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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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May 29, 2008 | GRIP #1

This week's Tip is brought to you by newfound friend and JazzMando Field Research Specialist, Mark Wilson of OnBoard Research who designed and make the Intellitouch tuner (with the lifetime warranty). Mark is also a professional bass who has recently discovered the lure of the 8-strings, and travels a parallel self-inflicted journey on the path to uncover the magic wealth of jazz on the mandolin fretboard.

Thanks, Mark!

Chord shapes are what Jethro Burns used to call a grip. In other words, a grip is a chord voicing.


Grip #1
This is probably the most versatile chord voicing available on the mandolin because it can be used--without alteration--in major, minor, half-diminished, dominant 7(-9) and dominant-7(alt) chords.

This grip, Don Stiernberg says, is his primary chord voicing for a major 7th chord. Don uses this very open sounding 3-note voicing on all his major chords, and it delivers a very open sounding voicing when the 3rd is on the bottom, the 9th is in the middle and the 5th is on the top.

Intervallic Structure
The intervals in this voicing have a fixed intervallic separation. The interval between the bottom note and the middle note is a minor 7th and interval between the middle note and the top note is a perfect 4th. The interval between the bottom note and the top note is a minor 10th.

Relocating Grip #1 to the 6th (or 13th)
The same grip shape also delivers the sound of a major chord if it is played from the 6th of a chord. Relocating the grip to the 6th (the same as the 13th) delivers an open sounding voicing using the chord tones of the 6th-5th-root. The 6th is on the bottom, the 5th is in the middle and the root is on the top.

Relocating Grip #1 to the major 7th
The same grip shape also delivers the sound of a major chord if it is played from the 7th of a chord. Relocating the grip to the 7th delivers an open sounding voicing using the chord tones of the 7th-13th-9th. The 7th is on the bottom, the 13th is in the middle and the 9th is on the top.

Relocating Grip #1 to the Sharp-11th
The same grip shape also delivers the sound of a major chord if it is played from the #11th of a chord. Relocating the grip to the #11th delivers an open sounding voicing using the chord tones of the #11th-3rd-13th. The #11th is on the bottom, the 3rd is in the middle and the 13th is on the top.

Relocating To Other Chord Tones
This grip can also be relocated to other chord tones to deliver chords other than major. It can be based on the:

  • Root of the chord to deliver either a minor-7th chord or a minor 7th(-5) (since the 5th of the chord is not present in the voicing).
  • Flat-7th to deliver a fully-altered sound. That would be a dominant chord with flat or sharp 5th and a flat or sharp 9th.
  • Sharp 9th to deliver either a 7(-9) or a fully altered dominant sound.
  • Sharp 5th to deliver the progressively s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d sound of a major 7th with a #11 and a sharped 5th. Very cool. This makes even major 7th chords sound 'outside.'

Of course, each one of these positions calls for a different scale usage. In the accompanying PDF file you will find a chart with this Grip/Voicing laid out with its position in the chord, its chord tones, its fingerboard placement, its chord symbol, its quality and its appropriate scale and mode usage.

Download Grip #1 Lesson PDF

Mark Wilson

Posted by Ted at 11:33 AM

May 22, 2008 | I hate music theory (Part 2)

Great artist don't create, they steal. It could be similarly stated about teachers, so we are going to "borrow" some ideas from one of Jazzmandodom's greatest mentors, Don Stiernberg. His "Music Theory According to The Don" synopsis reads like a Carl Sagan essay on astronomy and physics, complex issues reduced to common sense for the common man. In this case, common mandolinist.


I believe the following and I hope any of it is helpful. With a strong ear and quickness at figuring out songs and various fretboards, you'll come to a point soon where knowledge of scales, chords, and progressions will interest you more, and you'll seek out a stronger theoretical foundation, and you'll get it! Nothing to be intimidated by, afraid of, etc---people do this at all stages of life, on every instrument, etc. I've had many students in this category and I tell them "Let's learn the names for what you already know"

So here we go:

12 tones in music, at least the kind we mostly do here in the States. If you start on any tone and play all of them in half steps, that's a chromatic scale.

