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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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May 28, 2007 | How do I hold it?...

We get inquiries through our contact form regarding holding angles, pick and hand gripping, neck angle, strap height, and all kinds of great questions about what is considered "standard" for posture and hand position. It's difficult to answer definitively, prescribing the right answers across the internet, and one could argue, even in person there will never be a single correct remedy or cure-all.

Rugged Individualists
Like no two snowflakes are alike, we are different in height, body type, arm length, finger strength, bone & joint angles, and a myriad of physical variables. Watch Sam Bush swing his arms and elbows like a tennis racket and it's a miracle he can achieve his exacting and precise fluid picking technique. Who is going to tell HIM he's doing something wrong? Talk to Peter Mix, legendary mandolin historian, collector, developer and president of New-MAD mandolins about strap buttons, and he'll tell you he's never needed a strap to hold an instrument, even while standing. Talk to David Grisman about Left Hand grip and he'll allude to "squeezing golf balls," but Paul Glasse will describe the need to emphasize relaxation and fluidity in the same fingers. Talk to Evan Marshall about his full rich tone, and you'll wonder in amazement how he does it with .009 gauge E strings.

So who is right? Answer: they all are because their physiques, tonal requirements, and instruments are different. Their approaches are as well. Lest we say there are NO absolute answers, let's offer there are two seemingly overriding yet contradictory principles to bear in mind when developing appropriate finger, hand, and wrist position. Control and Comfort. Lack of wasted motion, and lack of tension.

Control (Lack of wasted motion)
We advocate fretting fingers stealth and low to the string as much as possible. No "Flying Fingers," but a better way to describe this is finger tips and pads "at the ready." Violinists don't struggle with this because without frets, early on they used their fingers as a virtual measuring stick, perpetually conscious of hugging the string for spatial reference. We mandolinists (mistakenly) think we can afford to be sloppy, and often are, especially if our styles are laced with hammer-ons and pull-offs. Still, wasted motion ultimately means reduced speed and/or control.

Squeeze the frets? Certainly but fret position is probably even more important. Where it lies in that illusive "sweet spot" will impact your tone just as much as squeezing pressure. Still, building finger strength and especially in the 3rd and 4th fingers will pay off big in your tone.

Pick angle is important, too. We recommend a slight turn of the pick to milk (not slap) the tone out of the string. As far as grip, hold the pick only firm enough so that it doesn't fly from your fingers. Any harder than that will run tension all the way up your wrist and elbow.

Comfort (lack of tension)
Picking and fretting are an endurance contest, a marathon and not a sprint. You absolutely have to be relaxed if you want to keep up speed for any length of time. Plus, if your fingers and wrists are tense, you will hear it in your playing. You won't sing phrases; you'll "cough" them. You won't blow music, you'll spit.

We advocate warm-ups. There's something unnatural about the skinniness of the mandolin neck, smaller than a guitar, and unlike a violin, more often than not, four notes at a time. Getting your hands acclimated in a warm-up routine 10-20 minutes gets the blood to the muscles and prepares the body. Focusing on tone for the same amount of time relaxes and sets the mind. Some might argue it prepares the spirit, as well.

Needless to say, if there is tension in the long muscles (shoulder, neck, & arms) it will work its way to the smaller ones (hands, fingers). However, fixating on them is the wrong approach. Tone production should start mentally at the string and pick and work its way back. What you need to accomplish at these contact points should be supported by the muscles, on up the hands, wrists, and elbows, with as much of a distance form tension as humanly possible.

These are very broad concepts, but then to be too specific would deny you your own exploration of what works for you. A pro tennis player doesn't obsessively worry about stance, grip, or swing at a tournament, he/she thinks, "BALL. Over there. Smack!" All the technique is subconscious at that point, as it should be in your practice and performance.

If your ear and hands are synaptically wired properly you get to the point where you "feel" tone, as much as hear it. This is when you've discovered the perfect balance between control and comfort.

And it feels lovely!...

Extra credit, read our review on The Inner Game of Tennis

Posted by Ted at May 28, 2007 8:09 AM

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