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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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August 26, 2010 | The Seven Chord Naming Rules

This week's Tips entry is from staff contributor and music software theory Guru, Craig Schmoller. His Mando ModeExplorer is one of the most authoritative and concise fretboard software programs available for mandolin, and his recently released Jazz CitternExplorer is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to dive deeper into 5-string fifths tuned instruments.

Check them out sometime:
Jazz CitternExplorer
Mando ModeExplorer

"Your synopsis was precise and accurate. Time to write a book." - An anonymous Professor at a world-renown music education institution, regarding the following article.


I do a fair amount of posting on music discussion boards. And when the topic of "Chord Naming Rules" comes up, an abundance of "lively" and "passionate" discourse inevitably ensues. Perhaps you've witnessed one of these. In these discussions, we try to remain respectful and civil. This, I think is partly good manners; but in greater part, it's to save our own skins, that is, Save Our Reputations. After all, you don't want to come down on the wrong side of a Chord Naming Rules debate. Uh-uh. That is, if you wish to be taken seriously ever again. And that topic is of sufficient depth that, in the limited format and dubious climate of most online forums, you risk looking really, really stupid. So we get good at "agreeing to disagree."

To be clear, I'm not referring to "chord symbols" here. You know: Those dashes, circles and triangles combined with note names and whatnot. That is another discussion. There are a lot of valid shorthand renderings of chord names that work well, and though folks have preferences, I never encountered a heated debate over which is right, which is wrong, or what longhand the shorthand represents.

I am talking about the actual names of chords, and what those names mean when putting the chord together. What is that name implying, and what is it instructing us to do? That's not preference. That's fundamental. That's Important.

"Your synopsis was precise and accurate. Time to write a book." So, at first, I found it a little odd that our anonymous professor had not yet written that book on Chord Naming himself. But in retrospect, I think he was being prudent. In view of the great risk, and limited benefit associated with the topic of Chord Naming Rules, and being a man of great and sterling reputation, he has much to lose by entering into such a controversial discussion.

I, on the other hand, have very little or nothing to lose. So I'm here to introduce you to "The Seven Chord Naming Rules."

The following rules, when used together, are efficient and precise in meaning, unambiguous, provide extraordinarily complete coverage of all cases, have a great track record, and are well-accepted. They just make sense. So before you get out the pitchforks and torches, please put them to the test.

Naming Rule 1:
The omission of "m", "mi", or "min" implies a major 3rd. So "C" designates a major chord, but "Cmin", "Cmi" or "Cm" designates a minor chord. If a "ma", "maj", "Maj", "M" are designated, this DOES NOT refer to the 3rd, but rather, to another degree interval such as the 6 or 7.

Naming Rule 2:
Any degree named above 7 implies the existence of a 7, like 9, 11, 13. Any name below a 7 implies there is no 7, like 2, 4, and 6. The same rule applies to b2, #2, b9 and #9. The b2 and #2 mean there's no 7. The b9 and #9 means there is a 7.

Naming Rule 3:
If the 5 is not there in the chord, you can have a b5 or a #5. Otherwise, you have to use the alternative, that is, #4 or b6.

Naming Rule 4:
If there is a 7 in the chord, then any #4 becomes a #11 and any b6 becomes a b13.

Naming Rule 5:
All diatonic degrees of the chord below the highest degree specified are implied to be in the chord. That is to say, if the chord specifies a 13, the 11, 9, and 7 are implied. If the 11 is specified, the 9 and 7 are implied. If the 9 is specified, the 7 is implied. In practice, the 11 may be omitted due to dissonance. (Of course, partial voicings omit any voice as needed.)

Naming Rule 6:
Chord names communicate theory, not implementation. (Not voicing.)

Naming Rule 7:
Addendum: If there is no 7 in the chord, you may use the "add" directive to include extensions, such as "C(add9)". To replace the 3 with a 4 or 9, you may use "sus" as in "C(sus2)" or "C(sus4)". To omit voices, use the "omit" directive, like "C(omit 5)".

