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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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March 26, 2009 | Don Stiernberg on Mindful Noodling

From the perspective of fellow player (and audience), mindless noodling can be as irritating as a babbling talkers at a movie premier. Let alone the distraction, our ear wants to hear purpose and consistency with the "topic at hand," and in the case of ensemble playing, support a solo that has meaning, beginning and end, as well as a big ol' can of whoopass "intent" in the middle. On our own, mindless noodling can actually be a stepping stone to self-discovery, a private a personal journey into new sounds, licks, and solo building strategies.

The question comes up, what do we do to make something of this aural babble? Jazz mandolin pioneer (and now fellow Co-author) Don Stiernberg coaches in a quick course in the following discussion:

"How about this experiment?...

  • Start with a dose of "mindless noodling," all the while trusting your ear to make only pleasing and therefore (mostly) correct sounds.

  • Organize those those sounds into some repetitive structure--a tune, collection of phrases, whatever...

  • Record the same.

  • Listen back to it. Ask yourself why it works, what you like about, where the trouble spots are.
    You may even surprise yourself and end up using actual music theory terms when codifying your creation...

Now you have mindful noodling!

The main point here is to trust your ear. Loads of musician play things without knowing the names of what they are or how they work or what principles support them. It's always good to know more, but if you're more powerfully drawn to the creative, non-mathematical, non-academic side of music, that's perfectly fine. Ultimately you'd develop your own terminology just to keep track of things, and most people pursue the time-saving method of using the existing systems. But given that it is music, it's the sound and effects that matter most.

So Noodle On! But also add the challenge of asking yourself about the results--why do they sound good to you? Is there a relationship between certain fretboard markers and certain sounds and feelings? Do the chords used present moods or reactions? How do they move from one to another? Etc..

And thank you for kicking off this interesting discussion. I've had several students who present this same situation. I usually tell them. 'We're going to try to learn the names for what you know already'..
Someplace colder than Chicago? That must be one of the Poles or something..."

Artist website: Don Stiernberg

Posted by Ted at 7:06 AM

March 19, 2009 | Ensemble Sensitivity: Corps playing

Anyone who ever played in a garage band, church praise team, high school choir, or community jam can tell you about the woes of playing with others. The good news: you get to play with other humans. The bad news: you have to play with other humans.

There are some guiding principles to effective ensemble playing and we want to offer our personal list of five. You go into a group aware of these strategies and intrapersonal dynamics, and you have a far better chance of not only keeping the group alive, you'll actually enjoy yourself.

A good corps member takes his/her turn. In street basketball, there's nothing worse than a ball hog. Sure you want your team to score lots of points, but where's the fun if it's just one "athlete" taking shots at the basket. Soloing is no different. You have your moment in the sun, and prepare yourself to lay back and support the next soloist. Enjoy your own playing, and take the time to bask in what your other ensemble members are doing.

A good corps member values silence as much as sound. Sometimes it's about laying back to support, but often it's a matter of laying out. You don't have to play all the time, and it's the surrounding moments of silence that can make your playing special to the collective ear of the audience. It can mean laying out several choruses and changing the texture of the music. It could also be allowing aural space between phrases or silence within the phrase itself. Just because it's on your plate doesn't mean you are obligated to eat it.

A good corps member knows what the other players are playing at all times. If your band is trying to cover someone else's music, listen for key textural changes. It can be noticing that the texture of the tom tom rhythm at the bridge needs highlighting, a variation of the bass rhythm after the chorus, a supporting counter melody that needs space--if you aren't listening or can't identify what the other players contribute, it's hard to know what you should be doing that's different, let alone supportive.

A good corps member understands and agrees with the "mission." More bands have been broken up by discrepancies in purpose. One seeks a recording contract, one wants to get the band to performance level for touring, one just wants to play with some friends for a few hours of socializing. These varying intentions are a recipe for disaster. Knowing and agreeing on the ensemble's collective goals is critical to the longevity of any band or ensemble.

A good corps member makes the other players sound good. Some of the best drummers are the ones you don't even know are there. All you know is the band is tight and the groove is intuitive; this is because that drummer functions to make everyone else sound good by staying out of the way, minimizing the moments of flash and stardom in return for establishing the "pocket." Every player has something to contribute to make the ensemble sound better; avoid that chronic "it's all about me syndrome."

Plays well with others
The Fight for Sonic Turf
Course Corrections
Jason's Rules
The Joy of Mandolinning

Posted by Ted at 12:25 PM

March 12, 2009 | More m7b5 (from the Pros!)

