Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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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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January 25, 2007 |

Our blatant predisposition for jazz standards could lead us to nowhere but This incredible web resource is a must-link in your web browsers favorites, for reasons we'll uncover. Information and insight to a thousand standards, and an arguably notional Top 100 Song List will get you to the bottom of establishing your own library of personal jazz favorites. We've had fun comparing to our own ever evolving list of standards. (See Tuneage)

We wouldn't even begin to get into the whole black science of establishing the top 100 xxxx's of all time movies, actors, TV shows, etc., let alone songs. Despite the efforts to make it scientific, one must factor in the human elements of bias, preconception, and context, taking any such rankings with a grain of salt. Get around all that, this effort is still a terrific, if nothing else comprehensive resource to find tidbits and basic analysis of some of the best jazz songs ever written and recorded.

Look up one of our favorites, Ned Young/Victor Washington's "My Foolish Heart" penned 1949. Our first exposure to this tune was a reharmonized Bill Evans version (Live at the Village Vanguard), but here we look it up and find the tune (ranked #103 for what it's worth...) was originally a simple "ice cream changes" version later to be "jazzed up" by tenor saxophonist Dodo Mamaroso in 1950, and later picked up by vocalist Carmen McRae in 1956, pianist Andre Previn, and bass legend Ray Brown. Comments are listed by jazz historian Chris Tyle, and we get a succinct musical analysis of its form. Musicologist K.J. McElrath, "A well-constructed melody made up of strong motivic patterns helps keep this tune 'in the ear' and easily learned. With a wide range (a 10th), it is probably more attractive to instrumentalists than vocalists."

Listen to MP3 of site author's mandolin version: My Foolish Heart

This is the website's format for hundreds of tunes: ranking, form and harmonic analysis, historical context, and a sprinkling of discography to find for yourself who's recorded what. You'll get a kick out of reading the song list and ranking alone, but take the time to dig into some of your personal favorites, research where they came from and glean perspective of historical roots.

The real beauty of the site, it will generate even more questions than answers for you as you continue to surf link after link, reference after reference to some of the greatest music of the last 100 years.

View rankings: Songlist

View website:

Bill Evans YouTube video: My Foolish Heart

Posted by Ted at 9:41 PM

January 16, 2007 | Inner Game of Tennis

Physical Education intersects tremendously with the world of music pedagogy. The science of athletics can uncover commonalities between the pursuit of excellence in sports and learning to play a musical instrument. After all, both are about the effective connection of mind and body, and ultimately, the aesthetic and spiritual enjoyment of muscles and brain firing efficiently on all cylinders.

In the 70's, the book "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey (revised 1997) blazed trails in defining a whole new way of sports enthusiasts bettering their game, and it wasn't limited to tennis players. "Sports Psychology" was virtually virgin terrain in popular sports culture and education. Gallwey helped rewrite the handbook of effective personal sports training.

We recently read this book and couldn't help but glean important concepts in understanding mandolin playing and practice techniques. It's a simple notion that our brain short-circuits when we become overly analytical about the details of playing. Hold the wrist loose, don't grip the pick too hard, follow through in a rest-stroke from down-stroke to the next string down, watch the pick angle, keep the pinky from flying--all the particulars within these collective instructions can inhibit us in performing rather than helping if our "Inner Game" is not collected. It worsens exponentially in the pressures of tournament or public performance when we get hyper-critical and self-effacing.

The book goes into much detail, and we exhort you to read it. At over 7 million copies sold worldwide, your local public library probably has a copy, but you may wish to own one yourself. Meantime, we'll elaborate on three concepts we've gleaned.

  • A valid instruction derived from another's experience can help me only if it guides me to my own experiential self-discovery. Instructions or tips from other players sand teachers will help, but only if your mind is able to translate into your experience. These should be guidelines, not commands. If you're told "grip the pick so it doesn't slip out of your hands," that still doesn't tell you how much pressure you ultimately exert. Since it WILL be different for each individual player, you need to take the nugget of suggestion and explore your own boundaries of pick pressure. It's about self-enlightenment, not someone pouring their answers into your own personal vat full of behavior.
  • A child doesn't dig his way out of old grooves. He starts new ones. Our experience teaching dogs and children has always been more effective telling what TO DO more than what NOT to do. "Don't let the notes die in your fretting finger between string crossings." This is much more effectively expressed "Connect the last note from one string to the first note of the next string." It's a forward motion approach. Or saying "don't tense up," usually makes you even tenser; it's better to say "Relax!" We respond so much better than commands than barriers.
  • Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. Focus is not about thinking hard about something. Ever have a truly difficult passage you just couldn't concentrate on and play, even when you slowed down to snail speed? Maybe this passage is not tripping your synapses because you have nothing to hang it on. Your brain is not "interested." Take some moments for a little intellectual musical analysis. Is a chord arpeggio spelled out? A scale? What is the implied harmonic progression and is it more complex than the chords the rest of the ensemble is playing? Which are chord tones and which are passing notes? These are the questions that make your brain "dig;" ultimately what will make your fingers respond (and learn) after drilling.

