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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June 30, 2006 | Course Corrections

Playing mandolin in Pop/Rock/Jazz/Folk environments can be so liberating yet challenging. Since there are so few of us, we get to write our own "rules;" on the other hand, there's so few role models out there to tell us how to behave or fit in with the group, unlike a guitar player or drummer.

We have an old article on this in our Mel Bay webzine MandolinSessions article "Plays Well with Others" (see back issue), but let's look at a few specific examples of what-not-to-do situations.

The acoustic guitar player slaps a capo on the 5th fret (or worse, higher). This is a sure sign you're going to clash (or at least crowd) in a good share of your fingerboard. You'll want to avoid heavy chords especially in the upper register, as the tonal "presence" in this range is percussive and punchy. Be sensitive to your own rhythmically complex playing.

The electric guitar player is constantly "noodling." One of our personal peeves, a little noodling goes a long way. You have the double edge of fighting for timbre space AND threaten to step all over each other in rhythms. Besides, you lose; his/her amp can go to "11."

The drummer that thinks his/her mission in life is to fill music at EVERY empty spot at the end of each phrase. If you can't talk this out ahead of time, the drummer wins. Get out of the way.

The drummer has a heavy backbeat. Note, this is actually not a bad situation. You can't have too much backbeat as long as you are together. You can get a crowd dancing or at least clapping along if you nail it in synch.

The jazz guitarist with every chord extension known to man (and more...) You can't mix your #9 with his/her b9. Sometimes it's best to just stick to straight major or minor chords so you don't clash; or just lay off comping all together.

The Geddy Lee "wannabee" bass player. If you're working with a bassist that would rather vomit melodies than do God's work in the background, the laying down of harmonic and rhythmic foundation, you must back off on your own harmonic creativity. This can be frustrating, but don't torture your audience in addition to your own playing sensibility by competing for complexity.

Let us know your ensemble challenges. Contact

Posted by Ted at 11:32 AM

June 25, 2006 | Jouer Avec

Enjoy your own personal Gypsy Jazz accompaniment tracks at Jouer Avec (Fr. "to Play with") Nuages de Swing. This fabulous French website offers great hits like Avalon, Belleville, Clair de lune, Daphné, Dinette, Douce Ambiance, Limehouse Blues, Viper's Dream, and more of the classic Django Jazz standards in a play-along-with online MP3 format.

Vous êtes seul dans votre coin? Get yourself ready for the next Gypsy jam in the privacy of your own home!

Website: Nuages de Swing

Posted by Ted at 09:04 PM

June 20, 2006 | August Watters Four Note Patterns

From the desk of Berklee Professor of Ear Training, August Watters, a free page of materials for internalizing theory principles. We are especially fond of his "Four Note Patterns" although there is plenty of juicy stuff on his site.

In drilling scales, there comes a point when you need to abandon the step-by-step consecutive construction of the basic scale, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1, etc. as you practice. Think about it, when was the last time you heard improvisation and noted to yourself, "Hmm, terrific two-octave G scale, there."

A scale run is simply not "real-world" music, and varying the patterns you use to conquer scales, like 1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6, etc., will get you out of the rut of sounding like you're just blowing scales. Read these variations and incorporate this approach to practicing scales. You'll inject new life and creativity into your soloing, as well as gain better insight into fretboard structure and note relationships.

Check out the scale pattern primer: Four Note Patterns.

August Watters Free Music Theory Materials

Posted by Ted at 06:06 AM

June 15, 2006 | Take three

A professional jazz guitarist friend the other day says bluntly, "I don't know how you can play on that thing; what's it have, four notes? Eight strings, but tuned in pairs?"

From a guitar or piano perspective use to voicing as much as 6 to 10 notes of polyphony at a time, it's a reasonable question, but one must ponder, when is enough, enough? Without getting into the complexities of equal temperament, how many conflicting harmonics and overtones can the ear handle?

Even the mandolinist will get caught up in the "More is more" mentality that chords always require four simultaneous notes at a time, and let's go on record this is NOT a necessity. In an ensemble situation, the bass player is already laying down the harmonic fundamental (bass) note so you already have one tone that is potentially redundant. As we review in our Chord Economics, the unaltered 5th is either aurally implied or unnecessary, so now we're down to three essential notes, and really, two if your not including a color extention (b9, 13, +11).

It's the 3rd and 7th that need hearing (the former the majorness or minorness) and you can do this smoothly on the mandolin as it lays nicely on adjoining strings. Still, if you want the harmonic color of the chord extensions, you're only requiring three notes of the chord, freeing your last string for additional linear motion and vertical fun.

We see the alleged "limitation" of four voices as liberating, not confining, a wealth of opportunity to succinctly paint or hint harmonic texture.

Besides, sax and trumpet outside of awkward "multiphonic" humming & playing simultaneously (and that's at best "novelty," at worst, annoyingly ugly) are limited to monophony, playing only one note at a time. Even a violin rarely emits more than two-note chords or double-stops.

