Under Investigation: Harvey Mandel's Blues

Many guitarists weaned on the British Blues Boom also dug deep into what our own shores had to offer, and in the process discovered a true American guitar phenomenon lurking in the shadows.
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Many guitarists weaned on the British Blues Boom also dug deep into what our own shores had to offer, and in the process discovered a true American guitar phenomenon lurking in the shadows. But if you’ve never experienced the recordings that Detroit native Harvey Mandel made during this fertile period, prepare to have your socks knocked off.

Mandel famously played Woodstock with Canned Heat, briefly joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and was a candidate for Mick Taylor’s replacement in the Rolling Stones, but it was his innovative solo albums that set him apart from the pack. Aware of his contemporaries, Mandel never directly copied any of them. Thus, he simultaneously sounded nothing like any of them while amalgamating all of their styles into something uniquely his own, creating monumental pieces of guitarchitecture that defied the convention of the day

The following examples are only snippets—snapshots of an artist in mid-flight—but they’ve been selected from a broad spectrum of songs and grooves, designed to give you intimate insight not only into Mandel’s note choices but also his techniques, and specifically how he gets from note to note—the true elements of any style.


Like many of his ’60s and ’70s contemporaries (including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Duane Allman, and John McLaughlin), Harvey Mandel developed over the years a sophisticated melodic vocabulary, numerous innovative techniques, and a constantly evolving set of chops, but unlike most of his peers, Mandel’s fat, sustainy Les Paul tones emerged fully formed in 1966 on his very first recording, Stand Back!, with Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Band. Ex. 1a depicts the opening cut’s rhythm figure and bass line, a relentless single-note riff (vaguely reminiscent of Led Zep’s “How Many More Times”) that includes every note of the D pentatonic minor scale. Throughout the song, Mandel supports Musselwhite’s harp and vocal phrases with short licks like the lazy, vibrated b7-to-root bend in Ex. 1b—be sure to apply vibrato during the gradual bend (an early Mandel trademark)—and the descending b5-4-b3-root response in Ex. 1c. Play the first lick twice, the second one four times, and then alternate between both two times each over the course of eight more bars. Tack on Ex. 1d’s arpeggiated D7 licks (bars 1 and 2), and b3-to-3 trills, octave roots, and slurred asymmetrical triplet in bar 3, and you’ll get a good idea of how Mandel created tension by stirring up excitement without actually playing a solo.

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As you may have noticed, most of these licks start on beat two, but they work equally well starting on beat four. Examples 2a and 2b, which are rhythmically displaced versions of Examples 1b and 1c, do just that. In Ex. 2c, we adapt the gradual, vibrated b7-to-root bend from Ex. 1b to a 4-to-5 bend (G-to-A), and, in true Mandel fashion, hold and shake it for four rounds of three-against-four (hemiola) accents before concluding with a grace-note release to a 4-b3-root triplet, followed by a 4-to-bent-4 and half-step release to F#, the 3.

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Mandel’s first solo record, 1968’s Christo Redentor, was an astonishingly progressive guitar album for its time, heavily laced with fuzz, feedback, backwards guitars, and rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic twists and turns galore, but curiously, the album’s title cut isn’t the expected guitar tourde- force. Instead, it’s a sensuous piece of exotica where, in the complete absence of drums and a featured guitar solo, Mandel’s chordal backdrops and sparse octave melodies canoodle with a lush string arrangement and wordless female vocals. Ex. 3a outlines the slow waltz-tempo-based, Im-IV vamp (Cmadd9-F, rendered here in 12/8), which serves as both an intro and accompaniment figure to Mandel’s simple but effective octave melody in Ex. 3b. The vamp is based on broken eighth-position Cmadd9 and F chord shapes enhanced with a slow, chewy Uni-Vibe swirl, while the melody consists of sliding octaves played on the first and fourth strings. These can also be played “Wesstyle,” on the first and third strings, but I’m betting Mandel played them as notated. (Tip: Complete the “verse” progression by adding two beats each of Cm,Cm/maj7, and Cm7, plus a beat each of G7#9 and G7b9.) It’s a true textbook example of melodic restraint.

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On the other hand, songs like “You Can’t Tell Me” veer from Allman-esque harmonies and abrupt metric changes to the funky, hybrid-picked D and G octaves and b7s illustrated in Ex. 4a. It’s decidedly Beck-y, but, as usual, Mandel puts his own stamp on the figure, which can be used to back up the Mandel-approved, hybrid-picked faux-steel moves shown in Ex. 4b. For these, lock into the tenth-position D blues box, bend the 4 to the 5 and hold it while attacking the b7 above, the pre-bent 5 again, the root above that, the 5 released a half-step and re-bent, and the b3/#9 above the last root. Bar 2 presents a melodic/rhythmic variation, while bar 3 features another signature slow bend from C to D, now functioning as the 4 and 5 of G9, the IV chord.

