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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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January 28, 2010 | Mobility--chord transit

Pocket chord books and chord encyclopedias are an excellent tool for the beginning mandolinist. The sooner you can expand your chord vocabulary, the sooner you can effectively perform a more lush function of harmonic variety to your music. Sure, professional music careers have been launched on three- and four-chord music, but if you're reading this, you're obviously interested in doing more.

The advanced beginner and intermediate player needs to embrace a more sophisticated way of looking at new chords. It's not just what finger goes where or the names of the notes, it's how it can be moved to other areas of the fretboard. This is especially in jazz and classical music. In folk/bluegrass, the music is geared around the fingers so you can get by on a very limited chord library. When you get to comping, though, you want to be able to add variety by not only playing the chord but inject multiple inversions and variations of them. You also want to develop good voice leading, no moving any of the fingers more than two or three frets at a time.

When you learn a new chord, immediately learn its name a fret or two below. You learn an Am7b5, thing what shifting it down one fret yields (G#m7b5). Do the same for two frets down (Gm7b5). Yes you may run out of fret real estate if it's in the lower positions, but you get the idea. Same with moving it up one fret (Bbm7b5) and two (Bm7b5).

Understand that if you take this approach to every new chord you learn, you've already effectively mastered it in 1/3 of the 12 keys. If you're mind is really nimble and can think more than 3 and 4 frets out, you've conquered 1/2 to 2/3 of all the keys.

Next step is a mental association with a chord that it might progress to. In the case of our Am7b5, a dominant chord will likely follow, a variation of E7 (E7b9, E9, E13, etc.). When you think chords in chunks like this, the contextual application make the chord more memorable. Adding motion allows your mental synapses to be reinforced by tactile motion. Your fingers literally teach your brain. This is why movement is used so much in elementary music education, moving the body makes the brain remember!

Another trick is immediately learning a chord's inversion. Repeat a set of them until they are comfortable and the next time they appear while you're comping, you'll be able to move fluidly and with little thought. Two or three different "reflexive" inversions of the Am7b5 will come in handy on the 29th chorus of comping "Autumn Leaves."

Live in an era of mobility...

ii V7 I Home Positions
More m7b5 (from the Pros!)
Mark Wilson's Grips
Mandolin Chord Economics
Mando ModeExplorer

Posted by Ted at 1:10 PM

January 21, 2010 | Brilliance isn't always smart.

At the 2010 Winter NAMM show, we recently made arrangements with a major manufacturer to co-op in the production of a signature jazz mandolin (with the JazzMando "brand"). More on this as the project develops, but it brings up the opportunity to discuss what the concept of a "jazz mandolin" actually is. Most instruments will work for jazz; some may have more potential than others for communicating line and playing chromatically than others, but let's offer staff consensus on what we think works for the genre.

Understand there will be some disagreement even on the notion of "jazz." If you talk to a group of European gypsy jazz acoustic musicians, they live in a world of decibel wars with other instruments. They need the piercing crunch of a chop, much as a bluegrass musician, and that's simply not the sound we're talking about. We are more about ballad and single-note melody with a smattering of accompaniment polyphony. This is a concept where a mandolin is more like a clarinet than a cowbell. It's not about punctuation or percussion, it's about line, subtlety and harmonic nuance.

This kind of tone is maximized on an instrument when attention is focused on string fundamental. Without going too deeply into the science of acoustics, let's just say when sound is produced it includes a composition of fundamental and the harmonics above that pitch. Tuvan throat singers and Digeridoo players make their music by varying the harmonics above a low, droning tone (or fundamental), and this is a simple example of what we are talking about. The same happens when you mess with the tone controls on a stereo; the bass and treble give you a different emphasis on which end of the spectrum the speakers will emphasize.

Understand that treble yields definition. This is why microphones designed for speaking are an entirely different animal that one for a musical instrument. The highs are necessary for enunciation and word articulation shaped by the percussive impact of lips and teeth. The highs also project across the room, something needed in a bluegrass jam, but not in a musical serenade. Bass wavelengths betray no proximity.

There's another reason why the emphasis is on string fundamental is relevant to harmonic conflict. The upper partials of an open triad are great for the sympathetic resonance of a barbershop quartet singing pure triads, and the zingy resounding drones of a celtic drone, but once you start throwing upper chord extensions of complex jazz vocabulary, you really get a conflicting harmonic mess. When you listen to the tone of a good jazz guitar, you'll hear a flatter tone (often flatwound strings), less piercing treble, and a string fundamental that allows the harmony to create the complexity and character of the music, not the instrument.

