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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 29, 2009 | Limiting your voicing. Three's company.

When mandolinists start playing chords for the first time, they often seek the easier 2- and 3-note chords. Makes sense because you can use the open strings and get a full chord sound with less effort initially. As playing matures, many seek 3- and 4-note chords, especially when they want to use closed fingering chords and move up the fretboard. The guitarist convert especially gravitates toward the full 4-note chord, longing for the thick texture and sonic power of all four courses on the mandolin, especially coming from a well-developed barre chord facility.

There remains a common misconception harmonically, however. Many players feel compelled to use four voices of a chord to communicate a chord's full harmonic make-up, often at the risk of mobility, and even effective voice leading. We've addressed this in several past articles (see reference below) and even have a page on Chord Economics explaining the chord member hierarchy. We explain that as a soprano register instrument, the bass voice is almost always in another instrument in the ensemble (guitar or bass), and the most important voices are the 3rd and 7th, along with any "color tone" chord extensions (b5, 7, 9, 11, 13). You can "get away" with this chord economy, but we would even go so far as to say often the mandolin sounds better with just the 3-note chords.

We also mentioned in last week's Tips article on chord/melody playing, the use of parallel 3rds and 6ths , basically 2-note chords, is also both effective leading and satisfactory in chord definition. It doesn't hurt to incorporate these in your chord language; often this helps you move smoothly from one fuller chord to the next. We have a wealth of voicings and strategies in our archives, including a great 3-note Chord Library PDF offered for free by Staff Research Coordinator, Charlie Jones.

Keep in mind good chord voice leading rarely moves a note more than 2 frets. If you aren't able to do this regularly, your own internal chord inversion catalog is probably not extensive enough. Time to look up more or start making up a few more of your own.

Conventional wisdom says two's company, three's a crowd. In chord voicing on a mandolin, three's company.

Grip #1

The benefits of third position fingering
Take three
3-note Chord Library
Need a chord?
Fretboard iPhone App

Posted by Ted at 12:25 PM

October 22, 2009 | Bridging Chord Melody

One of our goals in our Mel Bay book project "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" was to introduce chord melody style playing. The great Jethro Burns was a master studied by many mandolinists, and his ability to seamlessly slip in an out of chord and melody was a treat to the eye and ear. It's certainly an intimidating skill, even for the player adept at chords, and proficient at melody. It's that doing both at the same time thing that is so confounding.

Many get too worked up about even attempting it. You could start gently by becoming effective at playing 3rds and 6ths parallel to a melody. This isn't terribly hard to do up and down the fingerboard, but you are kind of limited to one scale, at least conceptually. Still, we are talking about a two-note chord, and that's a chord by any definition. Adding a 3rd and 4th voice is nice, but not always necessary.

Assuming you already have an arsenal of chord variations, you can also finger each chord, paying close attention where the notes of the melody are and voicing them so that the tune is heard, usually melody on top. It takes a little thinking and planning, but learn a few songs this way, it starts to get easier as you develop your own tricks. It is certainly colossal cerebral exercise, and not for the faint of heart.

Probably the best way to get down the path of Chord Melody technique is to get comfortable moving in and out of either. Looking for "Grips" or chord fingerings that strategically coincide is a skill you can master over time. Think of it as melody proficiency, side by side with chord voicing aptitude. We'd suggest starting with something simple like a couple measures of melody, followed by a couple more of comping chords. Get the melody in your fingers, but also figure out how your are going to chord the following measures with efficient chord movement.

This is an example out of the "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" book:


You can take simple stretches of melody, a Real Book tune for example. Take something you are familiar with both comping and playing the melody, and try alternating between chords and melody. Try them in two measure increments. When you are comfortable with that, try alternating every measure. Later when you can do partial measures of each, you are there. You are playing Chord Melody!

Don't feel the obligation to do four-note chords. As you develop the skill, you'll be adding two-note chords as well, and the parallel 3rds and 6ths will be intermingled in there too, along with a host of trick double stops. Try to use as much of the first 12 frets as you can.

Don't be afraid to experiment. Your only limitation will be your own creativity.

