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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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January 9, 2007 | Tremolo. Stirred, not shaken.

Bad tremolo is arguably the most volatile catalyst for a negative impression of what a mandolin is all about. To the uninitiated, the schmaltzy, teeth-chattering effect of poor tremolo technique is what a red and white straw hat is to a Belgian harmonica quartet. No matter how great the musicianship is, it will always carry an air of camp or farce. We think it unfair, to allow it to stain the good name of mandolin.

What do we mean by bad tremolo? Let's look at some characteristics with the goal of addressing them. Nothing says tremolo doesn't have its place, but lets try to make it musical.

  • Sustaining. Often poor tremolo is used to sustain a pitch. This is getting the cart ahead of the horse. The intent should not be to make a dead note last longer. The goal should be propel an already well-developed note, and in the bigger picture, propel the phrase, the lyric quality of the music. This requires a left-hand (fretting finger) control that keeps the tone meaty and does not relent until the next note.

  • Connecting. Consecutive tremolo notes should have no gap in intensity, no break in sound. Listening to the start/stop of poorly executed series of tremoloed notes is like a long, uncomfortable Jeep ride over an Alaskan tundra. Notes should not be cut-off or choppy. Good tone is about what goes on between the notes.

  • Expressive. Tremolo has no single speed, or as Evan Marshall describes one of his favorite mandolinist hero's poor tremolo, "He was a genius, but his tremolo had two speeds. Off and On..." Good tremolos are organic and expressive. They vary in speed and dynamic. They convey the "passion" of the line.

  • Unmeasured. It's hard to corner. Is a tremolo a group of alternated accented triplets or sextuplets or some other regular division? The ear should not hear them this way, even if the player is thinking them that way. Practicing long, sustain single-note tremolos, the brain should not register regularity.

  • Discreet. Tremolo ought to be a spice. Some may argue it's the signature of a mandolin. We say if it must, then use it sparingly so it means something. Again, it's not intended to sustain poorly fretted notes, it must propel well placed, firm fingertips and pads.

If you're going to use tremolo, practice it. This is not something that comes natural to most players and must be included in the regular practice regimen. We don't think it's necessary in jazz, but that said we'll defend some great jazz mandolinists, particularly Don Stiernberg and David Grisman use tremolo quite musically and effectively.

Who could argue with them?

Editor's note: We've been uncharacteristically critical of mandolin tremolo lately, and thought it proper to clarify what good tremolo is about. It's not tremolo we disdain, it's BAD tremolo...

Posted by Ted at January 9, 2007 5:23 AM

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