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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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April 16, 2007 | Conformity

The Evils of Conformity

This is about as melodramatic a title as we dare muster, and hopefully after reading these thoughts, you'll conclude conformity actually has its proper place. We want to look at the issue of studying "licks" and hope to convey some sort of balance on the subject.

There are plenty of ways to study other players' licks or personal phrases. They can be as simple as two notes (think Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) or as long as a vocalise based on an entire Charlie Parker or Django Reinhardt chorus. Many players with good transcribing skills will actually document or write down these passages. Some will analyze favorite parts aurally and repeat them over and over until it becomes a part of their own personal lick "library."

It's not a bad idea, studying what has been invented by other great mandolinists. It's even more eye-opening borrowing from other instrumentalists, as well. (The latter can be quite fresh!) What we hope you dig up aren't just the notes, but the process. Why would Don Stiernberg run a diminished chord arpeggiated and how does this fit my fingers? Why would (pianist) Bill Evans roll out an Fm9 chord in his melody, or McCoy Tyner stack his in intervals of 4ths? You're not just archiving great melodic fodder, you're uncovering for yourself the very creative engines that these great musicians have taken years to develop and internalize.

What you don't want to do is parrot them. At least all the time, anyway. Sure, take the time to steal the notes, but go the next step of harmonic analysis. How does it fit the music? How does it fit the fretboard? Can I move it to another area of the fretboard at a later time? Can I stretch out the time or just use a fragment and repeat the fragment up in chromatic tonal centers? Can I play it a key up or a tritone to get "outside" the changes, and come back?

Back to conformity, one of our favorite websites is They offer some profoundly funny graphic parodies of the motivational "Successories" posters you see advertised in airplane magazines. A yearly ritual around the JazzMando Laboratory is ordering a new calendar from them in December around New Years Day. (They're great Christmas presents--a hit that lasts all year long!) One of our favorites is their graphic for Conformity:

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.


Learn your licks, but open yourself to the tongue behind them. (Maybe that could have been phrased another way...)

Read our article on Pattern Based Improvisation.

Posted by Ted at April 16, 2007 5:39 AM

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