The benefits of third position fingering
Grip #1
Playing musically: Part 2, play the chords
Chord Melody from Aaron Weinstein
Scratching the Surface of Chord Melody

Posted by Ted at 6:05 PM

October 15, 2009 | Improvisation: too many choices?

You walk in to a Subway Sandwich shop and are instantly smacked with the smell of indecision. So many choices, 6", 12", or flatbread, Wheat, Italian, or Parmesan Oregano bread, American, Pepperjack or shredded Cheddar cheese, heated or microwaved, and that isn't even getting into the myriads of meats and vegetable toppings at your request. Choice is good, but not if you have the misfortune of standing in line behind someone who just can't make up her mind.

Walk across the street to Jimmy Johns, and you have about 5-8 choices of sandwich. No soup (unlike Subway), no pizza, some chips, but little else besides sodas. (I guess you can get a pickle. Yuck!) Maybe you ask for a little Dijon or some extra onions, but the fact is, you get in, give them your money and within seconds, they are handing you your lunch in a white wrapper. This is good because you're hungry, and you just want to get on with your life.

Improvisation can be this way. We have lots of choices in how to create our melodies. Mode-based, or lick based? Variations on the melody or aleatoric free-form. Scales, arpeggios, play the changes or go "outside?" This isn't even getting into the mind-numbing potential of higher level theory, including tri-tone subs, turn-arounds, "ii V7 I," Rhythm Changes, harmonic extensions, polytonalities, and chord alterations. You can be just as perplexed as the lady ahead of you in line at Subway, and the possiblities can have you stuck like a deer in headlights.

It's good to know choices, but once in a while it is good to just take a single path and build relationships on it. You can go to a party and meet new people, and focus in on learning their occupation. One of these guys you later find to be a brother-in-law to your next door neighbor, but you don't go to the party and decide, "I'm going to ask every man in the room who they are a brother-in-law to." That is information you ADD to an existing mental relationship. John the plumber is Vinny's cousin.

Music theory should be this way. We can take a group of notes, C, D, E, F#, G, A, Bb, and C. If we looked at it, we'd notice a resemblance to a C major scale (which you already know). You'd mentally check the difference, observing the F# is a raised 4th, and the Bb is a lowered 7th. You could think of it as a Lydian Scale with a lowered 7th. You could also think of it as a Mixolydian scale with a raised 4th. Would it matter? Only if you happened to be more familiar with Mixolydian (because you are already playing that mode in your Folk/Bluegrass repertoire). Perhaps Lydian is your thing because you always thought that was a cool jazzy sound.

This is an exceptionally useful sequence of notes, and one you can use in many different improvising environments, but we are about to show you a ton of options and we don't want you to be confounded by the choices. Again, pick your sandwich and build off it--to YOUR taste. Take a look (and a listen) to this sound in the first two measures.


Let's try and confound you some more by adding a scale we've introduced on the site already. (Note the reference links below.) You will note that the F# Altered Scale in the next two meaures has the same notes in it, just starting on a different scale degree. The Altered Scale is a personal favorite, one you can use in any Dominant Function chord setting. (We especially like it in minor keys.) Here's the cool thing. If you been practicing any of our Bebop Mandology patterns, you are already doing the Augmented 11th Scales. If Altered Scales are new to you, you can start learning the Aug 11th in all keys first.

Another relationship of note for you chronic theory geeks, the above scales (C and F#) have an important relationship. They are a Tri-tone apart, and if the word "tri-tone sub" is at all familiar, you're on the brink of learning yet another short cut.

Here's a related if not interesting, at least coincidental pattern:

Familiar? It's just an ascending version of the Melodic Minor scale, but observe it contains the same notes? If you've been practicing these at all, you already have both the Aug 11th and the Altered scales at your fingers.

Music theory should be just as much about closing in your world in as it is expanding it. In other words, all these choices have commonalties that translate into shortcuts, not mind-blowing options. You just need to be able to sift through what's working already, and add ingredients, little tips along the way.

Munch on that for a while...

