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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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January 31, 2013 | Best of JM: The road to harmonic sophistication

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
February 7, 2008 | The road to harmonic sophistication


Time for a little philosophy here. We're going to go out on a limb and suggest the most effective way to "broaden" a folk/bluegrass musician to more harmonically complex music, and that would include Pop, Broadway, Classical, Cerebral Folk, Brazilian and Contemporary Praise and Worship music, would be to pick up a jazz chord "vocabulary." It's there in the extended chords (Maj7, +11, m7b5), the poly-tonalites (Am7/D, F/G), and the rapidly changing tonal centers and cadences (ii V7 I). Jazz can actually be a broad genre category, and it's influence is felt in all these other classifications, as well.

Think your typical three chord Rock and early American Folk. The 'IV V I' cadence so common in the pristine diatonic nature of this simple music is closer to jazz than you might think. So you're playing in the key of A, your main chords would be D, E, and A, already a 'IV V7 I' (Roman Numerals based on the notes of the A major scale). Chord tones would be:
IV = D F# A
V = E G# B
I = A C# E

If it were jazz, we'd spell this out as 'ii V7 I':
Ii (ii7) = B D F# A
V (V7) = E G# B D
I = A C# E

Note in the first two chords how similar the chord tones are.

Ever play though any Bach compositions? What is profound here is how jazz-like his music can be, transparent frequent tonal center shifts with all kinds of variations on the 'ii V7 I" cadence. You can clearly detect aurally and visually (music notation) shifting tonal centers. Brazilian Choro (and American Ragtime) is similar, and both genres can be invaluable in sharpening harmonic analysis skills.

We mentioned the varieties of suspended chords in a MandolinSessions article, see Keeping in Suspense: A look at "Sus" chords and variations. Those who are playing contemporary Christian music churches today know all too well the Sus4, the Add9, the x2 chords. Today's cerebral folk artists are no strangers to these chords either, the "anything but a 3rd" approach to folk.

You'll notice a bit of a paradigm shift here at JazzMando as we retool the website for broader significance in today's music. While our first love has been, and remains the basic of jazz vocabulary, we will continue to reach out and try to extrapolate its significance to other genres as well.

It's all part of our master conspiracy; making mandolin mainstream!

The ii-V-I chord progression
Middle ground; reading jazz fake books
'ii V7 I' Home Positions
Secondary Dominants

Posted by Ted at 8:55 AM

January 24, 2013 | John McGann: A suggestion for people getting started with improvisation

We continue to bring posthumous words of wisdom from John McGann as he answers, "How do you learn to improvise when you know a melody and a chord
chart? "

"That is your starting point, knowing the melody and the chords and being aware of the form.

The next thing to do once you have a basic feel to the technical stuff like what notes fit over what chords, etc.- FORGET ALL OF IT and get one of these computer based programs like Transcribe or Amazing Slow Downer that allow you to put in a CD and loop any section of it, and reduce the speed.

1) pick out a solo that you think you can handle technically (don't start w/ Coltrane!)
2) listen to the solo at regular speed, as many times as it takes until you can sing along with it. Get it in your head!
3) using the software, isolate the 1st phrase as a loop, and set the playback for 1/2 speed. It will remain at the original pitch (although you can fine tune to your instrument). Listen to the phrase a few times to get used to how it sounds slower.
4) find the 1st note, then the next etc. on your axe, and put them together.
5) pull out your metronome and play the learned phrase slowly without the recording. Is your fingering good? In the case of Django, can you hear where the downstrokes are used? It's pretty much almost always on a slower passage and when changing strings, even on descending lines, which can be a bitch!
6) go back to the loop and bring the speed up to 90%, repeat the above, etc. until you can play it at full speed.
7) Notice- NO TAB or NOTATION involved- get it direct into your ears, hear and soul and onto the instrument- you don't need the written page and in fact it can be a hindrance to developing your ears and instincts.
8) When you have the phrase together, think of what the notes are in relationship to the chord. Identify the arpeggio notes, scale and chromatic tones, (both by note name and function, ie. an Eb6 chord and the line is C Eb G A Bb- would be 6 1 3 #4 5). Listen how they sound against the chord.

Now, it may take quite awhile to get a whole solo this way, but by going phrase by phrase you get the VOCABULARY of improvising which has little to do with practicing scales and arpeggios.

When learning a jazz standard (or anything really) get as many versions of the tune as you can, listen and study them one at a time, listen for things like how the melody is played differently by different players.

Improvisation requires this kind of experience in assimilating musical phrasing- when you improvise you are calling on the sum total of your life's experience with playing melodically, rhythmically, and compositionally- a pretty big challenge when you are starting, but remember, Wes, Django and every player you've ever admired started somewhere, and they were genuises but didn't have the tools to help us mortals!

