The Magical, Versatile Mandolin

I like a variety of instrumentation in my music.  In addition to the usual guitar, bass, and drums, I’m quite fond of a variety of keyboards, enjoy orchestral arrangements added where appropriate, and on occasion, woodwinds and brass.  One of my favorite “unconventional” instruments is the mandolin.

However, the impetus for this piece is not itself the fact that I like the mandolin.  Rather, somewhere back in time I remember someone (I can’t remember exactly who) telling me the mandolin wasn’t a versatile instrument.  I balked at this assertion then, and I still do now.  Having a forum as I do here at Progarchy, I’m now going to debunk that assertion, using different pieces to demonstrate the versatility of this wonderful instrument.  While each of these songs feature the mandolin to one degree or another, by the time you have progressed from the beginning to the end of the list, you will have encountered several different musical styles that are markedly different from one another.  Despite that, I will have barely scratched the surface of the mandolin’s versatility.

So, let’s get to the list.

 Ian Anderson, Water Carrier

This song appears on Ian Anderson’s solo album ‘The Secret Language of Birds’.  As many know, Anderson’s main band, Jethro Tull, features the mandolin prominently on a number of songs (‘Fat Man’ is one of my favorites in that category).  This song features an uptempo mandolin front and center from start to finish.  Underneath though are some very prominent Middle Eastern motifs – not exactly the kind of music you initially think of when you think of the mandolin.  And yet, here it is, integrated perfectly.

 Led Zeppelin, The Battle of Evermore

This is one of two songs on Led Zeppelin IV featuring the mandolin (‘Going to California’ is the other).  Like our previous entry, this song has a somewhat mystical feel to it.  However, instead of the Middle Eastern influences, this piece is more folk-inspired.  Throw in Sandy Denny’s vocals, some Tolkein-esque lyrics, and you’ve got yourself a great song.

 Heart, Sylvan Song/Dream of the Archer

There are a number of songs by Heart that I like, but these two (or this one, depending on how you look at it) are by far my favorite.  This is basically one song divided into two parts each having its own title.  The first part is instrumental, the second part includes Ann Wilson’s incredible vocals.  This song remains somewhat within the realm of folk music as the previous entry, but has more of a “renaissance” feel to it, right down to the sounds of the forest at the beginning before the mandolin quietly makes its entry.  It’s quite different from our first two pieces on the list, and yet it’s probably not a stretch to say that it was influenced by ‘The Battle of Evermore’ … as witnessed by Heart’s performance of the same here.

 Drive-By Truckers, Bulldozers and Dirt

Now we make a big, big shift.  Geographically, we’re moving from the Pacific Northwest where Heart originated down to Northern Alabama, from where the Truckers originally hailed.  Genre-wise, some people call this band southern rock, others call it alt-country, and still others call it Americana.  Whatever you call it, it’s a great song.  Steel guitar appearing later in the song gives it a bit of a country feel, but the mandolin remains the dominant instrument.  The strong ties to its geographic region are evident throughout, as is the bright, upbeat tone.  From their album entitled ‘Pizza Deliverance’ (one of my favorite album titles of all time), this mandolin-driven song about what amounts to an overgrown kid that likes to play in the dirt is a gem.

 Black Oak Arkansas, Digging For Gold

Now we move from Alabama to Arkansas, and there isn’t much debate about whether or not Black Oak Arkansas or their music falls under the umbrella of Southern Rock.  The song begins with a chirping bird, an acoustic guitar, and a barking dog before Jim Dandy’s raspy voice makes an entry.  The mandolin enters at about the 0:51 mark and is persistent through the remainder of the song.  As a bit of unrelated trivia, lead vocalist Jim Dandy, he of the long, blonde locks and flamboyant presence was alleged to be the inspiration for the stage persona of David Lee Roth.  Watch any live video of these guys from the 70’s, and you’ll believe it.

 Led Zeppelin, Boogie with Stu

Now we’re taking another significant shift in musical style – from Southern rock to the blues.  Here Led Zeppelin brings us one of two blues songs from Physical Graffiti that utilize the mandolin, the other being Black Country Woman.  The mandolin is more persistent in the latter than in the song posted here (it doesn’t enter the picture until the 2:38 mark).  That’s beside the point though – in both cases, the mandolin – an instrument invented in Italy of all places – is being featured in blues songs, and fitting in as seamlessly as a harmonica.

 Arjen Anthony Luccassen, When I’m A Hundred Sixty Four

We started this list with one of the giants of the classical period of progressive rock, now we’ll end it with one of the giants of prog’s current renaissance.  Luccassen here gives us a nice little romp that includes the mandolin and acoustic guitar with some strong Celtic influences adding extra flavor.  This is a great song, possibly my favorite off of this album, ‘Lost in the New Real’, which is chock full of great songs.   And speaking of great songs, Luccassen pays homage to another song on this list by doing an excellent remake of ‘The Battle of Evermore’, which you can listen to here if you are so inclined.

So let’s recap the list a little bit here.  We started with music that had some strong Middle Eastern influences, moved to a couple of different folk songs, then took a journey down South with some Americana/Alt-Country/Southern rock, moved onto some blues, and finally to some full-blown progressive rock.  Quite a variety, and as I said predicted above, I’ve barely scratched the surface of different musical styles into which the mandolin can be easily integrated.  So does anyone still want to tell me that the mandolin is not a versatile instrument?  I didn’t think so … 🙂

Thoughts?

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