The Altered Scale: Bebop Mandology
Tetrachordal Approach to Major Scale Modes
Extending your vocabulary: The Augmented 11th
Chord Commonalties: m6, m7b5, rootless 9th
Lydian Tricks

Posted by Ted at 9:22 AM

October 8, 2009 | Whole(some) notes

Plectrum instruments can be at a severe disadvantage competing against bowed or blown instruments. The inability to sustain after the attack, let alone crescendo in volume means we have to dedicate ourselves to not only impeccable articulation and pick precision, but firm, committed finger grip after the stroke.

The majority of players, even some professionals are preoccupied with speed and note velocity when playing, but we maintain if you really want good tone, being able to play with bell-like stamina on long tones is where an alluring sonority starts. When Babe Ruth smacked one out of the park in his baseball glory, it wasn't just about the crack of swamp ash on the stitches, it was where that ball was going to land outside the playing area. We need this sort of mindset in our own playing.

Practicing long, whole-note or half-note tones is a good check-up to how you fare in this ability. Many Folk/Bluegrass musicians cover this weakness with a sustaining motorboat propeller approach to picking, and outside of this genre, it can be at best unsatisfying, and at worst, annoying. The succeeding pick stroke masks this weakness. If you are ever called on to play a set of exposed whole notes in a piece of music, you will quickly regret not mastering this capability.

How do you achieve it? Quite simply, take a scale you are already working on in the lower frets (FFcP would be fine!) and slow the time down fourfold. If you've been playing quarter notes, convert to whole notes, eighth notes to half note. Focus mentally on the pick stroke (especially the downstroke) and the sustain of the fretting fingers, but most crucially, use your ear. Is the resulting sound crystal clear? Does it waiver from a weakening finger? Does it last to your instrument's full potential? This checklist should be employed on EVERY note.

Convert quarter notes to whole notes

Next, move this up to 3rd and 5th position, playing closed finger scales in the 3rd-9th fret range. Can you get the same sort of clarity? It becomes even harder up the fretboard, as you move to the narrower fret spacings, precision becomes more of a challenge. When you are ready for the next challenge, move it above the 12th fret and project those high octave "pings." Good players can do this, and don't think this just came naturally. They had to work at it, too. They started slow.

We can't stress enough, the importance of this skill in playing the mandolin well.

Put a little "whole-some" in your practice.

The Crack of the Bat
Forsaking the notes for the music
Starting with good tone
Using the picking hand to start Good Tone.
What makes a jazz mandolin?

Posted by Ted at 1:08 PM

October 1, 2009 | Jazz is an accident.

We recently shared a terrific Spinal Tap parody in our news column, Spinal Tap on Jazz if you haven't seen it already. As is true with all comedy, there is always a certain amount of truth built into good material, and this is no exception. The aging rockers candidly lament several elements of jazz that even die hard jazzers cannot disagree with.

"The fact is, jazz is mistakes. You're playing it wrong...
Jazz is an accident. Waiting to happen. Glad to have happened..."

Some schools will even give you a degree in it. Making mistakes.

"Miles Davis. He kept putting this thing on the end of his horn--to make it sound less like a trumpet.
What's wrong with him?"

What do we mean about "mistakes?" Consider the "blue notes," the b3, b5, and b7 of the Blues Scale. If your Folk ear were used to nothing but major scales, these notes would sound like mistakes. But does a b5 sound wrong in Leonard Bernstein's "Maria." Sing it in your head, "Mar-i-a." that 2nd syllable is a b5, not part of the major scale, but it does propel the melody. How about the b3 in the beginning of Stormy Weather? Definitely not a mistake.

Probably the biggest grief a jazz musician will take has to do with the notion of playing "outside the changes." The Conflict/Resolution nature of art in general, drama, music, visual arts tests everyone's preconceived notion of just how much "tension" they can tolerate. Playing an improvisation based on scale 1/2 step higher for a few bars and back again, is a very common jazz tool. It's the "intentional" part of that tactic that is called into question. It's not a mistake if it's premeditated and purposeful in creating momentary tension.

This is ultimately the beauty of jazz, that blur between intent and mistake.

More Tap:
Jazz Odyssey

Intentional Improvisation
Intentional Improvisation
4 and 7. The Committal Notes.
Christopher Guest "taps" into acoustic
Spinal Tap on jazz...

Posted by Ted at 11:55 AM

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