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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."

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December 29, 2011 | Your local Chord Transit Authority.

This week's Tips and Tricks column is brought to you by Groveland Software developer and founder Craig Schmoller. The creator of Mando ModeExplorer and Jazz CitternExplorer continues to bring clarity and insight into the handy world of 5ths tuning.


There's really nothing new under the sun.
Craig Schmoller

Electric automobiles are here today. Yet, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were producing them in the late 19th century, and even Ford's wife personally drove one. The sophistication of the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism rivals that of modern geared machines, yet it is dated at 2100 years old! For decades, jazz guitarists employ drop-3-voicing inversion techniques, and guitar educator Mel Bay introduces his Rhythm Chord System for guitar in 1973, distilling it all down to a simple recipe.

Really, there's really nothing new under the sun, now is there?

Just like guitarists, players of fifths-tuned instruments might be overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite combinations of notes that make up chord inversions. Libraries of chord encyclopedias have been developed based on the premise that, "Holy smokes, how can a human being possibly learn all these things in a lifetime?" Well, fret not, my friend. You may not have been aware of this bit of ancient alchemy: It turns out that on all stringed instruments, we can apply a simple set of steps to any chord "shape" to get the next inversion of that shape.

Of course, each tuning will have its own set of rules. For example, I will leave the set of steps for standard guitar tuning to be worked out by the reader. But it's there, a simple recipe, and certainly worth the effort to discover.

As for the fifths-tuned instruments we love, here's the wisdom of the ages. To get the next inversion of any chord shape:

1. Take the fourth course fret, add 3, and find it on the first course.
2. Take the third course fret, add 5, and find it on the second course.
3. Take the second course fret, add 2, and find it on the fourth course.
4. Take the first course fret, add 2, and find it on the third course.

That is the key to inverting any chord shape, anywhere, on mandolin. You can witness this marvel in action at ModeExplorer Inversion Horizons.

Socrates reported that Plato didn't like this new-fangled invention they called "writing." People would begin to rely on it, he thought, get lazy, and cease to work things out in their heads. Perhaps, but now Plato would be pleased: You possess the key to becoming a veritable Living Mandolin Chord Encyclopedia!


Hello Mac ModeExplorers everywhere
Exploring Diatonic Chord Progressions
Mobility--chord transit
Two-chord jam; feed the beast.

Posted by Ted at 6:35 AM

December 22, 2011 | A good fit. Measuring up mandola strings.

The mandola world can be confusing when shoring up strings for that perfect sound and feel. First of all you have the discrepancy between the European and North American concept of what mandola tuning and scale is all about. The European concept of mandola is often what Americans call an octave mandolin (GDAE) (vs CGDA), so trading internationally requires an agreement of scale to start with.


Second is additional diversity in scale. With the mandolin, variance rarely strays beyond 13-7/8" and 14-1/4", so manufacturer string length is moot. Mandola makers, however, can produce instruments that are from 16-17", even as long as 18", making shopping for new strings somewhat perilous, especially if you favor a string with silk wrapping on the loop and tie ends, like the Thomastik or our proprietary JazzDola JD13 (no longer available). The string itself can be long enough, but the wrappings end up into the playing area. If you're trying a new string brand, we recommend holding the new strings (especially the longest, the middle strings) up to the instrument prior to installation. Strings that are installed are not easily returned for a refund, let along dealing with the frustration of an unusable half set of strings.

Weber tailpiece--string loops all the way to the end of the top.

Further, tailpiece style can reduce the playable string area as much as 1-1/2". The Weber style tailpiece connects the loops of the strings to the very end of the top of the instrument, rather than higher up toward the bridge on the traditional. Couple this with an even longer scale, you'll find some strings simply won't reach. For example the Thomastik TI 164M (only available in one gauge, medium) will not fit even a smaller 16" scale dola with a Weber tailpiece. Even the longer JD13 strings barely fit on the inside G and D strings. (We're working on that on the next revision. Stay tuned...)

As an aside, if roundwound is your preference, string length is almost never an issue, because manufacturers almost always given extra amount of steel, and these won't have the silk wrapping. That said, we feel many industry mandola strings are built too stout (D'addario medium J74, 15, 25, 35, 52). Even the D'addario light J72 (14, 24, 34, 49) is exceedingly stiff for anything but open drone playing. We recommend for the roundwound player, the GHS PF285 octave mandolin on a mandola (12, 22, 32, 42). You'll cut off a lot of extra string, but they work very well.

