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The Fifth Course

Thoughts on Mandolin as Vocal Accompaniment

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I've been using the mandolin (Gary Vessel F5) as a vocal accompaniment on a few songs for a couple of years. "Wish You Were Here" is one of the easier songs to transfer from guitar to mandolin, and it was the first song I tried.

But developing material for this endeavor is not as easy as playing the same chord progression on mandolin as guitar and learning the runs/leads. Choosing the right songs and choosing approaches to those songs is very important.

The F5 mandolin has distinct tonal characteristics. Sharp attack, brief sustain, high register, etc. These make it good at quick rhythmic figures and bright, sweet open chords. So you can play upbeat tunes and slow sweet ones. But if the song requires sustained chords the mandolin is sunk.

Then there's the issue of audience expectation. An audience will welcome the mandolin as primary accompaniment if you're good. They are likely to expect that the reason you have chosen mandolin is you are a better mandolinist than guitarist. So you’ll need to show a little speed and the ability to improvise alone. (Thankfully, this is easier alone because you set the tempo and can change it on a whim or when your brain freezes.)

For inspiration I’ve been listening to a couple of live cuts that Chris Thile did a few years ago. One is “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” the other is “Masters of War.”

On “Masters of War” Thile uses a repeated run between phrases to accompany an otherwise a cappella vocal. It’s a great run and it sets up his solo improv flight well. On “Dead Leaves” Thile actually backs up his vocal and still uses runs between phrases as well as lots of ringing strings.

In both cases, the mandolin is not so much accompaniment as descant or co-lead. Thile keeps the mandolin in front. I think this a very thoughtful and appropriate approach. Thile uses the mandolin with its strengths in mind.

A couple of things I am steering away from are overuse of the key of G major and traditional music. In the first case, too much G will make everything sound the same. In the second case, audiences get bored pretty quick with simple music that does not lyrically speak to their lives.

Here's a current list of tunes can I do on mando with voice:

Andersonville –D. Alvin (Em)
Annabelle – G. Welch (F#m)
Bury Me Beneath the Willow – AP Carter(A)
Friend of the Devil –Hunter/Garcia(G)
I'm the Slime -F. Zappa(Dm)
I Shall Be Released - B. Dylan(A)
Little Wing – J.Hendrix (Em)
Long Black Veil – D. Dill (G)
Old Calapina -orig. (C or D)
Ophelia -JR Robertson (C/A)
Over the Hills and Faraway -trad. (G)
Powderfinger –N. Young (G)
Rolling with the Circus -orig. (A or G)
Say Goodbye orig. (G)
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness –J. Prine (C)
Two Soldiers –trad. (G)
Under African Skies –P. Simon (D)
Wounded Bird –G. Nash (D)
Wish You Were Here –R. Waters (G)
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere –B. Dylan(D)

Some of these tunes I can do in the Thile mode. “I Am the Slime” is one, “Little Wing” is another. I am working on being able to play the Ray Piri guitar lick in “Under African Skies” while I sing. It’s not easy, but I think it’s necessary. The song is too repetitive otherwise.

Other tunes are, as yet, filler. They’re 3 chord bangers you could play easily on almost any instrument that can create chords. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” are examples of 3 chord bangers. Though “Speed of…” has potential if I can figure out how to change the approach without losing the gist of the song.

It’s at least an interesting way to approach music and performing with a mandolin. I hope it’s successful too.

I'll post MP3s when I have recorded them.

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  1. JeffD's Avatar
    In the second case, audiences get bored pretty quick with simple music that does not lyrically speak to their lives.
    I am not sure I know what you mean here, I might not agree with it.

    I ran a coffee house for many years, doing everything from booking the acts, to sweeping up.

    One of our most popular performers sang nothing but sea shanties. We got pretty good attendance most of the time, but this one performer would fill to the point I worried about occupancy laws. Few if any in the audience, had a boat.

    I don't think folks go out to hear live music to be told of their own lives, about paying bills and deciding which health insurance plan is best. I think they go to hear live music to hear great music, played well, that provides escape from their actual lives. Simple, evocative music, tied to interesting stories and universal themes.

    Respectfully submitted.
  2. Daniel Nestlerode's Avatar
    Thanks Jeff! Maybe I'm just watching different audiences than you are/were. At least here in Modesto, CA people are looking for something more pop-oriented: big hooks, personal confessions, etc. But it's nice to know I'm wrong about this somewhere!