"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."
April 28, 2011 | Don Julin; Jazz/Swing rhythm for mandolin
This week we take a look at an oft ignored topic from staff writer, Don Julin, proper comping techniques. It's a subject easy to take for granted, but if you really want to make the mandolin an important part of the accompaniment force of the ensemble, you'll want to pay close attention. Don weighs in with two basic comping styles for swing/jazz mandolin.
Many mandolin players find themselves at one point or another being attracted to swing and jazz music. The chord changes for this music can seem a bit intimidating at first but I find that that an equally challenging part of this music is the rhythmic drive or groove. Many mandolin player approach jazz from a bluegrass or old time background and discover this sound from either the gypsy jazz recordings of Django Reinhardt, or the western swing sound of Bob Wills. I will try to break this swing rhythm down into two groups consisting of older two beat styles, and more modern four-beat styles.
Often in two-beat swing, the bass player plays mostly two notes per measure similar to country, bluegrass, polka, etc. In this style, the mandolin or rhythm guitar plays four beats (downstrokes) per measure. An important element in this style is the left hand mute. By releasing your left hand immediately after a crisp downstoke the sound of the chord is muted. You can hear this muting style in many of Django's recordings resulting in a 1,2,3,4, sound with a bit of silence between each chord.
Another popular two beat style involves muting only on beats 2 and 4. For this rhythm we let beat 1 sustain (without mute) into beat 2, muting beat 2, and repeat the pattern letting beat 3 sustain into beat 4, muting beat 4. This rhythm has a pulse of long, short, long, short. There are many variations and embellishments to playing good two beat rhythm, but these two ideas will start to get you swingin'.
This is often called modern jazz and the chording instrument has a new function in this groove. In four beat jazz, the bass plays mostly quarter notes (walking bass line) instead of half notes. To contrast this quarter note bass rhythm, one idea is to introduce some rhythmic counterpoint sometimes called comping. One standard comping pattern is to play on beat 1 and then again on the & of beat 2. This works well when you find yourself on a gig with a modern bassist and a good jazz drummer. The drummer will supply eighth notes with a ride cymbal or with brushes on the snare while swinging beats 2 & 4 with his foot closing the hi-hats. The bass player plays mostly quarter notes leaving us, the mandolin players to act more like a piano and play some accents that will push the groove along nicely.
Two-beat rhythms benefit from more than one person playing rhythm. Django many times had two rhythm guitarists. Four-beat (modern jazz) is a little more finicky about this and tends to work best with one person comping at a time.
April 21, 2011 | Best of JM: Build your own flatwound string sets
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 July 30, 2009: "Build your own flatwound string sets"
We've had tremendous success with our JazzMando Family strings. Strung low and light, these flatwound steel strings are the answer to a Maiden's Prayer for the player who plays in closed position more than open strings, as in Jazz, Swing, Cerebral Folk, and Classical music. Players rave about their comfort and their warm tone.
One problem, and it's an issue of a product's strength also being a weakness. The silk wrapping that holds the core down and binds the string at the end of the loop (or ball in the JM10B (now discontinued) can limited the playing area. The strings are also not long enough for the larger scale instruments, the JM11 for a maximum 14-3/8" scale, and the JD13 for a 16-17", let alone octave mandolin or bouzouki. (The JD13 will also not be long enough for some tailpieces, as in the case of a Weber Yellowstone dola, where the inside G & D run short). We've asked Labella about this but they can't make a flatwound without this winding, and the strings are too expensive for us to carry in multiple sizes.
We mentioned in the past our collaboration with D'addario on this, particularly on a string that can double as a mandola OR an octave mandolin; the gauging would be the same. Their process requires no silk wrapping, but despite exhaustive talks that started over two years ago, a pilot prototype is still on the drawing board. The project keeps getting pushed back. See article.) The solution is really quite simple; D'addario is already making this string in their Electric "Chrome" Series for guitar. We've had great success personally making the strings work for acoustic instruments, but it does involve a little minor surgery removing the balls and leaving the loop.
The CG series can be purchased singly; the plain strings come in packs of 10 and the wound in packs of 5. It doesn't hurt to get spares, as it takes a little skill learning how to snip the balls and still leave the loop intact:
The trick is to use a high quality set of wire cutters, or better, if you have access to a set of shop end knippers, the job is pretty easy. The brass in the D'addario ball is pretty soft, so with a little careful pressure, they generally break clean and leave the loop intact.
These are the gauges the flatwound Chrome singles come in. This is great if you want to customize your own, and since they are guitar scale, you should be able to use these in longer mandolin family instruments like mandola, octave mandolin, bouzouki, and mandocello.