Back to flatwound, though. We've experimented with the Thomastik and recommend for the longer scale dola, or even a 16" scale with a Weber tailpiece, the Thomastik 174W (weich or light) gauge for a flat wound string with rich, vibrant tone, and enough playing area for a proper fit. Understand that the difference between octave mandolin and mandola gauging is virtually moot. Lengthening the scale AND lower the pitch, you don't increase the need for thicker strings. These work very well, albeit a tad stout. Gauging is 15, 21, 34, 49.

Compare JazzDola J13 left, TI 174W right

We've measured the playing area of the strings. Understand that the 1-1/2" of winding on the loop end is included in the specs:
1st string 29" (plus 6" of yellow silk winding)
2nd string 29" (plus 6" of yellow silk winding)
3rd string 27" (plus 8-1/2" of yellow silk winding)
4th string 27" (plus 8-1/2" of yellow silk winding)

The Labella JD 13 (as of 12/2011)
1st string 29" (plain, no winding)
2nd string 24" (plus 4-1/2" of red silk winding)
3rd string 24" (plus 4-1/2" of red silk winding)
4th string 24" (plus 4-1/2" of red silk winding)


The TI 174W are an amazingly rich, resonant string. They work terrifically for classical and jazz, where penetrating highs aren't necessary. If you're playing lots of open drone diatonic folk music, especially in a loud acoustic ensemble environment, you might want the more brilliant phosphor bronze string, but the TIs do a great job of blending in an orchestra, or if you're solo playing demands a string that is more subtle. .

We've made the case that despite the shockingly high initial price tag, price value on these is too easily missed. These street a little over $50.00 US (JD13 at $32.50), but you can get 4-5 times the string life out of them over a bronze string. Tighter wrap steel construction slows deterioration exponentially. Plus, the smooth feel is radically comfortable on the fingers. For the shorter scale, non-Weber tailpiece mandola, you'll be very pleased with the 164M at a street price around $40.00, and slightly thinner gauging (12, 16, 25, 36).

The 174W is definitely worth the investment for longer dola scale needs when the 164M won't reach.

Flatwound for octave mandolin and Mandola
The origin of a new string: D'addario FW74
Thomastik Strings
Brilliance isn't always smart
Thinking Good Tone Part 1

Posted by Ted at 6:06 AM

December 15, 2011 | Charles Limb: Building the musical muscle

As musicians, hearing is an important part of our life. For the non-musician, there's the primal, basic survival aspect of environment alerts and up the ladder, more sophisticated uses of communication through language. The last couple decades have seen major medical breakthroughs with hearing restoration through Cochlear Implant technology. These have covered very well the more elemental aspects of hearing, but as far as they've advance, they aren't near the level they should be for being able to enjoy music, as explained by Dr. Charles Limb in the TED Talk video below:

Video Link: Charles Limb: Building the musical muscle

Something to consider after viewing the video, each of us have different levels of appreciation and of course, perception of tone. Even with fully functional hearing, we have a different set of tools for hearing the tonal spectrum, bright and brassy to warm and subdued. We enjoy what we enjoy, and we must learn to respect what others hear (and seek) in tonal variety.

Oval Hole vs. F Hole? Spruce wood vs. Mahogany? Roundwound strings vs flatwound? Downstroke vs. Upstroke?

Different sounds are created and perceived, and since all our brains are different, we need to understand that beauty is literally in the ear of the beholder. There are physiological reasons for it.

Every day we live, we should be grateful for our hearing, and do everything in our power to preserve it.

Threshold of jpg

Recommended for loud environments: Sonic II Noise Filters

Deconstructing Mandolin Picks
What the Pros say about Good Tone
Using the picking hand to start Good Tone
Making sense. More than five senses?

Posted by Ted at 6:09 AM

December 8, 2011 | Thin-slicing and Music Theory

MalcolmGladwell.jpgBest-selling author Malcolm Gladwell probes into the concept of thin-slicing in his breakthrough book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." It's a survival concept we take for granted, the ability to assess a multitude of cerebral complexities in situations and compress them into a fast reacting response.

Say a large carton of roof shingles comes tumbling off a roof at a construction site and you happen to be standing beneath at impact. You hear it sliding, look up, and jump out of harm's way. Your reaction is primal instinct. Move. No calculating the speed of the fall, weight of the box, complex formulas of mass and velocity. Protective brain synapsis fire "Move, body!" and you do, sans science or physics. Your decision is reduced, "thin-sliced" out of necessity simply because to survive, or at least avoid a bruising blow, you judge you needed to move.

