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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August 31, 2006 | The Crack of the Bat

If you've ever had the privilege of attending a baseball game, you're no doubt familiar with the acoustics of the smack of swamp ash (or aluminum) and leather and stitches as the bat makes contact with the ball before it goes sailing deep into the outfield (or better if your team, farther).

It's a very distinctive sound. Consider what it takes for the player to get it, and you might have some clues how to draw the same sort of purity, volume, and accuracy in your own picking. Bat swinging requires consistency, strength, and precision. Though a baseball player doesn't repeatedly strike the ball like you alternate strokes with a pick, you still have the same model of success when hitting your music out of the park.

One chance at contact with the ball, and then it must be met square on, with enough velocity and follow-through to give it distance. Your pick needs to hit the string consistently with this sort of accuracy, consider pick angle and what happens to it before and after you strike the string. If your left-hand fingers are doing their job squaring up the sweet spot between frets, this stroke is EVERYTHING to your good tone.

Work on downstrokes, slow half and quarter-notes at the beginning of your practice routine. This is the start of your tone; it should be the start of your regimen. Slowly add in subsequent upstrokes, fully aware of your pick, firm finger grip, without a choking tension. Get this articluation automatic and on autopilot by focusing ONLY on your stroke, clear baseball bat strikes with precise contact and a grip that allows your to follow through on the next up or down stroke.

It would help to exaggerate the volume level early on for a few minutes, driving your sound to the back of the room, at least 12 feet away from your sound hole. This gets the feel into your fingers and sets you up for grabbing maximum sound the rest of your session.

Snap... Home Run.

Posted by Ted at 06:02 AM

August 26, 2006 | Circle of Fifths Examples

Once in a while it's fun to revisit Ralph Patt's website and dig up a few of the hundreds of nuggets of information and his observations of the elements of Jazz Standards.

A particularly intriguing analysis is his comprehensive listing of Tonal Centers . We've been looking a Circle (Cycle) of Fifths applications. Check out his listings of several Jazz Standards that include a Circle of Fifths progression; this might help bring the concept home for you:

Ralph Patt Cycle of Fifths.

Posted by Ted at 05:48 AM

August 19, 2006 | Two-Note Chords

Jazzers can be guilty of making things too complicated. (Like this is news to you.) We can get so carried away with extended chords and complex voicings that sometimes our ears (and fingers!) beg for some simple variety...

We've made the plea for the purity of the Three-Note chord, but let's go a step farther and reduce things to two. We know that the two most import tones are the 3rd and 7th, assuming the root is already going on in another instrument, likely the lowest one or bass. Anything else, 9th, 11th, 13th is just icing on the cake.

Take a look at a potential fingering for comping on the tune "Sweet Georgia Brown." Here we strip away all but the 3rd and 7th of the first three chords, and listen how pure, yet complete this sounds:


Since it's a Circle of 5ths progression with a succession of Dominant 7ths, notice how little you have to move. Remember this trick; it's one you'll be able to repeat any time you have this in another key. By playing it this way, you have several benefits:

  • No extended chord clashes. Somebody wants to play a #9, another wants a regular 9. You end up staying out of the way.
  • Textural simplicity. Too many players slapping notes in the same register is hard to listen to, and can become harshly monotonous.
  • Textural variety. The 29th chorus of comping on same song and you need to offer your audience (and your sanity) something different. Add these voicings to your bag of tricks.

You can offer more variation in the way you mute or choke these notes, too. Drive them 4 to a bar, accent the back beat, or just "chop" on the back beat. If everyone else is quiet enough, this will make the audience listen closer. (It's especially appropriate during a bass solo.)

Take it easy, once in a while.

Posted by Ted at 09:25 PM

August 14, 2006 | Listen up!

There's simply no substitute for learning the nuance of any musical genre than getting your ears involved. Listening to a lot of music is mandatory for capturing what can only be translated aurally; no transcription could capture the subtlety of a recorded performance.

We recommend three hours of listening for every hour you practice, whether intently or background as you drive to work, workout on the treadmill, or plant tomatoes.

We've tweaked our Recommended Listening pages, added a few and linked several of the selections to one of our favorite suppliers of music, accessories and instruments, Elderly Instruments, out of Lansing, Michigan. They have a very thorough selection of acoustic recordings and we like to support this whenever possible with a purchase

Our main Jazz section is Recommended Listening.

Our non-jazz, but still relevant to mandolin is Periphery of Jazz.

Our Gypsy Jazz and Brazilian Choro section is Gypsy/Choro.

We also occasionally dig a little deeper and do longer reviews on some recent releases in our New Artist Spotlight.

Hey, you...

Listen up!!!

Posted by Ted at 01:43 PM

August 07, 2006 | Components of Tone

Listening to today's masters of mandolin tone, folks like Mike Marshall, John Reischman, Will Patton, and many more, it's astounding how intuitively they make their instruments sing. Many players make the mistake of dwelling on the particulars of instrument make and model, string manufacturer, pick construction and shape, but what good tone boils down to is simply the fingers.