Examine any of the New Real Book volumes published by (Sher Music) for chord naming conventions and for great examples, or go online and visit my Chord Watcher Field Guide.
Craig Schmoller

Keeping in Suspense; a look at "Sus" chords and variations
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 1
Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2
About our relationship
Harmonic Implication

Posted by Ted at 5:25 AM

August 19, 2010 | Evaluating string defects

A faulty string can be a frustrating endeavor, and the staff in our research lab is all-too familiar with not only that angst, but the many possible roots to the problem. We've not only prototyped four different models of strings, we've had the hands-on experience in getting to the bottom of the common ways a string can be flawed through our after market interaction through our sales department.

First let us state that no manufacturer is immune to an occasional problem. These complicated things are mass produced as efficiently and economically as possible, and even the best of equipment, tools, and trained labor will run into a slip-up once in a while. String manufacturers love the opportunity to make things right, and in most cases will bend over backwards and give the customer the benefit of the doubt as far as free warranty replacements. Don't ever hesitate to ask for resolution; reputation depends more on satisfaction than perfection. The former is achievable, the latter impossible.

Bear in mind we are referring to the problems that occur immediately after or during string changing. 95% of the problems should be noticeable at this point. String breakage or decay becomes impossible to diagnose weeks after, and more often than not are user error or problems with the instrument itself. (A good share of the strings on the market may only last a few weeks under heavy playing conditions.) Initially, the big four are loop, core, age, and correct tension.

JMEstrings.jpgLoop. In the old days, loops were wound by the player him/herself. Today's manufacturing technology makes it possible for us to buy packages of loop-end strings, and we don't have to struggle with winding the loops. Be grateful! That said, if you run into a set that pops off at the loop, especially if the open loop is intact and not fractured into pieces, it's a good chance this is the problem. We had an issue with a batch of E-strings a few years ago that called for a change in the way the end was wound in production. An extra crimp in assembly solved it and with new tooling, we haven't had a problem since. Understand, this is one of the highest tension strings of any fretted instrument out there, so these have to be titanic in strength.

Core. A wound string is a plain steel core with some kind of wrapping around the outside, composites like bronze, phosphor bronze, nickel, nickel steel, or monel steel. If the string is wrapped incorrectly or the core imperfect, you'll have a string that always plays out of tune with itself. This is very noticeable on a double course instrument like the mandolin. You can have one core that is perfect, the other not, and the pair play out of tune with itself. You likely won't notice this on open tunings, but you'll hear it as you move up the frets. If it is just one of the two strings, you can catch this by matching the harmonics at the 12th fret. If one is in tune and the other isn't, you've found your faulty string. We had a batch over a year ago that had about 25 out of 200 sets reported as faulty. See JM11 String Consumer Alert It wasn't easy but the manufacturer backed us up and we provided free replacement D courses. Unfortunately, this could never be detected visually, and we had to replace them as they were discovered.

Age: What many don't know is strings don't have to be played to deteriorate. Skin oils accelerate the decay process in playing, but they can still oxidize unused in the package. Labella does a great job of sealing their string packages to eliminate premature aging, but most other manufacturers don't offer this protection. When you buy strings from your local store or a big online warehouse discounter, you want to be aware of how old they are. You don't want strings that have been sitting around on a shelf for years. Unfortunatley, this is not an uncommon situation for stores that don't really specialize in folk or mandolin family instruments. The freshest strings will likely come from a source that does a heavy, dedicated volume of mandolin string sales.

Correct tension. Strings are designed to play at certain pitches, and you really don't have a lot of room to vary this. Tune the tension too high and you'll snap the string. Tune it too low, and you'll have major string flap--weak and flabby tone. If you stick with the manufacture specs you'll be okay, but anyone experimenting with alternate tunings should pay heed. Also, it's always a good idea to use an electronic tuner or tuning fork when setting up a new package of strings. More strings are broken simply because the player never bothered to get a true reference pitch.


In summary, consider the price you pay for strings should factor some kind of opportunity for after the sale service. When (not if) you have problems with a string and you can't get satisfaction, perhaps the price you paid for a good set of strings was too low.

