The City Billies
I recently joined a band called the City Billies (wait for it... the name will grow on you). They needed a mandolin player, and a mutual friend had passed my name along because I'd played the instrument on a few recording projects.
The City Billies play a somewhat unexpected blend of bluegrass and reggae. It might be difficult to imagine, but the two styles actually work pretty well together in a set of live music. The audience never blinks when we go from playing a one-drop reggae beat to a two-step bluegrass tune. Both styles influence many jam bands, though I wouldn't call the City Billies a jam band.
When we play reggae, the mandolin typically accents the "skank," or offbeat. From a technical perspective, that's not too hard. But when we play bluegrass, the mandolin has a much larger role, and is more technically demanding. So playing this gig has made me learn more about the instrument and improve my chops.
The mandolin is related to the guitar as a fretted string instrument that's played with a pick, but the similarities stop there. Mandolin is tuned differently, so every scale and chord has to be relearned. But once I understood how the instrument works, how the notes are laid out, I've been able to pick up on it fairly quickly.
The challenging part, for me at least, is learning how to play the proper bluegrass style. Bluegrass' musical vocabulary is quite different than jazz or funk, the two styles I know best. For example, bluegrass solos use scales, arpeggios, and approach chord tones with enclosures, very much like a jazz solo. But unlike jazz, bluegrass uses very little chromaticism, with the exception of a few notes borrowed from the blues. Bluegrass and funk both use a constant, subdivided rhythmic pattern and various articulations to keep things interesting (single notes, chords, and muting). But bluegrass is not syncopated like funk. The rhythms are straight and at most, beats are anticipated.
That all sounds very technical, but it's really just music. I'm aware of these concepts only when I stop and think about them. Typically I'm just trying to play what I hear Bill Monroe or Ricky Skaggs do on their recordings.
Keep an eye on my calendar, or join the mailing list, to find out when I'll be playing with the City Billies. The band is a lot of fun, and you can come see how my mandolin chops are progressing!