way. We've listed the 7th chord variation, the "Old School" Pentatonic scale used, and a new and improved "Upgrade." We've also noted the chord tones you infer by using the particular scale.

One suggestion, have another player comp the chord in a background first, or use some sort of "Band in a Box" software program to generate an accompaniment. Once you get comfortable with one or two chords, play along with some familiar changes like a 12-bar blues or Rhythm Changes.

In any case, open your ears and have fun!

Old School: C Pentatonic C D E G A
Upgrade: D Pentatonic D E F# A B
You get: 9, (3), +11, 6, 7
Relation to root: Plus one step

Old School: Eb Pentatonic (Cm Pentatonic) Eb F G Bb C
Upgrade: Bb Pentatonic Bb C D F G
You get: (7), (1), 9, 11, (5)
Relation to root: Down one step (up m7)

Old School: C Pentatonic C D E G A
Upgrade: Bb Pentatonic Bb C D F G
Better Upgrade: Gb Pentatonic (Alt chord) Gb Ab Bb Db Eb
You get: b5, b13, b7, b9, +9
Relation to root: Plus diminished 5th (tritone)

Ab Pentatonic Ab Bb C Eb F
You get: b13, b7, (1), (3), 11
Relation to root: Plus m6

Don't get stuck using Pentatonic Scales as a tip calculator!

Granted, it's more of a guitar book than mandolin, Berklee professor and jazz guitarist Bruce Saunder's book Jazz Pentatonics (Mel Bay Private Lessons Series) is a good resource for digging a little deeper into this concept. We should acknowledge some of the above was inspired/extracted from his astute but practical teaching.

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at 7:32 PM

February 2, 2007 | Left hand hover

Advanced beginning/intermediate mandolinists often ask, "where do I keep my left hand?" The context is the player desiring a liberation from the first 6 frets, that perpetual open-string anchor of the lower end of the fingerboard. Yes, we all start learning the instrument there, but once we seek the broader perspective of higher fret altitude, the question remains, where does one "hover?" Should the right hand stay low and make jumps as needed, completely avoid the lower frets, or anchor somewhere in between?

Answer: Yes.

Certainly, it's a combination. The discipline of avoiding open strings is purely for practice. Nothing wrong with using them, in fact the rich fundamentals and overtones of an open string are terrific for the inherent beauty of the instrument. The problem is many players never leave, so we advocate minimizing their use during practice. The 7th-15th frets can sound somewhat thinner in timbre, but you want to use them, too. Get familiar because they can be your friend in opening up new fingering horizons.

The question is "hover." Watch a good jazz guitar player and see where the left hand stays. Not uncommonly you'll see this in the 5th or 7th fret, and it makes sense. You have quicker access to the upper and lower extremes. You have a richness in tone. Mandolin is similar, although because of its more limited soprano register, you're probably better off using the 3rd fret as your base.

We discuss this in more detail in the February Mandolin Sessions submission.

Read article: Leading off third base; The benefits of third position playing.

Assignment: Watch videos of great jazz guitar players on YouTube.

Posted by Ted at 6:22 AM

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