JM11 String Consumer Alert
JM11 Flatwound strings; easy on the fingers, easy on the ears.
A clean mandolin is a happy mandolin
JM11 E string issues

Posted by Ted at 5:57 AM

August 12, 2010 | Numbers.

3. 5. 7.

If you were asked to memorize these numbers, it probably wouldn't be much of a struggle. You might be able to commit the sequence to memory just because it's short, just three digits. You might frame them in some categorical way, numerically, like "the first three odd numbers after one." It might be a hotel or dorm room you stayed at once. It might be the numbers of the months your three children were born in, March, May, July.

We think numbers in a "rote" context, and we often comprehend them as relationships.


This would be another set of three numbers you might attack as "the first even numbers." You might think of the third number "6" as being the sum of the first two. Different brains will assimilate these in individual ways.


If we started with these six numbers and asked you to memorize them, you could probably do it. You might think in chunks, three hundred fifty-seven, and two hundred forty-six. You might tack on the previous relationships we already mentioned. Of course, two sets of three digit numbers is easier to assimilate than six individual ones.


That's an easy one. It's only two numbers repeated, but again, what if we asked you to memorize the following sequence of notes:


In this context, it would be tough, but if you'd learned them as 357, 246, and 0101 and put them together, with some kind of number relationship, you could do it and probably quite simply.


This strategy of stringing numbers is excellent for learning and memorizing the notes of a melody. You can think of it as relationships, pitches in a sequence from a scale. Think of them as members of a chord (or non-members). This is also the strategy of the FFcP.

Early in life, a child learns the numbers as individual identities. One is followed by two. Next comes three. At some point, the concept of tens and one-hundreds becomes cognitive, and later mathematical functions develop to higher functions, some all the way to complex geometry and calculus. Inherent in the FFcP are the basic elements of music, the scale itself, pitch relationships of the 3rds and 4ths intervals, an arpeggiated diatonic chord progression (I Maj7, vi7 , ii7, V7), and finally the pull of 4 to 3, 7 to 1, etc..

Playing these and getting them into your fingers is the way you can prepare for advanced melody and chord recognition. You don't think Bb, you think 2 of an Ab scale, you think C, D, Eb, F as the first four notes of a C minor scale, all this of course based on the context of the key you are in. The nice thing is with our FFcP Studies you are mastering the secret of the mandolin. There are only four patterns!

Of course everyone is going to be different. Some will respond aurally, some visually, some tactilely. Just like someone you know who has no problem remembering 10 digit numbers without simplifying word or numbers tricks. You need to discover what works best for you and now worry about how others learn.


Find a familiar song and see what you can do with these sort of elementary analysis. You might uncover tips on how you can learn new music faster!

Sharpening learning skills
The Inner Game of Stress
Sometimes things are less than they seem
Calisthenics and mandolins.
Fingers, Ears, Brain

Posted by Ted at 7:32 AM

August 5, 2010 | Don Stiernberg on scale degree "feelings"

The research staff has abandoned the JazzMando offices this week to squeeze in a little vacation before the kids have to get back in school, so this week we're borrowing a video from the mandolin jazzmaster himself, Don Stiernberg in this incredible workshop at the April 2010 Mandolin Camp North in Ocean Park, Maine.

Don discusses both the functional and emotional impact of scale degrees in this vivid workshop demonstration. We've examined this concept in detail in previous articles on the site, but there's nothing like hearing them in a moving, aural context. Guest "chopper" in the background by the way, is master Gibson luthier Dave Harvey, establishing the key.

Don maintains an exhaustive clinic schedule, and with as much travel throughout the US and Europe, there is no excuse to not get to one of his sessions. You'll see why he's in such demand in this video!

Video link: Workshop/Demonstration by Don Stiernberg

Cool sounds with a simple new scale
Top Five 'Hover' Tones
4 and 7. The Committal Notes.
FFcP Studies
Even more Tetrachords

Posted by Ted at 7:53 AM

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