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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November 30, 2006 | Tonal Centers Shifting Chromatically. What to do?

If you've ever encountered music that shifts keys or tonal centers by a half step, say from F Major to Gb Major, what can you do to change your fingering?

Basically, there are two options. One is move everything over a fret (Duh...). That's simple, but you don't have as much flexibility if you get multiple shifts or something complicated in chord progressions ahead. A better option to start working on is moving by FFcP fingerings.

This isn't as hard as it sounds. Improvising in the key of F and the music shifts to Gb, you could be playing the key of F with your first finger on the F (AKA 3rd position) as a 1st FFcP, and simply play the subsequent Gb with a 2nd FFcP fingering.

We've developed a great exercise to get you fluent with this sort of shift with our Fifth Lesson in the FFcP series, FFcP and Chromatic Mastering. It's a little more advance approach to improvising, but if you've already been working the FFcP exercises, this will be very easy to learn.

You might already be seeing improvement in your improvisation. If nothing else, this a fantastic study in tone and fretboard familiarity.

Read article and download exercise: FFcP and Chromatic Mastering

Posted by Ted at 10:26 PM

November 21, 2006 | Breathing through your eyes

There's a profound imagery Yoga Masters teach in relaxation and meditation techniques, "breathing through your eyes." One not need to dive into too much of the science of Chakras, Prana, and Energy Centers to uncover the powerful nature and potential within this concept, and we think this is one that translates well into playing mandolin.

Of course, the thought of exchanging oxygen through the eyes is a ridiculous impossibility (we can't recommend trying to survive this way...), but it's an intriguing mental picture. Imagine in a tense, high-stress situation what your body would do if you momentarily stopped to visualize breathing through your eyes. You'd undoubtedly slow down physically, focusing away from seemingly overwhelming negative and disruptive exterior distractions. Your facial muscles would relax, heart rate slow in tempo, and in general, you'd "regroup" mentally, physically, and emotionally. Your mind would be better equipped to deal with the situation without the panic.

Apply this similarly freeing technique in playing, only in its place, visualize "singing out the back of the mandolin." Equally impossible to the task of breathing out of your eyes, the instrument back certainly vibrates, but sound actually projects forward out the top and through the sound holes. However, if you were to fixate on forcing sound through the top as you play, it would be very easy to unnaturally tense your arms, torso, and fingers as you play.

If you relax enough to imagine the back of the mandolin as a "voice," you'll certainly have to physically free it up enough to vibrate effectively, but something else marvelous happens. Your arms and shoulders also relax. Residual tension goes to more productive functions. Blood flows to the extremities where it's best needed, effectively ending up where it ought to be, the fretting fingers gripping to maximize and milk the sweet spots between frets, and a firm picking grip as it draws robust tone out of the strings.

Like "Breathing through the eyes," you accomplish a positive result with a very liberating distraction. "Singing through the back" of the mandolin yields the comfort and positioning necessary for controlled but relaxed tone.

Try it. Move the instrument slightly away from your body and visualize it vibrating as you pluck long, sustained note with your pick. After some whole and half note scales, try speeding up slightly with quarter and eighth notes, but stay as relaxed. Then go back to your music you already know and see that this relaxed adjustment does to your sound.

If you get frustrated as you add complex passages, stop and take some time out.

Breathe with your eyes...

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at 08:16 PM

November 12, 2006 | Cataloging Bad Tone

Not the instrument...

Outside of the obvious reasons a mandolin can sound bad, improper intonation, old strings, improper bridge and fret adjustment, poor quality instrument, really all the faults of bad equipment, it's a good idea to examine all the things the player is doing wrong. We think this is a crucial area of self-discovery in improving playing capability. It's easy to blame the engine when the problem is "operator error." In order to truly understand what good tone is, one must unravel the causes and components of bad tone.

  • Missing, not milking the sweet spot with the fretting fingers
  • Inaccurate pick timing (RH/LH coordination)
  • Choking or failing to hold the tone through to the start of the next note.
  • Running out of gas, prematurely losing phrase intensity
  • Tepid pick stroking, lack of "follow-through."

The above is a good, comprehensive start in common faults and areas of player imperfections. You don't hear the really great players struggle with any of these; they've worked hard enough to play well and make getting beyond these appear effortless.

