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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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October 16, 2008 | Starting with good tone

We are all about using exercises to improve playing. The ability to move up and down the fretboard, to play faster, to play all the harmonically appropriate notes in improvisation--all these are lofty goals one should pursue. We would make a case that many musicians (and not just mandolinists) sometimes tackle these at the expense of good tone. As our friend and mentor, electric jazz mandolinist pioneer Michael Lampert puts it, "I mean, if it can't be pretty then what's the point?"

We had the privilege of interviewing eleven of the best mandolin tonemeisters on the planet for a Mandolin Sessions article about a year and a half ago (Read: Thinking Good Tone Pt. 1, and harvested some of our favorite tips on producing quality tone. Matter of fact, we had so much information, we had to carry it over into Part 2. If you haven't read these, you can glean some of the pro's pearls of wisdom that can revolutionize your playing. (Even if you have read it, go back and review!)

Some of the issues we covered include:
1.) Maximizing the sweet spots with the fretting hand
2.) Right Hand/Left Hand coordination
3.) Connecting notes together
4.) Maintaining phrase intensity
5.) Healthy pick strokes

We bring this up for any of you who are working out of a method book trying to improve your playing. The mental focus of acquiring or improving a new "ability" can sap your mental energies and distract you from the basics of good tone. This should never be.

If you're working on exercises that help you get out of Open (1st) Position and up the fretboard, are you doing this with good tone? How about crossing strings; are you learning to do this with good tone? Quality tone is not a given; it's earned!

This is the way you should approach learning to play better:
♦Playing with good tone up the fretboard, and back and forth.
♦Playing with good tone while you cross strings effectively.
♦Playing with good tone while you sustain a healthy tremolo.
♦Playing with good tone while you learn new harmonic vocabularies, including new modes and chords.
♦Playing with good tone--faster!

You get the point. Most students try to put the cart before the horse and do the latter first. They will learn the notes in the upper frets, then work on playing them with meaty, clean tone. They will get the picking hand coordinated for string crossings, and then focus on clean fret finger placement for good tone. They will learn all kinds of scales, if lucky, later will try to make them pretty. Tremolo is attacked simply to keep the note going, not necessarily good tone going.

The Cardinal Sin is playing fast with bad tone. The best musicians play with amazing tone, fast. Even the non-musician listener can be seduced by lovely, slow, lush tone much longer than the misguided pyrotechnics of a hack fast picker.

Go out and start something.

But do it with good tone.

Speaking of method books: shameless plug.

Posted by Ted at October 16, 2008 12:35 PM

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