The mandolin has become more and more prevalent in contemporary Christian music, but worship leaders and mandolin players often struggle to fit the mandolin into their arrangements in a full worship band. Can mandolin coexist on a modern stage with electric guitar, drums, and synths? How can you fit a mandolin into the arrangement of a song whose original recording doesn’t include one?
Swiss Army Knife
The mandolin is the most diminutive-yet-versatile instrument you can bring to the worship team. Its natural high frequencies easily help it stand out from other instruments in the mix, and the pairs of identical strings allow a mandolin player to leverage some techniques that just aren’t available to most other instruments. Let’s quickly review the most common mando picking techniques and then use them to peel back the layers of your arrangements.
Rhythm: Whether using full, open strumming, or the more muted ‘chunk’ technique, the mandolin can do anything its full-size rhythm-instrument cousins can.
Tremolo: The tremolo technique is the classic mandolin sound. Since each ‘string’ comes in a pair, the rapid, alternating up-and-down picking lets the mandolin player indefinitely sustain a note or movement for as long as he likes.
Lead: The frequency and energy of a mandolin makes it an excellent instrument for lead solos, fills, and ‘color’ in a song.
Cross Picking: The same idea as cross-picking techniques for a guitar, but the mandolin does it with an extra measure of brightness and energy.
Armed with these techniques a mandolin player can disguise themselves as any ‘role’ in any arrangement. Listen to your favorite new worship song and pick out what role the other instruments are filling. Then simply use one of the mandolin techniques above to fill that same role instead. Here are some examples:
…a keyboard. Is the keyboard or organ playing a pad over a particular section of the song? The mandolin can use single or multiple-string tremelo to substitute for that pad in the arrangement.
…percussion. If the rhythm needs emphasis, the mandolin can find the snare or kick drum and help drive the beat home. Alternatively, I like to use the ‘chunk’ rhythm technique and treat the mandolin like a “shaker with pitch control.”
…a lead instrument. Listen to all of those solos and fills that the electric guitar is playing. Guitar players don’t have to have all of the fun. Play those exact same parts on your mandolin and impress your friends with your long-lasting, pedal-free sustain.
…a piano. The piano often plays parts that provide a counter-rhythm to the primary rhythm instruments (acoustic guitars, snare drums). Use your mandolin cross-picking technique to fill that role with a flurry of notes based on repeating chord patterns up and down the neck.
Communication is Key
The mandolin can ring out, be muted and percussive, sustain forever, or serve as a lead instrument. It can therefore ‘replace’ the role of almost any instrument in the worship band.
So listen to the studio track of your favorite song. There will likely be multiple elements in it that you can replace with the equivalent mandolin technique. The important thing is to communicate and coordinate with the musicians playing those other instruments. Negotiate some trading-off of fills, pads, solos, or counter-rhythms so that the song doesn’t have two instruments stepping over the top of one another.
In my experience, with a little smooth-talking and good-will even the most cantankerous lead guitar player can be convinced to share some of his spotlight with a mandolin.