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 24, 2008 | Graphic Swing

In working on final mixes of some of the sound tracks for the upcoming "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" book from Mel Bay due out in June '08 (crossing fingers), we've experienced a very graphic revelation in swing...

Let's explain. As we exploit modern technologies, the band and many of the guitar parts were recording by good buddy and mandolinist/guitarist extraordinaire, John Eubanks and some of his amazing session friends down in New Orleans. Piano, bass, drums, guitar (and some of John's mandolin) were recording in a professional studio, post-Katrina, an interesting experience, no doubt, but long distance from JazzMando Headquarters. Some additional bonus tracks are in the works from arguably the world's greatest jazz mandolinist, Don Stiernberg next week in a recording studio in Chicago. Music is being exchanged through PDF in email, and audio transferred back via FTP.

PDQ. (pretty darned quick...)

The humble author has never professed the greatest mandolin chops, but the recording does call for mandolin demonstration in the exercises. Painstaking efforts were made to produce a quality recording in the JazzMando Lab, and because of the miracle of dice and splice digital technology, we should have a pretty good recording, despite the playing inabilities and natural imperfections of the author.

What's happened though is interesting. Recording jazz, you aren't going to have even straight, eighth notes; you want a recording that isn't metronomic, it needs to swing. This makes computer editing very intriguing when you see the splash of bars and graphs of digital audio on a monitor screen, all the discussion of our most recent entry on swing comes to light, in a very literal way. (See It don't mean a thing if it ain't...) Of course, a downbeat is a downbeat; you want starting notes to be on time, but if it truly swings, you don't line up exactly with the subdivisions of perfectly divided time.

If you ever have chance to use a digital audio editor (we used Steinberg's Cubase and SoundLab), take it. Not only is it amazing in editing out mistakes, you get a visual education and conception of swing--a fresh look under the hood.

Posted by Ted at 4:40 PM

April 17, 2008 | Doublestops and Barre Chords

We've recently been questioned about the frequent use of doublestops in many of our chord charts. Admittedly, it can be difficult stretching the pad of your finger out to cover two (or sometimes three) strings, but if you can do this with your first finger, particularly on the G and D strings, you have much more freedom and flexibility with the remaining fingers.

Those with a history of guitar playing know the benefit of barre chords, as well. These closed position chords allow you to move stock fingerings up and down with ease mentally and physically; that's yet another reason to approach chord construction with this approach. We even have two less strings (and less reach) to confound us.

Am9.jpgAnother trick to doublestops is what we call half-fretting. Sometimes if your 1st finger covers a string that's actually fingered higher up the fretboard, you get a hand/wrist position that is more stable.

This Am9 is an example of what we mean, but the half-fingering is in the 2nd finger. A four-fret span reach is difficult enough to hold down, but since anything you close below the 4th finger isn't going to be heard, why not get this extra grip? Note that it also puts your hand closer to the fingerboard, and rests more comfortably.

Using the 1st and 2nd fingers for 5th doublestops is also very useful for rhythmic accompanying. You have easy access to a common interval, the Perfect Fifth; great for power chording as well as a half-muted rhythmic texture.

Note you can keep your 1st finger there, and add the 2nd finger two frets above for some great blues riffing. It's a little tougher for the 3rd and 4th fingers, but if you hold your hand right you can get the 3rd up a fret for the minor 3rd and minor 7th.

Automatic blues!

Posted by Ted at 2:51 PM

April 10, 2008 | Improvising: Take your licking

Last week we spoke of three ways of arriving at material to induce both a cerebral (brain) and tactile (finger) approach to developing material for improvising: Gravity Notes (of the scale), Arpeggios (linear chord spellings), and Pentatonics (a glimpse of the triad and two auxiliary tones). There is another approach worth investigating, and it's something we tackle in another section of the website on Improvisation Techniques. (If you haven't read it, now would be a good time.)

What we've outlined in this concept is simply taking a motif, a phrase, a "lick," and building off of it using some of the theory concepts you've picked up. It can be something as basic as altering the phrase within the context of a new scale, injecting auxiliary notes, extracting nuggets, or varying the rhythms. What you end up with is something musically consistent, but also fresh in the ear of the listener. It's like remodeling a house, rather than starting an entire building from scratch.

We challenge you to find some licks you like. It can be the first two measures of "Scrapple from the Apple," a recognizable lick from one of your favorite players, even a line from a Bach Violin Partita. Make it simple, though; the idea is to retain consistency, and just see what you can do limited to a simple set of fresh notes. You may astound both yourself AND your audience with what a simple dose of creativity can do to supercharge your solos.

Like the old Timex watch TV commercials from the 60's, but instead of "It takes a licking, but it keeps on ticking," your improvisation can now be, "Take your "lick" ing and keep on ticking....

Posted by Ted at 9:46 AM

April 3, 2008 | Improvising: A three-pronged attack

Improvised solos can sound marvelously ingenious, or strained and sterile. The very essence of improvisation is freshness and spontaneity, but in order to be "spontaneous," you must be first equipped with the material to begin construction. The ability to play a sequence of notes is certainly a start, but what to do with this sequence is where the rubber meets the road.

We want to propose three different approaches to developing better improvisational skills. Each in their own way are great jumping off points, but the best way to solo will be a combination of each approach. Individually, they contain the components of melodic creation, but only in tandem will they start to sound like music coming out of a mature player.

We will assume you've already dived into the FFcP materials, and have at least a cursory feel for what these exercises do for your fingers and ears. Scales are at the very rudimentary end of nurturing melodic material; hopefully you're already using major and minor scales and modes to improvise. We want to go the next step and not sound like the music is coming out of scales. All of these are previous exercises introduced on the website; now it's up to you to figure out how to work them into a regimen of practice time. Our suggestion is to spend a day or three on one, move to the next for the same period, and move to the third, and rotate them. Work them in different areas of the fretboard, and most importantly, inject them into songs you are already attempting to improvise over. Keep it simple to start; you'll get better and more "subconscious" with their application as you get better.

Guide and Gravity Tones: Introduced in our April 2004 Mandolin sessions article, Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes, we uncovered the importance of identifying the "gravity" notes of the scale, the 4th and 7th notes, and the 2nd and 6th--how they pull the music along. Understanding, hearing, and communicating this pull through your improvising gives your melody a harmonic context. It drives the phrase.

Exercise: G & G

Arpeggios: We must think chords as we blow through a solo; we need to "be at one" with the harmonic and vertical construction of the changes to be effective, let alone consistent with the accompaniment. Knowing where the leading tone (7th), the third and emphasizing these important tones is essential. Practicing Arpeggios is a great way to do this so that they become familiar and automatic. We have 4 different versions of 7th chords in our upcoming book, Major, Minor, Dominant, and m6 (half diminished), but until then, try a sample from the Major 7th exercise. You can map out your own for the other chords

Exercise: Major Arpeggios

Jazz Pentatonics: We've avoid inserting Pentatonics to the end, because so many beginning players overuse and abuse these. You have to understand why they are useful in jazz before diving in, or you never get to use them to their potential, especially if you don't have them cold in all 12 keys. There is a strong foundation here, with the root, third, fifth all so apparent, a couple of benign passing tones added. Read our thoughts on Jazzed Pentatonics and some of the jazz specific uses available. Then dig in and learn them in all 12 keys and up the fretboard.

Exercise: Jazz Pentatonics

Also, read our latest MandolinSessions, Enhanced Pentatonics.

Three ways to skin this hep cat!

Posted by Ted at 12:08 PM

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