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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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March 13, 2008 | Itching for a 5-string?

The standard four-course paired tuning (8-string) of the mandolin presents wonderful opportunities for transposing modes, chords, and licks across the string and up the neck. So what happens when one contemplates picking up a mandola (tuned a fifth lower), or tackles a 5-string (or 10) mandolin? What happens mentally and physically when we either replace everything by one fifth, or add the ranges of a fifth?

Perhaps the biggest mistake a 5-string player can make in approaching the instrument is to try to run 5-voice chords (all five strings simultaneously). We see requests for chord charts for these frequently, and it shouldn't be baffling why these are uncommon. First, it's easy to transpose 3- and 4-note chords down another string, and second, the open fifths tuning extended to five voices really doesn't lend itself well to a full five voices. Think about a piano; eighty-eight keys and are they all played at the same time? No, and rarely are all ten fingers used at a time to play chords, either. We need to take the same approach to both 4- and 5-string mandolins, learning to mute adjacent redundant adjacent strings or unnecessary chord tones. If we learned any thing from listening to Jethro Burns, it's that 3-note chords rule!

This should put the novice 5-string player at ease. Don't think of covering five notes, think of playing the 3-and 4 note chords you already know, mute the E string and move them to the lower four strings of the 5-string, and you're not learning a new instrument, you're simply expanding the one you already know! This is not only good, it's better!

Try this for a mental exercise on a 5-string: play the closed position chords you already know, and move them up 7 frets and down a string (lower). If you did it right, you are playing the same chord, but you've just opened up a new way of thinking chords. Move them down two frets, you have the same chord only a whole step lower; down four frets and you're two whole steps lower. You get the idea; move these down and you've just rewired your brain for a new way of grabbing chords you never dreamed of.

In the treble register especially, 3-note chords do the trick in communicating the defining notes of the chord (3rd and 7th), and either the root or another color note of the extended chord (9, 13, +11, etc.). Assuming you're playing with a bass instrument or guitar, the root is probably already covered in the ensemble; in the interest of chord economics, you're free to leave it off and play some other juicy chord tones. Smart voicing also means not duplicating chord voices, so rarely will you play all five strings, except for some kind of special effect.

Our friend, mandolin software innovator Craig Schmoller has a terrific resource page at Groveland Software, the support site for his critically acclaimed Mando ModeExplorer software. (You do have a copy of this, don't you?) Bitten by the Cittern bug last year, Craig plowed into new ways of tackling the jazz potential of its standard CGDAE tuning. Duh, it's the same as a 5-string, except for the double courses, so it's worth your time to look this up and glean even more insight into this potential:

Read more: Cittern Lessons

Purchase a copy of Mando ModeExplorer.

Incidentally, we've put Craig on the hunt for even more sonic opportunity for the 5-string instrument. Stay tuned here (and at the Groveland Software site)!

Posted by Ted at March 13, 2008 1:31 PM

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