Today I logged in to Planning Center Online to see what songs are scheduled for this Sunday’s set list. It is a day or two before our mid-week practice, but since most of my mandolin parts are “borrowed” from other instruments (see my earlier articles on Arrangement Thievery) I like to get an early start listening to the songs to decide what elements I might need to focus on the most. Much to my surprise, I immediately spotted a phenomenon that is as rare as a solar eclipse: every song in the set list was in the same key!
That almost never happens, and I was relieved to see that if every song was going to be in the same key, at least it wasn’t a terrible one. Let’s face facts: 50% of the time a song’s key is based on vocal needs—and that is really as it should be. Another 10% of the time the key is critical to the fingering needs of specific guitar parts. The rest of the time a Worship Team just plays a song in the key it was written in—mostly because it never occurs to anyone to change it. (For all of those wondering, yes, I’m absolutely just pulling those percentages out of thin air based on my own anecdotal experiences.)
Nobody ever picks a key because it is good for the mandolin player.
Now, the key might not matter to a real mandolin virtuoso, but for the rest of us mere mortals it can make a big difference. There are some techniques that a mandolin player can use to add great textures to modern music, but those techniques are somewhat key-dependent. If you play mando, you’ll sympathize. If you’re a worship leader, keep these keys in mind if you are putting a mandolin player in your Sunday lineup. Here they are in three groups—good, indifferent, and “groan.”
Best keys for worship mandolin
This is easy. ‘A’ and ‘E’. A small part of this comes from my bluegrass childhood. Many of the standard fiddle tunes from my youth were in the key of A. I can only remember how to play a fraction of those songs, but the A scale woven into them remains in my muscle memory.
More practically, though, A and E are the best keys because the A and E notes are also the mandolin’s highest open strings. This is useful when you want to impress your friends with your epic barrage of cross-picking but still want to play lead/fill lines in the cross-picking pattern. Since the A and E notes end up naturally in those respective scales you can add that string to your cross-picking pattern without having to account for fingering frets on them.
With the same thinking you can also add the open A or E string to a tremolo technique that crosses two pairs of strings. It adds a harmonic, drone-type note to your tremolo without requiring complicated fingering. I guess what it comes down to is that I like A and E for the mandolin because in those keys my right hand does not need to know what my left hand is doing.
Indifferent keys for worship mandolin
The usual suspects for worship stuff. G, D, C, Em, Am. These seem to be the keys that we all learn the chords for when we first learn to play any instrument. We end up knowing these chords and scales fairly well. I put these keys in the indifferent category because they aren’t difficult keys to play in, but they also don’t give as many inherent advantages as the golden children A and E.
The worst keys for worship mandolin
B, F, and anything in a sharp or flat. So bad. These keys have very few open note options for mandolin. They also tend to have the most complex chord fingerings. When playing in one of these keys many mandolin players are concentrating so hard on their chord fingers that they don’t have much mental bandwidth left to drop in the melodic runs that come like second nature in the other keys. While these keys are impossible to avoid (especially if your worship leader plays piano—what is up with piano players wanting to play everything in Bb?), life is better if they are few and far between.
Authors Note: Sadly, my “Same Key Sunday” set list was not to last. By the time I made it to Sunday morning one of the songs was swapped out for a nonconformist. It turns out that “Same Key Sunday” is like an eclipse in more than one way: it makes you more excited than it should, it only lasts for a couple of minutes, and you’re lucky to see it more than once in your lifetime.