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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May 28, 2007 | How do I hold it?...

We get inquiries through our contact form regarding holding angles, pick and hand gripping, neck angle, strap height, and all kinds of great questions about what is considered "standard" for posture and hand position. It's difficult to answer definitively, prescribing the right answers across the internet, and one could argue, even in person there will never be a single correct remedy or cure-all.

Rugged Individualists
Like no two snowflakes are alike, we are different in height, body type, arm length, finger strength, bone & joint angles, and a myriad of physical variables. Watch Sam Bush swing his arms and elbows like a tennis racket and it's a miracle he can achieve his exacting and precise fluid picking technique. Who is going to tell HIM he's doing something wrong? Talk to Peter Mix, legendary mandolin historian, collector, developer and president of New-MAD mandolins about strap buttons, and he'll tell you he's never needed a strap to hold an instrument, even while standing. Talk to David Grisman about Left Hand grip and he'll allude to "squeezing golf balls," but Paul Glasse will describe the need to emphasize relaxation and fluidity in the same fingers. Talk to Evan Marshall about his full rich tone, and you'll wonder in amazement how he does it with .009 gauge E strings.

So who is right? Answer: they all are because their physiques, tonal requirements, and instruments are different. Their approaches are as well. Lest we say there are NO absolute answers, let's offer there are two seemingly overriding yet contradictory principles to bear in mind when developing appropriate finger, hand, and wrist position. Control and Comfort. Lack of wasted motion, and lack of tension.

Control (Lack of wasted motion)
We advocate fretting fingers stealth and low to the string as much as possible. No "Flying Fingers," but a better way to describe this is finger tips and pads "at the ready." Violinists don't struggle with this because without frets, early on they used their fingers as a virtual measuring stick, perpetually conscious of hugging the string for spatial reference. We mandolinists (mistakenly) think we can afford to be sloppy, and often are, especially if our styles are laced with hammer-ons and pull-offs. Still, wasted motion ultimately means reduced speed and/or control.

Squeeze the frets? Certainly but fret position is probably even more important. Where it lies in that illusive "sweet spot" will impact your tone just as much as squeezing pressure. Still, building finger strength and especially in the 3rd and 4th fingers will pay off big in your tone.

Pick angle is important, too. We recommend a slight turn of the pick to milk (not slap) the tone out of the string. As far as grip, hold the pick only firm enough so that it doesn't fly from your fingers. Any harder than that will run tension all the way up your wrist and elbow.

Comfort (lack of tension)
Picking and fretting are an endurance contest, a marathon and not a sprint. You absolutely have to be relaxed if you want to keep up speed for any length of time. Plus, if your fingers and wrists are tense, you will hear it in your playing. You won't sing phrases; you'll "cough" them. You won't blow music, you'll spit.

We advocate warm-ups. There's something unnatural about the skinniness of the mandolin neck, smaller than a guitar, and unlike a violin, more often than not, four notes at a time. Getting your hands acclimated in a warm-up routine 10-20 minutes gets the blood to the muscles and prepares the body. Focusing on tone for the same amount of time relaxes and sets the mind. Some might argue it prepares the spirit, as well.

Needless to say, if there is tension in the long muscles (shoulder, neck, & arms) it will work its way to the smaller ones (hands, fingers). However, fixating on them is the wrong approach. Tone production should start mentally at the string and pick and work its way back. What you need to accomplish at these contact points should be supported by the muscles, on up the hands, wrists, and elbows, with as much of a distance form tension as humanly possible.

These are very broad concepts, but then to be too specific would deny you your own exploration of what works for you. A pro tennis player doesn't obsessively worry about stance, grip, or swing at a tournament, he/she thinks, "BALL. Over there. Smack!" All the technique is subconscious at that point, as it should be in your practice and performance.

If your ear and hands are synaptically wired properly you get to the point where you "feel" tone, as much as hear it. This is when you've discovered the perfect balance between control and comfort.

And it feels lovely!...

Extra credit, read our review on The Inner Game of Tennis

Posted by Ted at 8:09 AM

May 22, 2007 | Taking the Cowboy out of the Chord

Fellow picker and JazzMando All-Star John McGann, professor of mandolin at the Berklee School of Music (we know he also does guitar, but we just love using "professor" and "mandolin" in the same sentence) was waxing poetic a few weeks ago about the new undergraduate guitar majors who came to study jazz. Of course the language and vocabulary of jazz takes the player out of the lower frets and open note chords, commonly referred to as "Cowboy Chords." (This is not a compliment either, even if you are a cowboy.)

Another distinction of these chords are their triadic simplicity. We're not talking fingering a G7+9(b13) either. Part of the Berklee mission (and other prestigious music conservatories) is graduating players out of this lower fret confinement, weaning off the milk and on to and solid harmonic foods up the neck. The truly good jazzer will have a myriad of instant chord variations at his/her fingertips, but another important consideration is voice leading or context. You don't want chords to bounce around more than a few frets if at all possible keeping common chord tones in the same frets.

We take a stab at this in our 'ii V7 I' stock chord progressions lessons. Knowing these variations in several smooth, ergonomic positions and variations is a crucial skill, and it's not too early to start. We suggest learning these basic positions and later transposing them into as many keys as you can. You don't have to write them all out but if this helps, take advantage of the JazzMando Fretboard Template PDF for learning this and tackling all 12 keys.