A major scale has 8 tones, in a specific order. Start on any note. Then play a whole step(two frets), another whole step, half, whole, whole whole, half....major scale.

Harmonizing that major scale is the basis for numbering chord progressions. This was done in classical and jazz music long before the Nashville numbering system. The main difference between the Nashville system and others is Nashville uses Anglican numbers like 1, 2, and 5. The jazz cats use Roman: I, ii, and V. The classical people say tonic, subdominant, and dominant. They're all playing the same progression, one you no doubt play in all keys and feel comfortable with. G-C-D, or Bb-Eb-F, or E-A-B....

There are only four types or families of chords in all of music. Major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Some think of seventh chords (aka 'dominant' chords) as another family, but they are a form of major so they are often considered part of the major family.

American pop or roots music can be seen as certain progressions that occur time and time again:

I, IV, V---The Blues!Also the core of bluegrass, country, folk, and rock repertoire. Example: A, D, E. Nine Pound Hammer, Banks of the Ohio, Sweet Home Chicago

I-ii-V---same as above progression, different'middle chord'. Used in Broadway, Jazz, and pop tunes. Gershwin, Ellington, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder

I-vi---Root and relative minor, two chords with the same tones. Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Blackberry Blossom

I-vi-ii-V....You Send Me, Blue Moon, tons of other doo-wop and standard pop tunes.

I, IV, V, with bVII....Love Come Home, Angel From Montgomery, Live and Let Live, Tangled Up in Blue

Circle of fifths: G7, C7, F7, Bb or E7, A7, D7, G
Salty Dog, Don't Let the Deal Go Down, I Got Rhythm, Alabama Jubilee, Sweet Georgia Brown...

In addition to helping you get inside a song a little further and providing more options for how to create musical statements OF YOUR OWN from a tune's harmonic structure, being conversational in theory allows easier communication with your fellow musicians. It's easier to figure out how to proceed if you're all using similar maps and terms. Definitely easier to pinpoint the trouble spots to work on if all the cats in the band know what key they're in, where the first ending is, where the bridge is, etc..."hearing" chord progressions makes all of that speedier.

Reading TAB is not theory, it's an instrument-specific notation system used to speed along memorization of tunes and fingerings. You might get theory knowledge from it if you allow it to help you remember the form of a tune--its melody, where the repeats are, rhythms, etc. Theory generally refers to scales, chords, and how chords typically move or change from one to the other, as in"What notes sound good with this chord?"

The mandolin, by virtue of its beautiful and symmetrical layout (tuned in fifths like the fiddle) is a great instrument to recognize fundamentals of music theory on. Yeah. The best.

You may not be the first to wonder about whether theory is over-rated. The debate has raged on for years in music trade magazines, etc. Usually there are two camps, one saying "Look at that guy, all notes and school and chops and NO FEEL or Heart!" then the other camp that says "The guys who accuse other players of being too technical or educated are usually the ones who can't play".Well, both of these stances are too extreme, aren't they? Wes Montgomery, Errol Garner, Vassar Clements were all marketed as geniuses who "couldn't read music," which implied they knew little or nothing. In actuality--they knew EVERYTHING! Listening to their music one hears the deepest theoretical situations coupled with huge doses of emotion, heart, and soul...

A librarian/clarinettist friend likes to say, "It's always good to know more." My own brother once asked "What school did George Benson go to?"

Alright cats, your fellow untrained self-taught aspiring musician old Donnie is gonna sign off now and go back to the arched fretboard in search of the good notes. Whatever gets you there is fine, but I can assure you that knowing a few of the numbers and patterns has allowed me to interact with some nice musicians and scratch my way through some interesting gigs. All the best and don't forget to check out similar threads regarding improv, modes, scales etc. Good luck and as Maestro Van Burns used to say...

"No matter where you go, there you are."

Artist Website: Don Stiernberg

Posted by Ted at 12:04 PM

May 15, 2008 | I hate music theory (Part 1)

"I asked a guy what time it is, and the jerk spent five minutes telling me how to build a watch."