Item # Product
CG020 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 020
CG022 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 022
CG024 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 024
CG026 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 026
CG028 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 028
CG030 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 030
CG032 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 032
CG035 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 035
CG038 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 038
CG040 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 040
CG042 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 042
CG045 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 045
CG048 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 048
CG050 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 050
CG052 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 052
CG056 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 056
CG065 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 065
CG075 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 075
CG080 Single XL Chromes Flat Wound 080
This is the target set for mandolin (similar to the Labella JM11) with the following gauges: LE011
A set that could function as both mandola and oshorter scale ctave mandolin sets. (Gauging between these is not all that different among existing mass market offerings.) LE013
CG045 (loop) (possibly CG048)
For our JP Charles 10-string, we've arrived at this (14-3/8" scale): LE011
The point here is you can experiment, land on something that works for your own instrument. The JP Charles is set up with very low action and we've tweaked the gauges over about a month time settling in on this after much revising. You'll probably want to move slowly yourself on these adjustments.
We're still hoping to see the D'addario Flatwound String Project come through. Last talk at the recent Summer NAMM show is Product Development is still very much committed to this, but several other classical guitar string and internal OEM projects have taken priority.
April 14, 2011 | Best of JM: The Basics of Auditioning Instruments
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 March 30, 2007: "The Basics of Auditioning Instruments"
Cohen C# "Sleek Black Beauty" Mandolin: Click pictures for closeup
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.
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 November 12, 2006: "Cataloging Bad Tone"
Not the instrument...
Outside of the obvious reasons a mandolin can sound bad, improper intonation, old strings, improper bridge and fret adjustment, poor quality instrument, really all the faults of bad equipment, it's a good idea to examine all the things the player is doing wrong. We think this is a crucial area of self-discovery in improving playing capability. It's easy to blame the engine when the problem is "operator error." In order to truly understand what good tone is, one must unravel the causes and components of bad tone.
Missing, not milking the sweet spot with the fretting fingers
Inaccurate pick timing (RH/LH coordination)
Choking or failing to hold the tone through to the start of the next note.
Running out of gas, prematurely losing phrase intensity
Tepid pick stroking, lack of "follow-through."
The above is a good, comprehensive start in common faults and areas of player imperfections. You don't hear the really great players struggle with any of these; they've worked hard enough to play well and make getting beyond these appear effortless.
The best way to deal with a checklist like is the strategy of isolating. In your practice regimen, find exercises that deal with only one aspect and extend the amount of time on these and increase the focus by simplifying. If it's a picking problem, don't complicate things by putting lots of notes in the left hand. If it's a sustain or accuracy issue, for goodness sake, slow it down. If you can't play a passage cleanly or accurately slowly, it's not going to sound any better when you speed it up.
Problem: Missing, not milking the sweet spot with the fretting fingers.
Solution: Whole notes and half notes may seem elementary, but not when you try to make each sound resonant and perfect. Your fingers need to be conditioned to where these are, and this can't be subconscious until you've made it thoroughly conscious. Use your ear and allow no half-fretted, fracks, or clams as you play snail-speed scales.
Problem: Inaccurate pick timing (RH/LH coordination)
Solution: If you want your pick to coordinate with the fretting fingers, again you need to slow things down and work on uncomplicated passages. Avoid lots of string crossings, preferably scales or modes, starting with consecutive notes, A, A, A, A, B, B, B, B, C#, C#, C#, C#, etc. and then start to double up the motion A,A,B,B,C#,C# and then on to A, B, C#, etc... Articulation and sustain are a team effort in tone, you can't have a good sound with out both hands working together.
Problem: Choking or failing to hold the tone through to the start of the next note.
Solution: You don't want to "cough" notes with the left hand, so start with all down strokes on a scale or mode. Listen to where finger placement between the frets yields maximum tone and sing it through to the start of the next note. After getting comfortable with this, start alternating with upstrokes.
Problem: Running out of gas, prematurely losing phrase intensity.
Solution: Similar to the preceding problem, the way to make your phrases sound like phrases is to section them off mentality and insert "breath" marks. Plectrum players aren't driven by breathing the way wind instrumentalists are, so we need to be conscious of where phrases start and stop, and not lose intensity along the way. Practice breathing or singing the line as you pick.
Problem: Tepid pick stroking, lack of "follow-through."
Solution: Isolate the pick stroke mechanics in slow scale passages and consecutive notes. Think about a golfer hitting a ball off the tee; it's not just the wind-up and stroke before the ball, it's good contact, and the follow-through stroke. If your attack is sufficient, the pick has to continue on so focus in on where it goes. If you're into the Gypsy Jazz "Rest-stroke" technique, this is a crucial measure; consistently driving the pick to the next string (and stopping) is the way to get maximum tone out of both slow and fast passages.
These are the major components of bad tone to overcome. Some additional minor ones to watch out for include picking too close to the bridge, clicking the extended fingerboard or pickguard, and failing to mute unwanted open strings. That said, the most important thing you can do to improve you playing is not trying to learn how to play many notes, it's how to play them all with good tone.