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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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November 29, 2007 | Jason's Rules

Because of the persona anonymities laden in cyberspace, we don't know who Jason is or even how well he plays, but he sure has some terrific insight into the concepts of good musicianship. We stumbled across the guitarist's blog, and had to pass on these pearls of wisdom.

The "rules" aren't necessarily in order, and some are more tongue-in-cheek than serious (see #4, #12), but they do drive home a point. Even though they are aimed at a guitarist (or a caricature of one), most are easily translated into mandodom. Our favorite is #3, and according to our prime directive, "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."

Enjoy Jason's Rules of Musicianship

1. Less is more.

2. You're never wrong not to play. Let the tune breathe. Lay out for a go-round. When you come back in, it will sound that much stronger.

3. Don't play scales. Play changes.

4. Don't cast your pearls before swine.

5. Never "noodle" between tunes on stage.

6. Most guitar players should be seen and not heard.

7. Bass players are great. Unless they think they're guitarists.

8. If you're a sideman and the singer gives you a solo in a song, lay out completely for the next verse.

9. Play the tune slightly slower than you think it should go. And keep that tempo. It's amazing how much power a slow tempo has.

10. The acme of skill is not sounding good. The acme of skill is inspiring and complementing and leading others to sound good.

11. See another player struggling? Take an hour before or after the session and give him or her a hand.

12. Guitarists: There is no money above the 5th fret.

13. It is better to have a day job and play what you love than to be a full-time musician and spend all your time playing what you hate because it pays well.

14. You are not ready to move on until you can play a passage at your chosen tempo seven times in a row with zero defects. Seven times. If you screw up on the seventh time, you have to go back to iteration 1.

15. Interior voices make the tune.

16. First-inversion chords - with the 3rd in the bass, simply rock, in the right place.

17. Learn and memorize as much J.S. Bach as you can on your instrument. You won't regret it.

18. There is nothing so dangerous to the music as a guitarist who shows up with his girlfriend. He winds up playing to impress his girlfriend rather than for the music.

19. Fiddlers - master the pulse in the bow hand. 60 percent of the music is held between your thumb and forefinger on the bow hand.

20. Straight 8th notes are almost never purely straight, in reality. Listen closely to the masters.

21. Every gig should have at least one of the following:
A.) Good money
B.) Fun
C.) Connections for the future
D.) Learning

If it doesn't have any of these, turn it down and move on, or take the night off. What might be a waste of time for you might be a fantastic gig for someone just starting out. Let him or her have it.

22. Finding a substitute is the responsibility of the player, not the band leader.

23. If you're hired as a substitute, never take the regular's gig.

24. The club doesn't let people pay their drink tabs the next day. The band shouldn't have to wait for their money either unless other arrangements are made in advance.

25. Smile and LOOK at the featured musician when you're not playing. It's what theater guys call "focus" and it's very powerful.

26. Take turns taking breaks. Work out a system, so everything goes smoothly. But vary it. Nothing's worse than a bluegrass band that always breaks in the same order.

27. Always play as if a master were listening to you. Eventually, they start to whisper to you.

Posted by Ted at 10:05 AM

November 22, 2007 | Getting the Shift

You've no doubt discovered there are many opportunities for a mandolinist who is able venture out of the lower seven frets (1st Position) of the instrument. One of the benefits of our FFcP system is of course, to make fingering in the upper frets comfortably familiar. The question arises, when do I leave the lower frets, or when do I need to "shift."

We can look to violin pedagogy for answers to questions like this, the purposes, the various types, the actual mechanics, and the appropriateness. We want to borrow from an excellent online resource by By Dr. Rami Kanaan, in his text "A Handbook for Teaching Shifting to the Intermediate Level Violin Student." His thoughts (substitute "mandolin" or "instrument" for "violin":

The purposes of shifting
1) Shifting extends the overall tonal range of the violin
2) It extends the tonal ranges of each of the four strings
3) It facilitates the playing of awkward passages and eliminates string crossings
4) It opens the door to technical mastery on the violin through the knowledge of all the positions and their fingerings
5) It relieves the tension of the left hand from being constantly locked in 1st position (especially during the elementary study of the violin)
6) It enhances the musical expression and interpretation of musical passages
7) It makes the slide or portamento possible on the violin

Types of shifts
1) Same-finger shift (1-1, 2-2, 3-3, and 4-4 in an ascending and descending direction)
2) Two-finger shift, which can be subdivided into:
a) low-numbered to high-numbered finger ascending or vice versa descending (for example, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-3, 2-4, and 3-4 in an ascending direction)
b) high-numbered to low-numbered finger ascending or vice versa descending (for example, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 3-2, 4-2, 4-3 in an ascending direction)
3) Half shift (the thumb does not move from the original position while the hand and fingers extend to another position, and then come back to the original position)
4) Retarded or delayed shift (the fingers extend or contract to the new position, and then the hand and thumb follow the fingers)
5) Shift from an open string (the hand shifts during the sound of an open string)
6) Shift between two strings (the old and new positions are on two different strings)
7) Substitution shift (shift to the same pitch with different fingers on the same string or on two different strings)
8) The portamento (the audible slide which is used for its artistic effect)

