Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
Tips & Tricks Mel Bay Mandolin Sessions








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 30, 2006 | Fingers Ears Brain

Fingers Ears Brain

It would be virtually impossible to offer a strategy of teaching music theory that would fit everyone's style of learning. Some want all the facts dumped on them at once, frolicking in the glow of cerebral, esoteric possibility, some prefer to be spoon-fed bite-sized nuggets of information with plenty of time to digest and process.

Our approach in every exercise is premeditatively multi-level. At minimum, we want you to develop facility, tone, and fretboard familiarity. Yet each drill is crafted to offer some kind of theory lesson, but only when you are ready for it! You want to work on the physical side of it first, meet the Maslows' lower level hierarchy of this need first. Your aural will develop; the more you play, you will condition your ear to somewhat unfamiliar sound combinations, developing a subconscious, intuitive sense along the way.

The last step is the theory, recognizing interval relationships, thinking sections of notes in combinations, as sentences are to words.

But don't get the cart ahead of the horse! Master the fingerings first, through repetition, you'll likely memorize without even knowing you are doing it. The theory will come later.

Read more about our thoughts on Finger Ears Brain.

Posted by Ted at 12:19 PM

March 26, 2006 | New Strings

About new strings...

Of course, you already knew strings will wear from playing. Why? Several factors compound the deterioration, including skin oils, picking, and long term vibration causing the string to decay and lose tone over time.

What you may not be aware is oxidation in the package has the same residual effect! Depending on packaging, some brands of strings hanging on a store shelf or languishing in a warehouse can be purchased new, but suffer the hidden effects of months, if not years of deteriorating right in the package. You might want to investigate your store's policies and procedures for reordering strings, how long a set typically hangs before turning into a sale.

If you regularly purchase strings online, it's good to establish a loyal, trusting relationship with your string source. Switching from "lowest bidder" everytime you buy may be a misguided purchase of aged or inferior strings. (You know the old saying, "you don't get something for nothing...") Also, should you ever run into manufacturing defects, that relationship is something you can exploit for protection when (and not just if) you should ever have problems. A good string retailer will back you up for defects and take the issue to the manufacturer for you.

Posted by Ted at 8:42 PM

March 23, 2006 | Not to Wear

What Not to Wear

There's a terrific show on television's TLC called "What Not to Wear." It's quite humorous, the premise being some unsuspecting fashion-impaired soul is set-up by a spouse or room mate for a chance at several thousand dollars of new clothes. The down side? Public and global humiliation as fashion experts Tracy London and Clinton Kelly sarcastically annihilate the victim's closetful of fashion faux paux and put them through a very brutal denuding process of style course correction, completely eviscerating their personal wardrobe.

It's remarkably good entertainment at the subject's expense. Not that we are into humiliating you, but one similar way to approach improvisational fodder is to look at chord structure and eliminate what's NOT appropriate, just as much as what does work. Let's look at the opening 16 measures of "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the key of F.

D7 / G7 / C7 / F

The very first chord uses D, F#, A, C and in the key of F, you definitely want to avoid the F natural! This would be the dreaded plaid clashing with stripes equivalent. The C natural is fine, but go out of your way to avoid the F natural. The G7 chord is G, B, D, F, and so F natural is fine, but you want to avoid the Bb in the original key, and if anything, emphasize the change to B natural. The C7 has us back into the original Dominant 7th so you aren't in danger of violating any chord fashion sensibilities here.

Now the good news, like the great Jethro Burns says, "any note you play is either right or only one fret away from the right one." In the above example, if you accidentally hit an F natural on the D7 chord, you could still use it as a "blue note" and slide it up to the F#. As long as you handle it this way (and your ear may very well tell you to), it won't sound like a mistake.

This is another way of looking at chord progressions. See what changes from chord to chord and isolate notes that are no longer appropriate. Emphasize the great structural "diversity" from chord to chord in your melodic improvisation, and you'll convince your listener you really know what you're doing!

Posted by Ted at 7:10 AM

March 18, 2006 | Start Stop

Starting, Stopping, and That Stuff in the Middle

Seems the human brain craves both adventure and comfort. We like to start new things, but almost everything needs to come to a conclusion, some kind of resting place. It's been the secret of great television soap operas for years; offer something invigorating and interesting, but occasionally (and systematicially) bring resolution to the dramatic conflict.

Music is like this in a microcosmic way. Great art is always about tension and release. We crave phrases that start, build, and end. Endless note meandering wearies the listener; we need to enlist attention to this concept in our playing, especially when improvising. Think of the advantage wind instrumentalists and vocalists have when working with line. They are limited by breath, but at the same time gifted with the ability to build in the middle with support from the diaphragm. Dynamics can come so naturally.

Plectrum instruments don't fare as well. We pluck a note, and though a good instrument offers sustain, outside of a tremolo, we have no way to build the note, once it's been started. This means we must exponentially increase our awareness of good phrasing when we play, if we want to build a line. It also means that without the limitation of breath, we can carry on picking until the cows come home.

