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."

Mandolin Chord Economics
Are you at the level where you've thrown away your chord book, and have enough music theory to create your own chords?

You've come to the right place...

This has nothing to do with whether or not a Pacific Rim mandolin is as good as a Gibson, or an F style as more desirable than an A body. What we need to deal with here is the real world concern of economics of mandolin chord voicings.

Besides the mandolin there are very few musical instruments outside of the ukulele and banjo (but then, the discussion is musical instruments...) that have only four strings to accompany or "comp." This is really no problem in the more diatonic or folk genres.

When the only expectations in chordal harmony are root, third, fifth, and the occasional seventh, really, you are set. It is only in the "extended" harmonic vocabulary of jazz you end up with more voices than strings.

Take the chord Bb13(b9) for example. You have the following voices to express:

Bb root
D third
F fifth
Ab (implied in all 13th chords) seventh
Cb ninth
G. Thirteenth
Six voices, four strings.

Houston, we have a problem...
or not.

Considerations: Choosing Voices.

The 13th chord is like the sixth (you already knew that) but the 13th always implies adding the 7th (where the Ab comes from). It IS part of the chord. Otherwise, it would be called a "6" chord (Bb6).

Now if you want to get technical, you can voice it by keeping the tritone relationship (D & Ab) of the 3rd & 7th in the lower strings (always good), voicing the 13th and the b9 on your E and A string , and get ready for some fret gymnastics: D=3, Ab=7, G=13, Cb=(b9)

Look at this picture. Notice it is only outlines, yet you still get enough of a "picture" of what the subject is. There are enough lines and curves, borders, and even a soothing color that communicates what the artist (Matisse) is trying to convey. You don't need a lot of detail, the smooth "roundness" communicates a feminine form.

There's enough in the composition to suggest a position of rest, if not posing. The lack of detail such as eyes, whether or not she's wearing earrings, what race she is, is all immaterial to the artist's "statement."

This is what condensing 6 and 7 voice chords is all about. You only need to assess what is necessary to communicate minimal (at best) function and color.

What you have here is the genius of Matisse strumming a Bb13 (b9) chord with only four strings!

Ouch... (Sounds awful out of context, too) I'm going to suggest the mando economics part by ignoring either the 13 or the b9 by chording it this way:

It is only in the "extended" harmonic vocabulary of jazz you end up with more voices than strings.

The reason I would use this fingering: when you voice the lower strings this way, it gives you the flexibility of moving your pinky in an out of both positions quite easily. Then you can "imply" the harmonic structure by playing it again in the same harmonic context.
The above 13th voicing is one of my (signature) favorite chords by the way.


Tonality (Someone else's job!)
Third: Majorness/Minorness
Fifth (always implied except when diminished or augmented)
Seventh: Stability resolved or "to be" resolved)
Color (Extensions)


1.) Try to always voice the melody in the highest playing string.

2.) Don't feel you have to voice all the notes of the chord simultaneously--breaking them up over the duration of the chord will "imply" most of the voicings

3.) Chord Economy--know which voices are the most important, the "tri-tone" on the dominant chords are priority, all the extensions after that are just "candy" (i.e. +9, b13, +11, etc). Aim for voicing the Tritone in the lowest sounding strings.

4.) The "Axis of the 3rds & 7ths"--taking time to "map out" whether written or mental, the defining note of each chord, the "Guide Tones" of the 3rd (major? minor?) and 7th (dominant? major?) will guide you in getting the best representation of composition

5.) Keep the voice leadings as consecutive as possible; as a general principle limit yourself to inversions that don't travel more than 2 or 3 frets. This keeps the motion less disjunct.

But these are all more basic principles of composition, maybe not specific "tips" you need in already written material. To avoid a chunky or "plinky" sound consider closely the issue of sustain--holding the chord/note as long as possible before the next. Hard to do with just one note, let alone 3 or 4. but just being aware of the problem is the first step in remedying it.

Other Views on Chord Voicings: Famous Rhythm Guitarists

Devoted to jazz rhythm guitar Freddie Green epitomized the big band guitar style. Though not completely applicable to the mandolin, his approach to rhythm guitar makes a fascinating read, in that his playing performed a very unique function within the context of a sixteen piece band. He would deaden five of the six guitar strings (Monroe chop?) in order to provide the solid quarter note heartbeat. This was paradoxically referred to as a "One Note Chord." What was interesting was the notes that he would choose NOT to deaden, creating subtle moving inner voice lines like a tenor sax.

This might open your mind up about what you think the mandolin's role is in your own ensemble...

For more on Freddie Green, check out the Freddie Green Website.

Another interesting concept in rhythm guitar can be found in a Jack Evans article on 10th Chord Voicings. He studied the voicings of Peerie Willie Johnson and used the 3rd, 4th, and 6th strings of the guitar (deadening the 5th) and spread them into kind of Django "Down & Dirty" crunch.

Again, what you need to glean is how the instrument lives in both worlds of percussion and harmony defining.

Read more about this on Jack Evans Website.

Yet another more controversial school of thought, famous rhythm guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli rarely included a chord's extensions and alterations, such as the b5th, #9th, or 13th. He mainly used major triads, 7ths, 6ths, and some 9ths. (When a Big Band arranger calls for a C7b5, it doesn't make sense for the rhythm guitarist to include the b5, it is automatically spelled out in the score for another instrument.) The idea here is to COMPLETELY avoid the extended notes, especially in improvising, as they can get in the way of the soloist.

Playing straight triads (Dm, AMaj, Eb7) seems awfully "vanilla" to me, but when you consider the context of the Big Band, I understand the philosophy...

Special thanks to my special Chicago buddies Dion Morriss, Kurt Morrison, John Parrott, and Don Stiernberg for some of the insights into these phenomenal rhythm guitar legends.

Bookmark and Share

QuickNav:   Home | Book | Webtracks | Tips | Store | Contact
Feeds: Tips & Tricks | What's New
© 2005-2018 All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: In the 'Information Age' of the 21st Century, any fool with a computer, a modem, and an idea can become a self-professed 'expert." This site does not come equipped with 'discernment.'

Site designed and hosted by No Hassle Design, Development, & Hosting

Tips & Tricks - Listen & LearnMel Bay Mandolin Sessions Articles- check it out!