There's a small but often vocal contingency of musicians that loathe the intellectual side of music, the cerebrally intense analytical approach to understanding the "guts" of music. Often it's out of a personal insecurity; a bad experience with the jazz cats who banter terms about like "Tritone Subs," "TwoFiveOnes," or "Rhythm Changes" often at the risk of intimidating the newbie, especially when it's delivered like some sort of private security code or fraternity handshake.

There's no reason to experience intimidation in these environments. While we grant many unschooled musicians have created great music without an advance degree in the terminology and jazz verbiage, the greats still comprehend if nothing else, subliminally what makes a chord or tone resolve to the next, what linear choices of "right" notes goes appropriately with the vertical. What we are talking about in learning music theory is not an initiation process, it's simply shortcuts. It's learning both simple nuggets and broad concepts that exponentially increase musical vocabulary around 12 simple Western tones.

The process of grasping music theory can be described as three dimensional upward spiral. For the Folk/Bluegrass musician, it can go something like this:

My song has three chords I play (Aural/Physical), G, C, and D7. I enjoy these immensely but want to learn more songs, and note a similarity even though the chords are different. A, D, E7. I understand chords are based on notes of the scale (Theory). It's explained these are 4, 5 and 1 or written in Roman Numerals, IV, V7, and I.

Spiral up...

I notice in Pop and Jazz music a G, Am7, and D7 have a similar sort of system of "direction" (Aural/Physical). The G is like "home," the D7 pulls home, and the Am7 sets up the D7 quite often. Someone points out the similarity of the Am7 and C chord (same notes almost). Pointing out the (Roman) numbers of the chords these are based on, we get ii7 for Am7, or ii7 because someone says minor chords commonly use small case letters, so instead of IV, V7 I, we get ii7, V7, I. (Theory) Now the obscure TwoFiveOne reference by the Jazz Eggheads nags at my subconscious, and starts to make sense.

Spiral up...

I notice there are 12 keys. When I use numbers in a song with A, D, E7, or A, Bm7, E7, (Aural/Physical), I notice even though the chords are different, they still interact in the same way. My trumpet playing friend has me play in one of those weird flat keys, lots of Eb, Fm7, Bb7, and my brain registers this (Theory) as I, ii7, V7 chords, and for some reason, I'm able to pick these up, without even having to read the chords on the page. My ear tells me where the I (home) chord Eb is, and where the other two Fm7 and Bb7, because I'm listening to their function in context, rather than chords.

Spiral up...

I'm playing a Jazz tune, Satin Doll, and I notice in the 3rd measure the second chord is outside the key of C. I've been working on Dm7 G7 fingerings (Aural/Physical), as well as Em7 A7, and it dawns on me that there is a similar relationship (ii7 V7) in these two chords, but observe these are from the key of D (even though there are no sharps and flats in the key signature). I listen to other songs that leave the main key, but only temporarily. It's like a key within a key, a "tonal center" if you will, and some of these jazz standards that seemed very complex, when broken down in this way, are now opened up for much deeper understanding. (Theory)

Spiral up...

I'm getting a better understanding of what works in these uncovered tonal centers, and I'm able to play with many other great musicians in keys I never dreamed possible. I've learned what groups of notes work best within these centers, but because I've driven modes and scales (Aural/Physical) into my fingers in my regular practicing, it seems the fingers are generating my improvisation rather than my brain.

Aural/Physical or Theory?

I hate music theory...

Posted by Ted at 11:55 AM

May 08, 2008 | Building off silence

When we think of building phrases and intensity, we usually focus on where we are going. Higher, faster, louder, thicker texture, are all directions we can go, but part of the neglected elements are where we start. Simply, silence...

Think of an ice cream sundae. If you piled 100 cherries on top of the ice cream, butterscotch, chocolate, and couldn't even see the whipped cream top any more, it wouldn't be the same experience as one, two, or three cherries placed strategically on the top. You probably wouldn't enjoy the subtleties of the experience, the crunchy texture of nuts on the teeth, the cool ice cream on the palette of the tongue, the contrasting flavors in the swirl of butterscotch and chocolate at the roof of your mouth. Undoubtedly, you'd get sick of cherries, too.

