Gotcha! I’m sure you read the title and assumed that this was going to be about using your voice while you play your mandolin. Not even close! I mean, sure, it is cool to sing while you play, if that is your thing, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.
The worship team’s mandolin player is forever trying to find parts to play in arrangements that never originally intended to have a mandolin part. So “stealing” parts of the arrangement has to become second nature to him. One creative way to do this is to listen for opportunities to steal parts from the most organic instrument on stage: the vocals.
You always need to be sensitive to worship leader’s intent for a given song’s arrangement, but here are four potential ways you can use studio vocals as inspiration for mando parts.
Doubling the lead vocal line is the most obvious starting point. This is a good option during times when your worship leader would like to subtly layer in extra parts to build dynamics, but doesn’t want to bring in extra vocalists just yet. I tend to use my mandolin to double the lead vocals on verses—especially those songs that have two verses before going into the chorus for the first time. Let the lead vocal sing the first verse by itself, then double that melody with a mando on the second verse.
This is very similar to the above point, only, as you’d imagine, you’re going to play a harmony to the lead vocal instead of doubling the melody. This is especially nice to add to an arrangement when your worship team is light on vocalists—or perhaps when the vocalists on the schedule for the week aren’t confident with the harmonies.
Some of the nicest moments in songs are when a background vocal comes in with a tight harmony on a verse or bridge. If you decide to go with this approach as a mandolin part, make sure that you are just as tight with the harmony you play on your mandolin as the vocalist would be if they were singing the part. The effect is lost if you don’t match the lead vocal meter movement for movement.
Call/Answer, BGV Accent Parts
These types of vocal parts seem to not be as frequently used as they once were, but when you do hear them on a studio recording they are a great source from which you can steal parts. These are background vocal parts that don’t actually follow the melody or attempt to be a harmony. Instead, they are accent or lead-in vocals intended to provide some flavor to those spots in the song.
What makes them such a great source of parts for a mandolin is the reality that very often your vocal team is going to be too small or too timid to add those types of parts to your live arrangement of the song. I love all of my vocalist friends out there, but it is a fair observation that most of them have not studied the arrangement of songs the way that one needs to in order to tease out these kinds of parts. Often it is difficult for vocalists to imagine their roles outside of the melody/harmony boxes.
Those types of parts are added on purpose to studio recordings to be “ear candy,” but they are almost always left out of the live arrangement by the natural “instrument” that would be adding those elements (the vocalist). That is a perfect scenario for the mandolin player on the troll for available, musically interesting parts to add to a song.
A great example of these kinds of parts can be heard on the final chorus and outro of Chris Tomlin’s song “Greater.” The background vocals do some off-melody accent parts that bring back familiar themes from earlier in the song. If those elements aren’t being added by your vocalists (they probably aren’t) claim them as your own.
Vocal Delay Effects
This category requires an even more carefully-listening ear than the previous one. Most of the time effects are enhancements to a track, not particularly part of the arrangement—but some exceptions are out there and can be leveraged for mandolin purposes. My favorite effect to listen for is a prominent vocal delay. Sometimes artists use such a prominent delay on their vocal that the effect itself actually acts as an arrangement element. Heavy vocal delay, however, is another one of those things that you are virtually guaranteed to never see your worship leader use on Sunday morning. So again, you have a pleasing musical element in the arrangement that is free for the taking on your mandolin.
For a perfect example of this check out the bridge on the song “This Is Amazing Grace.” That heavy vocal delay you hear on the lines “Lamb who was slain” and “conquered the grave” are inspiration for some nice mandolin accents.
My approach to worship mandolin is all about finding elements in heavily-produced studio recordings that are unused on the worship stage. You’ve got a lot more options to pick from if you don’t just limit yourself to stealing parts from instruments!