That's not good.

We've got more to say abut this in our "Blowing Through the Phrase" page. Something a good mandolinist ought to ponder.

Posted by Ted at 5:45 PM

March 16, 2006 | Thinking in Sentences

Remember the first time you ever tried to chord your mandolin? Even if you weren't masochistic enough to attempt a G-chop, you still labored on a G Major, "Uh let's see, 3rd finger; 1st string, 3rd fret, and over here, 2nd string, 2nd fret, um, 2nd finger. Oh, yeah open string 3rd string, etc..."

Point being, you struggled with each incremental element of putting the sound of the chord, with a concentrated effort to accurately place each component into place; proper finger posture and position, NOT covering the wrong other strings, strumming once it was all put together, holding the sound, let alone putting it in the context of a song.

If you're reading this page, chances are likely this rudimentary chord conquest is long behind you. You are so beyond all those little things so that you can chord (literally) with your eyes closed. Likely scales have become just as autopilot for you. You've graduated from G, A, B, C, etc, to just thinking "G scale." (Fingers in place, Bam!)

Spoken and written language is like this. We start our vocabulary with key, meaningful words, and we learn to string them into sentences, paragraphs, treatises, each a larger, higher level of communication. Other than correcting spelling, you're beyond thinking individual letters.

This is why we study and master the rudiments of scales and arpeggios. We wan to know these so well that we "forget them." Good improvisers will let the music come to them through creativity only if these fundamentals are intuitively automatic.

Go to our FFcP page for exploring such elements. Begin the quest for the ability to think your music in sentences.

Posted by Ted at 9:18 AM

March 12, 2006 | Plumbing

"Theory only seems like rocket science when you don't know it. Once you understand it, it's more like plumbing!"
John McGann, Berklee School of Music

The good professor is dead on correct! Not that plumbing isn't an art unto itself, but the ability to rip away the infinite from the finite in unraveling the myriad of solutions to household pipe problems has got to be the plumber's true craft.

It's easy for us to get panicky groping some of the basics of music theory when we forget that they are just that: "basic." We get intimidated by all those possibilities, but really, we only have twelve keys (break that down to four when you master the FFcP on a mandolin), and a handful of basic progressions we'll use. Even all those modes--it's just one scale, the Major Scale starting on different notes.

Melding linear sensibility with harmonic vocabulary is far less frightening when you understand there are only so many notes we can play, only so many chords. And like the great Jethro Burns says, "In jazz you're either on the right note, or just one fret away."

Fret not...

Posted by Ted at 8:03 PM

March 9, 2006 | Play Along

Play Along CDs

An excellent "bridge" taking your improvisation from practice room to stage is to incorporate "Play Along" tracks into your practice time. Nothing like using a rhythm section that won't grow weary of playing (let alone, weary of YOUR playing...).

For the past three decades, Jamey Aebersold Jazz has been the leader of abundant opportunity to jam along with a world class rhythm section. Check out the website for scores of collections of traditional (Fakebook) notation and accompaniment CDs. Categories include Standards, Improv Technique, Bebop, Blues, Latin, and specific Artists.

You'll be amazed at how time flies while playing through these, and how much confidence you'll attain investing your practicing tackling these.

Many to choose, but our personal faves:

All Time Standards V25DS

Jam Session V34DS

Night and Day V51DS

Yesterdays (Jerome Kern) V55DS

Unforgetable Standards V58DS

Antonio Carlos Jobim (Latin) V98DS

Nothin' but Blues V02DS

Turnaround, Cycles, & "ii/V7s" V16DS

The "ii/V7/I" Progression V03DS

Posted by Ted at 11:40 AM

March 2, 2006 | Lydian

Hey, put a Lydian on it!...

Modes are a mixed bag. They can be intriguing yet intimidating at the same time. Knowing there are seven of the "Church" modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, etc.), multiplied by the 12 keys can yield far more complexity than necessary, so we feel it's simpler just to think of the all as the familiar Major (Ionian) Scale, just altered by some notes. You're already developing the tactile fingerboard feel of note relationships, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step etc. (or 2 frets, 2 frets, 1 fret). Why not just take the feel already of the fingers and the sound already in your ears and slap a label on it later?

Beats learning 84 new scales; in the FFcP system, you're just learning 4 and starting on a different note.

Start with a Lydian scale. It's a Church Mode based on the 4th scale degree, but forget the theory for now. Just think of it as a Major Scale with the 4th note raised. In the key of G, you raise the C to a C#. It's an intriguing sound, try adding this in a simple improvisation in G and wee what you come up with.

G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G

Here's a sneak peak at a song out of our upcoming "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" book from Mel Bay. Print out this PDF and have some fun. Notice how you can do something elaborate and satisfying, just by changing one note, and using only a couple chords.

Lydia O'Lydia

Posted by Ted at 7:48 PM

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