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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January 31, 2008 | FFcP Key Patterns

The FFcP system is great for fingers not only in building pinky strength and fretboard familiarity, it can open up your brain to an even broader concept of keys, running the gamut of the Circle of Fifths. Practicing keys through in successions of 5ths are a great way to understand key center relationships; add a sharp (or subtract a flat) and you can cycle to your heart's content.

We have to credit JazzMando Reseach Assistant, Tim Sproles for this week's Tips and Tricks entry. He's devised an incredible Excel file to conceptualize key centers on the mandolin. Identified by color, you can see the root, note of the scale, and FFcP possibilities. Included are glimpses of mandola, bass, and guitar.

Download the file and enter a key in the yellow cell.

Happy exploring. Thanks Tim!

Download Excel File: FFcP Key Patterns

Posted by Ted at 01:33 PM

January 24, 2008 | Top Picks

Picks are one of the least expensive ways you can change your sound. Every note you play starts with the pick, and your efforts to develop your own sound will always be contingent on its control and just how much you are "one with the pick."

If we were to recommend one pick (why, the JazzMando pick, of course!) we'd be as disingenuous as a shoe store clerk recommending everyone buy a size 7 wide Urban Moccasin in red suede (personal fave here at the JazzMando campus). Ridiculous to be so narrow because just like not everyone's feet are the same, neither are their hands, let along playing contexts. (Those Urban Moccasins aren't so cool at a Governor's Inauguration; speaking from experience.)

Let's articulate generalities, and yes, there will be exceptions to these, so take them with a grain of salt. The majority of mandolinists gravitate toward larger (1.5 mm and up), rounder picks (Fender 346) than guitarists. The Fender 351 shape is by far the most popular shape, but ironically, to get more sound out of our smaller instrument, we seem to need thicker and bigger to pull tone out of the double courses. Of course those more dependent on a fluid tremolo might prefer something thinner (Evan Marshall, Marilyn Mair, Don Stiernberg for example), but we'll leave it to you to experiment on what works best for your style of music.

Five areas of pick make-up for you to consider, and as we list them, we'll use a few nonsensical syllables to get the point across on how they affect tone. You'll probably come up with a few ideas yourself, and that's fine; it's all part of the exploration.

Mass (rigidity) Poh vs Doh
A flexible pick is great for the single courses of a guitar but mandolin really does better with something more rigid. Now pick flexibility CAN be good for tremolo, but there's something to be said for the control found in a stiff pick. You can probably accomplish better articulation if the suppleness is in your wrist rather than your pick. Stiffness yields "Doh" instead of "Poh."

Size (thickness) Dee vs Tee
Along the same lines (almost inseparable) as mass is pick thickness. A thicker pick creates volume with less stress on the hand and wrist. Guitar players struggle with this notion, but the majority who switch to mandolin find a hefty pick is actually less work than a weak, wimpy one. Like using a heavier bowling ball to knock more pins over, once you get a basic degree of control down, the pick works for you. Heavy yields a round "Dee" instead of a tepid, front-loaded "Tee."

Bevel (edge) (Szee vs Tzee)
You'll only notice these in a pick that's bigger than 1.14 mm, but if the pick has a more rounded bevel, you get more of the string fundamental, rather than the "snap" of articulation. Some pick hand-crafters spend a lot of time making these, as machining to produce these is not particularly effective. That means the price will be significantly higher, but don't underestimate the power of a polished pick bevel, which yields "Szee" over "Tzee," especially in a succession of rapid notes.

Point (contact surface) Dih vs Kih
Pointy picks or round tip? The rounded shoulders of an isosceles Fender 351 triangle are used by many a player, but why have two corners to wear when you can have three? The extra mass of a larger rounded (346) triangle can be useful for bigger sound, too. Some like a real pointy tip to the pick, arguably a much more one-dimensional sound, and one which we'd struggle to be fond of. More corner surface also yields more string fundamental, which means more string, less pick snap in your sound. Think "Dih" instead of "Kih."

