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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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March 31, 2011 | Best of JM: Clear tone in between the dots

The weekly "Tips and Tricks" column will be on a temporary indefinite hiatus while we finish up a book project. Meantime, enjoy the popular archive material below.
From August 24, 2007: "Clear tone in between the dots"

Listening to amazing players like Chris Thile, Evan Marshall, and Mike Marshall, it's always mind-boggling how they produce clear, bell-like tone in the upper frets of the mandolin. Not only can they play fast, each note is clean and rich with tone.

This is hard for beginners and even most intermediate players, getting a pleasant sound (let alone at high speed) requires a lot of dedication, and not everybody is willing to work at achieving it. We suggest taking advantage of a previous FFcP exercise for tackling this, the FFcP Chromatic Mastering. The concept is simple, you start with 1st FFcP on one fret, do the 2nd FFcP on the next fret up, the 3rd FFcP one up, and the 4th FFcP one more. Though we designed this to start on the 3rd fret (or 3rd position), if you really want to put it to use, start on the 7th fret, and play "between the dots" of the 7th and 10th frets. 1st finger on 7, 2nd finger on 8, 3rd on 9, and pinky on 10.

Start Slow. Play slowly, and continue to play slowly. (Did we mention you want to slow this down?) The goal here is tone. Work these starting on both the G and D courses and be conscious of this tone checklist:

Start cleanly. Each pick stroke should enjoy the fruits of a well-place fret finger. The sweet spot must be confident and secure. No fracking; each note must be the most beautiful note you've every played in your life.

Sustain forever. If you've done your job starting the note, this is exponentially easier, but you want to keep the tone alive as long as you can. A healthy pick stroke helps, but keep the fretting finger there as long as you can before the next note takes over.

Anticipate subsequent notes. This is a timing thing, but you want to be sure you are ready for the next note, meaning your hand needs be in position to roll or barre for the next clean, secure sound.

If you can do these at slow speeds, eventually you can handle it fast. The converse is simply not true. Plan on spending a few weeks on this. You'll be amazed at how much better your voice will be in this register of the fretboard.

Download: Chromatic Mastering PDF


Review Practice Tips: FFcP Chromatic Mastering.

Posted by Ted at 7:42 AM

March 24, 2011 | V7 Melodic Patterns

We spent some time a few weeks ago looking at combinations and inversions we can adapt to a Dominant 7th (V7) chord. This time out we want to look at melodic opportunities in improvising around the V7 chord. As we mentioned, in 12-bar blues, we have entire songs made up of V7 chords, and knowing how to extract the best notes is crucial in effective soloing.

The most basic choice is to take the chord's major scale, and lower the 7th scale degree. If you're into labels, this is called the Mixolydian mode.

A Major Scale: A B C# D E F# G# A
A Mixolydian: A B C# D E F# G natural A

In our functional hierarchy, the 3rd (Major) and the 7th (Minor) of the group of notes expresses the V7, and anything else supports the defining character. Notes of the scale help, accidentals give variety, but you need the C# and the G natural to convey the essence of the harmony.

In a D7 chord you have:

DMajor Scale: D E F# G A B C# D
D Mixolydian: D E F# G A B C natural D

If you were playing the blues, you'd want to use both scales, and for character, include the minor 3rd and diminished 5th for flavoring, but again it's the 3rd and 7th of each scale that communicates its harmonic nature. Rather than start each note on its root, how about some ergonomic efficiency and smooth voice leading starting the batch on the same notes, in this case the A. On a fretboard, it would look like this in the lower octave:

A7path.jpg D7path.jpg

Notice the red notes are not only the only notes that are different in the two patterns, they are also the most important ones in defining the "A7ness" and the "D7ness." There's also a distinct geometric relationship we can pull out, not only in different octaves of the scales, but in different keys. You may recall a progression of 5ths we mapped out in our "Lizard Ear Chords" series at


You could start the notes on other fingers using the FFcP approach and really open up the possibilities up, down, and across the fretboard, but for now, just work on the A7/D7 combination in the lower octaves, with the 1st FFcP diagrammed above. Try repetitive measures on the A7/D7, and if you want to finish out a 12-bar Blues, all you have to do is add the E7 notes by moving the D7 up two frets.

A7path2.jpg D7path2.jpg

One thing you want to get away from is making your solos sound like you're practicing scales, so try experimenting with both octaves moving up in thirds or fourths. Start in the middle of the scale and go down and back, up and back. Include arpeggios of the A7 and D7 chord. Look to some of the variety in the FFcP exercises to include some melodic variety.

And when you're ready, try other keys, D7/G7, C7/F7, F7/Bb7, Eb7/Ab7. Go nuts!

Two-chord jam; feed the beast.
Moving Forward; Melodic Progression
Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes.
Playing musically: Part 3, play with direction
Blues 501 Jazz!

