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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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October 25, 2007 | Playing a solo is like telling a story.

Think about how you compose the words, organize the thought structure, take on the "attitude," and get into the head of the listener when you tell a really good story. You have to be articulate, using words that are accurate and vivid, they have to flow in some sort of structure, take on an emotion consistent with the narrative, and through it all, be entertaining or relevant to the listener.

Good improvisation facilitates strategy similar to story telling. The "words" you communicate with are the notes, modes, and arpeggios consistent with the harmonic structure of the music. Smart solos will have a sense of larger picture, some kind of form and not just blowing. Through tension and release, they will communicate drama and entertain the audience.

Jazzwise.com, the UK's leading Jazz Magazine has some interesting pedagogical resources. One in particular is an excerpt from Jazzwise contributors Simon T and Hugh G. entitled "How do I play better solos?" In this article, they compare the mechanics of making a speech, note cards, preparing an introduction, proper delivery, choosing efficient and effective words, pronunciation, creativity, and poise. These are all just as important in playing a good solo and worth printing out an pondering!

Download two page article:
Speech/Solos: Perparation. Structure. Delivery. Attitude.

Visit Jazzwise website

Posted by Ted at 8:11 AM


October 18, 2007 | E's & W's: Tone and transition while chording

One of our regulars posted a very interesting question worth sharing with anyone striving for clean, connecting tone while chording. T.L. writes: "In analyzing my own playing I'm finding my chords most times sound thin, and I get more buzz, even though I'm holding the strings down as normal. I just can't get the tone I can when playing single lines, thus I'm looking for the cause/cure for this. Any insights?"

He went on to explain he works very hard at smooth linear melodic tone in his practicing several hours a day. It's something he pays very close attention to, but feels frustrated the chord to chord movement can't be equally smooth. This is important in accompanying at slow tempos, just as much in chord melody. Not having the benefit of seeing the problem in person, we take an educated guess in describing what might be happening.

When we play chords, our focus is always across the fingerboard. If we think of our hands as a fork, we are holding the fork straight up and down, attempting to put maximum pressure between the frets, so as to secure the notes. This is similar to our thoughts on maximizing the "E" zone; the repressive nature of ulnar deviation.

When we play notes, we're used to moving across the fingerboard (headstock to bridge) with the string. Very often, this linear motion requires us to hold our fingers closer (but not completely) parallel to the strings. We extend and retract our fingers to move left to right, and we do this mostly subconsciously.

When we play chords, we jump the fork from fret to fret, and more often continue to hold our fingers perpendicular to the neck, and parallel to the frets. Maybe not 90 degrees, but we are definitely in a "vertical" mindset, conscious of the "across" the fingerboard, and not up and down.

Try turning the hand slightly inward so that your fingers move chord to chord as you extend or retract them. This should make motion more fluid; note changes are from fingers, rather than jumping the wrist. This might be a bit of an exaggertion, but it drives the point. It might also improve the grip.

We hope this make sense. Thinking of turning the fingers from a "W" slightly to an "E" shape on the neck might help.

Yup. Think playing with E's...

Posted by Ted at 1:34 PM


October 11, 2007 | What to look for in an acoustic amplifier

In exploring the myriad of good amplification alternatives, there are several personal "application" considerations to ponder. A good acoustic amp is simply not a "one size fits all" answer, and anyone who tries to convince you they have the single best solution is guilty of extreme shortsightedness.

Range (power). The more watts you have, the more sound you can fill the room. A 30 watt amp can fill a small coffeehouse adequately, but in a concert hall or bar stage in a room of noisy people even a 50 or 60 watt amp won't be adequate. 100 watts is something to consider, but keep in mind how you will need to interact/compete with your bandmates as well. Erring on the side of more power can give you better sound, too, but you have to contend with packing a heavier amp.

Ensemble constitution. It's not just the size of a band that matters. Sure, a string duo will require less power, but you also need to factor in what other instruments are there. A blazing Hendrix wannabee on electric guitar, drummers with 22" ride cymbals, and any heavy two-fisted keyboard player will call for not only power, but brilliance in the EQ to cut. Be prepared to make a lot of tone sacrifices in the case of the latter round of usual suspects.

Monitoring Stage vs. audience volume. If you're playing with the benefit of a good soundman and extra monitoring system, your world opens up significantly. At this point, you're concern may well be ONLY what you can control, in particular, the stage level. You'll want a sound level and quality that allows you to hear you, and the hall level is a whole other kettle of fish. Be prepared to run the sound out of an XLR connector out to the board into the house and kiss your EQ settings goodbye. From there, it doesn't matter what you've done to color the sound, it will be totally in the hands of the soundman (though you do want to send something basically good to start). Matter of fact, you're probably better off not even worrying about anything but your own stage level; you don't know how your sound is interacting with hall dynamics and audience absorption. You aren't there physically, and your sound man is.

Acoustic vs. Electric. Piezo pickups amplify the sound of wood vibration, strings, and the air column inside the instrument. Magnetic pickups are much about they way the string interacts with the pickup. It's an entirely different color, nebulously referred to as "that electric" sound. A Fender Stratocaster will never sound like a Martin D15 acoustic, so don't expect the same character out of an electric p/u. Consider, the more you attempt to capture the nuances of your instrument, the more you set yourself up for feedback. This is the give and take of power in the p/u, a topic unto itself.

