I once had an interesting conversation with a fellow mandolin player. This gentleman was a better mandolin player than me in many ways. Certainly, his list of accomplishments was longer than mine, and his grasp of music theory was superb—whereas my familiarity with theory is more analogous to street-smarts than book-smarts. This musician had a strong bluegrass/acoustic ensemble background, and that came out starkly in our chat. I was mentioning some challenges related to playing mandolin in a modern, worship band—things like audio levels, arrangements, and fitting in to a group with keyboards, electric guitars, and drums. His reply has always stuck with me. “If a worship team has those instruments,” he said, “then they probably don’t want a mandolin on stage to begin with.”
I was floored. I had, after all, been playing my mando on worship teams of different styles for nearly two decades. I don’t blame him, necessarily. It isn’t easy breaking into the “electric” world—especially if your experience is wholly acoustic. It isn’t just mandolin players who get stumped trying to make it work. Many worship leaders struggle with the same dilemma of knowing how to incorporate those pesky mandolin players who keep begging to be part of the team.
Here are some other gems I’ve heard along the way.
“Mandolin isn’t a good fit for modern worship.”
There are a few good answers to this objection, but the the one that sums it up the best is, “Dude, it isn’t the 1980s anymore.” When people accuse the mandolin of being too old-fashion an instrument for a modern sound, it isn’t difficult to take them through the list of bands that leverage mandolin tones to varying amounts. This spans through decades of great music up to today: Jars of Clay, Goo Goo Dolls, R.E.M. (yeah, yeah, the 90’s were my jam), Rend Collective, Crowder, All Sons and Daughters, the list goes on and on…
Sure, maybe there wasn’t room for mandolins during the era of big hair and spandex, but if your worship “sound” is still patterned after a Journey concert, then you probably have bigger problems than how to fit a mandolin into your set.
“It is hard to be heard over the ‘noise’ of a rock band.”
There is a kernel of truth to this one. Drums are inherently loud. Electric guitars and keyboards have the full force of the PA behind them. On a loud stage, you are going to be disappointed if you throw an SM-57 on a mic stand hoping to get decent mandolin sound out of it. Happily, this is a problem with multiple solutions.
First and foremost, a band with good stage protocols (ear monitors, proper sound checks, etc) will all-but-eliminate this problem before you even know you have it.
Second, I’ve found that building a good relationship with sound techs is invaluable. If you find out what they need and what factors they are juggling, you’ll generally find you get what you need too.
Finally, there are piles of gear a mandolin player can use to help with this problem. If you are curious about what gear is important and what is not you can find a few back issues of [WM] where we explored that a bit.
“Our practice tracks don’t often have a studio-recorded part for a mandolin in the arrangement.”
This is also true. If it weren’t then I wouldn’t have anything to talk about at my worship mandolin workshops. Even though mandolins are coming out of the shadows more often, you can’t expect the worship leader to pick out an entire Sunday song set with tracks that have a mandolin in the studio version of the song.
This is where my Arrangement Thievery process comes in. What is Arrangement Thievery you ask? Well, I go into that in more depth in some previous issues of [WM], but the basic idea is to leverage all those over-produced studio recordings. Worship teams rarely have enough musicians to be able include all the layers of guitar and keyboard parts in the studio cuts. I have a systematic way of teasing those unplaced parts out and “thieving” them for my mandolin.
It is true that a mandolin isn’t included in the standard template of worship team instruments, but that isn’t an excuse to not use one. It is simply an opportunity for creative problem-solving!