Remember the childhood game Battleship? I used to play it regularly with my siblings (especially with my younger sister.) While we sometimes made up our own set of unique rules, the basic premise was always the same. You would deploy the ships on your hidden side of the game board. Your opponent would do the same on her side. Since the game is played out on a grid you would then have to use coordinates to find and virtually lob missiles at your opponent’s ships.

A2.  F4. G11. E7.

“You sank my Battleship!”

We musicians have our own similar brand of alphabet soup. Instead of a gameboard grid, for musicians these coordinates show up on our chord sheets as special variations to chords in our songs. The numbers, as you are likely already aware, are a reference to notes that should be added to the chord relative to the root note (the letter name) of the chord. If the chord letter value is assumed to be at position ‘1’ the note at the position of the number value is the special note in the chord.

So A2 is an A chord with a B note added.

E7 is an E chord with a D note added.

And so on.

I frequently revert to counting on my fingers when working out some of these lesser-played variations.

Vanilla Is Boring

As a mandolin player these types of chords jump off the chord sheet at me precisely because they are special. Let’s face it: On a contemporary worship stage a mandolin is not ever going to be considered a ‘core’ instrument. That cuts both ways. Sure, we don’t get the same respect for our mandos as our more full-frequencied (I made that word up just now) cousins like the piano and guitar—but…that also means we aren’t tied to the same responsibilities that those instruments must shoulder.

Consider the guitar player. He’s got 6 strings to keep track of and only 5 fret-able fingers to do it with. Chances are he’s going to skip right over most of those ‘special’ chords and opt instead for the vanilla varieties of each chord (G instead of G2, C instead of C6, etc). If many of these special chords appear in the song, or if the chords changes come rapidly, the guitar player will be even more likely to simplify and stick to the vanilla chords.

Since nobody is really relying on you to carry the full chord structure, quit trying. Focus instead on those special chords, and specifically the special notes within them.

Mandolins are under no such restraint. Since nobody is really relying on you to carry the full chord structure, quit trying. Focus instead on those special chords, and specifically the special notes within them. You can even get away with playing two-note variations of the chords—play the ‘special’ note of the chord (for example, the B note in the A2 chord) and then find the nearest, easy to reach note of the three remaining notes from the vanilla chord. It doesn’t really matter if you add the root note or not—the other instruments will have that covered. Just figure out which extra vanilla notes to add that are easy to finger. Focus on emphasizing that special note in the chord.

The Hero We Need

If you do this you’ll look like a super hero to your team. Here’s why:

First, it isn’t difficult for you to play because you are specifically building your chords based on what is easy to play, and not based on an obligation to get all of the vanilla notes into your chord structure.

Second, the ‘special’ notes are so often neglected by the other instruments that having the mandolin focus specifically on adding them gives the song so much more depth and texture. Whoever wrote the song had a reason for using those chords, and your band’s arrangement will sound better if someone on the team is focused on adding them in.

All of this just requires a little preparation. You are going to be creating your own custom two-or-three note chord structures, and you likely won’t be able to do that on-the-fly (I certainly can’t). So, identify these chords before rehearsal and maybe jot down some notes to remind you what you plan to play.

The takeaway? With minimal difficulty and a little preparation, you can take your worship team’s sound to the next, more complete level. For me, that’s an even better feeling than repeatedly beating my sister at Battleship!

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