Music theory is a lot of science and mental calculating. We preach knowing the fundamentals to be able to understand chord context and intentionally create great sounding melodies during improvisation. Knowing when to plug in a Lydian mode or that the dominant chord requires a flatted 7th is important for moving around in music, but we can let it bog us down, especially when the music flows at light speed.

The purpose of drilling scales and modes, practicing chord progression is to internalize them so well you don't have to think. Like stepping out of the way of roofing shingles, you need to be able to just react at that Secondary Dominant chord, and raise the F natural to an F#. When the scales are familiar enough, it becomes more feel than calculation.

Listening to music involves more of this thin-slicing than we realize. Creating music that's intentional and appropriate requires us to be able to thin-slice, too.

Blink is a fascinating read, helpful in understanding our own decision making processes. We encourage you to add it to your library.

Purchase Book:
Kindle: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


The Basics of Auditioning Instruments
Approaching Improvisation
Suspicion of Melodic Intent
The Jazz Brain; Improv

Posted by Ted at 3:23 PM

December 1, 2011 | Top Five 'Hover' Tones

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From May 13, 2010: "Top Five 'Hover' Tones"

We revisited the notion of "gravity" in melody a couple weeks ago. We mentioned in particular, the pull of the 4th and 7th scale degrees, but we thought we'd expand these and call out our Top Five "Hover" tones.

Think of the drama of a Life-flight helicopter attempting to make a landing at a hospital, right before they are able to clear the emergency pad. There is tension literally in the air, as pilot, staff, observing public, and no doubt the patient as they wait to land. Maybe the drama of a scale degree is nothing compared to this, but you get the idea. Some notes "hover" as they wait to fulfill their mission, to land on the note that brings a sense of completion. We give you our personal Top Five:

Hover1.jpg 7 to 1 Major & Minor Scale.
This is really a no-brainer, and the single most recognizable melodic pull in the tonal universe. Run the first seven notes in a G major scale and stop on the F#, just short of completion. Gaze around and see how many in the room look at you in anticipation. Many might even participate and sing the note G out for you, just to stop the demons from coming. Notice this is the same in both major and minor scales. That half-step relationship offers a very strong vertical bond.

Hover2.jpg 4 to 3 Major Scale.
While not quite as strong as the previous 7 to 1, this is a potent one, too. Partnered up with the 7 to 1, you get the Tritone harmonic pull, the 4th & 7th to the 3rd and 1st. Even by itself, in the major scale its half-step tug demands its destiny, that "welcome home" 3rd scale degree.

Hover3.jpg 6 to 5 Minor Scale (AKA b9).
We have to give equal time to the minor scale and mention the 6th degree, where again we have a half-step pull to the 5th. We've mentioned its role as the b9 of the V7 chord (V7b9) above, but we could also point to the dominant preparation chord, the ii7b5 or Bm7b5, "F" in the above example. Eventually, it longs for the 5th note of the minor scale.

Hover4.jpg #4 to 5 Blues Scale.
This may be cheating a little, because it's not really a major or minor scale tone, unless you're talking a Blues Scale. We mention it because it's a very popular coloring tone, and one of those "blue" notes oozing with character. You can think of it as a b5 scale degree, too. What you call it is your choice, depending on what direction you're going, toward the 5, or teasing with a little half-step dip away from the 5 and back.

Hover5.jpg #9 to 3 Major Scale
This might be more esoteric, because we usually think of the #9 (or raised 2) in the context of a chord. It can still pack a punch melodically, and when used in an augmented chord, it needs to its face its fate. Best not to just leave it hanging there.

Why bother?
Voicing is everything in music. Even when you're stringing a succession of chords, these notes should eventually find their nearby mate. Since they are only a fret away, you should maximize your chord effectiveness by hooking chords together that consciously (and conscientiously) match these individual note pairs up. More importantly, if you are soloing, you want to exploit the momentary melodic tension and release here that makes the difference between runny notes, and running notes.

Make 'em count!

Moving Forward; Melodic Progression
4 and 7. The Committal Notes
Intentional Improvisation
More Appropriate
Some Minor Issues: 'Gravity' Notes in Minor

Posted by Ted at 5:58 AM

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