Your teacher may or may not agree with the above, but this is what I've done to assimilate a number of styles (Texas fiddle, Irish trad, bluegrass, various kinds of jazz) and it has really helped me.

I'd also suggest reading a book by Mick Goodrick called "The Advancing Guitarist" which has some great things to think about regarding improvisation.

This is all VERY time consuming, but as Darol Anger says, "You gotta log your hours", there are no short cuts unless you are born a genius, and even then...

I hope this might help!

John McGann

Link: The Advancing Guitarist

From John McGann: Jazz Improvisation
Right hand considerations for flatpicking--John McGann
John McGann and Flying Fingers--"How My Life Was Changed"
10 Questions For John McGann


Posted by Ted at 6:27 AM

January 17, 2013 | 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks

In our series of Vamps, we looked at movable blocks of 3-note chord patterns, how they could fill in gaps of long, static areas of progressions. We took the same approach to V7, Minor7, and Major7 in all the possible inversions. If you haven't already, you should spend some time with these and try to get them into the subconscious of your fingers. (See links below.) The meatier lower three strings of your mandolin (especially if you're wielding a 5-string) can give you a strength to your accompaniment duties, and as we mentioned, set you up for some logical steps to chord melody when you add the E string.

We've previously introduced a very common chord progression in our FFcP series, the 'I vi ii7 V7' pattern we want to exploit in a chord state. Recall, they're broken arpeggios in the exercise, and the goal was to get this sound rooted in your ear through repetitive motor conditioning. It's a pattern you hear in Rock (think Doo Wop), ballad (think "Heart and Soul," "I Can't Get Started," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," etc.), and tons of other pop music.

I vi ii7 V7_Block1.jpg

These are great for economy of movement. You may have learned other inversions, but this combination works well because none of the chord members every have to move more than a couple frets. Once they are comfortable, try moving down two frets for the key of F (FMaj Dm Gm C7), and up two frets for the key of A (Amaj F#m Bm E7). Of course you can go in between for F#, and Ab, as well as move the patterns all the way up the neck until you run out of frets (or good, clean tone).

Tackle another inversion:

I vi ii7 V7_Block2.jpg

Again, a simple economy of motion, and an opportunity to move down two frets for BbMaj, up two for Dmaj, the keys in between, and as high up the frets as you want. The third:

I vi ii7 V7_Block3.jpg

You don't have room to move this down more than one fret unless you use the open strings, but you certainly can move the blocks on up. You're probably wondering why we haven't used more m7 for the minor keys, and this decision was arbitrary. Feel free to add and subtract the 7th chord of these (i.e. GMaj7, Am7) at will; the function will still be the same.

This gives us the excuse to introduce a "color" version of the 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks. Don't worry about the theory if you don't want to, just bask in the radiance of the sounds of these chords:

I vi ii7 V7_Block4.jpg

You have even more range to move this around. You can even move any of the four blocks across a string if you don't mind a more treble sound. The only problem in comping is sometimes you can interfere with the soloist playing in his/her register. Be sensitive to that.

Enjoy these? You can also implement them in areas that are more static. Let's say you have a four bar pattern C C G7 G7. You inject the Am7 and Dm7 and play C Am7 Dm7 G7, and everything should fit nicely. Use them to expand areas of harmonic "wilderness."

Here's a printable PDF you can use for reference: pdf_sm.gif 'I vi ii7 V7' 3-note chord blocks

Vamps. Creating energy with Diatonic triads
Vamps. Expanding the Diatonic triads
Vamps. Minor modal
Static Changes: Connecting Chords
7th Chord Streams. Under the hood

Posted by Ted at 6:15 AM

January 10, 2013 | Mike Marshall School of Mandolin Review; James Condino

We've had the privilege of publishing some of the thoughts of North Carolina builder and educator James Condino several times in the past. The legendary craftsman recently had the opportunity to work with some of the video lessons out of the AritistWorks series, and we asked him to report on his personal experience.

Video Link: Behind the Scenes: School of Mandolin with Mike Marshall

The following are James' insights.

Mike Marshall School of Mandolin Review
James Condino

I do a lot of writing and teaching although most of it is oriented towards wood, the Dalbergia Nigra vs. D. Melanoxia/Red spruce vs. Carpathian recurve thicknesses luthier nerdiness. I've also had a LOT of music teachers over the years, perhaps 30-40 different ones. Unfortunately, I can count about three of them that really made a difference to me. After spending some time with Mike Marshall's Academy of Mandolin, I'm compelled to let everyone know what a fantastic resource this is. It is the most comprehensive mandolin instruction format that I've ever seen.

A lot of pros have great chops. A lot of them are good teachers; some of them are fun to hang out with. Mike Marshall possesses the rare quality of having all of these traits. The people have captured it in a candid, comfortable way, more like laughing and picking with one of your buddies than a lesson plan, but the results are effective.