There is much more you can learn from a Tennis Pro. Check out the rest of "The Inner Game of Tennis" for yourself!


Posted by Ted at 5:31 AM

January 9, 2007 | Tremolo. Stirred, not shaken.

Bad tremolo is arguably the most volatile catalyst for a negative impression of what a mandolin is all about. To the uninitiated, the schmaltzy, teeth-chattering effect of poor tremolo technique is what a red and white straw hat is to a Belgian harmonica quartet. No matter how great the musicianship is, it will always carry an air of camp or farce. We think it unfair, to allow it to stain the good name of mandolin.

What do we mean by bad tremolo? Let's look at some characteristics with the goal of addressing them. Nothing says tremolo doesn't have its place, but lets try to make it musical.

  • Sustaining. Often poor tremolo is used to sustain a pitch. This is getting the cart ahead of the horse. The intent should not be to make a dead note last longer. The goal should be propel an already well-developed note, and in the bigger picture, propel the phrase, the lyric quality of the music. This requires a left-hand (fretting finger) control that keeps the tone meaty and does not relent until the next note.

  • Connecting. Consecutive tremolo notes should have no gap in intensity, no break in sound. Listening to the start/stop of poorly executed series of tremoloed notes is like a long, uncomfortable Jeep ride over an Alaskan tundra. Notes should not be cut-off or choppy. Good tone is about what goes on between the notes.

  • Expressive. Tremolo has no single speed, or as Evan Marshall describes one of his favorite mandolinist hero's poor tremolo, "He was a genius, but his tremolo had two speeds. Off and On..." Good tremolos are organic and expressive. They vary in speed and dynamic. They convey the "passion" of the line.

  • Unmeasured. It's hard to corner. Is a tremolo a group of alternated accented triplets or sextuplets or some other regular division? The ear should not hear them this way, even if the player is thinking them that way. Practicing long, sustain single-note tremolos, the brain should not register regularity.

  • Discreet. Tremolo ought to be a spice. Some may argue it's the signature of a mandolin. We say if it must, then use it sparingly so it means something. Again, it's not intended to sustain poorly fretted notes, it must propel well placed, firm fingertips and pads.

If you're going to use tremolo, practice it. This is not something that comes natural to most players and must be included in the regular practice regimen. We don't think it's necessary in jazz, but that said we'll defend some great jazz mandolinists, particularly Don Stiernberg and David Grisman use tremolo quite musically and effectively.

Who could argue with them?

Editor's note: We've been uncharacteristically critical of mandolin tremolo lately, and thought it proper to clarify what good tremolo is about. It's not tremolo we disdain, it's BAD tremolo...

Posted by Ted at 5:23 AM

January 2, 2007 | Of course, of course...

Everyone has their preconceptions of what makes up an instrument. At, we certainly aren't unfamiliar with breaking molds and disturbing stereotypes. Scrolls don't mean much to us, and frankly, tremolo can be pretty disgusting when poorly executed (and it is frequently, but that's a subject for another day...), so ocassionaly it's hard for us to plug in (pun intended) the rigid traditionalist mandolin crowd. What really sets off on another course, or we should say a single course, is just that--mandolins with single strings.

There are plenty of misconceptions about single verses double. Electric mandolinists like Tiny Moore, Michael Lampert, and Paul Glasse have been able to get away with it, because they are amplified, after all. But can an acoustic mandolin get away without a double course?


The double verses single course controversy goes back to the development of 5 and 6 string guitars in the 1770s. Concerns about the durability of nylon verses steel (nice to have an extra in case one breaks) cinched the deal, and many opted for the extra metal for safety, and for what was commonly expected in instrument volume. Think about it; does a 12-string acoustic guitar sound louder than a 6-string? Inarguably, not that much louder. They are fuller, perhaps, but volume is not why guitarist double on them, it's strictly a specifically desired tonal quality.

Our Arrow Jazzbo 4-string and Old Wave Solocomp JM do just fine acoustically. We advocate this is a viable option of the future. It's not the string that makes the volume, it's the carving, bracing, and quality wood of the top that makes the difference. (The pick and the player, too, of course) Tone color in the string perhaps, but not loudness. You double the pitch with two-strings, but in our albeit empirical studies, phase cancellation negates any potential increase in volume. All you add is playing "stiffness."

In defense of double, a rich, quality tremolo depends on the double course, and the same can be said for the resonance required for cross picking and drones. In Jazz, this is not part of the arsenal, so we opt for the magnificent finger control and phrasing you benefit from with the single-course.

Vibrato, sustain (yes, absolutely more sustain!) and maneuverable control are right their in your fingertips, in ways you couldn't dream of getting out of a double-course. Contrary to popular thinking, you don't lose volume.

We throw down the gauntlet and challenge more progressive builders to create more options in single-course, acoustic mandolins. Enough of the crazy eights!

What do you think? Contact

Posted by Ted at 8:44 PM

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