We get wrapped up in the complexity of playing the notes, figuring out what's next, but we should never fail in delivering to our audience the best tone possible. Few will remember how many notes you played, but the long term impact of your playing will always be how sweet your sound is, even on the most uneducated listener. As mentor and friend Michael Lampert puts it, "If it isn't pretty, then what's the point."

There are three important ingredients in the recipe for cooking up good tone, and your warm-ups should always include exercises that develop each aspect singularly. In other words, dumb you practice down to attention on these three things: Pick, Fret, and Connect. Pick an exercise you can play slowly enough and concentrate on one of them at a time, and the rest of you practice will fall into place as the skills become automatic.

Components of Tone:

  • Pick Attack. You only get one shot at starting the tone. Your pick has to start the sound with conviction, and the only way to do this is with a secure (not tense) grip, and a full stroke of the pick. Where your pick sets up for the next attack is equally important.

  • Fretting Precision. That magical spot between the frets that yields the best tone, the "sweet spot" is what note definition is all about. Too high, too low, not solid enough, this is what yields less than maximum tone. Sustain is hard enough to maintain when this is accurate; virtually impossible when it's not precise.

  • Note Connection. Good tone is what goes on between the notes. Connecting each note as a part of a greater whole is the difference between a string of notes and a line, a string of words or a sentence.

One of our favorite tone-focus exercises is our Lydian DUDU. Download it (if you don't already have it) here or in our Free Downloads section. It was written partly to introduce the sound of the Lydian Mode (don't worry about it for now if that doesn't mean anything to you), as well as stretch the finger spread, but it's far more utilitarian than you might realize.

Play this VERY slowly the first time through, concentrating on the pick stroke. Aim for a clear, bell-like articulation, and a full stroke that actually touches the next string on the down stroke without making it sound the string. This gives you a good DOWN, and prepares you for a full UP stroke. You can really hear the tone on the repeated notes of the last two beats. They need to be consistent and clear.

Now, run the exercise again. As your picking hand feels warmed up and your healthy articulations become subconscious, this time focus on the fingers of your left hand. You want a full, perfectly clear sound with each change of note. No excuse for a partially fretted note! If it isn't perfect, do it again until it is. No fracking. Don't move to the next measure until each note in the measure is definite and distinct. The stretches especially for pinky are a challenge, but keep your fingers low to the string, and by all means, minimize any wasted motion.

Once this becomes comfortable, you can go through it a 3rd time and concentrate on how well you connect the notes. This can only happen with maximum Right Hand/Left Hand coordination. Observe the "slur" notation and try to make it sound like a well-connected phrase. NO space between the notes, and you can only accomplish this when the fingers are well in place for the next note.

Five to ten minutes of this kind of attention to tone is a terrific investment in the rest of your playing. You will stir souls with the beauty of your playing if you can push the maximum amount of tone out of your instrument when these three components are mastered within your subconscious!

Posted by Ted at 02:20 PM

August 02, 2006 | Summer Cleaning: Micro-fibre

It's Summer, and depending on where you are in relation to the equator, you are likely dealing with the effects of heat, humidity, and perspiration. A cool mug of draught beer is the remedy for the player, but what about the harmful effects of body oils and acids on your instrument when you're picking on the porch during the Dog Days of August, as the sun sets and dew point makes you and your instrument clammy?

Shameless self-promotion here. We recommend a good Micro-Fibre polish cloth (ours, of course!) to wipe down your instrument before, after, and/or during your playing time. Don't add to the "goo" on your finish by using a polish all the time, just wipe the immediate outer layer of grime, dust and sweat with one of these.

View: Ci5 Cloth

About Micro-Fibre: this material cloth acts like a magnet for dust, dirt, and oils, and lasting meaurably longer than cotton cloths. Woven from microscopic fibers, it's 10 times finer than silk, up to 30 times finer than cotton. You could only tell by looking through a microscope, but it's 100 times finer than a human hair!

The fibers are woven into masses of tiny hooks and loom-like loops which cut through stains, attracting dirt, erasing smudges, and accessing tiny micro-particles that ordinary cloths wouldn't be able to get too. No need for polish if used on a regular basis; wipe instrument after every practice while you're putting the instrument in the case.

The exclusive Circle of Fifths Cloth offers a pedagogical benefit, of course. We run through scales and transpose riffs, using this as a reference by draping it over the stand. As we transpose our Mandolin knowledge to Mandola, this is also helpful as a guide in keeping our bearings, too.

Plus, it's always there, portable and as close as the case. (Always the trick with maintaining any good discipline: easy access.)

Get clean: Circle of Fifths Polish Cloth.

Buy one for each case. Take advantage of quantity discounts and buy one for your fellow instrumentalists & help them clean up a bit!

Posted by Ted at 06:09 AM

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