Construction (material) Dee vs Dah vs Doh
Celluloid, Acetate, Delrin, Acrylic, bone, horn, tortoise, tin, there are a ton of materials out there to make a pick, and each of these will affect tone, playability, mass, rigidity, you name it. These are going to be as personal as what flavor ice cream you get for your next Baskin-Robbins trip. We won't give any recommendations here except to say you can alter stiffness and mass by using any variation of pick materials. We happen to like the middle-of-the-road Acetate picks of the D'andrea Pro-plec line because of the balance of weight and stiffness, and the ability to produce a hefty pick thin enough to still have a healthy bevel (1.5 mm).

Other variations, cat tongue grip, holes for lightness and/or grab, fin picks (we don't know what the heck good these do) are all out there, and we'd never discourage experimentation. You still want to find a pick to settle in to so you can achieve some degree of consistency in your pick control.

351 shape picks vs 346 shape

Posted by Ted at 02:57 PM

January 17, 2008 | The tape does not lie...

"My first recording experience was a real awakening one. Many years ago, as a trombone major just out of college, I had the privilege of recording for a radio jingle instrumental background. We paced through a couple dry runs with the rest of the brass over an already recorded rhythm section, and started the tape rolling. Of course the first two times we played, we knew it wasn't perfect so there was no need to review ourselves. The third time, confident we'd nailed it, we listened through the headphones.

"'Ted, you're hanging on to the whole note in the 4th measure too long.' No way, I mentally argued, so we went back and listened again. There I was, stuck out like a sore thumb, and you would never convince me otherwise. The tape did not lie, however. I was astounded. In my overzealous confidence, I would have bet anyone 100 bucks otherwise.

"We went back and after several more attempts, got it right. Along the way, I listened more carefully to some of the other cut-offs, and my bubble was burst. Notes I would have sworn were perfect, started and stopped precisely, unwavering intonation, just weren't as executed on tape as well as in my mind."


We are easily fooled about our self-perception of flawlessness. Premier players like Mike Marshall or Chris Thile make "flawless" sound so easy, but it just isn't so. Pretend you're recording a major jingle production, say a Super Bowl commercial and you only have four notes to record. Can you do them with premium tone, perfect cut-offs, immaculate intonation, smoothly connected? How about 20 notes, with the same professional standards? (Let alone an entire Bach Violin Partita).

Imagine that recording played over and over again (as good jingles always are) for millions of people. That annoying frack on the 7th note preserved for all posterity, to be repeated for all succeeding generations; is it something you can tolerate?

Recording can be a terrific educational experience. Once you get the critical self-evaluation process down, you can take the standard into your "live" playing, too. Were those last four notes perfect? No? Then you should go back a play them until you can executed them flawlessly and automatically.

We suggest devoting a portion of your practicing to just simple music, but performing with the same level of quality as a major recording artist; imagine a Super Bowl audience is listening. Recording yourself is best, but even if you don't mess with a microphone or recorder, at least take on the attitude.

Raise the bar for a few minutes of playing each day, that level of self-expectation. You'll be amazed at how the rest of your playing becomes.

Posted by Ted at 07:47 AM

January 10, 2008 | Polishing

Most players like to have an arsenal of tunes to play on a moment's notice, even if it's just a handful. The opportunity to fearlessly audition a foreign instrument at a festival or jam, the subconscious tune familiarity necessary to focus on an instrument's tone or playability rather than the music itself, or maybe you just want to have a song ready when Grandma's ready to hear what you're doing with those 8 strings. Sometimes we just want to sit on the front porch and pick for a little personal decompression time.

Playing isn't always about aiming to get better, perfecting our chops, but frankly, it's a ton more enjoyable when we can play with some finesse or competence. Still there are those moments when we let ourselves go; we can't be all work and no "play." (Pun intended.)

