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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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September 29, 2011 | Turning scales and arpeggios into music

Teachers of of beginning musicians will tell you practicing scales and arpeggios are crucial to learning how to play music. Teachers of advanced musicians will tell you practicing scales and arpeggios teach you how to sound like you're playing scales and arpeggios...

We're big on conquering these fundamental ingredients, scales, modes, and breaking chords into linear melody, but there's no question you can't stop there. This skill is merely a jumping off point, an ability that makes you more efficient in the aesthetic process of improvising and creating your own music. So how do you NOT sound like your playing scales in your solo? Here are a few tricks up your sleeve, and we suggest you implement this into your own practice routine. Don't just play a scale. Once you get it into your fingers, try altering it in some of these ways.


Reverse course. Bottom note G, High note G, and all the notes of the G Major scale in between. You ascend, then you descend. Sounds great, but how many times does this incarnation of the scale happen in real music? If you really want to master a major scale, try starting on the top note, descend, and then ascend again. Guarantee this is a new skill and somewhat uncomfortable if you haven't tried it before. Still, this is what happens in "real life," so practice this way once in a while.


Start in the middle. Next step to this altering direction is to alter the starting point. Try starting from the 3rd scale degree and play up, down and back. Again, this is real life. Start on the 5th scale degree. Rarely does a passage of music starts on the first note of a scale, so once in awhile you should practice this way.

Break it up. In our FFcP studies we practice broken 3rds and 4ths, another good way of playing a scale--without sounding like a scale.


Syncopate the harmonic rhythm. When you start a scale on the tonic, at least the first half of the scale as you playing 1, 3, 5, on the strong beats, which outlines the chord on the strong beats. If you started on 2 instead, and went, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., you'd have the 1, 3, 5 chord on the upbeats. The end result is harmonic rhythm "syncopation." It's a nice effect you should plug into your solos.

Add chromatic leading tones. Determine a staring note of the scale, but precede it with a half step (up or down) leading note. For example, lead into a Bb Major Scale with a single Ab. Ornamenting your scales in this way conditions you to solo with more creativity. Playing the blues in G, you could precede any D with a Db. Instant blues!

These are great spice "condiments" to add to the culinary routine of practice. See how musical you can make a vanila scale routine sound.

Approaching Improvisation
Improvisation: Pattern Based VS. Theory Based
Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes
Suspicion of Melodic Intent
Spelling out the chords melodically

Posted by Ted at 2:59 PM

September 22, 2011 | Playing Through The Changes

From staff writer Don Julin, we look this week at the potency of chord tones in improvisation.

If you like this, check out Don Julin lessons on Skype and YouTube!

Thumbnail image for DonJulin.jpg

Playing Through The Changes.
Don Julin

Sooner or later most serious musicians take a look at jazz. The first thing that they notice is that the chord changes are more complex that rock, blues, bluegrass, fiddle tunes, or just about any type of music they have played before. These chords, combined with the fact that you may be in a new key (not just chord) every measure or so, make this music the perfect vehicle for the improviser.

Mandolin players coming from a fiddle tune background may be comfortable improvising based on the melody of a tune by using scale patterns, triplets, drones, etc. This is all good but not enough to dive into the world of jazz. In jazz, the chord changes are in many ways just as important as the melody. Another important thing to note is that the chords are not just the stuff that the rhythm section does when you are playing your glorious solo. ALL members of a jazz ensemble need to be aware of the chord changes.

As soloist we need to be aware of the chords one note at a time. In classical music we call these arpeggios. In jazz we just call them chord tones. I can't overemphasize the importance of learning (memorizing) chord tones. I believe that leaning chord tones in jazz is the equivalent of memorizing you multiplication tables. Remember those? Remember how we all sat there behind our desks wondering how we could ever do this and why were we being forced to memorize this rubbish that would never help us later in life.

OK. In Jazz we have melody and harmony (chord changes). In order to interpret, embellish, or replace the original melody, we look to the harmony or the chord changes. This first thing we need to have memorized is the chord progression to a song. Next would be to know ALL of the notes in each and every chord in the song.

Once you have reached that point with a jazz tune, I have an exercise that will work wonders on your ability to solo over the chords. It is quite simple. Play through the changes of the tune using only chord tones and only quarter notes. When moving from one chord to the next, try to use the shortest distance possible. We call this good melodic voice leading.

Take it slow at first. Don't Give Up! This is tough but it is really worth the effort.

Video link: Mandolin Lesson - Playing Through Changes

More Don Julin:
The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. with Don Julin
The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 2 with Don Julin
The 'ii V7 I' Chord Progression Pt. 3 with Don Julin
The ii-V-I chord progression
Jazz/Swing rhythm for mandolin
10 Questions for Don Julin

Posted by Ted at 6:01 AM

September 15, 2011 | Best of JM: 4 and 7. The Committal Notes.

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From September 10, 2009: "4 and 7. The Committal Notes."

We've explored the notion of note significance within the Major and Minor Scale. Our emphasis has always been on the importance of identifying and communicating the chord tones, in other words, expressing the vertical or harmonic qualities of the music. Thinking chords is very important, but another concept is categorizing the notes in between the chord tones. We can broadly label these as "passing tones," but we should also recognize that these can be further categorized as "benign" or "committal."

The first is easy. Benign notes are just filler notes that don't really require a definite chord tone follow up. Think the 2nd (better, the 9th) and you have a note that you could just as easily sit on in more contemporary genres, jazz and pop music. The 6th is also gentle note that at worst, demands no compelling resolution, at best, offers significant flavor in the form of a Maj6th chord, highly used in Western Swing and Brazilian Choro. It can be inserted willy nilly, with little recourse.