The best way to deal with a checklist like is the strategy of isolating. In your practice regimen, find exercises that deal with only one aspect and extend the amount of time on these and increase the focus by simplifying. If it's a picking problem, don't complicate things by putting lots of notes in the left hand. If it's a sustain or accuracy issue, for goodness sake, slow it down. If you can't play a passage cleanly or accurately slowly, it's not going to sound any better when you speed it up.

Problem: Missing, not milking the sweet spot with the fretting fingers.
Solution: Whole notes and half notes may seem elementary, but not when you try to make each sound resonant and perfect. Your fingers need to be conditioned to where these are, and this can't be subconscious until you've made it thoroughly conscious. Use your ear and allow no half-fretted, fracks, or clams as you play snail-speed scales.

Problem: Inaccurate pick timing (RH/LH coordination)
Solution: If you want your pick to coordinate with the fretting fingers, again you need to slow things down and work on uncomplicated passages. Avoid lots of string crossings, preferably scales or modes, starting with consecutive notes, A, A, A, A, B, B, B, B, C#, C#, C#, C#, etc. and then start to double up the motion A,A,B,B,C#,C# and then on to A, B, C#, etc... Articulation and sustain are a team effort in tone, you can't have a good sound with out both hands working together.

Problem: Choking or failing to hold the tone through to the start of the next note.
Solution: You don't want to "cough" notes with the left hand, so start with all down strokes on a scale or mode. Listen to where finger placement between the frets yields maximum tone and sing it through to the start of the next note. After getting comfortable with this, start alternating with upstrokes.

Problem: Running out of gas, prematurely losing phrase intensity.
Solution: Similar to the preceding problem, the way to make your phrases sound like phrases is to section them off mentality and insert "breath" marks. Plectrum players aren't driven by breathing the way wind instrumentalists are, so we need to be conscious of where phrases start and stop, and not lose intensity along the way. Practice breathing or singing the line as you pick.

Problem: Tepid pick stroking, lack of "follow-through."
Solution: Isolate the pick stroke mechanics in slow scale passages and consecutive notes. Think about a golfer hitting a ball off the tee; it's not just the wind-up and stroke before the ball, it's good contact, and the follow-through stroke. If your attack is sufficient, the pick has to continue on so focus in on where it goes. If you're into the Gypsy Jazz "Rest-stroke" technique, this is a crucial measure; consistently driving the pick to the next string (and stopping) is the way to get maximum tone out of both slow and fast passages.

These are the major components of bad tone to overcome. Some additional minor ones to watch out for include picking too close to the bridge, clicking the extended fingerboard or pickguard, and failing to mute unwanted open strings. That said, the most important thing you can do to improve you playing is not trying to learn how to play many notes, it's how to play them all with good tone.

Check out the many free resources here for exercises and technique.

Posted by Ted at 08:29 PM

November 06, 2006 | Tuning the Mandolin with harmonics

Every beginning mandolinist learns that he/she can tune the instrument to itself by playing unison notes, the 5th fret of each preceding string. The G string fretted at the 7th fret is D (the next string) the D string fretted at the 7th fret is A (also the next string), and the A string is E at the 7th fret.

You can certainly get a rough tuning this way, but if you want to be more precise, you can do something similar by hitting the harmonics at the 7th fret and 12th fret of the next thinnest string. Harmonics are played by lightly tapping on the string, and allowing it to vibrate in two sections. You've probably already learned this trick at the octave or 12th fret, especially if you've ever set or checked the bridge placement on your instrument.


Notice how you get pulses or "beats" when two sets of out-of-tune strings are played. Of course you want to make sure each course (pair) is in tune with itself, but when you ad the next set, listen for these beats. The slower they are, the closer you are to true pitch. No beats means you're there!

Assuming your G course is already in tune, you can tune the other strings this way, from the bottom up. You can also work your way backwards, as well. This is an ergonomic reach for mandolin, too. Simply spread your fingers so the 1st is on the 7th fret, and the pinky is on the 12th.

Electronic tuners are the easiest & fastest way to tune, but this is good ear training, and if you are in the middle of a performance and need a quick tweak, this is a fast way to do it. It just takes a little practice.

Posted by Ted at 09:58 PM

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