We promised this last week, so here we go. Some of our favorite Jazz Mandolin professionals weighed in with their stock m7b5 Stock Chords. Remember, these "grips" can easily be moved up and down the fingerboard, so try moving them up and down a couple frets at first. Develop your transposition skills further by going even higher up the fretboard for even more versatility; nothing like being able freshen 30 chorus of comping with multiple variations of the chords. Next step is to put them in context with a subsequent V7 chord, but we'll leave that for some other time.

Here're three from Texas Swingmaster Paul Glasse:
Em7b5.jpg Bm7b5.jpg Gm7b5.jpg

Two more by Paul he says he uses less frequently (a little more awkward), and a third chopbuster from Bruce Clausen. These are probably not "quick change artist" chords, but might be useful depending on song tempo and what comes before and/or after:
Dm7b5.jpg Am7b5.jpg Bm7b5_2.jpg

Will Patton throws in this strange one on the right, but again, one with the capacity to move up the fretboard.

We mentioned "context" and two different artists explored three-note chord versions that left out one of the chord voices, which is a very common thing to do in comping. (Good to learn these variations if you ever want to get into 5-string playing.) Bear in mind, using your lower three courses in comping can give you a chunkier percussive "crunch" to your chording.

The first is from Chicago jazzmaster, Don Stiernberg who opted to drop the minor 7th (keeping the root), which gives him a voice leading E into an E# on a Dominant chord variation A7Aug. Again, context is everything:
Em7b5_2.jpg A7Aug.jpg
West Coast fiddler/mandolinist extraordinare, Pete Martin uses 7th (no root) and migrates to the V7 chord with a voice leading of D to C#. Then, he follow with an intriguing resolution to a Minor chord with a Maj 7th):
Em7b5_3.jpg A7b9.jpg Dm(maj7).jpg

Have some fun learning these. If transposition is not your thing yet, feel free to download our FretboardTemplate and write these out for your own library. Sometimes physically writing them out can be a way of integrating them into your memory, both muscle and brain.

m7b5 Chords
Jazzed Pentatonics
Mark Wilson's Grips
Mandolin Cafe discussion

Posted by Ted at 12:57 PM

March 5, 2009 | m7b5 Chords

We've talked about harmonic function frequently, and while it's an important tool in understanding the musical construction, let alone essential in effective improvising, we still have to remind ourselves they call it music theory, not music science. Composers worked within the "rules" and practices of their day, but it's important to keep in mind, most of the conventions were contrived and dissected in retrospect. In other words, creative musicians composed, and theorists went back with analysis after the fact. We doubt Bach wrote music "dictated" by rules, but his music contains decipherable practices and "formulas."

With that caveat as a backdrop, it's fun to look at a particular chord that has two different musical "functions." If you recall, we can simplify chords into three categories (a fourth "Hybird" but we don't need to go there now): Tonic, Dominant, and Dominant Preparation. (Check out our inaugural issue of, Understanding the 'ii V7 I' Progression.) Tonic is easy; that's your home key. Dominant is variations of the chord based on the 5th Scale degree, and Dominant Prep is a chord or chords that set up for the Dominant.

Those who studied music theory in classical and "traditional" institutional contexts know that the 7th chord based on the Major scale is called a half diminished. In the key of C major, it would be B, D, F, A. It has the propulsion of a Dominant 7th chord, and if you looked at its construction (let alone listened to it sound), you'd see the three notes it has in common with the dominant 7th (G, B, D, F). In essence, it's a rootless Dominant 9th chord.

In C minor, the chord based on the second scale degree has a similar relational make-up, D, F, Ab, C, the half diminished, but being the ii chord, it doesn't function as a Dominant, rather it prepares the Dominant, G B D F. What's interesting is in jazz circles, the ii half diminished 7th is always referred to as a minor 7th chord with a flatted fifth.


This makes a lot of sense as its function is more as a minor chord (Prep) than a diminished (Dominant). Even your casual jazzer will label these chords as m7b5, and it helps to arm yourself with different inversions or grips at your fingertips, especially if you want to enjoy playing in minor keys, or want to effectively communicate 'ii7b5 V7 I' progressions or tonal centers. We have some of these in our ii V7 I Home Positions page.

Next week, we'll bring you even more transposable ii7b5 grips from the pros, so stay tuned.

Functional thinking...
Circle of Fifths
ii7b5 V7 i Minor Patterns

Posted by Ted at 1:05 PM

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