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"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."
For some players, depending on the way their hands and wrists are built, or simply through developing bad habits early on, the first five or six frets of the E string can sound weak or pinched. The discussion will be very relevant to you if you've played literature on other areas of the fretboard and suddenly, you lose tone when playing anywhere from the first fret "F" to 5th fret A on your E string.
If you've ever fiddled on "Devil's Dream" in the key of A, "Sailor's Hornpipe" in G, or (speaking of devilish) "Blackberry Blossom" in G, this may resonate with you. Some players will transpose Blackberry up a third to B just to give a little better finger flexibility in narrower frets. This may be because of the shorter fret span, but it might also be due to the "angle" issue we'll discuss.
Holding the Left Hand "normally" (whatever that means), your fingers need to be able cross span comfortably from 1st string (E) to 4th string (G), meaning your fingers are generally perpendicular to the neck. This is very comfortable for the lowest strings, but most will find the E string (maybe A, too) a bit cramped, and that means trouble in two areas.
1. Finger pad coverage. Notice you play with more fingertip and less pad with the drastic curve necessary for effective string contact. Less flesh often results in a pinched sound.
2. Finger grip. A perpendicular wrist angle thwarts the maximum control and flexibility the fingers require to not only cover with any degree of strength, but to move in and out of position (see "Ulnar Deviation" below).
The solution here is quite simple. By curving your hand slightly toward the body of the instrument, adjusting your fingers to angle closer to parallel to the strings, you not only get more finger pad, the wrist will loosen up significantly.
Put your mandolin down and hold out your hand, palm straight up and wiggle your fingers in "air mandolin" motion, tapping your palms with your 3rd and 4th finger. Now, do the same only curve your hand slightly toward the floor. Notice how much less tension there is in your forearms. Also notice your fingers can actually reach farther.
Take this concept of wrist angle, and add "slant" to your fingers as pictured. As you tap on the fingerboard, enjoy the added dexterity this position offers in this string area.
Hmm... Flexibility, control, tone, relaxed. What could be wrong with this? Essentially, there is a point of diminishing returns in that this is not as effective for your lower strings (G & D). You'll want to discover for yourself what the best angle is for you fingers and hand size.
The point is to free your fingers up and relax the wrist. You may be quite surprised at what this does for your tone, especially in the "E-zone."
A Fiddler's Perspective. Interestingly, this issue is compounded in violin, which unlike mandolin, is held with the fingerboard is parallel to the ground (not perpendicular). Nissa de la Torre, professional violinist and educator tells us, "you do not want, what is called, "ulnar deviation" Simply put, the pinky-side of the arm (where the Ulna is) should be more or less a straight line from the arm through the hand. The movement of the wrist back-and-forth or left to right is a negative movement when repeating. (Up and down is good!) The placement of the left finger as we are discussing causes this Ulnar Deviation." She tells us many beginning violinists suffer from this, and the habit seems to stick until the opportunity to player in the upper positions of the violin and/or adding vibrato to their playing.
Five years ago, jazz mandolin royalty Don Stiernberg offered some pearls of wisdom in the Mandolin Cafe resource pages in a personal interview. One of the questions asked had to do with rooted voicings vs. rootless on the mandolin, and what contexts would determine the choice between the two. For example, how "modern" did he want his jazz playing to sound?
Of course the bluegrass or Bill Monroe voicings have roots in them, sometimes two! And that's how that style should sound, as you know. The repeated notes and lack of color tones yield a more percussive sound that the ensemble needs. Once in awhile I'll sneak in a rootless chord, a sixth chord like G6 fingered 4-2-5. Other modern bluegrass players do this too, I notice, mostly as punctuation at the end of a phrase.
In jazz playing the root chord can be expressed as a Maj6, Maj7, or just plain major. I'll avoid roots there too, since that's what the bass or guitar or piano might play, and the additional color tones (6, 9, 13, etc.) fit the style and "widen out" the sound of the band. Looking at the common denominator progression, ii7-V7-I, I usually play the minor chord straight, with a root, maybe adding a ninth if anything. So if the chart says Am7, I just play Am! Not sure why, I just hear the cadences better that way I guess. Similarly, the dominant chord usually contains a root too, but I'll freely add tensions or color tones. So D7 would have the D in it, but perhaps be replaced by a b9 or #9, or have a #5 or b5 or 13 added.