The second class requires a response, the "committal" tones of the 4th and 7th scale degrees. This category of passing tones can't really end a phrase, and left unresolved, virtually exposes a musician's incompetence. Try it sometime. Play a major chord, fool around with notes of it's major scale and end on the 4th or the 7th. There's tension that needs attention.

Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes

Why is this significant? Take a close look at the Major Pentatonic Scale, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6. These committal tones are conspicuously absent, and for the Folk/Bluegrass musician that depends on Pentatonics for improvisation fodder, a huge element of horizontal drive is absent, without these committal tones, 4 and 7. Sure, you can express the chord, but you're not propelling the melody without these guys.

Gravity is good. Learn to identify these notes in your scale practicing, and listen closely to the call and response qualities of these indivdual tones. Your soloing will be significantly more compelling if you can exploit their dynamic nature.

Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes
Jazzed Pentatonics
The blur between intent and mistake
Harmonic Implication
More Appropriate

Posted by Ted at 1:48 PM

September 8, 2011 | Approaching Improvisation

It's a frequent question. "How do I improvise? How do I make up music on my instrument that doesn't embarrass me in front of others?" Think of the reckless abandon of youngsters singing on a playground, making up songs, no inhibitions, no musical "rules," maybe not a lot of aesthetic depth, but underneath it all, simple, unadulterated joy. Think of the over-studied musician, the Scale Meister veteran, loaded with pentatonic fuel and gattling gun arpeggios. Loads of fast, but soulless notes.

There's a happy medium in there somewhere, the meld of both heart and brain. We offer five ingredients to ponder in developing your own improvisational arsenal and jazz voice. You really need to tackle developing this skill from multiple angles.


Learn modes and scales and apply them to "key centers." Scales are the basic building block of melody, and knowing how they lay out in your head is equally important to knowing them in your fingers. Just like words make up sentences in language, scales make up melodies. There's improvisational efficiencies in matching scales to key centers. It's a terrific jumping off point. Knowing you just modulated temporarily from Eb Major to G Major is great, especially if you know an Eb scale and a G scale.

Play the chord tones (learn arpeggios). Scales contain "filler" when it comes to communicating the vertical (chord) structure of a song. The meat tones are the ones that match up to the chord members. Know where these are and matching them up with longer notes, resting points, and accented tones help communicate the songs harmonic content. It's not just the accompaniment that is responsible for laying this down, it needs to be communicated in the solo itself.

Understand the concept "gravity" notes and "approach" tones. The chords are great, but you still need linear motion. There are entire folk genres based on nothing but melody, devoid of any kind of chord structure. You simply can't ignore the importance of forward motion, "pull" from one note to the next. 7 leads to 1. 4 leads to 3. raised 4 leads to 5. These give direction, communicate intention. The more you understand and incorporate this concept into your playing, the less likely you are to "wander."

Quote artists' licks, and move them around the fretboard. Copy? Plagiarize? You won't be the first. Learning morsels of other artist's solos, even in short phrases or segments is a tremendous starting point. Find something you like and try to transpose it. Use the same scale note relationships as something to build off, or even quote directly. Ironically, if you steal enough material, you end up developing your own voice. That's not theft, that's art!

All of the above. Probably the most important idea is to incorporate ALL these ideas. If all you do is learn scales, when you solo, you sound like someone... playing scales. They are a starting point. Same with arpeggios, you can make a solo sound like nothing but a warmup routine, and not an aesthetic statement. Focusing on the intellect, the math of gravity and approach notes too much robs the soul. Sometimes you need to go back to just "blowing."

Your practice routine also needs to include all these elements. Check out our Downloads for starters. Spend some time on them, but don't forget to get some accompaniment tracks and apply. Sometimes you do need to put the scale book away, sometimes you need to come back. Cycle around to all of these and your confidence and ability to improvise will flourish.


Don Stiernberg on scale degree "feelings"
Improvisation: Pattern Based VS. Theory Based
Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes
Suspicion of Melodic Intent
Spelling out the chords melodically

Posted by Ted at 4:04 AM

September 1, 2011 | Articulate Articulations

Getting down...

Conventional practice in picking the mandolin has the player articulating alternating in up and down strokes. In general, the downstroke is always on the beat (or prominent subdivisions) and up for the offbeats or syncopations. There's a pretty logical reason for this: the downstroke bears the strongest punch. You'll even find some Bluegrass soloists who will achieve maximum volume, simply by making nearly every stroke a down one.

Down down down down. Down down down down.

While this lends volume, it also lacks nuance. You gain acoustic edge in the ensemble, but at the risk of losing aesthetic subtlety and dynamic range. A good pick upstroke offers this, and of course, doubles picking efficiency. What goes down, must come up.

Think legendary crooner, Frank Sinatra. "Scooby doo be doo." Nonsense lyrics certainly, but the vowels are an aesthetic in themselves. Jazz educators use these vowels and consonances to communicate the phrases and tonguing of wind players, "DOO dah DOO dah DOO dah." Though the pick is not as adept at changing the attack, we still have at our disposal volume and subdivision to communicate similar dynamics.

This isn't to say the downstroke isn't important in jazz, you need force for volume. What's necessary though is to develop control and balance over both sides of the stroke. Here's an old (June 2005) exercise from a Mandolin Sessions article to help strengthen your upstroke. Don't just play it straight, try to swing the rhythms:

Click image for closeup

On the "Up and Up": Jazz Articulations
Blowing Through the Phrase
Developing Your Voice
It's a drag...
Stricken with pickin'

Posted by Ted at 5:37 AM

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