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March 30, 2007 | The Basics of Auditioning Instruments
Infatuation with gear is an all too often chronic condition suffered by most avid mandolinists. We all know how to look, to yearn, to covet the many illusive cures for this disease (never permanent), the wide offering of instruments available. With a global economy and cyber access, the only limitations are our own wallet (or limit on our credit card).
When the occasion to scratch the MAS itch descends we'd like to offer some suggestions on how to effectively shop for a new (to you) mandolin. Again, we all know how to look, the trick is to effectively evaluate.
The first suggestion is the issue of adequate time. Like dating, falling in love at first sight is possible, but any experienced at the art of courting know all too well the dangers of committing too early in an ultimately wrong relationship. You need to allow for the many variables that make an instrument desirable (and especially undesirable) by spending a healthy chunk of time. It's easy to write off an instrument that doesn't feel right immediately, and conversely one with alluring gorgeous flame that in deeper encounter, sounds like a dog when given the chance to really dig in. A trial period of 48 hours is a good amount of minimal time, not consecutively, but 20-40 minutes at a time spaced over a couple days. Allow for the many environments you normally play in, your porch your studio, the bedroom, and especially with the context of an ensemble setting. A mandolin can respond different soloing in your living room compared to fight over a couple acoustic guitars (let alone a banjo).
Those who are vain enough to make a hard-and-fast snap judgment about an instrument at a festival or noisy tradeshow hall do an injustice to themselves and are often guilty of perpetuating massive misinformation about what they've played. The trick is quality time within the acoustic environments with which you are already familiar.
Neck adjustments, bridge height and seating, string construction, all can make a significant negative impression and thwart your good judgment. An ill-fitting nut or a too-high bridge can wrongly influence your appreciation. Understand these are the qualities that can be fixed or modified, so don't write off an instrument immediately without identifying the flaws. Optimally, it's best if you have the opportunity to change to your favorite strings, or at least gauging and construction (bonze, nickel, flatwound, tec.) you already know.
We mentioned environment but let's get into the specifics of how to hear an instrument. Remember an F-hole body tends to projet 3-8 feet outward and will sound dramatically different closer, let alone from behind the instrument. An oval hole might be less drastic from the player's ear but you still lose tremendous harmonic nuance from that perspective. If you can enlist another mandolinist to play the instrument in front of you, it's likely you'll absorb a much more accurate evaluation.
One trick we learned from world-class builder Michael Lewis was to stand in front of a glass door or window, some kind of a hard reflective surface and play about three feet away. This sound bounce is far closer to what an audience will hear than from behind the back.
New instruments as well as those in a long period of stasis go through a process of "opening up" as the wood is vibrated and its cells sort of "find themselves." Somewhat subjective but some open dramatically, some of the more cheaply made instruments never will. We've also found often it's as much the player as it is the mandolin that "finds" his/herself on a the fingerboard. Adapting to a foreign neck curve, physical weight balance, or closing in on the sweet spots of string or between frets often takes time. Obviously, as the player and instrument warm up to each other, the result will be a warmer, richer, and more complex sound.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but sight and sound are two different messages to your brain, and the former far less significant to your audience. Certainly, a well-detailed instrument on a gorgeous slab of wood more often correlates with quality and craftsmanship, but an ugly instrument can still sound good. You're the one who has to live with cosmetic shortcoming but don't inflict these biases on others in personal assessment. One man's junk can be another's treasure.
Brand names, country of origin can help narrow down some instrument qualities, but do yourself a favor and keep an open mind (and open ear!). This is a very subjective endeavor, products made from organic materials (like wood) that are as variable as snow flakes, even within the same brand or model. Allow for these individual differences in your evaluation process.
Listen for tone, and when you get done with that, listen for more tone. If you think more about the next series of 32nd notes and blistering licks, you're not capable of really listening to the instrument. Anyone else around you attempting this in a chaotic group evaluation (or cluster pluck) is only trying to impress or intimidate you. Pick slow, intentional notes and listen for length of string sustain and decay. Listen to long half-note melodies. Play chords that ring and listen carefully to how all the strings interact, the balance from G to E string. Understand you can probably play as fast on an instrument with bad tone as well, so there's not much need to waste time going there during the testing.
If you play fast, use music you know intuitively so you can focus your cognitive energies on the sound rather than your playing. This is another reason why if your goal is permanent acquisition instead of casual trial, you really need quality extended time. You can't make an intelligent, well-focused decision any other way.
Read more Tips and Tricks.
Posted by Ted at 7:41 PM
March 22, 2007 | Signature Tone
Is that you playing?
We've mentioned a few thoughts on tone in a recent "Tips and Tricks." It really can't be over-appreciated, the notion that our tone and approach to creating the sound out of the instrument is more than just a matter of playing a bunch of notes...
Site Author, Ted Eschliman observes, "The desk out of my office I share with three co-workers has me physically positioned so that my back is almost to the door. It could be a little unnerving blind to coming and going of traffic, not knowing who's 'sneaking up' behind me, but the office is on a mezzanine halfway between the 1st and 2nd floor of a 90 year-old building. The creaking stairsteps almost always yield enough aural clues to tell me not only that someone is coming but who is coming.
"Even without the benefit of sight, it's easy to get familiar with and detect certain footwear (hiking boots, dress shoes, squeaky sneakers) as well as the pattern or cadence of certain 'signature' walks. Heavier people generally clomp, lighter folk patter; the energetic prance purposefully up the steps, the more sedentary sort of sloth their way. It's amazing what your ears can tell you about the person, and not just body type, but personality and often, mood. The fast and deliberate 'stomp' betrays a businesslike efficiency, the slow lazy 'plod' proclaims 'I'll get there when I get there.'"
