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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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April 14, 2011 | Best of JM: The Basics of Auditioning Instruments

The weekly "Tips and Tricks" column will be on a temporary indefinite hiatus while we finish up a book project. Meantime, enjoy the popular archive material below.
From March 30, 2007: "The Basics of Auditioning Instruments"

Cohen Body1 Cohen Body2
Cohen C# "Sleek Black Beauty" Mandolin: Click pictures for closeup

Infatuation with gear is an all too often chronic condition suffered by most avid mandolinists. We all know how to look, to yearn, to covet the many illusive cures for this disease (never permanent), the wide offering of instruments available. With a global economy and cyber access, the only limitations are our own wallet (or limit on our credit card).

When the occasion to scratch the MAS itch descends we'd like to offer some suggestions on how to effectively shop for a new (to you) mandolin. Again, we all know how to look, the trick is to effectively evaluate.

The first suggestion is the issue of adequate time. Like dating, falling in love at first sight is possible, but any experienced at the art of courting know all too well the dangers of committing too early in an ultimately wrong relationship. You need to allow for the many variables that make an instrument desirable (and especially undesirable) by spending a healthy chunk of time. It's easy to write off an instrument that doesn't feel right immediately, and conversely one with alluring gorgeous flame that in deeper encounter, sounds like a dog when given the chance to really dig in. A trial period of 48 hours is a good amount of minimal time, not consecutively, but 20-40 minutes at a time spaced over a couple days. Allow for the many environments you normally play in, your porch your studio, the bedroom, and especially with the context of an ensemble setting. A mandolin can respond different soloing in your living room compared to fight over a couple acoustic guitars (let alone a banjo).

Those who are vain enough to make a hard-and-fast snap judgment about an instrument at a festival or noisy tradeshow hall do an injustice to themselves and are often guilty of perpetuating massive misinformation about what they've played. The trick is quality time within the acoustic environments with which you are already familiar.

Neck adjustments, bridge height and seating, string construction, all can make a significant negative impression and thwart your good judgment. An ill-fitting nut or a too-high bridge can wrongly influence your appreciation. Understand these are the qualities that can be fixed or modified, so don't write off an instrument immediately without identifying the flaws. Optimally, it's best if you have the opportunity to change to your favorite strings, or at least gauging and construction (bonze, nickel, flatwound, tec.) you already know.

We mentioned environment but let's get into the specifics of how to hear an instrument. Remember an F-hole body tends to projet 3-8 feet outward and will sound dramatically different closer, let alone from behind the instrument. An oval hole might be less drastic from the player's ear but you still lose tremendous harmonic nuance from that perspective. If you can enlist another mandolinist to play the instrument in front of you, it's likely you'll absorb a much more accurate evaluation.

One trick we learned from world-class builder Michael Lewis was to stand in front of a glass door or window, some kind of a hard reflective surface and play about three feet away. This sound bounce is far closer to what an audience will hear than from behind the back.

Opening Up
New instruments as well as those in a long period of stasis go through a process of "opening up" as the wood is vibrated and its cells sort of "find themselves." Somewhat subjective but some open dramatically, some of the more cheaply made instruments never will. We've also found often it's as much the player as it is the mandolin that "finds" his/herself on a the fingerboard. Adapting to a foreign neck curve, physical weight balance, or closing in on the sweet spots of string or between frets often takes time. Obviously, as the player and instrument warm up to each other, the result will be a warmer, richer, and more complex sound.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but sight and sound are two different messages to your brain, and the former far less significant to your audience. Certainly, a well-detailed instrument on a gorgeous slab of wood more often correlates with quality and craftsmanship, but an ugly instrument can still sound good. You're the one who has to live with cosmetic shortcoming but don't inflict these biases on others in personal assessment. One man's junk can be another's treasure.

Brand names, country of origin can help narrow down some instrument qualities, but do yourself a favor and keep an open mind (and open ear!). This is a very subjective endeavor, products made from organic materials (like wood) that are as variable as snow flakes, even within the same brand or model. Allow for these individual differences in your evaluation process.

Listen for tone, and when you get done with that, listen for more tone. If you think more about the next series of 32nd notes and blistering licks, you're not capable of really listening to the instrument. Anyone else around you attempting this in a chaotic group evaluation (or cluster pluck) is only trying to impress or intimidate you. Pick slow, intentional notes and listen for length of string sustain and decay. Listen to long half-note melodies. Play chords that ring and listen carefully to how all the strings interact, the balance from G to E string. Understand you can probably play as fast on an instrument with bad tone as well, so there's not much need to waste time going there during the testing.

If you play fast, use music you know intuitively so you can focus your cognitive energies on the sound rather than your playing. This is another reason why if your goal is permanent acquisition instead of casual trial, you really need quality extended time. You can't make an intelligent, well-focused decision any other way.

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at April 14, 2011 9:52 AM

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