What do you do when you have a song you're working up and there's a section you just don't have in your fingers? Pick and pound, and nothing comes out right? Probably what most do, just breeze through it and play on through the rest of the tune. We want to challenge you to perfect these trouble spots, but do it in a way that's more strategic and methodical. Think three steps:

Isolate the hard stuff. This may seem a no-brainer, but unless you are identifying the troubling passages, you don't know what to work on. The first step in any "self-help" program is confession, admitting you have a problem, right? All you know is when you get to the rascally D section of "Nola," your fingers fall apart. Maybe it's more subtle and there are just two measures, or even eight notes that just never come out right. If you're working from a printed page, pencil these areas in with brackets so you know where the focus should be. Even if you're an aural player, there ought to be some mental trigger that allows you to tag these spots. In any case, allow no more "denial!"

Work without the distraction of the rest of the song. Listen to kids play a piece they've recently memorized. They find satisfaction in performing something "complete," even if isn't perfected. It's more important to get it done than get it right. Is your playing any different? Here's a challenge, next time you play the song, DON'T play the parts you already know well. At all! Work just the hard spots, and put a 24 hour space between what you've already mastered. This helps you to really woodshed what needs attention.

Give yourself time. The watermark of mastery is when you can play something 4 times straight without mistakes. If you can't do this, you are not there yet. This can take days, if not weeks to accomplish, so don't feel bad if it's not there immediately. Don't move on!

Keep in mind, when you've perfected one phrase, every other phrase that contains the same challenge ALSO will come easier. Everytime you go through this discipline, you increase your level of ability just that much more. It's not just about this one section or this one piece of music.

We build our musical self esteem in the woodshed.

Posted by Ted at 01:57 PM

January 03, 2008 | Thinking tremolo

Question: What's the difference between bad tremolo and a lawn mower?
Answer: You don't need a pick to start a lawn mower.

We brought up the subject of pick grip in our December '05 article Picks and Doorknobs. Describing the basic conflict between finger control and tension, we used the analogy of turning a door knob, and the natural similarity of wrist and finger position mimicking this stance. We went a little farther in our entry Fleet of (Firm) Foot September '07, pointing out the (seemingly) conflicting advice of two of the best mandolinists on the planet, Paul Glasse and David Grisman, on "squeezing golf balls" in the left hand. Both articles might be a good review, but the issue of tension and grip is not only perplexing to the beginner, it perpetually plagues the intermediate player, as well.

Outside of an adrenaline sprint from fleeing a pack of wild wolves, tension is never a good thing. Control and tension are not the same thing, and must be mentally framed and compartmentalized as such. Long term tension is devastating on the back, neck, shoulders and hands (let alone mandolin tone), but where we really see the battle between tension and relaxation is in the area of tremolo. The concept of speedy pick without death grip is never more crucial then when trying to tremolo smoothly, let alone coming in an out of tremolo to single note DUDU picking.

Most experience players will admit this ability is a years-in-progress process. Rarely is it a natural feel; it's something you must devote time to, and over a long period of time. Even some professionals still have trouble with its finesse; one of our nameless worldclass player friends privately criticized Jethro Burns' tremolo as two speeds, "On" and "Off." Though arguable if this is really true, it still points out that the ability to slow and speed up the tremolo takes a great commitment many mandolinists are unwilling to develop.

Getting in and out of tremolo smoothly is the true test of one's ability. Stopping the tremolo on a dime to single notes and keeping a sense of line is amazingly difficult. Listen to great players and observe how they are able to keep a phrase continuous, almost wind driven.

How do we practice this? A little everyday, and over a long period of time. Months, more likely, years. Practice long single note strokes on a two octave scale at 60 bpm. Practice long tremolo by substituting those long notes, and for the real challenge, go in and out of tremolo with single notes down and up strokes. You want to get a consistent grip that's comfortable to you and does not change when you tremolo.

That's when you know you've really got it!

Posted by Ted at 10:17 AM

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