The mandolin, as well as members of the mandolin family and many instruments that use the same tuning, offers a wide range of musical options. When compared to other instruments, the mandolin tends to focus its output more tightly or, perhaps better said, less broadly than some familiar and popular instruments such as piano or guitar. Is this a weakness in the mandolin’s part? Not really. When used effectively, this offers significant rewards for the mandolinist, for the band and for the listener.
Successful performers of any type, especially innovative pioneers who explore new ground, must embrace the fundamental nature of the tools of their craft and learn to use them effectively before expanding to uncharted territory. Budding mandolinists have a host of stellar players to show them examples of this instrument’s capabilities. These days, the envelope is always being pushed. Following the example of these masters, a newbie can peep through the curtains to see a universe of possibilities. In the case of the mandolin, there is much ground yet to explore.
All that said, please take a moment to turn your attention back to the fundamental nature of the instrument and its music and think in terms of its basic nature.
Although steeped in tradition, there are some styles where the mandolin is thought of as an accessory or even a newcomer. But musicians and their audiences find this new-kid-on-the-block fits in very well. The question is “How?” Part of what makes the mandolin an accessory is that it cannot provide the base foundation which an ensemble needs, namely a bass line and full harmony. Its tonal characteristics tend to make it’s contribution one of color, flavor, spice. So rather than being the meat and potatoes, it tends rather to be the herbs that give the recipe that added distinction.
Although the mandolin may not offer the wall of sound to fill any hall, it packs the punch that cuts through a full, rich sounding mix. It’s small body and high pitch provide the physics that makes this possible.
Of course the mandolin offers all three basic elements of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. But it tends to lean more towards the elements of melody and rhythm than of harmony. Being more of an accessory to the harmonic element gives the player freedom to decide what to accentuate. This is a true luxury for the mandolinist. Compared to the rich sonority of the dreadnaught guitar, the mandolin offers rhythmic and melodic drive that effectively grabs the listener’s attention while the guitar fills in all gaps and bathes the listener in rich, dense harmonies.
While the mandolin adds much to the ensemble, in groups where it isn’t considered a staple it asks of the ensemble’s consideration. In order to accommodate the mandolin, the piano may have to shift it’s focus to a slightly different tessiatura, the guitar may not have as much calling to play up the neck, and so forth. The mandolin player should be aware of this and out of respect for others, hold back a tad until all have a chance to adjust. This is what transforms a skeptic’s perception of an intruder into that of an honored guest and hopefully one who is welcomed to return.
If the size of the band is limited due to size of the stage or size of the budget, does this mean the mandolin is likely the first to go? Possibly, but the mandolin can wear many hats. A good enough player can manage as a solo instrument in many settings. In small ensembles, the mandolin can serve as melody, accompaniment or rhythm. For instance, imagine a band made up of fiddle, mandolin and bass. The fiddle would likely carry the melody most of the time with mandolin offering support or taking lead sporadically. The bass might choose to play more in its baritone range than it would if playing with a guitar, while mandolin plays harmony and punches out rhythmic patterns that could keep the whole hall hopping. Many bands successfully pull this off. (visit the Hay Brigade on MySpace.)
You also can find many instances of mandolin fitting in to various ensembles, duets and trios, solos. Excellent examples can be found by searching for players such as David Grisman, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile, Don Stiernberg, just to name a few.