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Titled after Mandel’s nickname, “Snake” lives up to its reputation with the funkified four-bar Chet-Atkins-meets-Jerry-Reed figure excerpted in Ex. 5a. Bar 1 features partial A7 (with an open-G pull-off), D, and A (with a hammered-b3-to-3) chordal fragments interspersed with open As, while bar 2’s snaky moves result from a pre-bent D released to C# (a sus4-to-3 move over A7), which is then slid up four frets while simultaneously hitting open A to outline an arpeggiated A7 shape. Bars 3 and 4 are built around an E7#9 shape (minus its 3), with pinky B-string pull-offs that intermittently sound the open-E string. Throughout the solo sections, Mandel lays ringing, swampy lines rife with wide interval skips similar to Ex. 5b over A7, and then answers them with bars 3 and 4 of Ex. 5a.

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Our last excerpt from Christo Redentor harkens back to Mandel’s work with Charlie Musselwhite, albeit over a single-note 3/4 rhythm figure reminiscent of the Cm7-F9-based, Im-IV groove in Ex. 6a. The concurrent blues-waltz melody presented in Ex. 6b contains conceptual elements of other players, particularly Beck, but its sweetand- sour execution is Mandel all the way.

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Mandel’s chops progressed by leaps and bounds over the course of five albums between Christo Redentor and 1973’s remarkable Shangrenade, including Righteous (1969), Games Guitars Play (1970), Baby Batter (1971), and 1972’s The Snake, all available on Cleopatra Records’ newly released Snake Box. (Tip: For a real treat, check out Rock and Roll Forever, which Mandel recorded with the Ventures in 1972!) Shangrenade’s opening track, “What the Funk,” features funky slide guitar in tandem with a slinky D7-based figure similar to the one shown in Ex. 7a. Lock into seventh position, work your way through those steely halfstep bends, and groove on its pure country- blues vibe. Later, over a D7#9 I-chord, Mandel plays highly compressed, almost backwards-sounding lines like the one in Ex. 7b. Pay close attention to the vibrated pre-bend and hammered-and-bent triplet prefaced with an atypical b5-b3-root triplet in bar 1, and the gradual, major-third bend in bar 2. (That’s four frets, folks!) Things really heat up and still sound slightly backwards as Mandel takes off over a four bar turnaround (A7-D/F#-G9-D7#9). Ex. 7c shows how he begins over A7 with a snaky blues line played in the tenth-position D blues-box (check out the Beck-ish phrasing on beat four and the downbeat of bar 2), takes it “out” in bar 2 with a descending D whole-half diminished scale (See this month’s Fretboard Recipes) that targets B, the 3 of G9, and in bars 3 and 4 returns to more Beck-isms (it’s those half-step bends), plus a reprise of the Albert-meets-Jimi lazy major-third bend from bar 2.

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Shangrenade also marked the recorded debut of Mandel’s innovative fret-hand tapping technique, which, like his killer tone, seemed fully formed at its inception. Sure, Jimmie Webster was playing full-on Stanley-Jordan-style in 1958, and jazzers and rockers like Tal Farlow, Steve Hackett, and Billy Gibbons briefly flirted with tapped licks and chords during the same period, but it was Harvey Mandel who took the concept to dizzying heights more than a half decade before Edward Van Halen made it famous. Rather than approaching tapping as an “add-on” gimmick, Mandel beautifully integrated the technique into extended chordal figures and entire melodies.

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To illustrate one tapped chordal strategy, familiarize yourself with the first pair of chord shapes shown in Ex. 8a. Note that both chords are voiced on the bottom four strings, and the Cm shape is fingered traditionally with the fret hand, while C5 is tapped with the pick hand’s index and middle fingers (though not simultaneously). This essentially requires keeping track of two different fingerings—one with each hand. In the second pair of grids, three notes of Cm are altered to produce a Db9 shape, while the tapped C5 remains the same. Ex. 8b puts these four shapes into action with Mandel’s 3/4 intro to the album’s title track. Clamp down on the eighth-position Cm voicing in bars 1 and 2, and then tap and pull off from each ascending note of the C5 shape. For bars 3 and 4, alter the fret-hand shape to Db9, maintain the same C5 pick-hand taps and pull-offs, and repeat the same sequence of taps and pull-offs to produce the hard-toname Dbmaj7b5 (b7) harmonic veil. Complete the progression by following the exact same steps with the Ab, Gb, and C5 shapes in Ex. 8c.

We’ll wrap up with the lovely excerpt from Mandel’s tapped E Mixolydian melody to “Million Dollar Feeling” (also from Shangrenade) depicted in Ex. 9. Played entirely on the second string, the first three bars utilize only four different notes, all of which are tapped, hammered on, or pulled off. Pay close attention to the details, particularly the tap points, and slowly work the lines up to tempo. Bar 4 features yet another revelation—a held, frethand bend that is tapped and pulled-off from four frets higher, and then reiterated one halfstep lower before being finally released to its point of origin. This is the future, ca. 1973!

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Harvey Mandel has continued recording and performing from 1994 through the present with the Snake Crew and other projects (including a reunion with Canned Heat in 2010), and his career and legacy continue to flourish despite ongoing health issues. For info on appearances and how to help, please visit harveymandel.com!