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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."

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June 6, 2006 | The Fight for Sonic Turf

In the world of Bluegrass, banjo jokes abound. It doesn't take an anthropologist to understand the cultural dynamics here. For mandolinists, it's personal and has more to do with the competition for volume and the banjo's characteristic and inherent acoustical properties and playing strength. The ongoing drone of crosspicking combined with a (literal) drumhead of acoustic punch makes it difficult to overpower. Musicality becomes a casualty and is easily sacrificed in quest for sonic space.

This is also common in jazz and pop/rock if the ensemble includes an electric guitar. A good jazz guitarist will know to include "space" in comping and backing up the others, but one unfamiliar with the terrain and understanding "less is more," can be a terrorist to a mandolin (especially acoustic). The guitar not only plays in the same register with a similar timbre, but packs the ultimate weapon, the dreaded volume knob.

What to be done when the "fight for fill" gets out of hand?

Communication is the first and most necessary step. Simply identifying the problem verbally, talking it out can reduce the clutter. The problem will be in a jam where new players meet, or worse, a poor Troglodyte musician that just doesn't (and never will) "get it."

Either way, both musicians need to significantly reduce their quantity of notes, yielding the necessary space for the priority of melody. Another tactic is with enough practice, both musicians can join in playing the same set of motif of lick, a mini-composition within the arrangement. This calls for some predetermined organization, but can be very effective in yielding an energy and sophistication for the ensemble.

Yet another is simply visual. If one musician is in the upper frets, the observant other ought to be in lower frets. If one is pounding out comping chords with the right hand, the other should be trading off with gentle, lyrical licks of counter melody.

No one wins in the fight for sonic turf. The audience won't like it; even the uninitiated will observe the clutter and impact on the lack of clarity in rhythm and melody. The competing musicians find playing unsatisfying; no victor in this fight.

More thoughts: Plays well with others...

Posted by Ted at June 6, 2006 5:46 AM

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