Here is how it works: there is a big list of lessons, divided into several categories based upon your skill level. You select a tune, Mike goes over how he plays it, offers several variations, and the ArtistWorks Jedis do magic with a camera with things like split screens, left and right hand close-ups, and the same tunes at a number of speeds. There are also practice tracks where Mike plays guitar, and you can practice the leads along with him in short lessons, approximately 5-8 minutes each. You get to focus on what is important, go over it a couple of times, and then move on. Time for me is critical these days--I can get a lot out of a lunch break session--enough to learn a whole new tune.

The structured lessons are great--they also tend overall to be in the more traditional bluegrass tune areas, so a lot of people overlook the jazz side of Mike's instruction. The hidden gem of the whole series is in Mike's responses to student videos. Traditional folks have a lot of ways to learn Salt Creek note for note, but it is not very often that you get a candid session with someone of Mike's caliber trying to crack the jazz language nut. Any student with questions or struggling through a tune can film themselves and Mike will respond to your video and then "Marshall-ize" his interpretation of the tune, though video responses aren't shot in the elaborate ArtistWorks production studio.

ArtistWorks is loaded with inspiration and new ideas for a variety of levels. As someone who plays a lot of different genres, I was continually impressed with how I'd be looking at a classic like Salt Creek, and get sidetracked by something like the second video response for beginners. Mike jumps right into the heart of jazz with his breakdown of how a student is struggling with Ornithology. I like Mike's emphasis on the difference between a series of separate phrases vs. a swinging groove. The rhythm section needs to groovet (that is fundamental),then the melody can come in and add sweetness and spice.

A bonus for the student video responses is that often Mike does not know the tune. Rather than improvising something on the fly, he actually pulls out a Realbook (Fakebook) and sight reads through the whole piece. For someone like me who uses those books and charts every week at gigs, it was very helpful to see his spontaneous interpretation off the charts--the accents, minimalist chord interpretations, and that constant, rock solid groove.

The three video breakdowns on the chord voicings and substitutions for the classic Grisman Quintet tune "EMD" are some of the best technical breakdown of a mandolin song I've ever seen. Not just the changes and ditty, but some 20 different chord substitutions and an excellent explanation of what Mike is thinking and where he is trying to go with the melody.

Things are continually being added and updated. Here are some of the current highlights for the jazz player:
How High the Moon
Take Five (It's all about the groove!)
All of Me (especially the G7 vamp ideas responses to the ryanallofme student video)
Black Orpheus
Russian Lullaby
Working with the Circle of Fifths

In the performance section, there is a beautiful duet of Autumn Leaves with Mike and Don Steirnberg, along with a David Grisman and Tony Trishka video performance.

This is the single best learning opportunity for mandolin players in one package that I know of, all in the comfort of your own home, and for less than what I pay for one string on my bass. I recognize that it is a monumental task to pull this all together.

View this amazing video performance: ArtistWorks Stiernberg/Marshall: Autumn Leaves


Reviewer's website: James Condino

Posted by Ted at 5:25 AM

January 3, 2013 | Tips on improvising from the Pros; Michael Lampert

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 Los Angeles based electric mandolinist and cutting edge jazz mandolin innovator Michael Lampert for his take.


I've spent many years searching different sources (written and otherwise) in order to broaden my creative choices when given the opportunity to take a solo. To play jazz solos, it is imperative to listen to jazz solos. While I certainly have my favorites (including John Coltrane, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Grant Green, etc.), there are literally hundreds of great players (actually thousands) who I could listen to all night (and in fact, I have). Without having some sort of idea of how a solo might sound, it's very easy to lose one's way. I probably learned the greatest amount from my teacher Harry Leahey. He emphasized chord construction, chord alteration, and extensions and substitutions and the application of the modes and synthetic scales to that end. I also took lessons from Charlie Banacos, John Carter and an important lesson or two from Dave Pike (among other); they all taught me important concepts that were based upon their personal approaches. I was actually able to sing solos and make up songs and structures before I could do it on the mandolin. The lessons and practicing help one obtain technique and an understanding of how the pieces fit together. I am really not particularly analytical; I really play by ear and at this point I have my own style, which is partly a function of technique (or lack thereof) and taste.

Playing a solo that sounds good is actually a magical thing and like other kinds of magic there is preparation, performance and mystery. When one is playing with other like-minded players in front of an appreciative and sympathetic audience, the chances that real magic will occur are greatly increased.

Released Spring of 2012, "Ephemeral."
Read Review: Michael Lampert; Ephemeral
Artist Website: Sojourner Records

Photo by Nancy A. Weiss

Posted by Ted at 5:39 AM

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