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."

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May 31, 2012 | Photographing Mandolins

In lieu of the announcement of recent changes at the MandolinCafe Classifieds, we thought we'd resurrect our September 2006 Tips & Tricks column from the archives on Photographing mandolins. Happy Shooting!


A look at composition; or a composition of "look?"

If you ever plan to sell a mandolin on-line or just want to document your prize possession for posterity, it might be good to review several tips on optimal digital photography. Most of these are simple common sense, but if you've never thought about how to present your instrument effectively, these points are worth considering.

  • Lighting. There's nothing better under the sun than well.. the sun. Natural sunlight brings the best out of color and is far less expensive than a sophisticated set-up of lights and flash equipment. (Get your priorities straight; such money should be spent on more mandolins, after all.)

    You probably want to avoid direct sunlight, unless you're capturing an intense wood flame, but you do so at the risk of glare and overexposure. It doesn't even have to be a completely sunny day, and if it is, shade would probably be recommended.

  • Content. Several viewpoints are no-brainers, but you want to capture the best of your instrument. The obligatory "full-body" shots, BOTH front and back are necessary, but consider wide frame shots of the back and top, especially if the wood and its flame are something you are proud of.

    Don't forget the finer points, close ups of the tailpiece, bouts and points, bridge, headstock (front AND back), any special inlays or binding, the fretboard, and the back of the neck. If your camera has enough resolution, these shots can dazzle the viewer. Go through the list and don't be afraid to experiment with odd angles. The trick of good photography is not what you keep; it's what you throw away. Shoot about 10 times the pictures you actually use (maybe more!); ridding yourself of the bad ones are as close as your "Recycle" icon on your computer desktop. Leave nothing to chance, as what you see in the camera can be different from what you'll see on the computer monitor.

  • Edit. Most digital cameras come with a software editing program. The beauty of digital photography is right here, the ability to crop, darken, lighten, or alter the hue. We once took pictures of some beautiful instruments under very unfortunate trade show fluorescent lighting. All the reds were robbed, and it was a simple matter of adjusting the hue in the software to bring them back to reality. Don't overdo this, however, the goal is to make the picture as lifelike as possible.
  • We recommend keeping your pictures under 600 pixels high and wide for web viewing, preferably under 100K and 72 dpi to give Luddite web-surfers on slow speed or dial-up the opportunity for quicker access. (Some people still use computers made in the last century, powered by coal.) You can certainly have larger size and greater resolution, but these are better sent directly or accessed through a URL for offline scrutiny.

  • Background. If you want to show the instrument, be sensitive to the background, as well. Avoid content that might detract from the instrument, a solid background. If you want to pull the color out of the instrument, use a contrasting, but non-distracting color. For example, if you want to pull a red hue out of your instrument, a light mint color behind will make this tint leap off the screen.

    A piano salesman trick--suggestive selling. A savvy salesperson will plant the thought of owning a piano in the head of a potential customer by asking "Which room will this piano be in?" The purpose of the question is a sly one; going through the mental exercise of putting an object in the home is one step closer to ownership. That said, you can place background content in your picture (if it is to be an advertisement) that subliminally offers "homey-ness." Confession: we've been guilty of using fireplaces, front porch, dogs, and small children to make the instrument "real."

    If you opt for additional content in the background, be sensitive to color. You can use contrasting color or find things in the background that are colors in your instrument that bring them out. Flowers that match the inlay or pickguard color, we've even seen bottles of fine whiskey effectively used in the background to complement finish. (Talk about suggestive selling!...)

  • This can be fun and you'll only get better as you shoot more pictures over the years.

    The Basics of Auditioning Instruments
    Tips for shipping mandolins
    Judging builders
    Jupiter Silkweave Cloth

    Posted by Ted at 5:40 AM

    May 24, 2012 | Complexity leads to simplicity

    How do we make music simpler?

    The interesting video we've embedded discusses a new path to embracing complexity. The counter-intuitive goal is to achieve simplicity. Speaker Eric Berlow shows how diagrams can map ecological, biological, and social problems visually in science. The irony is through colors, shapes, and graphs, we can make a complex set of elements much easier to understand by eliminating components, and not adding them.

    Check out the brief 3:34 video.
    Video Link: Eric Berlow: Complexity leads to simplicity

    Music can be approached similarly with our own mental "spaghetti" diagrams. We embrace theoretical elements that seem complex on their own, chord extensions, modes and boutique scales, sophisticated chord progressions and tonality shifts, but ultimately, the goal is to make music simpler. We learn modes to be able to internalize inherent harmonic (vertical/chord) structure to reproduce and communicate it melodically. We analyze chord patterns to reduce it to variations of tonic, dominant, and dominant preparation (simply, "ii V7 I"). We spot consistencies in form (verse, chorus, bridge) so we can wail away without having to think or organize in form.

    Music theory should always be about making the music simpler, not more complex.


    Accidental Indicators
    Jazz Primer: Harmonic Function
    Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 1
    Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2
    Chord economy

    Posted by Ted at 8:27 AM

    May 17, 2012 | Tips on improvising from the Pros; Jason Anick

    In our April Mandolin Sessions finale, we asked a dozen of some of the industry's high profile players about their take on the creative process. Objective vs. subjective, cerebral vs. intuitive, planned vs. spontaneous, established harmonic language vs. muse, all are ends of a continuum of approaches on how to successfully improvise. This week, we'll look at John Jorgenson swing violinist sideman and talented mandolinist Jason Anick for his take.


