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 roles that a mandolin can function as, 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 to keep track of the different parts. The song is “Great Are You Lord,” which as of this writing sits in the top 5 on the CCLI charts.
In my preparations, I’m using both the album version of the song, which is in my church’s Planning Center system, and the Official Live Concert version. Not only is this a great worship song, but it makes my mandolin happy that it is in the key of A!
Here’s how this works: during my preparation time, I make a grid (sometimes mentally, and sometimes an actual one you can hold in your hand) that contains all the potential places that I can fit into the arrangement. Then, when worship practice comes, I listen for which of those potential parts are not being played by their “natural” instruments so that I can cover them.
Verses – The verses (as well as the intro/turnarounds) are full of string parts, which makes this an easy selection. Mostly these aren’t pads. They are actual instruments (cello, viola, etc.) with specific notes and riffs that you can duplicate. Those instruments typically won’t be in your live arrangement and are a perfect fit for your mandolin. You’ll hear the acoustic guitar play some arpeggio style parts in the verses, and those sound great on a mandolin. For something a little different, you can copy the vocal harmony and accent lines on the verses. This especially adds a nice touch if you don’t have a lot of vocalists for your set.
I would also draw your attention to the second verse on the studio version of the song. The guitar plays down strums with a gentle tremolo effect pedal. If you are feeling adventurous you could dial a similar effect up on your mandolin pedalboard and recreate that same element of interest to the arrangement.
Chorus/Bridge – The choruses and bridge hold similar options for a mandolin. Listen carefully for string parts you can steal during the softer sections and consider playing multi-note pad tremolo as the dynamics grow—there are some especially high notes that the organ plays during the live version that work admirably as a mandolin tremolo.
Playing a rhythm part is also a no-brainer as the dynamics grow, but if/when you play them, be sure to play them purposefully and precisely. Find that snare drum and make sure your accent is always tracking along with it.
So, we’ve listened through the song over and over with these different parts in mind, and now the parts are my palette of options. Which specific options I choose for Sunday morning will depend on what the other instruments 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 open for my mandolin until I arrive at mid-week worship practice, but at least my palette is prepared. True, this kind of preparation requires that you understand the arrangement from the perspective of every instrument in the band—not just your own. But that level of understanding on your part can only help your team create the best music possible on Sunday. Listen carefully. Play passionately. Happy Thieving!