Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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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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February 5, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 4, play with maximum tone

In our final installation of the "Playing Musically" series, we explore a perpetually recurring theme of tone production. It's really amazing how for many musicians, good tone is an afterthought. Maybe it's there between passages of furious intentional playing, but it's not the pervading goal and purpose of their performing. We maintain playing musically STARTS with deliberately good tone.

You can search the archives here for previous thoughts on tone, and we've even put links down at the bottom of the article, but we just can't emphasize enough how much of a favor you do your listener when tone becomes your first mission and priority. Speed is nothing without tone, fretboard facility is nothing without tone, knowledge of a ton of songs is nothing without tone. You might as well be playing a pair of maracas than a mandolin if you can't produce consistently good tone. Three areas to focus on, speed, connection, and phrasing.

Speed. Even good players will forget they are playing an instrument of melody when they attempt to play faster, more complex passages. It's so easy to "go for the notes" and not for the "music." Attempts to play lots of them can end up in an indefinite clicking of the pick, half-fretted pinching, and indistinct subsections of phrases. This is not enjoyable to listen to and it really loses the audience to the aesthetic message of your playing. Always be sure your notes are distinct, clear, and intentional. If you can't do this slowly, you'll never do it fast!

Connection. A favorite JazzMando quote, "Good tone is all about what goes on between the notes--that magical intersection of the release of one note and the attack of the second" ought to be written on the top of your music stand where you can see it every time you practice or rehearse. You simply can't ignore the end of a note and its relationship to the start of the following one. The ability to bond notes into something sonically cohesive is not always intuitive, and you have to work at this at slow tempos. The FFcP system is a great one for throwing all the possible finger combinations at you in order to develop this skill in your literature and improvising. Timing the pick stroke with this is another component, but focus on not dropping the pressure on the fretting finger until the next note starts.

Phrasing. Try to phrase your playing like you speak sentences. You don't. Break. Up your thoughts by. Punctuating or dropping the intensity of. The line in inappropriate places. Good music is about finishing your thought, before you start the next. Start, line, stop. Analyze where these are in the music and communicate this way. You don't have the containment of breath like a wind instrumentalist or vocalist does, so you have to work harder to phrase consciously.

We hope you've enjoyed our series on playing musically. Think the lyrics, play the chords, play with direction, and play with maximum tone. Get these down and you'll be much more convincing as a musician.

Thinking Good Tone Part 1: What the Pros say about Good Tone.
Thinking Good Tone Part 2: Using the picking hand to start Good Tone.
Drilling for tone
Components of Tone
Grisman on Tone
Mind the Gap
Thinking bad tone
Clean Sweep...

Posted by Ted at February 5, 2009 1:05 PM

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