Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
Tips & Tricks Mel Bay Mandolin Sessions








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."

ii V7 I Home Positions

Why three note chords?

Don Stiernberg (who picked this up from the great Jethro Burns) taught me the advantage of the three note chord in the first series. If you can cover the "defining" notes of the ii and V7 (the third and seventh scale degrees) in the 2nd, 3rd, & 4th string your are free with the 1st string to use your pinky for the "funny business" of extended chords, the 9ths, 11ths, 13ths (flatted & sharped, too).

Gypsy Chop: Another great use of the three note chord when used on the three thickest strings is a variation on the familiar Bluegrass "Chop" chord. Bill Monroe developed this concept, allowing the mandolin to be the ensemble's percussion section in a drummerless ensemble. The idea being Closed Chords (no open strings) gives the left hand control over how much "ring" would be heard after the pick hits the strings. By "choking" or muting the strings (left hand NOT right!), you trade harmony definition for percussive backbeat.

In jazz, you still want to hear more of the harmony defined, so you increase the amount of resonance by backing off on the muting by the left hand somewhat. I call this Gypsy Chop, much like you'd hear on Django or Gypsy Jazz rhythm guitar.

You get this effect best in the meatier thickest of the strings, so all the more reason to know three note voicings. It can be crucial in comping, or establishing the ensembles "backbeat."

Major Patterns
Minor Patterns

For a printable version, click here.

On ii V7 I "Home Positions"

The symmetry of the mandolin (tuning in fifths) gives the instrument a unique advantage over most rhythm instruments. The concept of movable shapes allows the mandolinist the advantage of transposing chords quite simply up and down the fretboard. If you learn one shape, you can move the entire chord a position up or down (assuming you're high enough) across several frets.

In other words, if you have a "B" shape, down one fret is Bb, two frets is A, etc. Up one fret is C, up two is C#, etc.

In Western (European) harmony there are only 12 pitches. If you think of your ii V7 I's as "home positions" or shapes, AND maximize you're ability to move up and down only one or two frets, you can play ALL 12 keys with only three of these "home position" patterns.

Dominant, Dominant Prep, & Tonic:

I tend to think of all my chords in terms of function. All "pull" to the tonic (or I). The dominant, or V chord wants to pull there whether or not it's a 7, flat 9, augmented, whatever, it still wants to lead home. The ii is a dominant preparation, which means it sets up the dominant for the final pull. It can be a minor 7th (half diminished in the minor keys), or an extended 9th, it still has the same "function."

Because of this, I don't worry a lot about whether a chord is a 7th or 9th, I just "willy nilly" play and let my ear tell me if it's appropriate not only in the key or style of music.

For example, in Texas Swing, you hear a lot of "six" chords, and a flat 9 would not be appropriate. In a Dorian "modal" jam, you might avoid the "six" (or thirteen) sound for the same reason. (You don't go to the opera in a cowboy hat...)


I learn new chords quicker when I know where my fingers were on the preceding chord, and what will change to the next chord. It's one thing to pull out a chord dictionary and discover a new chord, quite another to know where it fits in context. This is what I like about thinking in terms of ii V7. I learned a chord vocabulary much faster by learning the two or three chords patterns all at the same time.

Like taking a Spanish class and never speaking it in public, or interacting with someone else who speaks fluent Spanish, it won't do you any good unless you use it.

Take the time to discover where these are used. It's even better when you can take the songs you already know, harmonically analyze them, and pick apart the ii V7 patterns that are there. This will help you grow your chord vocabulary exponentially!

Suggested Resources

Jamey Aebersold The ii/V7I Progression This takes you into the next dimension of using the ii V7 I pattern and studying appropriate scales for improvising around them. I probably spent fifteen minutes every day working through these the first couple years I picked up the mandolin to teach my fingers a sort of tactile harmonic memory of the melodic patterns that fit this. You also get a wonderful accompaniment CD that allows you to not only play along, but get the Bebop vocabulary into your ear and subliminal thought processes.

Niles Hokkanen Guide to Mandolin Chords (and how to use them) Niles is quite frankly, a pedagogical genius. No one on the planet can teach mando concepts better than him. He offers this handy "pocket-sized" book that teaches in the chords in context, as well as a great bird's eye view of other important mandolin concepts. He covers Chop chords, Barre & Closed chords, Swing patterns, Cycle of Fifths, just about everything you need to get going on the mandolin!

Ralph Patt's Website Excellent explanation of contextual use of "tonal centers." Guitarist Ralph slices & dices and shows us "real world" use of the ii V7 I, and some lovely tweaks of this critical progression. Check out his "Vanilla Book!"

Take it with you: Check out our Free Downloads Page! Get a printable version of this and other helpful exercises.

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