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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April 29, 2007 | Variables

Except for the above...

Having weighed in on a recent entry on Auditioning instruments, Site Author Ted Eschliman felt compelled to register more observations on the snares and pitfalls of making too-fast judgments on instruments and strings. Humans are equipped with an intellectual skill best-selling author Malcom Gladwell has documented in his breakthrough book "Blink," called Thin-slicing. We make quick decisions based on immediately absorbed peripheral observations. A fast-moving Greyhound bus blazing across our path causes an instinctive jump, halting our fast-paced forward motion, no deep intellectual analysis of the laws of physics necessary. Were we to hesitate to stop and calculate while in its way, speed, weight, inertial, our cognitive processes would have been flattened along with flesh and bone.

We make weighty but intuitive life decisions with our gut, the person we are going to marry, the house we will buy, often by thin-slicing. Our heart will make a snap decision based on complex factual accumulation and previous experience, and our brain spends the next several months unraveling all the overwhelming logic behind that split-second cognitive census.

Thin-slicing has its downside. The person who curses Pepsi products for the rest of his life because of one bad incident with a Pepsi machine, the car salesman who erroneously writes off the raggedy-jeaned heart surgeon how had every intention of buying a BMW on the lot that day (not now...) and apt for this discussion, the vintage Lyon and Healy treasure the amateur mandolinist overlooked in the estate auction because the strings and bridge were missing and it looked, well... old--these are the mistakes made because of improper thin-slicing.

We witnessed recently a video blog of an amateur mandolinist (four months a player), making a "scientific" comparison of two popular strings. The only problem, though these were played (poorly) side by side, the sound examples were on two entirely different instruments, hardly a controlled experiment. Funny, brand a strings sounded brighter on the characteristically brighter instrument. Brand B sounded muddy of the more mellow instrument. Go figure...

We have to watch these misleading traps when gathering our information about instruments and equipment. You will read all kinds of negative reviews about these and related gear tried at a festival or trade show floor, a penultimate thin-slice "experience". We read discussion of a newly introduced Chinese-made instrument (under the Flatiron brand, another story for another discussion...) in a room packed with overzealous banjos and ambient noise, a typical and frequent opportunity for the introduction of many new models, but hardly an ideal auditioning environment. Many would look at the label and prejudge based on experience with similar product, and never account for the "changeable" characteristics of the instrument, string construction or gauge, bridge height and adjustment, let alone sitting/standing, strapped/unstrapped, familiar pick/unfamiliar pick. It's the mature musician who can readily admit, "I don't know. I don't have enough empirical information" and make a qualified verdict.

It can go the other way, too. We can pick up an instrument that feels comfortable and sounds good immediately, only to find later that the instrument is capable of the demands of dynamic contrast. An instrument that sounds truly terrific solo can be buried in an ensemble environment. Not good for a player whose main activity is playing in a loud band.

Consider this recent experience by site author, Ted Eschliman. After enjoying his Draleon Royale mandolin for several months he decided his playing would be better served replacing the stock thin instrument thin frets with fatter ones. In addition, he customized the fingerboard with a 7" radius and Doug Edwards custom pickguard. He observes:

"The first 90 minutes I played the newly customized instrument, I had my doubts. Not impressed, it sounded brassy and thin, incapable of pounding or projection. I had to step back and realize I was dealing with a fresh set of unbroken-in strings, fingers used to a month of mandola, and a bridge heightthat had yet to be dialed in properly. Patiently, I continued to play the rest of the practice session as my fingers struggled to find the new sweet spots of the fretboard.

"The next day, things were better. I'd raised the bridge a bit, discouraged I might need to mirror the new fingerboard radius in the bridge. Gradually, the strings and settled too and emitted the characteristic richness I was hoping for all along. By the third day, my fingers were immensely more comfortable with the frets, and even felt the mandolin was becoming more comfortable than in its pre-altered state.

Final decision (and four days later), the work was a hit; fat frets for me, definitely!"

When instruments are sold, even on the internet, customary approval time is around 48 hours. Understand, this is probably more accurately framed "disapproval" time. You shouldn't purchase something this way unless you're already 60% sure this is an instrument you'll want, or you're only wasing your (and the seller's!) time. That 48 hours should be spent evaluating personal objections and hopefully assessing what negatives might (or might not) be salvageable with the work of a good repair tech.