Tube verses Solid State. In electric guitar, the rage is tube amps for rich, fat tone. There is also the opportunity to saturate or "overdrive" the tone, but that's not necessarily the goal of the acoustic mandolinist. That's not to say plenty of good players out there aren't using tube amps, it's just Solid State, high-end digital circuitry is capable of if nothing else, tonal accuracy. Still, may consider the digital or solid state to be "harsh" or sterile. Like everything else there are trade-offs for going either way.

Ergonomics (ease of set-up, mounting, and weight). Power is good, until you reach age 40 and start down the ever-declining physical ability to haul an awkwardly big amp. Technology has made great strides the last decade in making powerful amps out of lighter materials. An amp that's easy to haul, easy to plug in, and easy to put closer to ear level is worth its weight in, well, weightlessness. (or something...) Maybe you don't think of this when you're purchasing an amp, but you will years hauling it across a large parking lot.

Outboard capability. We mentioned EQ already, and processing can be a good thing for controlling stage character. The versatility to adjust to hall and other band personnel WITHIN your amp can be a convenient thing, but you're more likely to use some other outboard tool, an EQ, FX processor, or other gear that can give you more potential multi-band control (8-10 not just 3 or 4) over your sound shape and color. You might be better off with a barebones amp, and a processor with dials on the periphery of your rig.

Multi-use potential (small PA). Some of the larger acoustic amps can easily double as a small PA system, especially if you're group is small and acoustic in nature. Multiple inputs, some XLR inputs for microphones, and phantom power can give you a versatile rig in a small coffeehouse environment. This can be a good thing as in very small venues; unplugged won't be loud enough if your audience is carrying on a conversation, and a small PA system is decibel overkill.

EQ control/Notch Filtering. In addition to 2-5 bands of EQ, many amps come with what's called "Notch Filtering." What this does is isolate a narrow band of frequencies that cause the amp to feedback (or warble) at certain pitches. This is at worst, a nice bonus, and at best a complete necessity. The more "acoustic" in character your set-up is, the more you'll be dealing with the ravages of feedback, so this isn't something to overlook.


We mentioned a lot of issues without going into much detail or concrete examples. Our goal is to offer some reviews of a range of amps that we'd recommend for mandolin. We'll be introducing this very soon in our "Recommended Listening" section. The most important thing to keep in mind, there are many solutions for many different needs. What works for some will not always work carte blanche for other mandolinists. Consider all the above factors when you go shopping. You may need a couple different amps for different environments, or compromise with some features in just one. Bear in mind, each instrument can vary significantly in results, so don't be afraid to experiment when you have the opportunity.

Posted by Ted at 1:59 PM


October 4, 2007 | Time Tested Art in an "American Idol" Culture

Tens of thousands audition for a chance at an appearance on Network TV's "American Idol" stage. (Even if you don't follow the show, you're probably at least aware of it; that is if you have a pulse.) The proportion of finalists (24 to 1) to single winner is overwhelming odds, let alone the astounding attention-hungry mob who audition for a chance at even appearing on TV as a candidate for finalist.

Ponder the audition process at the beginning "applicant" level. Even with a chance at face time with the judges, decisions are made in split seconds who get to even appear. An artist's best material has to be flashy, presented at optimal performance level, no margin of error and simply nothing less than stunning.

Faster, higher, more notes... Squeeze it into the front to cut through the pack.

The amazing thing is many of the so called "losers" at the "provincial" level will likely continue to impress friends and family at their local church, Karaoke bar, or community stage, despite the lack of American Idol success. Consider television likes to show the depth of "bad" for entertainment purposes, but those aren't who we are talking about.

Even the marginally good can enjoy success in their own world within their moderate goals. We daresay, most amateur musicians AREN'T motivated by the opportunity to impress others. Though this notion runs counter to an openly competitive sports and arts culture, we need to step back and look out how we play, how we impact our audience. Not to advocate mediocrity, let's look at how a simple performance can still be good, even in an "American Idol" environment.

Faster. The quest for speed permeates the multitude of musicians. We strive for it ourselves and are continually impressed by those who have it, either naturally, or by had work. Consider the rule of the working the "Three Worm Crowd." A youth pastor commented about his junior high group this way, "They love to see someone get up in front of a crowd and eat a worm. They'll even get a kick of him/her eating a second worm. By the third worm, they'll start to get a little bored, and you'll lose their attention fast."

Our ear loves lightning speed fretboard gymnastics. Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Hamilton de Holanda can perform compelling, heart-pounding speed on a mandolin us mortals can only dream of. Fortunately, they have the gift of discriminating musicianship too, but think about their performances. How long could you stand to listen to just blistering 64th notes? 15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5?

Think of the lovely ballad work of Don Stiernberg. Sure he's capable of some speed, but the beauty of his mandolin art is his sense of line, the long, delicious notes he chooses, the gorgeous phrasing. This is something that can be listened to for hours at a time.

Higher. The mandolin is capable of upper upper stratosphere fretting, but on most mandolins, this is very thin sounding area. Even played well, the ear can stand only so much playing in this register. Sure, high note super-human ability is impressive, but only used in contrast or as an aural "spice." Too much frosting and not enough cake.


More notes.
It isn't about the quantity of notes, it's the quality. Blistering pentatonic runs don't "say" anything harmonically; they don't propel the vertical harmonic cadence of the music. Carefully chosen gravity notes (4ths & 7ths), embellishing notes that point to the chord extension (+11,-9, +9) , and tonality-defining 3rds and roots tell harmonic stories to an audience that doesn't generally know what you are doing, just that is sounds "intentional."

Don't get seduced by rating your own performance on "American Idol" standards. You can be musical in your own way, and enjoy your playing by your own measure.

Posted by Ted at 2:30 PM



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