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."

« November 2009 | Main | January 2010 »

December 31, 2009 | Fanned Frets

We've been enjoying the sampling of a lovely Smart 10-string in preparation for a review next month. Lawrence has built a marvelous new aesthetic on a traditional A body mandolin, with the obvious departures of offsetting F-holes and an intriguing approach to the fingerboard, with its fanned fret system.

The twisted cosmetic is much harder on the eyes than it is the fingers. Once you put it in your hands and shut off any visual stimuli, it becomes apparent this is a much better way to build a mousetrap. It solves a problem that continues to plague 5- and 10-course builders, the harsh tension difference between high E, and low C strings. The floppiness of the lower course is a constant criticism, and this addresses it most effectively.

What you have is a mandola scale on the bass side (16+/- inches) and a regular mandolin scale (14+/-) on the soprano side. This yields better intonation, and superior fingerboard control.


When you look closer at the human hand, there is already a natural "fanning" that occurs in the shape of the hand. What you don't realize is that the traditional straight frets is something a player initially adapts to, and that becomes the standard, albeit an unnatural one.


We've enjoyed this system with an Earnest Instruments "Boomerang" 5-string mandolin, enjoyed Professor Ed Christian's do-it-yourself conversion of an M6 into a Gibson fanned fret 5 string, and now this Lawrence Smart 10-string. We'll have an opportunity to experience James Condino's similar approach, and on the workbench in Vermont is a Rigel R200 mandola conversion. New neck & headstock being designed by Rigel founder Pete Langdell, this personal instrument will also feature the fanned frets.

Next time the opportunity presents itself, be sure to try one of these for yourself. You'll be surprised at how intuitive this system is to your hands and fingers.

2010... The year of the 10!


Why have six strings when five will do?
Rigel R-200 Mandola; the 10-string project
James Condino 10-string preview

Posted by Ted at 7:34 AM

December 24, 2009 | Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

It's Christmas Eve so we're taking the week off from our regular "Tips and Tricks" duties. Kind of like the day before Christmas break in Middle School, we're all going to watch a video in class instead...

Today we've got the Site Administrator with a quick rendition of a holiday favorite, and a chance to show off a top five fave, the Old Wave "Solocomp JM" crafted by New Mexico builder, Bill Bussmann. The poor quality video doesn't do this marvelous instrument's aesthetic beauty justice; take some time to get a closer look and click the link below the video:

YouTube link: Solocomp JM: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Old Wave Mandolins: SoloComp JM


Posted by Ted at 6:49 AM

December 17, 2009 | Jazz and Bluegrass; How close?

NPR has a terrific online article in their weekly "Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler" series highlighting five incredible "hybridized" audio tracks from some progressive fret musicians including Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, David Grisman, Andy Statman, and Tony Rice. The thrust of the article is the similarities between the genres, and we concur. Despite the differences in complexity of chord structure (including complicated chord extensions and rapidly shifting tonal centers) and urban vs. rural origin, there remains several common threads between the uniquely American grown styles.

Take some time to listen to the tracks.
Read article: NPR Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler; Jazz and Bluegrass

Just what are the similarities between jazz and bluegrass?

Variations on a Theme. You'll find jazz and bluegrass thrive on the conflicting elements of predictability and exploration. Both use the familiar tune as a jumping off point for improvisation and deviation, taking the rest of the ensemble and the audience on a creative journey, but the basic background chord structure remains the same. There is always a fabric of familiarity, something for the players to keep in common as they try new melodic riffs and explore the registers of their instrument using rhythmic motifs from the original melody.

Moments of virtuosity. The degree of "flash" varies with the level of musicianship, but it can be argued that both formats give the player the opportunity to be him/herself. You can get the blistering Dizzy Gillespie gymnastics, or the finesse and subtle nuance of tone in Miles Davis. You can get the unique signature styling of Bill Monroe, or the melodic dynamo and fretboard pyrotechnics of Ricky Skaggs.