    Jason Anick
    The idea of being in the moment and unique is what drew me to jazz/improvised music, so my ultimate goal is to always live by those principles when I perform. At the same time I always strive to perform with intention and purpose so that I can construct interesting and meaningful solos. In order to achieve this equilibrium of intention and spontaneity takes a lot of practice both learning and understanding the jazz language and the ability to let go and let your ear and creative side take over while performing. A big part of learning the jazz language for me involved constantly listening to the greats and really dissecting how they approach chord changes, phrasing, and swing rhythm and feel. The deeper my understanding gets, the more I am able to let go and let my creative side take over in hopes of constantly surprising even myself when I improvise.

    Online jazz mandolin lessons - Jason Anick

    Artist Bio (from
    26 year old virtuoso Jason Anick is a Boston-based performer, composer, and Berklee College of Music Instructor, who is rapidly making a name for himself in the world of jazz violin and mandolin. In 2007 he won top honors for improvisation in the ATSA Alternative Styles competition and performed with the Robin Nolan Trio at the Montreal Jazz Festival. In 2008, while still a senior at the prestigious Hartt Conservatory, Jason began touring both nationally and internationally with Grammy award-winning Nashville guitar virtuoso John Jorgenson. He went on to record on Jorgenson's latest CD "One Stolen Night", which was named one of the top 10 albums of 2010 by the LA Times and Acoustic Guitar Magazine. 2011 marks the release of Jason's debut solo album "Sleepless", which was cited by as "...a must have for any jazz violin/mandolin fans".

    Posted by Ted at 12:53 PM

    May 10, 2012 | Why is an E# not just an F?

    At some point in your musical development, you have stumbled on to one of the great confounders of enharmonic notes in scales. Ab is G#, Gb is F#, etc... Most get that, but you run into the rebel that says "E# is equal to F? What's up with that. Why not just call it "F" and be done with it? Why waste brain cells adding an accidental to a perfectly good note when you don't have to?" This resentment runs deep especially in beginning piano players.

    Aurally, it won't make a bit of difference (let's not get nit-picky about equal temperament for now). Physically, it's the same fingering on a mandolin fretboard, although we used to have fun in practice, joking about having to send that new mandolin back to the builder because it only came with Fs and no E#s. But if you're going to dip your toe into music theory (and we all do at some point), you need to embrace the E# (and B#) from a functional standpoint. An E# in a flat key is as out of place as a trombone at a Bluegrass festival.


    When we start tripping around the Circle of 5ths, we get to that fuzzy part where keys with lots of sharps and lots of flats start intertwining. We want to make things simpler by thinking enharmonically, but you have to retain the function of the note, because of how it interacts with the other notes in the scale. If we are in the key of C# (seven sharps), and E# is an important note of the scale, the 3rd. It defines the "majorness" of the mode, and to call it an F natural would give it an entirely different scale degree function.

    Here's an example of a chord progression recently transcribed in a set list, rather poorly:

    C# Fm F# D#m

    Here is a better version, notice the 2nd chord:

    C# C#/E# F# D#m

    Why is this better? It represents the chord's function in the rest of the piece in the context of C# Major. Note in the first example the chord is both aurally and enharmonically correct, but in a world of six sharps, it pulls a mental muscle. The chord is actually a first inversion major 7 tonic (3rd in the bass), and would be more accurately spelled this way:


    Fm triad with then notes F Ab C could be thought of as the first inversion rootless C# Maj7 chord, E#, G#, B# (no C#), but in the circle of keys, it's a little like setting your clock from 5:35 to 5:30 by moving the hand forward 23 hours and 55 minutes, rather than moving it back 5 minutes.

    And before you ask, we think C#/E# is simply better chord shorthand than C#Maj7/E# in the context of this song. The B# is unnecessary, though it fit the song better stylistically. It's like the swing musician throwing the obligatory Maj6 chord on a major triad. It goes with the territory.

    Homework: Go mark all your F notes on your mandolin and tell them to be E#s.

    Circle of Fifths
    Accidental Indicators
    Chromatic Equality and Justice for All (Keys)
    Three Four Pull
    Music geekdom. Tonal functions go clubbing
    I hate music theory (Part 1)

    Posted by Ted at 2:06 PM

    May 3, 2012 | 7th chords in real life.

    We get a lot of lip service on the internet about the FFcP method of attacking the fretboard. There are both cerebral and physical reasons this is such a tight, all encompassing way to digest the concept of home position mobility, and a lot of folks get it. It's been very popular.

    We've published a lot about 3-note 7th chords as well. It's another one of those simple concepts that can have so many far reaching applications. Learning these blocks can help freshen up your comping, smooth chord transitioning, and even start you down the road to chord melody soloing. We can't stress enough how basic these are to better facility and fingerboard comprehension. Using the meatier lower strings not only improves your overall sound, it frees the E string for some voice leading and juicy harmonic extensions on down the road.

    D72nd.jpg D73rd.jpg D7root.jpg D71st.jpg

    We can't encourage you enough to learn these blocks, not only in the dominant 7ths, but the major and minor versions, too. We've even created a coffee mug through our CafePress Logo store (shameless plug), if you really want to drink it in.

    For now, take a look at a "real life" example of how these chords can work for you by reader Jake Cohan. His video is a marvelous example of how these chords can be applied in the classic Miles Davis standard, All Blues.


    Video Link: "All Blues," on Mandolin by Jake Cohan

    3-note Chord Dominants; Part 1 (Inversions)
    3-note Chord Dominants; Part 2 (Circle of Fifths)
    3-note Chord Dominants; Part 3 (Passing chords)
    Easing into Modal Jazz
    What you can do with a V7 chord: Declaring Dominants

    Purchase Mug: JazzMando 3-note 7th Chord Mug

    Posted by Ted at 8:39 AM

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