Posted by Ted at 2:46 PM

March 17, 2011 | Going outside with Pentatonics

Chief Research Assistant and guest JazzMando columnist, Mark Wilson returns this week to dig us deeply into a fascinating concept of using a very simple familiar musical element, and developing it into something aurally enticing, quite common amongst the Bebop jazz traditionalists. He reintroduces the five not patter we all know as the Pentatonic scale, and shows us how we can supercharge our improvisation over variations of the V7 (Dominant 7th) chord. Mark has included a valuable accompaniment track (MIDI file and MP3) along with a terrific two-page exercise worksheet.

Hold onto your hats!

Going outside with Pentatonics
Mark Wilson

Howdy MandoJazzers!

Almost every mandolinist knows and loves the Pentatonic scale. This lesson takes something you already know and shows you how to apply it in new ways to get different results.

The Pentatonic scale consists of five notes selected from the major scale. The selected notes are the scale root, the 2nd degree, the 3rd degree, the 5th degree and the 6th degree of the major scale (1, 2, 3, 5, 6). We love pents because they sounds like a cross between an scale and an arpeggio. The C Major Pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, and A. So, this is a good choice to play over a C Major chord.

Lets talk about using Pentatonics to play over a Dominant 7th chord. The term "Dominiant 7th" means a major triad with a flat-7th on top (1-3-5-b7). It occurs naturally as the five chord in a major key. For this exercise, lets continue to talk the key of C Major. C Major contains the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. If you count from the C, the 5th note in the scale is G, so the five chord is a G7 chord.

The G7 chord has the notes G, B, D, F. Thinking back to Pentatonic usage now, lets look at using a G pentatonic scale over this G7 chord. The G pentatonic scale consists of the 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 degrees in the G Major scale (It is a G Pentatonic, right?), so those notes are G, A, B, D and E. The question to ask here is this: Do any of the notes in the G Pentatonic scale clash with notes in the C Major scale (the scale from which the G7 chord is formed. The answer is no because all the notes in the G pentatonic scale are also in the C Major scale. So this means you can play the G Pentatonic scale over a G7 chord (which we know functions as a five chord in the key of C.) This is all the background.

Here is the meat of the matter: Other Pentatonic scales can be played over a G7 chord, too. Lets take for example a G7(#9) chord. So, here is how you spell a G7(#9) chord: G, B, D, F, A#. The ninth degree in the scale is an A, and we sharp it to make it a #9. Everybody knows this sound as the "Hendrix" chord because Jimi used it in "Foxy Lady."

Enharmonically, an A# is also a Bb. Lets look at the notes in the Bb Pentatonic scale: Bb, C, D, F, and G. All those notes are in the G7 chord except the C, but since the G7 is in the key of C it is okay to play C. And, the Bb Pentatonic scale has an A# (the Bb), which is the G7's #9 note. So you can play Bb Pentatonic scale of a G7 chord. The Bb Pentatonic natuarlly provides the chord tones of the G7(#9) chord.

Other Pentatonic scales can be played over a G7 chord that provide various extensions and alterations to the G7 chord. They are:

1) Ab minor Pentatonic gives a G7(b9,#9,b5,#5) chord because it has the notes Ab, Bb, B, Db and Eb.

2) Bb major Pentatonic gives a G7(#9) chord because it has the notes Bb, C, D, F and G. (remember from above?)

3) C major Pentatonic gives a G7sus chord because it has the notes C, D, E, G and A. The C is the sus4 note.

4) Db major Pentatonic gives a G7(b5,#5,b9,#9) chord because it has the notes Db, Eb, F, Ab and Bb.

5) Eb major Pentatonic gives a G7(#5,#9) chord because it has the notes Eb, F, G, Bb and C.

6) F major Pentatonic gives a G7sus chord because it has the notes F, G, A, C and D. The C is the sus4 note.

All these different chords have their own sound. We've include in this lesson a PDF file link below containing notes and tab of the above examples, and an MP3 file containing a practice track that goes exactly with the written music in the PDF.

Play the practice track and - slowly - figure out and play each pentatonic scale over the chords. Some of them will sound very "outside" but that is good, right? Follow the chart and change pentatonic scale when the chords change. Play it slowly so the new sounds have time to settle into your ears.

Download 2 Page PDF: Pentatonics for Dominant 7ths.


Hear: sound.gif MP3 accompaniment track
Use: sound.gifMIDI file accompaniment track
Hear scales: sound.gifMIDI file scales only

Jazzed Pentatonics
Enhanced Pentatonics; What Goes Up Must Come Down.
Pentatonic revisited
Tetrachordal Approach to Major Scale Modes
Lateral Tetrachords

Posted by Ted at 9:19 AM

March 10, 2011 | The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 3 with Don Julin

This week we get a third installment on the topic of the 'ii V7 I' chord progression from staff writer, Don Julin. You'll want to check this the previous links to the first two articles as well as some related material on the website. Don weighs in, "I feel that many players try to play jazz without a solid understanding of what key they are in at any given moment. They seem to know many jazz or theory terms (tritone sub, altered dominant, whole tone scale, etc) without the ability to play a song that changes keys."

He takes jazz theory out of the lab and gives us some real world context in the video below. Enjoy!


