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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 26, 2015 | Best of JM: Fresh improv; spicing up your V7 chords

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From August 15, 2013 | Fresh improv; spicing up your V7 chords

We're looking for a little "flavor" when we improvise. Great improvisation doesn't just come out of nowhere, it's derived from simple mechanical tools and taken to the next level with inspiration and intuition. You know about using major and minor scales, modes and the elementary fodder that some great music can come out with some simple tricks.

You know that the major scale contains a pattern that all the modes come out of. It's just a matter of starting the major on a different note to express the pattern that we know as Dorian, Mixolydian, Lydian, and the others. You know the minor scales are based on variations of the Aeolian mode, manipulating the 6th and 7th scale degrees to create the Harmonic, Melodic, and Natural minor scales, depending on the vertical (chord) context of the music.

We've mentioned a fun scale that takes the Major scale, raises the 4th and lowers the 7th. We call it the Augmented 11th scale (the 11th is the 4th) with its implied (lowered) dominant 7th scale degree. We've also looked behind the curtain to reveal it's the same pattern of notes that you find in a Melodic minor, and Altered scale, but like the church modes, the sequence starts on different notes.

If you aren't already familiar with the Aug 11th scale, review this article:
Cool sounds with a simple new scale

We claim it's the second most important scale for a jazzer to learn, only surpassed by the Major scale. What we want to do now is introduce a way to inject this into one of the most important progressions in Western European music, the 'V7 I' cadence.

Tonic/Dominant with Aug11th

Using our FFcP approach, here are 4 different ways to finger an Aug11th scale, on four different pitches:


Here's your trick of the day. If you get this into your fingers, ears, and eventually brain, you'll be able to inject this into about any V7 (Dominant 7th) chord for a tasteful departure. What you want to do is start the scale 1/2 step above the tonic.

Sub Aug 11th scale 1/2 step up:


The above pattern is in the key of C, but rather than stick with the boring notes of the G7 chord, a C scale based on the chordal notes of G, B, D, F, and the passing tones of A, C, E, substitute the Aug 7th scale based on Db (1/2 step above tonic C). Theory Nerd alert: You may already be aware of Tritone subs, this variation of the Db scale gives you some important tones, the G and Cb , which is the root G, and enharmonic spelling of B natural in the key of C.

One of the dangers of playing any scale in improvisation is sounding like you're playing scales. We want to immediately suggest a simple variation of the scale to introduce some skips as you practice this.

Steppin' out: vary from scale.


Here's a PDF of an exercise you can use to expand these to the other FFcP possibilities. Download it and give it a try. We give you a 'V7 I' in the arbitrary keys of C, B, A, and D.

Download PDF pdf_sm.gif Tonic/Dominant: Aug11th FFcP

At the end of the exercise, we give you more variations of the Aug 11th FFcP you can use to journey farther than the 1st variation. Try injecting these in your practice as you familiarize your fingers and ears.


How about some accompaniment:

sound.gif 'V7 I' Audio


Cool sounds with a simple new scale
Hungry for music theory
Aug7th FFcP
New FFcP! Augmented 11th Exercises
Fresh Material for the V7 Chord; Django's Castle.

Posted by Ted at 8:33 AM

March 18, 2015 | Melodic "progression."

There are two different perceptions of the "direction" in music, horizontal and vertical. Music can be melody, it can be chords, and usually a combination of both. When one is expressed, the other is often implied; in the case of chord melody playing, a stream of chords, the highest note is perceived aurally as a melody. When you listen to a melody, there is always some degree of harmonic implication. Both are subject to interpretation and context, but a good musician will always take this into account, whether consciously or intuitively.

We've mentioned the concept of "Gravity" notes in previous articles (see links below). Within a major scale, you have note are part of the chord, notes that pass to notes that are in the chord, and a third very important function, the notes that propel harmonically to either the notes in the key of the tonal center or the upcoming tonal center in the song.


This is easiest to understand in the context of a major scale when we listen to the pull of the 7 to 1, the 4 to 3, the 6 to 5, and the 2 to 1. Arguably, the first two (7 to 1, 4 to 3) are the strongest and most compelling. The other two can be somewhat tamped, especially when we add the extended members to 7th chords, G9, Eb13, etc.

