Arrangement Thievery: Stealing Parts and Getting Away With It

In a previous article I discussed four tools every mandolin player needs to have in his bag: rhythm, tremolo, lead/fills, and cross-picking. With creative use of these four techniques a mandolin can ‘steal’ parts in an arrangement from other instruments. This allows the resourceful mandolin player find a place, even on songs that never originally had a mando part to begin with.

A Victimless Crime

Now, it is all well and good for me to suggest that you use your uber-versatile mandolin to swipe parts from other instruments. But how, you might ask, does one do that? Is it possible to play the lead guitar’s parts without requiring a best-two-of-three rock/paper/scissors showdown? Can you claim parts in the arrangement without actually taking parts away from someone else?

You can! The secret: Over-produced studio recordings.

Here is what I mean. Most worship teams pattern their song arrangements after some artist’s studio version of a given song. Back in the early days of recorded music artists were limited to 8 or 16 tracks for all of their instruments and vocals on a song. How they managed to make such great recordings under those limitations is a testament to their skill, but the modern artist is under no such constraints. Just about all studio work is tracked on a Digital Audio Workstation nowadays and the available track count is practically unlimited. It isn’t unusual for a song to have hundreds of available tracks for everything the artist wants to put in it.

The result is that most studio releases have multiple layers for each instrument. Electric guitar tends to benefit the most from this abundance of digital tracks. Put on some quality headphones and listen to how many guitar layers are in the studio releases of your Sunday set list. You will likely hear two different rhythm guitar layers and countless other elements of “color.” There are layers of fills, hooks, little melodic riffs, and really all kinds of parts popping through the mix. Notice that more often than not these parts occur all together. That is, the rhythm electric guitar doesn’t drop out to play a riff–two or more guitar parts are playing simultaneously.

You’ll hear a similar phenomenon with synths. Pads continue to play even while a second lead synth plays a hook or fill. The rock organ doesn’t drop out just because a cello comes in for a two-measure riff.

Limitations Become Opportunities

The studio artist wields unlimited track counts. The worship team, however, doesn’t generally have the personnel or stage space to recreate all of those layers. Just about every modern worship team has an electric guitar player and keyboard player, but it rarely has more than one of each.

Most of the time the electric guitar player is stuck either driving the energy of the song ahead as a rhythm player or else rolling through some dotted-quarter delay or similar beat-based part. That leaves all those other layers open for a ‘color’ instrument like the mandolin to play. Ironically, these over-produced studio arrangements give the mandolin the most opportunity, precisely for those songs that at first don’t seem like a good fit. The more ‘rock’ the song is, the more extra guitar parts will be free for a mandolin that the lead-guitar player can’t possibly play all on his own. The more the synth parts are layered in like an 80’s cover tune, the more your keyboard player won’t be able to include all of the parts that the artist added to make the song interesting.

A crafty mandolin player is aware of his band’s limitations and mines studio recordings for all those layers that his fellow musicians don’t have enough fingers to play. Then he simply has to use rhythm, tremolo, leads/fills, or cross picking to claim those parts as his own in the live arrangements.

Happy thieving!

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