The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 3: Playing "Inside"
Don Julin

There are many elements to jazz that make it attractive to musicians and listeners alike. The slinky timing that can be called swing, groove, in the pocket, etc., the spontaneous interaction of the musicians creating melodies and accompaniment, the chromatic quality of music that frequently changes keys, and of course the jaw-dropping virtuoso chops of some jazz players. In this column I would like to address the simple concept of tonal centers or keys.

You may know about altered notes, (b5, b9, #11, etc.) and Altered Scales, (whole tone scales, modes, diminished scales) but struggle with the basic understanding of how to play music when the keys are changing at a fairly rapid pace. The first step is to understand what key you are in at any given time. Let's take a look at a common chord progression in two keys.

Commonly referred to as a 'ii V7 I', this progression is in the key of G major because all of the notes that make up these chords come from the G major scale. The G major scale is made up of the notes G,A,B,C,D,E,F#,G. Notice how Am7 (A,C,E,G) contains the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th notes in the scale. D7 (D,F#,A,C) contains the 5th, 7th, 2nd, and 4th notes in the scale. Gmaj7 (G,B,D,F#) contains the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes in the scale.

This one is a 'ii V7' in the key of Bb major due to the fact that all of the notes that make up these chords come from the Bb major scale. The Bb major scale is made up of the notes Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. Notice how Cm7 (C, Eb, G, Bb) contains the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th notes in the scale. F7 (F, A, C, Eb) contains the 5th, 7th, 2nd, and 4th notes in the scale.

Many of the really "cool" or "blue" notes are outside of the key, but before we can effectively use them, we need to be able to play inside. Improvising effectively in music that modulates through a series of keys requires understanding all 12 keys, both intellectually and physically. I believe in position playing or the ability to stay in one position while changing keys. The other ingredient is melody. In general, if you sing a melody or at least hear it in your head, it will sound good. If our melody is based from a finger pattern or some mathematical formula we run the risk of it sounding like an academic exercise, not a melody. After we can create melodies inside the scales we can begin to study the art of playing chord tones, blue notes, approach notes, altered notes, and all the notes that give jazz it's distinctive sound. So the basic rule here is "Learn to color inside the lines first".

Link to video: Playing "Inside"

Contact Don at
Don Julin's free lessons on YouTube

The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 1
The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 2
Understanding the 'ii V7 I': Tonal Micro-centers
Giant Steps; 'ii V7 I' Lab
'Functional thinking...

Posted by Ted at 6:53 AM

March 3, 2011 | 3-note Chord Dominants; Part 3 (Passing chords)

Our third and final installment of of our series on 3-note V7 chords gives us a trick for putting smoother motion into our extended dominant chord progression. As we mentioned in Part 1, you can energize long, stagnant sections of playing the same dominant chord over many measures. We introduced some variations (or inversions), and while these added some interest to the music, they skipped around an awful lot. The best movement rarely transitions more than two frets at a time so we want to level things up with something we'll refer to as passing chords.

You've probably heard of passing notes (or passing tones) and the idea is the same. You use harmonically neutral voices, chord members that remain in the same diatonic key, but move nothing larger than a benign step in between. They don't alter or affect the chord progression, and they connect chord tones within the same key, without imposing any sort of harmonic agenda or intent.

Then again, maybe you haven't thought about it that deeply.

Since our V7 inversions leap up the fretboard in sequence, we can put a chord in between that doesn't change the overall chord progression of the music and round out the motion for both fingers and ear. What we are doing is taking the minor7 chord above it, and use the closest inversion. Here, we use the Bm7 with the home A7 as the transition chord:

A7root.jpg Bm7root.jpg A71st.jpg

We can continue this on up the fretboard:

A71st.jpg Bm71st.jpg A72nd.jpg Bm72nd.jpg A73rd.jpg

Of course, we start running out of frets, but the block relationships within the key remain the same, and your choice of which inversion to use will depend on how much fretboard real estate you have:

A73rd.jpg Bm73rd.jpg A7root8va.jpg

Let's put that last one in a different key so your fingers aren't struggling to breathe in the upper fret stratosphere:

D73rd.jpg Em73rd.jpg D7root.jpg

For the theory geeks, it could be ascribed that with the notes D, F# A, (sans B) some of the inversions of the Bm7 are really just a simple D chord. This is moot in the context of passing chords. It's not necessary to get overly analytical. The point of all this is to familiarize yourself with the connecting ligaments of a "walking" dominant progression, albeit, one that doesn't harmonically "progress." If you want to substitute the B for the A, it works just as well. It's the old "is it a ii7 or a IV?" dilemma, and it really does not matter.

Sing the instrumental introduction of "Sesame Street" in your head. Can you hear this progression being used? How about the first part of "All Blues?" Same thing! This is a very valuable tool to breathing life into many so called three-note chord songs.

Don't forget using these in 12 bar blues patterns too!

3-note Chord Dominants; Part 1 (Inversions)
3-note Chord Dominants; Part 2 (Circle of Fifths)
Easing into Modal Jazz
Spelling out the Chords. Melodically
What you can do with a V7 chord: Declaring Dominants

Posted by Ted at 9:05 AM

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