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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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June 11, 2007 | Opening Opportunity in Accompaniment Mandolin

Playing a treble instrument, we have to consider our limitations in the role of accompaniment. Think of an elementary or middle school chorus; the pianist often must fill the role of orchestral accompaniment. Thundering string bass and timpani in the left hand, brass and cellos somewhere in the middle, and 1st violins and woodwinds doubling up on the melody in the right hand as the little tikes sing their parts. It's not unusual for her to pound out concerto-like support through all the registers of the piano, simply because she can. She has the equipment, wood, frame and strings; the instrument is capable of a variety of register and resounding dynamic qualities throughout its 88 keys.

A guitar may not be quite as powerful, but it lends itself well to smaller assemblies of instrument and voice, and is popular in this role for that very reason. High to low, percussive and melodic, its portability has additional incentive and made it a centuries-long choice in accompaniment, especially for the folk musician.

Enter the mandolin. Strident and clear in its plectral treble voicing, it can be dynamically slammed and picked like a time-keeping hi-hat cymbal or snare backbeat, but four pair of strings, it also lacks the necessary harmonic defining or bass in anything more than solo or duo playing.

That doesn't mean our 8-string wonder is a weak instrument, we just need to consider its proper role within these limitations.

Think of what you do to the treble knob on a radio when listening to talking or speech. If words aren't clear and articulated, boosting the treble knob higher (or bass lower) will help you hear your weather report or favorite talk show host's latest social indictments midst the audible crush of traffic in your care, restricting unnecessary audible "mud."

Treble gives clarity, but you really can get too much of a good thing, and that's why a mandolin is often confined to supporting role as a percussion instrument and occasional solo, but only when the other instrumentalists grant it.

Drawing tone out of the mandolin with attention to sustain can give you the benefit of both projection and melodic "completeness." Avoiding a clanky, tinny sound (you've no doubt heard players cursed with this) will likely invite more soloing in improvisational environments. It's simply more fun for the audience and other band members to listen to.

There are opportunities in smaller acoustic settings to use sustain to enhance the harmony-defining role of the mandolin. Three- (and two-) note chords in your lowest (thickest) strings can go miles in establishing the band's harmonic progressions. Side-stepping the percussive "chop" or Bluegrass accompaniment by allowing a little more ring to the string can be a fresh textural change, if the other band members lay back. (More on this in our 'ii V7 I' page.)

You can also vary the duration and aim for a Freddie Green rhythmic "pulse" instead of punch. Let the string ring after each quarter note punch, but lift off with the fretting finger right before the next attack and you'll get this sound. Again, this is more effective in your lowest strings, even just using G and D courses properly. You might not voice a b13 chord, but playing 3rds and 7ths of the chord is sufficient. (See our page on Chord Economics)

All this has to be explored by personal experimentation. Listen for opportunity. You simply can't do these subtleties within the context of some chaotic free-for-all acoustic impromptu cluster-pluck jam. You need to be working with sensitive, unselfish musicians who are willing to give you the sonic space.

When you are granted this privilege by responsible players, it can be some of the most pleasant playing experiences in your search for musical self-fulfillment.

Posted by Ted at June 11, 2007 5:39 AM

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