Now the "tough" question! Certainly the aspiration is to be as modern as possible, in terms of being able to improvise and have something to say in any harmonic situation or groove. The reality though is, I've got my hands full trying to cope with major and minor ii-V-Is, connecting chords, and a few very basic chord substitutions. Some of my improvisational heroes seem to be able to play cool melodies, inside or outside, over ANY type of progression. I'm thinking now of George Benson, Mike Stern, Toots Thielemans. I'd like to have that type of vocabulary and flexibility, but... hey, I'd like to play for the Cubs too!
Also, this question could be answered various ways depending on what constitutes "modern." Certainly some of the things Bix Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong did in the '20s are as modern as anything that came since. Wes Montgomery's concepts were modern, many unique to him, others assimilation of Parker or Coltrane ideas. But as fresh as his work sounds, he unfortunately left us in 1968. Is that modern? Thinking that way, I seem to be drawn most to jazz styles up to about the 1950's I guess--Swing, Bebop, and the like. The modal things, Coltrane changes, and post modern things don't come as naturally to me, but again, I'd like to become more conversant in all the concepts and have them at the ready. I really like playing tunes with lots of changes and trying to make connected melody lines: standards, Bop heads, Latin things, even pop tunes from my time. But the concepts for improv that I apply to these were probably all worked out by Charlie Parker time in the late 1940s.
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From September 16, 2010 | Pick propulsion
Last week we looked at the "strike," the articulation point of attack where pick meets string. It's an important concept to understand, but it's only a part of the picture. The next issue in good mandolin tone is timing, coordinating the left and right hand to get the maximum amount of sustain through a succession of repeated notes.
The metaphor of a playground merry-go-round is our picture in a fourth dimensional look at picking. We've used it before where you imagine pushing a child round and round, keeping the speed constant. Once you get it going, any variation in your push can cause the speed to falter. Hold your grip too long, you slow it down. Don't push in sync, and you interfere with the smoothness of the turn.
The "stop and start" impact is not unlike bad pick technique. Unfortunately, the professional Bluegrass realm is full of examples of this kind of "motorboat" effect, the propeller-like sound of pick and string at high tempos, and that "thup-pa thup-pa thup-pa thup-pa" sound is arguably unpleasant even at pyrotechnical speed. The start of a pick should never drastically impact the end of the next note, and in show-off soloing, you hear this once in awhile. Good picking is about starting the sound, not stopping it.
Effective pick control starts at slow tempos, and progresses in players only when developing the ability to intentionally drive the tone one note through to the next. We introduced an exercise to help you hear this in our Lydian DUDU drill from the Getting Into Jazz Mandolin book. The goal is to be able to play it when moving fret to fret, as well as crossing strings. The single note repetition at the end of the 2nd measure gives you the opportunity to setle into a well-timed swing of the pick.
May 7, 2015 | Mandolin Set-up E-Book by Rob Meldrum
The whole DIY (Do it Yourself) mode is not something we wholeheartedly embrace. Leaving things into the hands of the trained professional is not necessarily lazy, and it more often yields better results. That said, there's still something to understanding how things work, so you can assure they can continue to work. You may not be one to change the oil in your car, but knowing the basics of what the components of the engine are, what oil does for them and why frequent changes are critical can be the difference of years in the life of an automobile.
We feel the same about the mandolin. Never one to tinker, it still is a good investment in the upkeep and optimum performance to know what it is that makes a bridge intonate properly, what causes fret buzz, what an adjustable truss rod can do to address seasonal changes, what tweaks can (and can't) be made with an adjustable bridge, and a myriad of tiny tricks with pencil lead, vaseline, and painters tape.
Several years ago, Pacific Northwest based Robert Meldrum started to document his own personal journey in understanding these basics of mandolin set-up, and it paid off for him in playing enjoyment, let alone shop set-up charges, although the hobbyist is the first to admit the hands-on approach can be the preferred option for those who'd rather not tinker. He's created an ebook that he's given freely to the mandolin world, and we've had a chance to look through it and glean some keen insights.
Again, the book doesn't replace a good repair tech. He's posted a couple YouTube videos that demonstrate an extreme--taking a $50 import and making it somewhat playable. Frankly, there's not a lot of risk in that level of quality, but with some attention you can often get an okay starter.
The book is available in PDF format (electronic) by contacting him directly. Send an email to rob.meldrum at gmail dot com (use proper format, not bot protected) with "mandolin setup" in the subject line and he will mail the link.