This is great insight into a mandolinist's playing style and personality. Have you ever analyzed a player's technique and approach to execution? Notice what traits in playing character identify aspects of the person as well as the playing mechanism.
Meticulousness, the concern for accuracy on all the notes, not just some. Sustain, the aim for long linear melody, well-phrased and controlled. How much do these effectively indict the expressiveness of the artist? In a truly great performance, is this not a glimpse into the player's soul?
How about expression and aggressiveness? Does heavy repetitive pounding tell you about the musician's deliberateness, sense of purpose, or that he/she is just a clod? The opposite, a light pecker who barely stabs at the strings with the pick; Is this the mark of someone timid or insecure?
None of the observations are intended to pass judgment, merely observe. After you've listened to others play, try analyzing your own sound. Once a musician has mastered the basics of playing, it's time to reveal the soul. Technique becomes aesthetic, and if you're far enough along in your playing, take time out for some self-analysis; listen to recordings of your own playing. Not just the notes, listen to your music. What aspects of your personality and character are being revealed; sloppy, neat? Aggressive, soothing? Purposeful or playful? Striking or sweet?
Nothing wrong with being a little of either at different times. Matter of fact your playing would be quite boring if you didn't possess some aesthetic variety, but the question remains, what aspects of you are there in the music when you play?
Ponder, is your goal to sound like "you," and if so, what practice techniques can you adopt to make this so?
Posted by Ted at 1:02 PM
March 13, 2007 | Stricken with pickin'
Brilliant clear tone. When you listen to an extraordinarily good Gypsy Jazz guitarist, that has to be your most dominating observation. Sure, there may be lots of notes flying around, but ultimately it's their cleanliness and precision that are so striking. (Pun intended...)
Firm left-hand sustain is a large part of this, but ultimately even this is dependent on a good, clean strike of the pick. Grip, angle and speed of attack are all factors, but there's a bigger package to consider in conceptualizing a good pick strike.
Consider the tools and equipment of a professional athlete, the racket of tennis pro, the bat of a baseball player, and the golfer striking the ball. Ultimately, you need good grip and control, but it's the swing that takes you to the next level. Preparation, strike, and follow-through are just as crucial in picking as they are with these sports.
Think for a moment about the distance your pick needs to go in your own playing. Do you start your attack and swing wildly beyond the string? Likely you're not, but consider how important it is when you speed the tempo that your pick be "at the ready" for the next attack. That means you have to consider where it's been, and swinging your hand way south of the pickguard is certainly not going to help your control, let alone your speed.
Examine the strength of your attack. If you held a drumstick three feet away from a drum and struck a drumhead you could make a loud sound, but can't you get that same sound from six inches away and a little more disciplined stick control? Absolutely, and it's a great visual for what you do with your pick.
Try swinging at your string from 18 inches away. Now do the same from 3/4 inch away. Can you get the same volume? With the right degree of control, absolutely you should. When you aren't as wild in your throw, think of what that does for a succession of rapid notes.
Albeit a bit dramatic, this is somewhat the justification for what's commonly called a "Rest Stroke." The other side of the pick stroke (literally) is where the pick goes after the strike, and in the Rest Stroke, it simply "rests" on the next string on a downstroke. Note from this position, you're immediately ready for a controlled upstroke, and even better, you're optimally prepared for producing another controlled downstroke.
This is good practice, and something we highly recommend for a warm-up routine. Isolating the right hand for pick focus, keep the left hand less complex, and practice a succession of downstrokes on unison notes or something simple or scale-based. Do this at a very slow tempo and trace visually, mentally, and physically all aspects of the stroke.
The best measurement however, is your ear. If all this is firing on all cylinders, your ear will reward your brain with its resultant pleasant tone. Ultimately this becomes reflexive, and you no longer have to fixate on your pick grip or stroke. Your brain "matches" good tone with good picking technique. After a few minutes of downstrokes, add alternating upstrokes. If you haven't already, add the incremental complexity of crossing strings, but keep this at a very SLOW tempo. You're trying to wire the synapses of your brain for effective hand/ear processing, with the ultimate goal of subconscious tone production.
After 8-10 minutes of this you should be warmed up enough to play actual music, but you can start concentrating on left hand linear sustain. With a good pick articulation, you'll have already won half that battle!
Read more Tips and Tricks.
Posted by Ted at 9:12 PM
March 6, 2007 | Jazz Mando on Mandozine.com
Fellow web author John Baxter's resource "Mandozine.com" is a favorite of ours, and has accumulated terrific resources over the years. With the voluminous offerings is a helpful collection contributed by one of our favorite jazz mandolinists, Will Patton. Six different tunes with some terrific and helpful advice in the "music" heading.
Take some time to check these out, but get your printer ready!
Blues on the Corner
An exploration into the use of 4ths, particularly music of McCoy Tyner, known for his open, stacked 4ths signature sound.
Butch and Butch
Will introduces a clever head based largely on a variation of "Bird Blues," lending an acoustic sort of Bebop vibe
This is a classic meld of the Patton style, a Gypsy Jazz vocabulary with an almost Brazilian Choro feel.
The classic and not-often-enough Fat's Waller tune is a joy to hear, and a stretch to the fingers. We don't work on 4ths in melody often enough, and this tune brings the deficiency to light.
This classic Django tune is one of his best, and some great tips on interpreting it.
Samba de Orfeu
This festive Luis Bonfa tune is a Best of Brazil favorite. Some great chord diagrams
Take some time to drop John Baxter a note of thanks for his great contributions to the mandolin world!
Read JazzMando review of Will Patton's excellent String Theory.
Posted by Ted at 9:55 PM
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