Extreme soloing can be the same nauseating experience, and as a good ensemble player, you need to be sensitive to this dynamic as well. There's a time to comp intensely, and a time to lay back, and your contributions to the group will by dynamically better (pun intended) and appreciated. Let's ponder the ways to start.

Silence. This is a no-brainer, but many players feel they aren't contributing if they aren't making some kind of noise all the time. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Laying out at the beginning of a song, pulling back on a chorus, letting someone else be featured, offers the listener much more variety of texture. Not every bite of an ice cream sundae has to have nuts in it; after a few spoonfuls without nuts, they taste even better. Electric Mandolin pioneer Michael Lampert rarely if ever, even comps behind a soloist. If you're surrounded by great rhythm players, not only is it unnecessary, you alos risk stepping on others' toes with too much rhythmic or textural complexity.

Single notes. Ever just played a consistent rhythmic pattern on a single note as background? If it's the right note (tonic, dominant), it can be quite effective. Kick it up a notch by playing it in octaves. You don't have to be complex to be interesting!

Short melodic phrases. This doesn't even have to be the "call and response" of antecedent/consequent phrases, but you can weave very slow melodies in the background, as long as you yield to the "right of way" of the soloist. Don't showboat, though. Simply play chord-rich elements melodically and slowly.

Parallel Two-note melodies. Playing intervals in 3rds and 6ths on adjacent strings is one of the coolest capabilities of the mandolin. Try this in slow quarter note and half note runs. You can be laying down the harmonic structure without risking "busy-ness."

Don Stiernberg is one of the best players to listen to for how to use silence (and simplicity). He has a gift for reeling you in with digestible bite-size chunks of savory melody, well-baked and spaced, then wham! Out of nowhere comes a blistering pyrotechnical lick that disappears as quickly as it's stated. It's always a treat to listen to what he does with the mandolin. Consider a purchase of all of his CDs an investment in tuition in the College of Tasty Jazz Mandolin

Posted by Ted at 11:07 AM

May 01, 2008 | Functional thinking...

In our inaugural issue of, Understanding the 'ii V7 I' Progression, we brought up the concept of harmonic function. "Drama; it's always about conflict and resolution," was the way this started. The "drama" of a V7 chord, resolved or unresolved is what defines the majority of Western European music, classical, folk, pop. It wasn't until the middle 20th century that these sounds were thrown out the window in contemporary musical styles of atonal and 12-tone compositional techniques.

An unresolved Dominant Seventh chord stirs motion. Roll out a huge arpeggiated G7 on a grand piano and sing "Happy..." and who can resist following up with a tonic C based "Birthday to you!" It's a primordial a 'V7 to I' as you can get.

Music theorists will teach you that in our tonal universe, we have three functions; Home (I) or Tonic, Dominant (V7), and Dominant Preparation (ii, IV, vi and variations on them). When we think C7, in context, more often than not, it will be a V7 or Dominant chord of F. In jazz contexts more often than not, you'll see stylistic interpretations, "spice" if you will that take a basic 7th chord C7 (C E G Bb), include variations like C9 (adding the 9th or D), C13 (adding the 13th or A), and C7 b13 (adding the lowered 13th, the same as a raised 5th or Augmented chord), and use them interchangeably.

If a jazz musician sees or hears C7 in the score, he/she is not thinking C E G Bb, rather thinking a contextual function of "Dominant." That's why depending on what other musicians are doing at the time, chord extensions are not only okay, they are encouraged. All the preceding variations are fair game, as long as the additional chord extensions don't conflict with the melody or another comping instrument. (You don't want to play a C7b9 if someone else is playing a C9.)
It all boils down to function. A good skill to have is to be able to recognize all the 'V7 I' pairs in the Circle of Fifths. Playing through these in all 12 keys until they become automatic is a healthy exercise to add to your practice routine, both physically and intellectually.

Posted by Ted at 12:49 PM

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