Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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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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June 15, 2006 | Take three

A professional jazz guitarist friend the other day says bluntly, "I don't know how you can play on that thing; what's it have, four notes? Eight strings, but tuned in pairs?"

From a guitar or piano perspective use to voicing as much as 6 to 10 notes of polyphony at a time, it's a reasonable question, but one must ponder, when is enough, enough? Without getting into the complexities of equal temperament, how many conflicting harmonics and overtones can the ear handle?

Even the mandolinist will get caught up in the "More is more" mentality that chords always require four simultaneous notes at a time, and let's go on record this is NOT a necessity. In an ensemble situation, the bass player is already laying down the harmonic fundamental (bass) note so you already have one tone that is potentially redundant. As we review in our Chord Economics, the unaltered 5th is either aurally implied or unnecessary, so now we're down to three essential notes, and really, two if your not including a color extention (b9, 13, +11).

It's the 3rd and 7th that need hearing (the former the majorness or minorness) and you can do this smoothly on the mandolin as it lays nicely on adjoining strings. Still, if you want the harmonic color of the chord extensions, you're only requiring three notes of the chord, freeing your last string for additional linear motion and vertical fun.

We see the alleged "limitation" of four voices as liberating, not confining, a wealth of opportunity to succinctly paint or hint harmonic texture.

Besides, sax and trumpet outside of awkward "multiphonic" humming & playing simultaneously (and that's at best "novelty," at worst, annoyingly ugly) are limited to monophony, playing only one note at a time. Even a violin rarely emits more than two-note chords or double-stops.

Back to mandolin, don't be trapped into perpetual four-note chords. The best jazz mandolinists arguably use three-note chords the majority of the time. It's a wonderful "signature" sound of the instrument, pure, harmonically distinct, and sonically intriguing.

Okay now, take three.

Posted by Ted at June 15, 2006 8:51 AM

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