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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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December 6, 2007 | What's a mandolin sound like?

Mandolinists often joke about how misunderstood we are. Carrying our cases around we get questions like, "Is that a little guitar," or "Is that a violin?" Even when they see us play, it's "how long have you been playing that ukulele," or a personal favorite, "what happened to the rest of that guitar?"

The mandolin is not like a guitar. In "top of mind" pop culture, we don't have those grand moments of exposure. Think of Paul McCartney playing "Yesterdays" with guitar accompaniment back on the Ed Sullivan show in the 60's. No question what an acoustic guitar sounds like. The Boots Randolph hit "Yakity Sax" (okay, theme from England's "Benny Hill" show), no question about what a sax is. The haunting Toots Thilemons harmonica of Billy Joel's "Leave a tender Moment alone," or the Deep Purple "Smoke on the Water" electric guitar riff; these are all indelible aesthetic stamps of what these instruments are about. Joe Public gets this, but on average, doesn't get the mandolin.

Whether this is good or bad is insignificant, but as players, WE need to know what the instrument does. "Theme from the Godfather" at a wedding? Sure, why not. Bluegrass chop on a Monroe standard? Yup. Maybe one is cultured enough to recognize the mandolin in a Vivaldi concerto, but we need to deeply explore the mandolin's wide open potential.

Chris Thile is a living legend in mandolin circles. His superhuman skills as player precede him globally. In domestic pop music culture, his reputation as a world class player in the Nickel Creek trio has probably garnered him even more widespread attention, but most of us don't understand what it is that REALLY makes him a mando-superstar.

Sure he can play with blazing speed, sing like a bird, memorize Bach Violin Concertos, hang with any brilliant premier soloist, but we offer, his most amazing talent is his ability to fit. Listen to any Nickel Creek album and you'll hear this. It's not (just) the amazing solos he takes, it's the way he fits the mandolin around everybody else.

You can learn more about playing the mandolin, what its broad potential can be by listening to Thiles's accompaniment. He doesn't just chop, he functions like a piano. He supports and complements the other instrumentalists brilliantly, chord, solo line, obligato, it's simply brilliant, but you have to listen for it. Get around the melody and listen to what he does on the mandolin in the background, it's dazzling.

What's a mandolin sound like?

Chris Thile.

Posted by Ted at December 6, 2007 3:03 PM

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