Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blue Chip Picks

I recently bought a Blue Chip Pick. They're kind of expensive for a pick, but they are very, very good. Previously I used a Wegen pick, the TF140, and that was a huge improvement over the ordinary picks I had used before, but this Blue Chip TAD 50 wipes the floor with it. The difference is particularly noticeable on the wound strings, where with other picks my mandolin can often sound muddy.

I didn't really want to part with 35 bucks for a pick, but considering it's improved both my sound and my playing ability, it really wasn't much to pay.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Doyle's Backup: Take Me In Your Lifeboat

Sometimes I think I learn more from a player when they're doing backup than when they're playing lead. There's no need for any flashy flourishes, or the mandatory excursion up the fretboard. I get to see how a player survives through each chord change, and learn what their real stock phrases are.

So I was delighted to find this gem from Doyle buried in the right stereo channel and played behind the verse of "Take Me In Your Lifeboat" (on The Bluegrass Album Band Compact Disc, vol 1), just after the fiddle break. It's another one in G, and has many of the same repeated phrases you'll recognise from the other transcriptions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stand Up

If I don't practice my breaks and other pieces standing up, I can't play them as well when I do. There's a different balance to the mandolin when I stand, and various muscles seem to have to compensate in different ways. This can be very confusing when I try to play a piece on stage for the first time that sounded great when I played it sitting down.

Moving licks from G to other keys

Doyle has some great licks in "On and On" and "Head Over Heels" that can be easily transposed into other open position keys like D and A, especially those that use the two lowest strings: just move them up to the middle two strings for D, and the top two strings for A.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Er, but I can't play that...

If you're having trouble playing through some tab, the chances are you're trying to play it too fast. Most times if you slow down the problem goes away. Then you have to gradually increase the pace until you can play it at a speed you're comfortable with.

Everyone gives that piece of advice, but I find it much harder to take and to stick to than you would think. One problem I often find is that I can play most parts of a tune or break up to a certain speed, but there might be a few passages that I can't quite make. It's more fun to play the piece up to speed, so sometimes it will take a long while before I realize that I'm fudging a certain section every time.

Sometimes, in order to play the problem section properly, I have to slow it down so much that it becomes hard even to keep track of the timing. Mostly I find that by isolating and playing the difficult passage over and over very slowly, I can eventually get the whole tune up to speed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Doyle's break: Head Over Heels (Key of G)

This time from The Bluegrass Album Band volume 4, another G tune where Doyle does his stuff. This time he does a couple of leaps to the top of the fretboard and back, but mostly it's a variation of the same approach he uses in On And On, just a touch more bluesy this time. Here's the TableEdit file. Taken together, these two breaks give a pretty good idea of Doyle's basic technique, at least for the key of G.

Transcribing Breaks

If you want to figure out how to play a break from a recording you have, a good way I have found is to use a piece of software called Transcribe!. This lets you open a track on a CD or an MP3 and slow it down to whatever speed you like without changing the pitch. It has another feature that lets you loop the section you're working on.

It will also let you change the pitch without altering the speed, which can occasionally be useful too.

Doyle's break: On and On (key of G)

Here's an example of Doyle Lawson's break on the song "On and On" from The Original Band album. It's in TablEdit format - you can get a free reader for the format here. I very much recommend buying the full program if you ever want to write your own mandolin tab (or any other kind of music notation).

There are a lot of things going on in this break and plenty to learn. He starts out with some commanding strums, standing in loosely for the opening of the refrain line "On and On". The second bar has a bluesy fall from high Bb to low E on the second string. In bar 3 the chord switches to C, and the mandolin climbs back up to D for a shorter fall that echoes the first. Then we're in to some space filling in G again, until we have the standout G motif in bar 6, followed by a copy of the same lick but played in D. Notice how the short chromatic runs in each lick are placed differently: the first run seems like ornamentation, but it sets up the second run which leads the melody line into the D chord, taking it from E to F to F# - the defining note of the D chord.

There are lots more characteristic ideas in this break: some very useful stock phrases are run together so that each follows naturally from the last, and always respects the underlying chord structure, while giving cursory attention to the tune. But that's how it should be: Doyle's break is the second - the tune has already been stated by the banjo, and in this song the verse and chorus are the same, so this break creates the first relief.

When Bill Monroe recorded this tune, he took the third break and played a very bluesy and rhythmic improvisation which I'm sure Doyle had heard too.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Doyle Lawson's Mandolin

If you've ever listened to much Doyle Lawson, you'll have noticed he has a very distinctive style. It seems to me there are two parts to it: 1) a rhythmic approach that gives a strident quality that seems to cut across the established rhythm of the song and 2) repeating melodic patterns that flow up and down scales and across chords. I'll get into more analysis of both of these parts of his playing in later posts, but first off, listen to an album like The Original Band, and tell me you wouldn't like to just break into one of his solos whenever you felt like it.

Well, that's my first goal, to be able to do a quick Doyle Lawson break when I want to, and that's what's coming next.