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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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January 3, 2008 | Thinking tremolo

Question: What's the difference between bad tremolo and a lawn mower?
Answer: You don't need a pick to start a lawn mower.

We brought up the subject of pick grip in our December '05 article Picks and Doorknobs. Describing the basic conflict between finger control and tension, we used the analogy of turning a door knob, and the natural similarity of wrist and finger position mimicking this stance. We went a little farther in our entry Fleet of (Firm) Foot September '07, pointing out the (seemingly) conflicting advice of two of the best mandolinists on the planet, Paul Glasse and David Grisman, on "squeezing golf balls" in the left hand. Both articles might be a good review, but the issue of tension and grip is not only perplexing to the beginner, it perpetually plagues the intermediate player, as well.

Outside of an adrenaline sprint from fleeing a pack of wild wolves, tension is never a good thing. Control and tension are not the same thing, and must be mentally framed and compartmentalized as such. Long term tension is devastating on the back, neck, shoulders and hands (let alone mandolin tone), but where we really see the battle between tension and relaxation is in the area of tremolo. The concept of speedy pick without death grip is never more crucial then when trying to tremolo smoothly, let alone coming in an out of tremolo to single note DUDU picking.

Most experience players will admit this ability is a years-in-progress process. Rarely is it a natural feel; it's something you must devote time to, and over a long period of time. Even some professionals still have trouble with its finesse; one of our nameless worldclass player friends privately criticized Jethro Burns' tremolo as two speeds, "On" and "Off." Though arguable if this is really true, it still points out that the ability to slow and speed up the tremolo takes a great commitment many mandolinists are unwilling to develop.

Getting in and out of tremolo smoothly is the true test of one's ability. Stopping the tremolo on a dime to single notes and keeping a sense of line is amazingly difficult. Listen to great players and observe how they are able to keep a phrase continuous, almost wind driven.

How do we practice this? A little everyday, and over a long period of time. Months, more likely, years. Practice long single note strokes on a two octave scale at 60 bpm. Practice long tremolo by substituting those long notes, and for the real challenge, go in and out of tremolo with single notes down and up strokes. You want to get a consistent grip that's comfortable to you and does not change when you tremolo.

That's when you know you've really got it!

Posted by Ted at January 3, 2008 10:17 AM

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