If you're ready to start building your own chords, check out (or review some of the principles in our Chord Economics Lesson. Admittedly, we do have a bit of a challenge communicating six notes of a complex chord with only 4 notes on the mandolin fretboard, but remember, we get the privelege of expressing the color of the chord harmony.

Cowboy hat not included...


Posted by Ted at 9:23 PM

May 13, 2007 | FFcP Roundup

About five years ago, we started cataloging a unique approach to mandolin fretboard familiarity. We felt the traditional approach to learning this, one in which the open strings became the anchor for understanding the instrument, each chromatic note regarded as a continuum between, offered far to many limitations for a musician wanting to branch out into keys beyond G, D, and A, let alone the upper frets.

The perfect 5th tuning of our 8-string wonder offers an incredible implementation of a simple tactic in moving a scale or pattern up a string or two, up several frets, and still maintain the relation with only 4 possiblities, a scale based on fingers 1, 2, 3, or 4.

That's it. You can't do this on a saxophone, trumpet, or piano. You can't even do this on a guitar, with that awkward 3rd between the G and B strings. Violins, Cellos, Mandolins, Violas, and Tenor Guitars can do this, but with one minor sacrifice, leaving the safety of open strings. The payoff is huge, however. Building the 3rd and 4th finger give you incredible flexibility and melodic dexterity once developed. Improvisations became tactile and subconscious. (You can read more about these features in the introduction of the first FFcP lesson.)

We've added FFcP exercises since that first inaugural one, and since they are on a couple different websites, we thought it time to regroup and index where you can find them should you decide to pursue these benefits. The following is a summary and URL link to advanced exercises:

FFcP Index

  • FFcP Introduction.
    This is where it all started. It explains the general concept and includes the full PDF exercise. It is also repeated over at the Mandolin Cafe
  • Moving up the Fingerboard
    This is where the system starts to shine, moving the 4 FFcP patterns up the fingerboard and bridging new roads by connecting them in two-octave patterns. The PDF that goes with this is easily memorized if you have had a few months working up the first lesson.

  • Advanced FFcP
    Combining various sets of FFcP, the accompanying Super FFcP PDF file gives you a higher level application to effectively jumping into a second octave of the fingerings. This can help instill melodic "nuggets" into your improvisation, and minimize the fear in leaving the lower frets.
  • Chromatic Mastering, Working Chromatic Descending and Ascending Tonal Centers.
    Believing the 3rd position of mandolin (3rd fret to 9th) is optimum area for mandolin tone, we develop a sense of "belonging" working the FFcP positions into a daily exercise in which each FFcP in moved incrementally up one fret. This is a personal favorite; one to be played at slow tempos so as to develop robust tone. The PDF exercise is very easy to memorize if you're already comfortable with the basic FFcP patterns.
  • Pentatonic FFcP.
    A huge mistake a majority of mandolinists make is learning Pentatonic Scales and never leaving the fiddle tune keys. There is a rich tradition of complex applications of the pentatonic scale, but you will never have access to this until you can mix them up into different keys. Once you do, you have the secrets of improvisation used by the likes of McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, and many others. This PDF is Pentatonics on steroids.

We're considering publishing an entire method book of FFcP patterns, licks, and exercises. Are you interested, and if so, what would you like to see in it? Weigh in on our Contact Form.

Posted by Ted at 10:01 PM

May 6, 2007 | Sins of the Pentatonic

Periodically, we'd get a request for applying our FFcP approach to Pentatonics. For years we avoided the notion. From where we sit, too often, many proficient Folk/Bluegrass mandolinists would be entrenched in mindless pentatonic wandering, as in this genre it's far to easy to get away with filling space. The harmonic challenge of the rapidly changing tonal centers of jazz did not suit the use of such vocabulary; it was the equivalent of Paris Hilton discussing Dostoevskii at a book club meeting.

We went through a bit of epiphany on this. Many respected jazz pedagogists implement pentatonic studies, Ramon Ricker, Willy Thomas, Bruce Saunders, Jerry Bergonzi, Mark Levine, for example. The trick however is in what they do with these scales. Unlike Bluegrass, it's a means to and end, and not an end unto itself.

We discussed some of the advanced jazz application in our recent article Jazzed Pentatonics, based on the exploration of Bruce Saunders guitar book, appropriately titled "Jazz Pentatonics." There are some fascinating opportunities and it's no surprise especially for guitarists who grew up jamming on minor pentatonics in high school garage bands. (Of course some professional metal guitarists never grew out of these, either, and yes they are making big bucks...) There's something about the way minor pentatonic scales fit the fingers on the guitar fretboard. Bruce explains how you can use pentatonics in chromatic ascensions in jazz turnarounds. (What does that mean? Get his book and find out...)

We think there's merit in pentatonic fluency, provided the mandolinist is equally comfortable with them in all 12-keys. Yes that means Db and F#, too. Our latest entry to the FFcP series tackles this. It's another chopbuster, but you will be so glad you tried this. We don't make it simple, but the investment and the equal-key approach will serve you quite well in the long run.

Have some fun with this: FFcP Pentatonic.

Posted by Ted at 7:21 PM

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