"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."
One of the ways you can really separate yourself from a crowd of mandolinists, or even guitar players for that matter, is to develop a "voice" in your comping skills. The novice will look at a series of several measures of G7 (as in a G blues song), and simply play the same inversion of the G7 in a four-to-a-bar sequence. While this may be technically correct, it is very vanilla in flavor. Yes, you're supposed to be in the background, but that's not to say you shirk the responsibility of being interesting. We want to show you how you can super charge these not only with inversions, but some benign but compelling connecting chords.
In a recent Mandolin Sessions series, we dove deeply into the use of 3-note V7 chords. We outlined the four basic inversions, and while the theory in the articles may have overshadowed just how cool these are, we just want to review how you can make them work for you in context. The four chords are as follows:
Yes you could play any single one of these chords straight down, but moving around them in pairs can give a fresh take on the same harmonic nature. It's like looking out of the Empire State Building over New York and seeing the same city, but different landscape.
Another thing you can do is alternate with a neighboring Am7 Chord. Since this chord is in the same scale, it fits right in without changing the key.
You can use the Am7 as a connecting chord between the G7 chords:
If know all four versions of the Am7, you can do this all up and down the fretboard. If you're familiar with the Miles Davis classic "All Blues," you may have already been comping this in some form or another.
The real beauty of all this is its movability. You can do all this with different keys by starting them in different inversions. Again, there are only four of them. Try it up two frets in the key of A. Figure it out for C7 and D7, and you're ready to jump into some very dynamic Blues comping!
You can also cross strings and move these onto the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, but observe how good these sound in the thicker 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. The meatiness of the lower register will serve you better in accompanying. They're also easier to play in a firm, rhythm defining pick downstroke.
August 18, 2011 | Keeping it loose. Tension and FFcP
We recently fielded an excellent question regarding the amount of tension used in the fret fingers. Closing up and using the 4th finger over longer periods of time can be stressful, even for seasoned mandolinists.
Ryan asks, "I was wondering if you had any guidance in avoiding tension in the left hand while trying to become proficient in the FFCP exercises. For me, some of those stretches are pretty nasty, and I can't seem to cleanly play some positions without squeezing hard with my left thumb against the back of the neck-this has actually caused so much tension in my thumb that I have had to take an extended break from playing in order from playing. Obviously, there has to be something wrong in my technique, and I am wondering if you have heard from others encountering similar issues and how one can correct this issue."
Our diagnosis would address one of two issues. One who comes from a guitar-playing background, might make the mistake of approaching the mandolin neck like a guitar. The thumb does not rest in the middle of the back of the neck like a guitar, which would cause an uncomfortable grip. Often the thumb slide more halfway up to the top of the neck, sometimes rubbing the neck binding. Mike Marshall does an excellent video demonstration on his video lesson over on the D'Addario Lesson Room website. Answer is at about 1:42, but watch the whole thing. Part of the issue could be the way the mandolin is being held in general.
The other issue might be the string and height set-up mandolin itself. If you have a budget instrument with high action or overly heavy strings, the FFcP approach is extremely challenging. We recommend something in a medium light or lighter gauge, and of course, a professional set-up job.
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From Mar 22, 2007: "Signature Tone"
Is that you playing?
We've mentioned a few thoughts on tone in a recent "Tips and Tricks." It really can't be over-appreciated, the notion that our tone and approach to creating the sound out of the instrument is more than just a matter of playing a bunch of notes...
Site Author, Ted Eschliman observes, "The desk out of my office I share with three co-workers has me physically positioned so that my back is almost to the door. It could be a little unnerving blind to coming and going of traffic, not knowing who's 'sneaking up' behind me, but the office is on a mezzanine halfway between the 1st and 2nd floor of a 90 year-old building. The creaking stairsteps almost always yield enough aural clues to tell me not only that someone is coming but who is coming.
"Even without the benefit of sight, it's easy to get familiar with and detect certain footwear (hiking boots, dress shoes, squeaky sneakers) as well as the pattern or cadence of certain 'signature' walks. Heavier people generally clomp, lighter folk patter; the energetic prance purposefully up the steps, the more sedentary sort of sloth their way. It's amazing what your ears can tell you about the person, and not just body type, but personality and often, mood. The fast and deliberate 'stomp' betrays a businesslike efficiency, the slow lazy 'plod' proclaims 'I'll get there when I get there.'"
This is great insight into a mandolinist's playing style and personality. Have you ever analyzed a player's technique and approach to execution? Notice what traits in playing character identify aspects of the person as well as the playing mechanism.
Meticulousness, the concern for accuracy on all the notes, not just some. Sustain, the aim for long linear melody, well-phrased and controlled. How much do these effectively indict the expressiveness of the artist? In a truly great performance, is this not a glimpse into the player's soul?
How about expression and aggressiveness? Does heavy repetitive pounding tell you about the musician's deliberateness, sense of purpose, or that he/she is just a clod? The opposite, a light pecker who barely stabs at the strings with the pick; Is this the mark of someone timid or insecure?
None of the observations are intended to pass judgment, merely observe. After you've listened to others play, try analyzing your own sound. Once a musician has mastered the basics of playing, it's time to reveal the soul. Technique becomes aesthetic, and if you're far enough along in your playing, take time out for some self-analysis; listen to recordings of your own playing. Not just the notes, listen to your music. What aspects of your personality and character are being revealed; sloppy, neat? Aggressive, soothing? Purposeful or playful? Striking or sweet?
Nothing wrong with being a little of either at different times. Matter of fact your playing would be quite boring if you didn't possess some aesthetic variety, but the question remains, what aspects of you are there in the music when you play?
Ponder, is your goal to sound like "you," and if so, what practice techniques can you adopt to make this so?
August 4, 2011 | Best of JM: Improvising--Throwing mud on the wall
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From Jul 16, 2009: "Throwing mud on the wall"
Sometimes we let fear and intimidation prevent us from tackling the challenge of creating our own art. The very notion of improvisation strikes terror in the heart of even many advanced players, let alone novices; we steer clear of public (maybe even private) embarrassment, not wanting the responsibility of wrong or inappropriate notes.
Here's a hint: start with some right notes. Look at the chord structure of your chorus and determine the most obvious of notes. Picking out the tonics should be the easiest, but go for something more harmonically relevant like the 3rds of the chords (later the 7ths). These can be your reference points as you splotch pieces of mud on the wall.
Your next step is to work from those points, throwing more "mud" trying to fill in around them. Use passing tones, small licks and riffs, familiar musical phrasings, but think of it not as creating an entire improvised chorus, but as connecting splotches, a network of interrelated notes.
Keep the wall sparse at first, don't give in to the urge to fill it with notes, and again be sure that your 3rds and 7ths are aurally apparent. Drive your in-between notes to them, not just throwing random mud. There's an old saying that if you through enough mud on a wall, eventually it will stick; that's not our goal here! We're not talking about creating a wall of mud, rather a wall of art.
Each chorus is a different wall, although they can be similar. As you build a solo, there will be a climax, or perhaps a series of climactic intensity; those are when your wall will have more mud, but don't underestimate the power of space.
Jazz is all about the balance of calculation and intuition. Start with the calculation, and fill in with the intuition. The big secret is the more experienced you get at it, the more the calculation becomes intuition.