We're prone to use instruments that are capable of sustain, rich fundamental, and ease of closed fingering for the chromatic variety in the often rapidly shifting tonal centers of jazz. We'll sacrifice the percussiveness.

It's a mandolin, not a cowbell.


What makes a jazz mandolin?
Jazz and Bluegrass; how close?
Blowing Through the Phrase
Thinking Good Tone Part 1

Posted by Ted at 3:21 PM

January 14, 2010 | Aug7th FFcP drills

We've just posted another addition to our growing list of FFcP Studies. Rather than going into detail here, click on the link for an explanation as to why this is the 2nd most important scale you can learn to play great jazz. We think it's a bigger deal than Pentatonic Scales.


We've brought it up in our most recent Mandolin Sessions article, Something Old, Something New; new ways of looking at old scales., and you'll find a great application in the upcoming February article.

More on that later; meantime, call up Augmented 11th FFcP and print the PDF to add you to your practice regimen!

Don't miss last weeks Tip on World Dominants; there's a vital connection with this new exercise.

Posted by Ted at 5:53 AM

January 7, 2010 | World Dominants

This may seem a bit rudimentary to most of the JazzMando readership, but soon we're going to be introducing some theory fundamentals that demand everyone is on the same page in understanding the concept of Dominant chords and their place in harmonic function. We introduced this in our first Mandolin Sessions article six years ago, and it might be worth taking time to review if you are new here. (See Understanding the 'ii V7 I' Progression).

You probably hacked away at a V7 the first few chords you learned on the mandolin. You don't even need to know the science behind it, the sound comes so naturally, as does its compulsion to lead to a I chord. Think the song "Happy Birthday," how that first accompanying chord on "HAAA-PY" rolls so intuitively into the I (tonic) chord of the succeeding "BIRTHDAY." Follow up with "TO YOU." There's that V7 chord again, which answers up with another I chord on the end of the next phrase. In C major, it would be G7 C, in D major, it would be A7 D. This play behind the 'V7 I' is the essence of Western European music. Tonic Dominant. Dominant Tonic. The Yin and Yang. All else is just preparing for that primal cadence in the simplest of folk songs, and buried in the most complex Bebop jazz or Stravinsky classical composition.

We will skip the Dominant Preparation chords for now, but let's catalog some different ways of understanding the Dominant and its variations.

V7 and Chord extensions. We add 7th in the most basic four note voicing, but jazzers will be well-versed in chord extensions into 9th, 11th, 13th, and all kinds of variations. Though the chord members are auxiliary and transitory, the function remains the same. Don't let these alterations intimidate you. The extra chord tones are mere flavoring toppings on the same chocolate sundae:


Diatonic Substitutions. Within the major scale, you have two different chords that pretty much function the same way, the V7 or the chord built on the 7th note (whether a triad or a 7th chord). Below you'll see a series of 7th chords based on the C scale, the 5th G& and the 7th can function the same. You can think of it either as a Bm7b5 (labeled a "half-diminished chord" in classical studies) or a rootless 9th chord, based on the G)


Tritone Substitutions. Here's where jazzers can have some fun. Take the tritone substitution of the 5th chord G7, and use Db7 instead. .

TriSub.jpgAltered Chords. The notion of hybridizing the above into a whole new vocabulary is another neat trick. Swapping members of the chord by spelling G7 variations into an "Altered Chord" into voicings including with a b5, #5, b9, #9.

Circle of 5ths. There are other situations that extend (or better precede) a V7 chord with another or a series of V7 of V7 chords. In the key of C, it would be the D7, (V7 of G), and you can progress almost infinitely backwards, using the 'V7 of V7 of V7, etc" ending up with the tonic chord.

These are all different ways to employ the Dominant concept. Not getting wrapped up in the above details, you should start thinking more in terms of what they do than what they are. Understanding the function will help you select the appropriate scales to improvise over them.

More on this later!

Functional thinking...
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 1
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2
Understanding the 'ii V7 I' Progression
Reharmonization Secrets Part 1: Taking the "harm" out of Reharm...

Posted by Ted at 7:22 PM

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