How is a mando player to “fit in” to the arrangement when a mandolin was never a consideration by the original artists?

Mandolin players are often asked to play on Sunday mornings when the set list contains precisely zero songs that were recorded with mandolin parts. How is a mando player to “fit in” to the arrangement when a mandolin was never a consideration by the original artists? I call the approach that I use “Arrangement Thievery,” and outlined the concept in the Nov/Dec 2016 and Jan/Feb 2017 issues of [WM], but sometimes there is no substitute for hands-on examples.

To briefly recap, there are four primary techniques/roles that a mandolin can utilize, and each corresponds to equivalent roles that other instruments fill in the arrangement. Very often there are so many instruments and elements in a given song’s studio recording that a mandolin player can “steal” some of those parts to play them on the mandolin. Those techniques, and the most common instruments that they steal from are, Tremolo (pads/strings), Lead (electric guitars/keys), Rhythm (drums, guitars), and Cross-Picking (piano, guitars).

For this month’s issue, we are going to step through the exercise of identifying the different elements of a song that we can “steal” from other instruments to play on the mandolin. This is identical to my typical Sunday worship preparation process, but I’ve formalized it all into a grid in order keep track of the different parts. The song is “What A Beautiful name,” which has been at or near the top of the CCLI Top 100 charts lately.

I highly recommend turning up your speakers or putting in your IEMs to listen to the song as we pick apart the arrangements.

To start with I’m noticing that the Worship Leader at my church has uploaded both a live version of this song and a more stripped-down acoustic version. This is super helpful for Thievery because I can potentially use parts from either arrangement for our Sunday morning worship. In the grid, I’ve indicated which parts you can hear that come from the acoustic version.

Let’s start with the verses. As with many songs, the instrumentation tends to layer in from one verse to the next. Listening carefully, I can hear a bowed-string instrument–probably a cello or something similar. That’s an easy option to match note-for-note (in a higher octave, of course). For a different feel, there is an acoustic guitar ringing out single, down-strums on the chord changes, and you can mimic that as well. In the acoustic version of the song the guitar is playing some very lovely hammers and melodic movements through the verse. Odds are good that even if you are playing a similar arrangement on Sunday, the guitar player isn’t going to be adding all of those hammers, so that’s a great source of inspiration for verse parts.

On a “quieter” chorus the same acoustic hammers are an ear-pleasing option. For a mid-dynamic chorus try mimicking the electric guitar picking pattern. And, of course, for both mid and high-dynamic choruses you are safe with a rhythm strum, but be sure to keep it tight. Don’t be that guy who plays sloppy, imprecise rhythms; find the snare drum (it will be on 2 and 4 on these choruses) and hit those beats with precision.

The bridge of this song has a number of fun options. First, you can hear the piano riff that plays on the prelude to the bridge and then continues on through the bridge. If you don’t have a piano covering that part, definitely play it on the mando. You can play it as either single notes or as a moving tremolo. If the bridge is staying dynamically low, stick with that part or copy the strings from the acoustic version. If you need to switch to a high-dynamic option I like playing sharp, single hits on the beat (1-2-3-4). This doesn’t exactly match the drum patterns, but nicely complements the vocal meter. You can either change with the chords or find some appropriate drone notes common to the chords. To get the idea of what I’m hearing for that part, think of it as the same kind of accent a cow bell would add at the biggest part of the bridge, only…you know…it has pitch and doesn’t sound dumb.

So, this grid becomes my palette of options. Which specific options I choose for Sunday morning will depend on what the other instruments on the schedule are playing and what the Worship Leader’s vision is for our interpretation of the song. Sometimes I don’t know for sure which of these parts will be available to my mandolin until I arrive at mid-week worship practice, but at least my palette is prepared.

Listen carefully. Play passionately. Happy Thieving!

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From a family of bluegrass musicians, Has played mando in worship bands for 20+ years. Also plays acoustic & electric guitar, cajon, and just enough banjo to make people cringe.

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