Just be careful making your own decisions. Remember, anything you read on a website (including this one) or advertisement requires an appropriate dose of self-discretion. You only have yourself to blame in a bad choice.

(Read our disclaimer at the bottom of each page...)

More about Thin Slicing: Blink

Posted by Ted at 2:54 PM

April 22, 2007 | Working the Clock

A "Second" Look...

Every aspiring musician ought to own a metronome. For the price of three trips to McDonalds you can buy one, or even better, own several. Keep one in your case (they make them small enough!), have one adorn your desk like an elaborate piece of furniture, or get something high-tech that subdivides or even sports a chromatic tuner. There are plenty of options available and if you ever wanted to challenge a music store salesperson, walk in and say, "I'd like to see EVERY metronome you have in the store."

That said, we want to suggest a cool tip. Most of the exercise audio demos we have in our upcoming book "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" were recorded at 60 beats per minute (or 120 bpm). It's a great tempo, and not just because it's slow enough to give you a chance to focus on rich tone and clean execution.

There's something almost spiritual about 60 bpm. Any physician or aerobics instructor will tell you it's the goal for a healthy resting heart rate. Check your pulse in the morning when you wake up. If you're in average or better health, this is probably where you are first thing. It only gets faster when you exert yourself or get stressed. We really like 60 beats per minute (and its doubly faster subdivision 120 bpm). Playing with rich healthy tone at this pace will do you wonders later in your practice session when you've warmed your fingers up; even better when you warm up the mind and spirit! You're ready to learn.

Try something when your metronome isn't readily accessible. Try using the second hand of a clock to pace your 60 (or 120) beats per minute. Why is this good?

Watching rather than listening to the beat uses another of your five senses, the visual. We know of a drummer who insisted burying his own playing in snare drum practice with a overpoweringly loud metronome robbed him of his musicianship. The metronome was dictating tempo, rather than correcting it. If you could have someone tap tempo on your back, it would be the same idea, connecting your synapses with another of the five senses.

Our drummer friend is right; when you watch the clock rather than blindly thump along with the best, it challenges you to develop your own internal timing. It makes you subdivide and tests you along the way.

Try your scales at this tempo. Stand in front of a clock with a mechancial second hand (one that "jerks" through the second markings) and play at 60 bpm. You'll be surprised at how much it challenges the security you place in your own sense of rhythm. Anything you can do to develop this innate ability is going to benefit you in your ensemble environments, too.

After all, aren't we all out for (a) good time!

Another Tip with Metronome: Backbeat

Posted by Ted at 12:28 PM

April 16, 2007 | Conformity

The Evils of Conformity

This is about as melodramatic a title as we dare muster, and hopefully after reading these thoughts, you'll conclude conformity actually has its proper place. We want to look at the issue of studying "licks" and hope to convey some sort of balance on the subject.

There are plenty of ways to study other players' licks or personal phrases. They can be as simple as two notes (think Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) or as long as a vocalise based on an entire Charlie Parker or Django Reinhardt chorus. Many players with good transcribing skills will actually document or write down these passages. Some will analyze favorite parts aurally and repeat them over and over until it becomes a part of their own personal lick "library."

It's not a bad idea, studying what has been invented by other great mandolinists. It's even more eye-opening borrowing from other instrumentalists, as well. (The latter can be quite fresh!) What we hope you dig up aren't just the notes, but the process. Why would Don Stiernberg run a diminished chord arpeggiated and how does this fit my fingers? Why would (pianist) Bill Evans roll out an Fm9 chord in his melody, or McCoy Tyner stack his in intervals of 4ths? You're not just archiving great melodic fodder, you're uncovering for yourself the very creative engines that these great musicians have taken years to develop and internalize.

What you don't want to do is parrot them. At least all the time, anyway. Sure, take the time to steal the notes, but go the next step of harmonic analysis. How does it fit the music? How does it fit the fretboard? Can I move it to another area of the fretboard at a later time? Can I stretch out the time or just use a fragment and repeat the fragment up in chromatic tonal centers? Can I play it a key up or a tritone to get "outside" the changes, and come back?

