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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July 28, 2006 | Mandolin in Context

Culturally, we all tend to maintain a rather static concept of the role of an instrument. We think of a tin whistle in a Celtic dance group, but not in a Top 10 Pop Single. We think accordion at an Italian wedding, but not playing Taps at a funeral. We think electric mandolin in a Texas Swing ensemble, but not fronting a jazz big band.

What we forget is though sonic capabilities can limit instruments just because of acoustic properties (a xylophone doesn't have the sustain to convincingly blow the melodic line of a ballad), most of our limitations are more conceptual than physical.

Think guitar. It was more of a rhythm instrument until certain pioneers in the 20's & 30's exploited newer instrument designs, including (later) the electric guitar, to define it as a melodic instrument, too. The bandolim has been thought of as a melody instrument in a Choro setting; really only recently have some of the Brazilian greats started using it's percussive qualities for rhythmic accompaniment. Who would have thought the unlimited potential of the MIDI synthesizer technology, that evil symphony orchestra-killing instrument of the 80's would die a slow death in today's popular music. (When was the last time you heard a really current good synth solo?)

Don't let the limits of imagination pigeon-hole the capabilities of the mandolin. Two words: Bluegrass Trombone...

Seriously, we don't know about a tin-whistle in a top 40's group, but why not? Taps on the accordion would be highly appropriate for the funeral of a Polka Band member. Paul Glasse did an amazing job fronting a regionally successful big band on his signature five-string electric mandolin, recently. We're working on having Don Stiernberg featured in something similar, too.

Meantime, listen to what other mandolinists are doing. There are tons of styles already in play, and limitless amounts of untapped potential if we only stretch our imagination.

Good places to here a variety of mandolin:

Mandolin Cafe MP3 Music

Mandozine Radio

Posted by Ted at 10:56 AM

July 22, 2006 | Stop the pain

Do your hands or fingers ever hurt from playing or practicing?

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is not just a problem for the old. In the today's cyber-culture of repetitive small-motor tasks such as typing at a keyboard, or in our case, practicing a mandolin for extended periods, some simple principles of physical therapy can go miles in helping you prevent or slow permanent damage or discomfort to your fingers and hands.

Remember your junior high PE coach telling you about opposing muscles? When you exercised at a chin-up bar, you were strengthening your biceps, but to balance this development, you'd do pushups to enhance the triceps. These are muscles that work in tandem or opposition and you need to keep in mind most of your muscles will work this way, including your fingers on the fretboard.

Ever feel a sharp, isolated pain in your wrist or upper hand after extended practicing? What you lose track of is the tremendous amount of "one-way" pressure you exert on such a small set of muscles. This begs for worsening problems if you don't balance by tackling the "opposing" muscles your body has to balance them.

Another issue is the support of large muscles in your body that your small muscles depend on. Since mandolin playing is so isolated, you can feel similar pain in your upper forearm where the finger muscles attach. What can you do to thwart discomfort (let alone damage) to this area?

Handmasterplus The GHS "Handmaster Plus" is a perfect tool for balancing your mandolinning muscles. This small rubber exercise ball with stretchable rubber cords that attach to your finger ends can give you a more complete practice, balancing the pressure exerted on the 9 muscles that open the hand. This puts pressure as you practice these very simple hand extension exercises.

We use this before and after practicing for 5-10 minutes (instructions are on the package inside). Using it prior stimulates blood flow and limbers up your hand. You'll find yourself playing warmed up in a shorter period, so it's a good investment of time. Finish your practice session with a few more minutes to warm down and limber tightened muscles. Your hand will feel tired but very good!

We suggest keeping one in the car for times you are traveling, too. You don't need to overdo these exercises, a little goes a long ways.

The GHS Hand Master Plus Exerciser should be available any place you purchase GHS strings.

Read more about these on the GHS website.

Posted by Ted at 12:50 PM

July 18, 2006 | Blue Night Records

If you are into really striving for a deep comprehension of the Jazz Standards (as are we) and how the mandolin can fit in this tradition, a great place to start is on the Blue Night Records web site. Don Stiernberg, master jazz mandolinist and penultimate recording artist along with some of Chicago's best rhythm players has fashioned some of the most ear-pleasing interpretations of the 20th century's jazz classics in these thorough collections.

We have Blue Night Records president Steven Briggs to thank for this great audio collection. It was his vision and passion for documenting the great music of this ground breaking artist and some of the Windy City's best session musicians.

We unabashedly recommend acquiring every recording with the Blue Night label for your own library to study and enjoy.

Blue Night Records website

Study our personal recommendations

Posted by Ted at 05:54 AM

July 11, 2006 | Harmonic Implication

"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"

You may have noticed this quote on the bottom of the page. It is the central charter and core strategy to creating what we at JazzMando consider good music. What that means is understanding scale degrees and modes are helpful, but it's not until the focus on to the vertical, the chordal aspects of music a musician is capable of mastering "composition."

Listen to (and analyze) the great solos of Charlie Parker and other Bebop artists. It can be argued the genesis of their soloing is not modes, but chords connected by passing or leading tones. It's a different way to skin a cat, but the musical "completeness" to this tactic is essential to understand.

Think "chord arpeggios with a few connecting notes" and you get the idea. Take a Fakebook and pencil where chords are spelled out in the melody. Note where these chords are, how they reinforce the comping chords and what connects them. This can be a whole new way of understanding improvisation if you've never thought of music in this way.

This is one reason we aren't wild about Pentatonic Scales. They really don't imply anything but the key center. ONE key center. It's not until you step off into Leading Tones and Gravity Notes that you really imply chord function.

Grab a lead sheet of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" and see what we mean. What may have been a complex and unmanageable set of chromatic notes to you can become a strategic, attainable piece of music when you unravel the chords and put all the rest of the embellishing notes in context. Plus, there's some terrific melodic fodder for you to steal and put in other solos!

Posted by Ted at 07:34 AM

July 05, 2006 | How do they do that: Transpositions

Not uncommon when working with vocalists to be able to transpose music. Singers have different ranges, and versatility becomes a necessity for the accompanying instrumentalist. Sure you can just write out the chords, but how do you approach simple or complex meloldies?

We feel this skill is a necessity for transposing phrases and tunes, but the question is begged,"Do you literally figure out one note at a time, or are there short cuts using all these goofy FFcP scales that we've been practicing as great finger exercises, but have found no other use for?"

First, understand, it's not a one note-at-a-time mental process. There are more than one ways to skin this hep cat, but it's nearly impossible to think note-for-note transposition with any sort of speed. A much better way is to conceptualize in terms of scale degree. Take the Fiddle Tune Classic "Sailor's Hornpipe."

Don't think G, F#, G, G, G,D, C, B, D, G, G. Just transposing that first line in all 12-keys would be a major brain stretch. (You'd probably pull a muscle thinking that hard.)

A better solution is to think 8, 7, 8 , 1, 1, 5, 4, 3, 5, 8, 8, etc.

Try to frame new tunes in this way as you learn them. You can not only transpose quicker, you can use bits of them for improvisational and melodic fodder for other songs AND other keys.

That may seem like a lot of work if you've never thought of it in this way, but it pays off BIG TIME, on down the line. Fiddle tunes are a great way to get started down that path...

Pentatonic scales? (Ick!!!) I you have to, but don't think G, A, B, C, D. Instead, think 1, 2, 3, 5, 6. This will open some huge doors for your playing, and especially soloing.

Posted by Ted at 09:55 PM

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