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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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April 29, 2007 | Variables

Except for the above...

Having weighed in on a recent entry on Auditioning instruments, Site Author Ted Eschliman felt compelled to register more observations on the snares and pitfalls of making too-fast judgments on instruments and strings. Humans are equipped with an intellectual skill best-selling author Malcom Gladwell has documented in his breakthrough book "Blink," called Thin-slicing. We make quick decisions based on immediately absorbed peripheral observations. A fast-moving Greyhound bus blazing across our path causes an instinctive jump, halting our fast-paced forward motion, no deep intellectual analysis of the laws of physics necessary. Were we to hesitate to stop and calculate while in its way, speed, weight, inertial, our cognitive processes would have been flattened along with flesh and bone.

We make weighty but intuitive life decisions with our gut, the person we are going to marry, the house we will buy, often by thin-slicing. Our heart will make a snap decision based on complex factual accumulation and previous experience, and our brain spends the next several months unraveling all the overwhelming logic behind that split-second cognitive census.

Thin-slicing has its downside. The person who curses Pepsi products for the rest of his life because of one bad incident with a Pepsi machine, the car salesman who erroneously writes off the raggedy-jeaned heart surgeon how had every intention of buying a BMW on the lot that day (not now...) and apt for this discussion, the vintage Lyon and Healy treasure the amateur mandolinist overlooked in the estate auction because the strings and bridge were missing and it looked, well... old--these are the mistakes made because of improper thin-slicing.

We witnessed recently a video blog of an amateur mandolinist (four months a player), making a "scientific" comparison of two popular strings. The only problem, though these were played (poorly) side by side, the sound examples were on two entirely different instruments, hardly a controlled experiment. Funny, brand a strings sounded brighter on the characteristically brighter instrument. Brand B sounded muddy of the more mellow instrument. Go figure...

We have to watch these misleading traps when gathering our information about instruments and equipment. You will read all kinds of negative reviews about these and related gear tried at a festival or trade show floor, a penultimate thin-slice "experience". We read discussion of a newly introduced Chinese-made instrument (under the Flatiron brand, another story for another discussion...) in a room packed with overzealous banjos and ambient noise, a typical and frequent opportunity for the introduction of many new models, but hardly an ideal auditioning environment. Many would look at the label and prejudge based on experience with similar product, and never account for the "changeable" characteristics of the instrument, string construction or gauge, bridge height and adjustment, let alone sitting/standing, strapped/unstrapped, familiar pick/unfamiliar pick. It's the mature musician who can readily admit, "I don't know. I don't have enough empirical information" and make a qualified verdict.

It can go the other way, too. We can pick up an instrument that feels comfortable and sounds good immediately, only to find later that the instrument is capable of the demands of dynamic contrast. An instrument that sounds truly terrific solo can be buried in an ensemble environment. Not good for a player whose main activity is playing in a loud band.

Consider this recent experience by site author, Ted Eschliman. After enjoying his Draleon Royale mandolin for several months he decided his playing would be better served replacing the stock thin instrument thin frets with fatter ones. In addition, he customized the fingerboard with a 7" radius and Doug Edwards custom pickguard. He observes:

"The first 90 minutes I played the newly customized instrument, I had my doubts. Not impressed, it sounded brassy and thin, incapable of pounding or projection. I had to step back and realize I was dealing with a fresh set of unbroken-in strings, fingers used to a month of mandola, and a bridge heightthat had yet to be dialed in properly. Patiently, I continued to play the rest of the practice session as my fingers struggled to find the new sweet spots of the fretboard.

"The next day, things were better. I'd raised the bridge a bit, discouraged I might need to mirror the new fingerboard radius in the bridge. Gradually, the strings and settled too and emitted the characteristic richness I was hoping for all along. By the third day, my fingers were immensely more comfortable with the frets, and even felt the mandolin was becoming more comfortable than in its pre-altered state.

Final decision (and four days later), the work was a hit; fat frets for me, definitely!"

When instruments are sold, even on the internet, customary approval time is around 48 hours. Understand, this is probably more accurately framed "disapproval" time. You shouldn't purchase something this way unless you're already 60% sure this is an instrument you'll want, or you're only wasing your (and the seller's!) time. That 48 hours should be spent evaluating personal objections and hopefully assessing what negatives might (or might not) be salvageable with the work of a good repair tech.

Just be careful making your own decisions. Remember, anything you read on a website (including this one) or advertisement requires an appropriate dose of self-discretion. You only have yourself to blame in a bad choice.

(Read our disclaimer at the bottom of each page...)

More about Thin Slicing: Blink

Posted by Ted at April 29, 2007 2:54 PM

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