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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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August 7, 2006 | Components of Tone

Listening to today's masters of mandolin tone, folks like Mike Marshall, John Reischman, Will Patton, and many more, it's astounding how intuitively they make their instruments sing. Many players make the mistake of dwelling on the particulars of instrument make and model, string manufacturer, pick construction and shape, but what good tone boils down to is simply the fingers.

We get wrapped up in the complexity of playing the notes, figuring out what's next, but we should never fail in delivering to our audience the best tone possible. Few will remember how many notes you played, but the long term impact of your playing will always be how sweet your sound is, even on the most uneducated listener. As mentor and friend Michael Lampert puts it, "If it isn't pretty, then what's the point."

There are three important ingredients in the recipe for cooking up good tone, and your warm-ups should always include exercises that develop each aspect singularly. In other words, dumb you practice down to attention on these three things: Pick, Fret, and Connect. Pick an exercise you can play slowly enough and concentrate on one of them at a time, and the rest of you practice will fall into place as the skills become automatic.

Components of Tone:

  • Pick Attack. You only get one shot at starting the tone. Your pick has to start the sound with conviction, and the only way to do this is with a secure (not tense) grip, and a full stroke of the pick. Where your pick sets up for the next attack is equally important.

  • Fretting Precision. That magical spot between the frets that yields the best tone, the "sweet spot" is what note definition is all about. Too high, too low, not solid enough, this is what yields less than maximum tone. Sustain is hard enough to maintain when this is accurate; virtually impossible when it's not precise.

  • Note Connection. Good tone is what goes on between the notes. Connecting each note as a part of a greater whole is the difference between a string of notes and a line, a string of words or a sentence.

One of our favorite tone-focus exercises is our Lydian DUDU. Download it (if you don't already have it) here or in our Free Downloads section. It was written partly to introduce the sound of the Lydian Mode (don't worry about it for now if that doesn't mean anything to you), as well as stretch the finger spread, but it's far more utilitarian than you might realize.

Play this VERY slowly the first time through, concentrating on the pick stroke. Aim for a clear, bell-like articulation, and a full stroke that actually touches the next string on the down stroke without making it sound the string. This gives you a good DOWN, and prepares you for a full UP stroke. You can really hear the tone on the repeated notes of the last two beats. They need to be consistent and clear.

Now, run the exercise again. As your picking hand feels warmed up and your healthy articulations become subconscious, this time focus on the fingers of your left hand. You want a full, perfectly clear sound with each change of note. No excuse for a partially fretted note! If it isn't perfect, do it again until it is. No fracking. Don't move to the next measure until each note in the measure is definite and distinct. The stretches especially for pinky are a challenge, but keep your fingers low to the string, and by all means, minimize any wasted motion.

Once this becomes comfortable, you can go through it a 3rd time and concentrate on how well you connect the notes. This can only happen with maximum Right Hand/Left Hand coordination. Observe the "slur" notation and try to make it sound like a well-connected phrase. NO space between the notes, and you can only accomplish this when the fingers are well in place for the next note.

Five to ten minutes of this kind of attention to tone is a terrific investment in the rest of your playing. You will stir souls with the beauty of your playing if you can push the maximum amount of tone out of your instrument when these three components are mastered within your subconscious!

Posted by Ted at August 7, 2006 2:20 PM

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