The mechanics of shifting
1) The hand and fingers must slide smoothly
2) The hand, thumb, fingers, wrist, and forearm must remain relaxed and must move together as a single unit (in shifting among the lower positions)
3) The hand shape must be maintained during the shift
4) The thumb must pass under the neck of the violin when reaching the fifth position and higher to allow the hand and fingers to maintain their shape above the fingerboard
5) The speed of the shift must be controlled
6) The pressure of the shifting finger must be minimized on the string
7) The speed and the pressure of the bow must be minimized during the shift
8) The finger must remain in contact with the string during the shift
9) The hand should shift on the beginning finger in two-finger shifts (this rule is very general and exceptions exist)
10) The left elbow must be mobile during the shift (the elbow moves to the right in ascending shifts and to the left in descending shifts)
11) Violin hold, balance, posture, and the use of proper accessories are crucial to the execution of successful shifts
12) The role of the ear is paramount in shifting (the combination of aural, tactile, and visual clues help the violinist to execute successful shifts)

When to shift
1) Minimize the sound of the slide by shifting during a rest, after an open string, after a harmonic, during the same consecutive notes, during staccato notes, and after a dotted figure
2) Employ similar fingerings for similar passages (like in sequences)
3) Shift on strong or relatively strong beats (the concept of “rhythmic fingerings”)
4) Employ shifts that ensure the smallest shifting distance in order to affect a smooth and unnoticeable slide (like shifting with one finger on the half step)
5) Use contractions and extensions in shifting to accomplish smooth and secure shifts

Of course, some of this needs to be adapted for the violin. Devoid of frets, the violinist has a whole different baggage for determining finger placement and spatial reference. Most are taught to keep fingers down, if nothing else as a tactile guide to position. Holding the instrument vertical to the body rather than parallel like a mandolin requires a slightly difference way of handling the thumb, but in essence, there are far more similarities than departures.

An excellent (and free!) download is available on the website with some golden shifting exercises and etude to keep you busy for a while. This is well worth the time looking over!

Downloard the whole thing: A Handbook for Teaching Shifting to the Intermediate Level Violin Student

Posted by Ted at 4:33 PM

November 15, 2007 | Sketching Music (Notation vs. Tablature)

You're planning a road trip from Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE. You jump on to and type the two cities and you're given two forms of instructions; one a graphic map, the other, a list of directions and turns. Turn left on I-395 S, take the exit on I-95 S toward Washington, I70 west toward Pennsylvania, etc. or a big picture of half the USA with a bold purple line and sketchy destination/reference cities along the way.

Both communicate the same thing but offer differing advantages. A laundry list of turns is perhaps more accurate, but the graphic elements of a map give you a bigger perspective of the journey. Either runs the risk of shifting contexts, road construction detours, and none offers the full depth of scenery and changing traffic congestion. To fully capture the trip, you'd need a full 20 hour video, but then that would be only one version of how to get from A to B.

Music notation is like this. We sometimes forget when we're reading music that the ink is merely a sketch of the composer's intent. Devoid of context, historical practices, period performance nuances, though we are given graphic and specific details about the notes, there is still much missing for the uninformed musician. Tempos, inflections, swing vs. straight, articulations, all are minutiae that render a performance accurately.

Some argue over the value of sight-reading ability. We'd state unequivocally, the skill to read centuries of literature is of inescapable value to enjoy a wide variety of music, and acccessed immediately. Nothing against the "ear musician" but you are limited to only what you hear, and not volumes of songs and compositions through the ages.

Of course, we always have to remember that written out music is always subjective to elements that aren't easily graphed. Just like the trip from Baltimore, when you get to St. Louis on I-70, there's a cool stretch of I70 that goes over the Mississippi River and 1/4 mile by the Arch; that is if you chose I-70, instead of Google's recommended I-80. The point being there are contexts you'll want to gain by listening to other performers knowledgeable about a style, as these will not always reach the printed page.

Reading a Fake Book of jazz charts is enormously pleasurable. The notes are there, but you can take your own musical experiences, and those of other recorded artists and create your own version(s) of songs. Just like reading a map, you can sidetrack or find other musical elements that remain consistent with the genre, but offer a fresh and personal musical experience.

Tablature is great for learning chords, maybe for difficult fingering passages that are not intuitively accessed. It's great for instruction, but lousy for being musical. Robbed of the elements of rhythm and spacing, one can't immediately access the songwriter's intent. If you are hooked on TAB, you can open up a huge frontier by developing sight-reading skills.

