On the weeks that I’m scheduled to play mandolin on my church’s worship team, I spend a surprising amount of preparation time listening to every instrument except the mandolin.
Can I explain such a nonsensical statement, you ask? Why, yes. I can! With the rise in popularity of folk rock and related genres, the mandolin gets featured in modern music more often than it has for as long as I can remember. But let’s not kid ourselves. “More often” still typically means that only one song in ten (if you’re lucky) has an official mandolin part that you can copy to play on Sunday mornings. I have to pick apart each song’s arrangement, looking to thieve parts from other instruments. Such is the mandolin player’s lot in life.
Nearly every good song arrangement is going to have a lead element, a rhythm element, and a pad element. While careful listening is required for all three, the first two tend to be easier for us to hear and copy with the mando. Lead elements are obvious: riffs, fills, solos—we call them lead parts because they feature prominently in the mix. Rhythm elements are likewise intuitive to find because most mandolin players start off by learning to play rhythm from the beginning. Pads, however, are less easily teased out of an arrangement by a mandolin player.
Uh…What’s A Pad?
What precisely is a pad? At its core, a pad is a note or combination of notes that sustain through some large or small section of the song. A pad’s function is typically to fill in gaps in the frequency spectrum while adding some musical interest and texture. Sustaining that sound across chord changes or whole sections of the song is a defining feature of a pad. Most stringed instruments don’t have the ability to be pad-like unless they are played with a bow—which we don’t do on a mandolin. We play a mandolin with a pick, much like a guitar.
Your long-lasting sustain will only be limited to how long your hand muscles can keep it going, which makes mandolin tremolo a great pad substitute!
A mandolin was designed, however, with one unique feature that makes it more versatile than a guitar: it has pairs of identical strings. A guitar’s single string for each note limits the picking patterns you can play on a given string—specifically the rapid down-up technique. When you down-pick a guitar’s single string it rings out nicely, but if you immediately up-pick that same string the first “ring out” is interrupted by the second one from the up-stroke. You can try to repeat that down-up pattern faster, but no matter how fast you go it still just sounds like rapid-fire, short individual notes—like a melodic machine gun set to full-auto. A mandolin’s pair of strings means that the down-stoke and the up-stroke each hit different strings so that you don’t get that cancellation effect. We call the result tremolo, and with it the mandolin player can achieve infinite sustain (eat your hearts out, guitar players).
As you practice your tremolo technique you will be able to adjust it to match the bpm of any song in your set. You will learn how to tremolo across two pairs of strings at once, filling out your chord. Your long-lasting sustain will only be limited to how long your hand muscles can keep it going, which makes mandolin tremolo a great pad substitute!
Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
You’ve mastered your tremolo technique. What precisely are you listening for in a song to thieve for its use? This brings us full circle to my habit of listening to every other type of instrument out there. When I want to find a place in the arrangement to use my tremolo as a pad, I listen for all those instruments that feature long sustains tones.
Obviously, keyboard or synth sounds that are actually called “pads” on the synth’s digital readout are going to fit that bill. Those are typically “atmospheric” types of tones that fill in a lot of sonic space. Any kind of orchestral string can also be a pad. That could be individual, bowed elements (like a cello or violin), but it can also be a synth’s “string section” pad that tries to imitate many bowed instruments playing all at once. In rock songs, an organ sound often fills the pad role.
You can, and should, listen for these types of instruments in your practice tracks and use your tremolo technique to mimic what they are doing. Be ready to play in both high and low octaves based on each song’s need. Not every pad you hear will be available for you in the arrangement when you practice with the full band, but many will be. Train your ear to hear pad parts, and you will almost always have options for your arrangements that add interest and variety to your set!