Friday, May 29, 2009

Reasons To Love Your Metronome

I've recently stopped using Band In A Box most of the time and switched over to just using the metronome for practice, just set to a single beat. It's much quicker and more convenient, requires no setup, and perhaps most importantly, lets me just work on the segment of the song I'm having problems with. I find I'm more inclined to adjust it to build up (or down) gradually in speed. I also feel like listening for its pulse is somehow giving me better timing all around.

And it's great to work on placing my chop right in the center of the space between the metronome's beats.

I should add that it took me some practice to begin to work with a metronome effectively. It's worth making the commitment to do it, but if you're just starting out, it's probably more helpful to work with band in a box or backing tracks you record yourself, because at that time you have enough to worry about. Practicing with a metronome is a skill in itself.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Perfect Makes Practice

I used to get a bit confused when I was learning from method books as to when I should move on from the exercise I was working on. The text seemed to compel me forward, the very fact that there was another page with more things to learn made the page I was on seem like something to leave behind. I'm used to reading novels, so I would always read ahead.

Turns out, I should not have moved on to the next page until I had everything on the current page down perfect. I know, sounds crazy. But that's really how it is.

Improvising Kit Bag 3: Steal from Other Instruments

If you want to add licks to your bag, you don't have to stick with what other mandolinists play. Fiddlers, banjo pickers and guitarists have all kinds of great licks, so I don't see why I shouldn't steal from then too. Tony Rice loves this lick, he plays it at the end of his break on "Your Love Is Like A Flower" (Bluegrass Album Band), and quite a few other places too. Try playing it in a lot of different keys, I found E was good too, but here it is in G and A:

It sits nicely over any I-V-I change. You can also use the first half in many other situations, and you can vary the second part (over the V chord) to suit the song or how you feel that day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Practice Hint: Relax

If I'm having trouble playing a particular passage at speed, usually I find that at least part of the problem is tensing up during that passage. The way to fix this is to play it slowly, of course, but even more important is to focus on keeping your left and right hand relaxed while you play it slowly. If I can learn to play a piece slowly and stay relaxed, I can then speed it up succesfully. If I learn to play it well slowly but don't relax, I can never get it up to speed.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Closed position movable solos

Here is an example of a great little closed position solo, in this case in the key of C. The wonderful thing about these is you can play them in just about any key by moving them around, so it's really well worth putting in the effort to learn to play a number of these really fast, and to develop licks to embellish them.

Keeping this solo on the same strings but moving it up or down by one or two frets you can play in keys Bb through D. By transferring it to the next set of strings down you can play in E through A.

When I first started playing on stage, that was pretty much how I played every tune. It's surprising how often I hear something that sounds very cool and new on a recording, and when I start to transcribe it I find it's built out of this position.

The example below is from Wanda Vick's charming album "Bluegrass Hymns". It's about 19 bluegrass gospel standards but with no singing, just instrumental breaks, and I think Wanda plays all the instruments. Her fiddle playing is fabulous, and the rich variety of mandolin breaks is very instructive. She also has a perfect chop. This is played over the verse of "Shouting On The Hills of Glory".

Notice how in bar 6 and 7 when going to the G chord, she uses what I suspect is (and play as) a 2nd finger bar at the fifth fret over the 2nd and 3rd strings, and then comes out of it with a slide - a great little move. For the last 2 bars you'll want to back up with your 2nd finger on the 2nd fret.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Improvising Kit Bag 2 - Key of A

Here are two more endings in the key of A, both of them over a standard I-V-I chord sequence. The first is in the A chop position, with your index finger at the fourth fret, and second is in the open position. For the third bar of the first example, try to maintain your position and use your pinky if it's up to it. If not, you can reposition your first finger up to the fifth fret. You can hear very similar licks to these used on many professional recordings.

The best way I have found to try to incorporate new licks into my improvisations is to first practice the lick so I can play it at almost any speed in isolation, working with Band In A Box or a metronome. Then I try it out in breaks that I do regularly, playing along with recordings of my band. And then I try pulling it off in a live situation.

When you're working on building a new lick into your reportoire, I don't think there's any shame in slipping it into as many solos as you can, just for a while. You may bore your bandmates for a few weeks, but they'll be grateful in the end to have a more versatile mandolinist. At least, that's my theory.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Improvising Kit Bag 1 - Key of A

To start packing the improvising kit bag, here are a couple of simple turnarounds in the key of A. The first can be used wherever you have two bars of E resolving to A, and the second, where you have just one bar of E. This is typical in a song like Hallelujah I'm Ready or dozens of others, where the longer V chord falls in the middle of the verse and the shorter one comes at the end. If you're just following the melody in that song, you've got nothing to say over the long E in the middle of the verse unless you're prepared. Think about where the melody falls in that tune, and then try slotting these licks in at the appropriate places. Then try them in all the other suitable tunes you know. Try them next time you're in a jam or playing a show. It's the only way to expand your kit bag.

Notice how each lick contains a little element like a slide or a blue note that gives it its character and flavor. Unless a phrase has something unique and memorable, it doesn't belong in your kit bag.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Improvising Kit Bag

Improvising's a controversial subject so I'll try not to make too many generalizations about it, but from what I've seen - especially when forced to put together a break on the spot for a fast tune - instead of hand-crafting a beautifully nuanced brand new composition right there and then, most folks, even pros, just follow the tune as best they can, and then copy and paste in their favorite licks for kickoffs and endings.

Usually the place they do this most obviously is in the joins - by that I mean the places half way through the verse and at the end of the verse, at the end of the vocal line. Often there is no clue what to play here from the melody, since it's where the singer pauses for breath. Mostly it's where either there's 2 bars of the V chord resolving to the I, or else one bar of I, and one of V, then back to I.

So, you need some licks prepared for these situations. Not only that, but if you have some fancy licks to insert here, in my view it makes it easier to be faithful to the melody in the other parts of your break. The reason is, you're not under any pressure to make up something impressive on the spur of the moment, because you have something up your sleeve, like the best magicians.

In my next few posts I'll be showing you some of the goodies I'm working on for my kit bag. The good news is, just about every mandolin break you ever hear can give you ideas to expand your bag, so you don't have to rely on me - you can rip them off from everybody.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lonesome River Band - Heartless Love

Should it just happen that you are the one bluegrass mandolin fan who doesn't yet own a copy of "Carrying the Tradition" by the Lonesome River Band, face up to the inevitable now and make the purchase. You will not be disappointed.

Here is a transcription - in a TablEdit file this time - of Dan Tyminski's solo on Heartless Love. For my money, you can't do a better bluesy mandolin solo than this, so I don't know why Dan bothered to learn to play all those other instruments and sing so well too.

Heartless Love TablEdit File.

If you're anything like me, this will take at least a week or so to get under your fingers, so don't get discouraged.

Finally, here is a YouTube of it:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

John Duffey, Redwood Hill and triplets

Here's a nice little triplet workout. Redwood Hill is a very pretty tune. Written by Gordon Lightfoot, the Country Gentlemen made it bluegrass. Eddie Adcock's banjo part in the first part of the break is beautiful, as is John Duffey's 2nd half. I have two recordings of this, and on each they do much the same break twice in the song - and why not when it sounds this good. On the "Live in Japan" album, Duffey goes triplet crazy towards the end of the second break. Notice how he uses hammer-ons, especially in the first triplet in measure 6, to keep his pickstrokes orderly. That particular passage is difficult for my right hand, and I think most people who aren't John Duffey would need to work that up slowly to nail it like he does at 220bpm.

In measure 10 I shift up to A position (fourth fret) because I think that's how it sounds like he did it, but you may find a better way.