Common library of "standards." Both styles are easily participatory with a good working knowledge of several dozen "classic" tunes. With a respectful musical ability, you can sit in on most jam sessions equipped with these familiar tunes in your quiver. Bluegrass has its own set of common songs, and of course jazz has its "standards," documented in what's established as a "Real book." It's amazing how no matter where you go on the planet, you'll find a commonality of songs.

Universal format of performance
. Participation carries a common set of community "rules." Those who gather will let someone set the tempo, kick off the tune. There may be discussion prior as to who will take solos, or there will be an organic "understanding" of who goes next. In a good session, players will be considerate of their soloing time, reciprocate, and not hog the show. Of course every jam or performance will have its own outcome and variety of individual personality, but jazz and bluegrass are amazingly similar in the trade-off.

It's all good.

Tuneage: Sample Jazz Standards Set List
Plays Well With Others...
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 1
Respect the Silence

Posted by Ted at 3:02 PM

December 10, 2009 | Sometimes things are less than they seem.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka.jpg

The above was created by Akitaoka Akiyoshi; would you believe the lines in this picture below are completely parallel? The floor appears to bulge out, though this image consists of only squares. Look again.
For more pictures see Akiyoshi's illusion pages

In our recent December/January MandolinSessions, "Something Old. Something New." we take a look at a sequence of notes that is arguably the second most important scale/mode in jazz, eclipsed only by the Major Scale. Its incarnation in the article is called the "Augmented 11th Scale," but as you read farther, it's known by other names.

The pattern is incredible fodder for improvisation, and we hope to explain its potential in future articles here and at the Mel Bay MandolinSessions website. We actually introduced this in a very early submission (August 2004), describing its construction, and we cover some of its uses in the "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" book. What we describe here is how similar it is to modes you already know and are probably using. Our goal is to develop drills that will make the sound of the scale a sonic entity unto itself.

What's intriguing about music theory is occasionally, you find commonalities that make the vast span of music creation shorter, rather than increasing the breadth of its complexity. In this case, we have three different scales that can be found in this one eight-note sequence, the Augmented 11th, the Altered Scale, and the ascending Melodic Minor Scale. The only difference in the patterns is the harmonic context.


What happens is when you learn this one sequence of notes, all you have to do is vary the starting note; you have the series in your fingertips. Hopefully they will be residing in your ear and brain as well.

Check out the article: Something Old. Something New.

Extending your vocabulary: The Augmented 11th
The Altered Scale: Bebop Mandology
Fingers, Ears, Brain
How do you think?

Posted by Ted at 6:11 AM

December 3, 2009 | Fiddling with Flying Fingers

A personal journey into violining has us pondering the issue of finger posture and the notion of "Flying Fingers." This is timely, as we've had a few readers inquire about our approach to fingering awkward 6 fret spans when the leading tone (7th) of a scale or chord calls for a half step fingering. The question comes up, "Should I slide my finger down to the lower fret, or should I finger it with that awkward span to the pinky?"


Answer: Yes...

In "real life" playing, we think the answer is situational. Both approaches work, but we suggest in practice, the "finger calisthenics" or your regime, you need to practice developing the strength need in this span. Our FFcP exercises are quite clinical in this tactic. You'll see a lot of "8th fret" fingerings even in the First Position of the fretboard.

It's the same skill you develop in keeping a stealth set of fingers, NOT lifting them too far off the fingerboard even when they aren't in use. As we mentioned in a earlier article, violinist pretty much have to do this any way for spatial reference; the frets alloy a liberal dose of sloppiness in our mandolin playing.


This is a good skill to have when slurring on the violin; you can't get away with sliding down in a slur bowing. Not only does it blur the sound, you decrease the pressure when lengthening the string (descending), and that manifests as a loss of volume. On the mandolin even with the frets to lend distinction to the pitch, there will be times when you want to emphasize the lower pitch, and throwing a strong pinky down will help aurally as well as conceptually.

Try playing the beginning of "Tico Tico no Fuba" using the pinky for the leading tone (instead of the 1st finger slide) and you'll see what we mean.

Another look at Flying Fingers
Let's review. Why Closed Fingerings again?
How do I hold it?...
Fear of Flying

Posted by Ted at 9:25 AM

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