On topic, read JazzMando review of Debora Chen's, Standard Notation for the Tab-Addicted Mandolinist, A concise course for the trad mandolinist breaking into untabbed territory.

Posted by Ted at 11:02 AM

November 8, 2007 | Four Finger Salute to Major Seven!

Looking back on our discussion of Pentatonic Scales, we talked of developing a connection between fingers and music theory, integrating the tactile feel of a note on the fretboard with the cerebral function of theory and note relationships. It's really the goal of the whole FFcP approach, pressing the aural and intellectual of roots, 3rds, 5ths, etc. into the fingers.

With Pentatonics, we mentioned the five notes and how it related to the tonic triad. A "G Pentatonic" uses G, A, B, D, E, and its triad chord is 3 of those 5, G, B, D, with some benign "connecting" notes added (A & E). Hopefully, you've had a chance to work through these somewhat, if not, go back and review. We'll also go into this in December's forthcoming Mandolin Sessions, but let's tackle another way to put linear chord patterns into your fingers by playing, well... chords!

If we learn how to arpeggiate the Major 7 chords, we can get yet another grip (pun intended) on fingering these in all four FFcP patterns and access the theory more readily. Like the Pentatonic Scales, these can be terrific building blocks for improvisation.

You don't want your solos to sound "chordlike," but a familiarity with the arpeggiated chord allows you to play them and add the connective tissue of passing tones. Plus, adding the Leading Tone (AKA "7th scale degree") puts the additional primal tension and release a Pentatonic fails to deliver.

Here are the first four measures of this exercise:


Note they ascend in Minor 3rds. No particular reason to do it this way, other than to arbitrarily take you along a slightly different path to internalizing these. The next four measures in the sequence will take you down a 5th, and subsequently four measure patterns through all twelve keys. We've only printed half of them for you’re here; the rest you may wish to write out for yourself, or wait for the upcoming "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin book in the oven at Mel Bay.

Download one page PDF: Major 7th Arpeggios

After you've invested time "mastering" these, you can do your own variations with Dominant 7ths (lower the 7th), minor 7ths (lower the 3rd), and m7b5 (lower the 5th). It's a fabulous way to integrate vertical thinking and chord structure into your improvised medodies.

You might not harvest the fruits of you labors right away woodshedding these, but if you take care to add the mental part of the exercise right out of the gate, you'll find yourself intimately more familiar with the fretboard several weeks from now.

Posted by Ted at 6:49 AM

November 1, 2007 | Pickguards Thoughts

Any time the aspects of equipment are brought up, it's important to remember every unique and individual player will require a different subset of tools to get the job done. Witness the flailing elbows of Sam Bush, and the gentle caress of Evan Marshall, and one ponders, are they both really playing the same instrument?

With a great forebearance for individuality, we'll weigh in with some thoughts on pickguards and our own ideas on what is right in the world with them. Like they disclaim in the diet pill commercials, "Individual results may vary at home, with proper diet and exercise." Let's answer the question, what does a pickguard do?

Finger Guide. This in our own extremely biased opinion is the greatest reason for one. Understand anchoring your right-hand on this is an extreme no-no, but if your fingerboard is high off the top (not level like on a flat-top mandolin), playing without a spatial finger guide is like jumping rope while standing backwards on a high diving platform. You don't have that GPS guide to reinforce where your picking hand is, and that can be troubling. Again, you don't want to "plant" the fingertips or you restrict your motion. You want to "brush" or lightly touch the Pickguard.

Scratch Guard. This one is mind-boggling to us. If you are chewing up your archtop instrument's finish with your pick, you have to be doing something wrong. We talked with premier builder Dale Ludewig about this issue, and he weighed in "If you're scratching your top, your strike angle is way off. You can't be getting any bass out of your sound." Maybe one gets carried away in a loud ensemble, but like a baseball batter, just because your swing is stronger doesn't mean you're going to hit the ball any farther if you don't have proper aim. Try strumming your strings from 10 inches away with control, then try it 24 inches away with little control and see which sound is louder.

Cosmetics. This is an opportunity often overlooked. A unique pickguard can be the lipstick on your prom date. It can be that final touch that pulls other aesthetic elements together, its shape or material can complement (or contrast!) and dress up an otherwise plain instrument. They can be custom ordered, and changed. You can even have a custom inlay to express yourself visually.

Pickup anchor. If you are thinking a floating pickup in a jazzbox instrument, this is almost a requirement to help support a humbucker or some kind of magnetic pickup, and it's a great place to discreetly hang a volume wheel.

RoyP_Oval.jpgThere is some degree of controversy over how much an extended profile would affect an oval hole instrument. We don't think it actually interferes with tone projection across the room, but acknowledge it can be up for debate. Any of the benefits of a good pickguard would still outweigh insignificant acoustic interference, but we have seen luthiers cut away some of the guard to prevent this.

Posted by Ted at 12:02 PM

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