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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March 13, 2007 | Stricken with pickin'

Brilliant clear tone. When you listen to an extraordinarily good Gypsy Jazz guitarist, that has to be your most dominating observation. Sure, there may be lots of notes flying around, but ultimately it's their cleanliness and precision that are so striking. (Pun intended...)

Firm left-hand sustain is a large part of this, but ultimately even this is dependent on a good, clean strike of the pick. Grip, angle and speed of attack are all factors, but there's a bigger package to consider in conceptualizing a good pick strike.

Consider the tools and equipment of a professional athlete, the racket of tennis pro, the bat of a baseball player, and the golfer striking the ball. Ultimately, you need good grip and control, but it's the swing that takes you to the next level. Preparation, strike, and follow-through are just as crucial in picking as they are with these sports.

Think for a moment about the distance your pick needs to go in your own playing. Do you start your attack and swing wildly beyond the string? Likely you're not, but consider how important it is when you speed the tempo that your pick be "at the ready" for the next attack. That means you have to consider where it's been, and swinging your hand way south of the pickguard is certainly not going to help your control, let alone your speed.

Examine the strength of your attack. If you held a drumstick three feet away from a drum and struck a drumhead you could make a loud sound, but can't you get that same sound from six inches away and a little more disciplined stick control? Absolutely, and it's a great visual for what you do with your pick.

Try swinging at your string from 18 inches away. Now do the same from 3/4 inch away. Can you get the same volume? With the right degree of control, absolutely you should. When you aren't as wild in your throw, think of what that does for a succession of rapid notes.

Albeit a bit dramatic, this is somewhat the justification for what's commonly called a "Rest Stroke." The other side of the pick stroke (literally) is where the pick goes after the strike, and in the Rest Stroke, it simply "rests" on the next string on a downstroke. Note from this position, you're immediately ready for a controlled upstroke, and even better, you're optimally prepared for producing another controlled downstroke.

This is good practice, and something we highly recommend for a warm-up routine. Isolating the right hand for pick focus, keep the left hand less complex, and practice a succession of downstrokes on unison notes or something simple or scale-based. Do this at a very slow tempo and trace visually, mentally, and physically all aspects of the stroke.

The best measurement however, is your ear. If all this is firing on all cylinders, your ear will reward your brain with its resultant pleasant tone. Ultimately this becomes reflexive, and you no longer have to fixate on your pick grip or stroke. Your brain "matches" good tone with good picking technique. After a few minutes of downstrokes, add alternating upstrokes. If you haven't already, add the incremental complexity of crossing strings, but keep this at a very SLOW tempo. You're trying to wire the synapses of your brain for effective hand/ear processing, with the ultimate goal of subconscious tone production.

After 8-10 minutes of this you should be warmed up enough to play actual music, but you can start concentrating on left hand linear sustain. With a good pick articulation, you'll have already won half that battle!

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at March 13, 2007 9:12 PM

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