Back to conformity, one of our favorite websites is They offer some profoundly funny graphic parodies of the motivational "Successories" posters you see advertised in airplane magazines. A yearly ritual around the JazzMando Laboratory is ordering a new calendar from them in December around New Years Day. (They're great Christmas presents--a hit that lasts all year long!) One of our favorites is their graphic for Conformity:

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.


Learn your licks, but open yourself to the tongue behind them. (Maybe that could have been phrased another way...)

Read our article on Pattern Based Improvisation.

Posted by Ted at 5:39 AM

April 7, 2007 | Your Pick

Pick Construction

Pick preferences and options are as individual as flavored toothpastes. Just because your favorite player uses Crystal Mint Whitening Sensitive Formula with Fluoride doesn't mean that's what's best for your mouth. It does warrant validation if you intend on imitating a playing style, but in your hunt for the ultimate pick you'll want to do some experimenting and use what works best for your size fingers, grip, and instrument. Let's do a run through of alternatives out there to help guide your search, but always at the back of your mind is the determination that what works for you, works for you. It may very well be different that the player next to you...

Pick construction can be hard or flexible depending on what it's made of. Many players like the rigidity of a (legal) tortoise shell pick or a good synthetic substitute like Dunlop Ultex or Tortis. These get a nice snap out of the string; drop an Ultex on a hard counter and the pick itself even rings. Clayton makes a pick similar to this, Ultem, unfortunately the 1.20 are either unavailable or hard to find. (These and the Ultex are very tough on the cutting tools that produce them.)

Celluloid has been a near century-tradition mainstay for guitarists. We've not had success with anything thinner than a Fender Heavy (or Extra Heavy) because of the "shaving" the strings inflict and wear. The Dunlop Tortex and Nylon are also excellent choices, the drawback being and unwanted softness as they heat up while playing.

It's true, size matters. It can be measured in thickness and over shape. Ironically, mandolinists will want a thicker pick than guitarists. Strung at a proportionally higher tension with thinner strings (let alone double course), the extra weight yields more power and the firmness more control. We suggest recent guitar-converts at least experiment with heavier relative picks than previously used on guitar. Of course there will always be exceptions, but 1.0 mm is probably minimum and 1.14 or 1.5 even better. Gypsy guitarists use 2.0 and even 3.0. When you observe the demands of Dance Hall volume and projection this genre requires of their playing, you quickly understand why. (You think it's hard cutting through a banjo...) That said a duo-style player or classical might prefer a thinner pick with more flexibility and finesse for the subtler demands of tremolo.

Along with thickness, a bigger pick can give you more force, but not if your hands can't control the pick. The rounded tri-corners of a 346 style pick is quite popular, but we know of some good players who use the regular Fender 351 guitar shape or the elongated egg of the Dunlop Jazztone.

A sharp point can give you quicker articulation and precision, but often sacrificing tone. A rounded point pulls more string fundamental at the attack; many players will use the rounded corners of the 351 guitar shape.

Picks are three-dimensional so you should regard the amount of bevel or radius of your pick. Being partial to the JazzMando Signature Proplec (no longer available), we like the overall smoothness in each attack as the string is engaged more slowly over time. You get less hash pick "slap" high harmonics and more lower partials. It's like the difference between hitting a gong with a crowbar or a heavy hard wool encased mallet.

Note you can achieve this with a flatter pick by angling the pick toward yourself, but with the bevel, this will be more intuitive and immediate.

There are plenty of custom picks in the industry with a variety of handmade bevels, thicknesses, and shapes. You may very well want to try a Wegen, Tortis, or Dawg pick and discover the benefits for yourself. Obviously, our blatant bias has been for the less expensive JazzMando 346 carefully researched by our JazzMando lab assistants and professionals.

Pick tastes will likely evolve with your abilities and playing styles. Balance the notion of experimentation with the idea that your playing will develop with equipment consistency. Make your changes slowly; give yourself adequate settling time in evaluating new picks.

Open-mindedness has its place; there is something to be said for new discovery. On occasion, you'll have the opportunity to shake hands with one who knows his picks; be mindful of the one who picks his "knows."

Bada Boom...

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at 10:23 PM

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