Why is this important? If you aren't conscious of it, at least intuitively, your improvising can be very bland. Knowing which notes lead, and which notes land can make your solos exponentially more intentional and focused. Simply put, the audience will think you know what you are doing. The solo is less happenstance, more expressive.

This is a big problem for the folk/bluegrass musician who relies heavily on pentatonic scales. Even though the meat of the chord is in the scale, the tension notes of 4 and 7 are absent. In more progressive jazz chord vocabularies, the sound comes off as blather. We won't go into detail here, but the jazz musicians famous for using pentatonic aren't playing ones based on the roots, rather on some of the upper extensions of the chord (see Jazzed Pentatonics).

Back to the major scale, we've integrated the "pulls" into our FFcP exercises (the last two measures of the patterns), and provided a more concentrated exercise to develop this called "Guides & Gravity." Playing through these in all keys will help your fingers get used to their place on the fretboard, and over time, your ear gets better acclimated to the sound.

Have fun! Print exercise: Guides & Gravity.

Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes.
Three Four Pull: Foregoing the Fourth Finger Frack.
Enhanced Pentatonics: What Goes Up Must Come Down.

Posted by Ted at 4:36 PM

March 12, 2015 | Giving up open fingerings?

We see this question posted on the message boards every now and then regarding FFcP versus scales with open strings. We're compelled to remind everyone that this was never meant to be an "either or" situation. The FFcP approach is always meant to be a tool for playing and not and end to itself. In our book, Getting Into Jazz Mandolin, we even mention, now that you've mastered FFcP, go back to adding open strings again.

We offer the following review...


For the folk/bluegrass musician, the notion of closing up fingerings and forsaking the open strings seems very much counterintuitive. The majority of the repertoire is based on open string keys, songs played within the relative comfort and safety of of G, D, or A. In those keys, you not only have the root of the key in an open string, you have that important 5th (D, A, E) to ring out in the Tonic chord and Dominant. You can strum and ring all you want, sometimes with a forgivable dispensation of missed strings. So why worry about closing things up and torturing the pinky with that 7th fret stretch? Let's look at four reasons:

Horn Keys. The church hymnal strikes fear in the heart of many a novice mandolinist. Keys of F, Bb, Db are not uncommon as the literature is written for voice register. Same thing with Broadway tunes and you have an entire body of jazz written for the sax and trumpet. Understand if an Eb alto sax is trying to play in the key of A with the rest of the band, he/she has to think in F#, which explains why so much "horn" music is in the keys of Eb (C on the a/sax) and Bb. Friendly to the mandolin? Definitely not if you're expecting to use much in the way of open strings, especially on those critical notes of tonic and dominant.

Transposability. So you learn the FFcP, study and master all kinds of patterns that are now movable. So what do you gain? THE WORLD! You can move intuitively across strings and frets, and now you're not thinking note names, you're thinking scale degrees and patterns. Some might argue you aren't "thinking" at all any more--just "doing." In other words, you improvise through an intuition based on sound and feel. You "sing" the music through your fingers. We've enjoyed the feedback of many who have achieved this sate of FFcP Zen. "The notes are just coming to my fingers from nowhere!"

Range extension. This goes along with the transposablity; you now aren't limited to the lower frets of the mandolin but are free to securely wander in the upper altitudes of the fretboard. Once you adapt to the closer spacing of the 9th through 15th frets, you are practically handed a new instrument. This is a cool way to get around.

Tonal variety. Yes, the resonant zing from an open string is natural sonic beauty. There is also an articulation consistency when a succession of notes is completely closed in fingers. Play the open D on your mandolin and follow up with a 7th fret (G string) D; you'll hear a tonal difference. One isn't necessarily better or worse, just more consistent with the other notes you're playing in a sequence. Also, if you're really in control, you can get a subtle vibrato on a long sustained note. This is why orchestral musicians actually prefer closed over open fingerings.

Posted by Ted at 4:18 PM

March 5, 2015 | What you're making isn't so good...


It was posted four years ago, but it's as relevant as ever, an excerpt from writer Ira Glass about the creative process. It should prove encouraging to many who struggle learning a new skill, especially on a musical instrument.


Video Link: Ira Glass on the Creative Process

It's short enough to watch a couple times.

Posted by Ted at 8:03 AM

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