Back to mandolin, don't be trapped into perpetual four-note chords. The best jazz mandolinists arguably use three-note chords the majority of the time. It's a wonderful "signature" sound of the instrument, pure, harmonically distinct, and sonically intriguing.

Okay now, take three.

Posted by Ted at 08:51 AM

June 10, 2006 | Tying up the Chords

Fluency with lots of different ways to voice a chord (inversion) is an important skill in Jazz. Smooth voice leading is just as important in chord comping as it is in playing a melody. As a general rule, you want to try to move no more than two frets most of the time. Bouncing up and down the frets will not only slow you down, it's harder to listen to.

To build your chord vocabulary, start by transposing the ones you already know. If you struggle with doing this aurally or from memory, by all means write them down. Seeing them visually can be a good thing to help you learn them, but eventually you will want to memorize them, too.

Of course context will help. Like learning a 2nd language, you won't remember words and phrases if you don't use them. Chords are the same way, but in jazz comping, you get PLENTY of opportunity to use chord variations while accompanying the solo.

Here's a free fretboard template for you to document your own personal chord discoveries:

Download: JazzMando Chord Fretboard Template

Posted by Ted at 06:03 AM

June 06, 2006 | The Fight for Sonic Turf

In the world of Bluegrass, banjo jokes abound. It doesn't take an anthropologist to understand the cultural dynamics here. For mandolinists, it's personal and has more to do with the competition for volume and the banjo's characteristic and inherent acoustical properties and playing strength. The ongoing drone of crosspicking combined with a (literal) drumhead of acoustic punch makes it difficult to overpower. Musicality becomes a casualty and is easily sacrificed in quest for sonic space.

This is also common in jazz and pop/rock if the ensemble includes an electric guitar. A good jazz guitarist will know to include "space" in comping and backing up the others, but one unfamiliar with the terrain and understanding "less is more," can be a terrorist to a mandolin (especially acoustic). The guitar not only plays in the same register with a similar timbre, but packs the ultimate weapon, the dreaded volume knob.

What to be done when the "fight for fill" gets out of hand?

Communication is the first and most necessary step. Simply identifying the problem verbally, talking it out can reduce the clutter. The problem will be in a jam where new players meet, or worse, a poor Troglodyte musician that just doesn't (and never will) "get it."

Either way, both musicians need to significantly reduce their quantity of notes, yielding the necessary space for the priority of melody. Another tactic is with enough practice, both musicians can join in playing the same set of motif of lick, a mini-composition within the arrangement. This calls for some predetermined organization, but can be very effective in yielding an energy and sophistication for the ensemble.

Yet another is simply visual. If one musician is in the upper frets, the observant other ought to be in lower frets. If one is pounding out comping chords with the right hand, the other should be trading off with gentle, lyrical licks of counter melody.

No one wins in the fight for sonic turf. The audience won't like it; even the uninitiated will observe the clutter and impact on the lack of clarity in rhythm and melody. The competing musicians find playing unsatisfying; no victor in this fight.

More thoughts: Plays well with others...

Posted by Ted at 05:46 AM

June 01, 2006 | Scaling Sequences

Embedded in our approach to unraveling fretboard familiarity through our FFcP (Four Finger Closed Position) Exercises, is a mixture of finger combinations and a sneaky dose of music theory. We don't want to just play scales down conjunctly, in pure form, as music really doesn't normally exist this way. We introduce broken 3rds and 4ths, some arpeggio chord patterns, and some contrary motion.

You can do the same with your own scale practice, but why? Aren't scales sterile and unmusical, even if varied a bit? If a musician did nothing but blow scales, wouldn't that be terribly boring for the audience?

Absolutely, but that's a wretched excuse to not learn scales. The first goal, of course is just learning where the notes are on the fretboard. The next, though, is developing the subliminal ingredients to a larger recipe, a kind of creative shorthand. We discuss this in our Improvisation: Pattern vs Theory article; you might take the time to read this. In essence, music is a mixture of math and creativity. Learning sequences is a way to get the "math" part so you can spin off more art.

Look at the following approach to varying a Major Scale:

View image

You can adapt this to your daily practice routine. Run each variation on all the scales. It's certainly more "musical" that just playing through the first measure on every key. Of course, we recommend including EVERY key, all twelve. The best way to do this is to take out the Circle of Fifths Polish Cloth you just purchased from our Merchandise Center, drape it over your stand and go around the "clock." Closed position is a good way to start, you can add octaves, and open strings later if you want.

There are other sequences you can use, like the broken 3rds or 4ths, Minor and Altered Scales, but get out of the rut of just playing "Vanilla" scales step by step. Do this enough and your find these notes just coming to your fingers later while you are improvising.

Posted by Ted at 09:31 AM

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