String Band Arranging by Joe Walsh

String Band Arranging Basics

Arranging for string band is woefully underrated. Most string band arrangements are plain vanilla. Everybody plays at the same time from beginning to end. The purpose of flavorful arranging is, as Joe Walsh says, “to stave off boredom.”Joe K Walsh, mandolinist and string band arranger

He was one of the music wizards i got to work with at the Mike Block String Camp. I’m a little embarrassed to confess I did not get what he was teaching until the fourth day of meetings. That was just after I attended his special presentation on String Arranging Listening Session.

He began the session by asking these questions. How does the music performed get variety? How does the new part arise from what comes before?

His answer to this was a set of about ten factors an arranger could use to create variation in the music. The five elements in the following list were actually implemented in our performance of Giardian Angel—Houston Toad at the concert. He definitely walked his talk.

Five Critical Elements of String Band Arranging

1. New chords You play the same melody you played before in the performance, but this time the chords are different. I first really noticed this on Liz carroll’s albums. It appears that Irish guitar back up allows freedom to try different chords or even chord progressions during the rendition of a given fiddle tune.

It’s very creative and will inspire evolution in the melody if you let it. But you don’t have to. You can have the melody remain the same and let the chords take the spotlight for a moment.

2. Melodic variation When an improviser “plays over the chord changes” you get melodic variation, of course. You can also plan the melodic variation and incorporate it as part of the arrangement. The alternate melody may be used only once, or it may reappear.

3. Dynamic change This means going from loud to soft or soft to loud. Here are several ways this can be done. Start soft, get loud. Start loud, get soft, ending with a quiet note. Start loud get soft, then get loud again, ending with a strong sound. Also you can get suddenly soft or suddenly loud as a surprise. All good stuff.

4. Player groupings With a five or six piece band you have many possibilities for player groupings. Group two or three players for a section. That’s a big contrast from all the band playing at the same time. Even one player can be a group. Or four players, and when the last player joins there is a feeling of completion. More flavors than plain vanilla.

5. Chop off parts We did this in our performance of the medley. We chopped off the last bar of Houston Toad and launched the coda. A similar but opposite idea is extending a part, or vamping. This is common in bluegrass, perhaps even expected.

All these ideas were implemented in Joe Walsh’s band moment with us on stage. It was fairly ambitious to pull this together in just a few rehearsals.

More Hits on Arranging for String Band

Here are some other variation ideas.

  • Bass line change
  • Inner harmonic complexity added
  • Change from arco to pizzicato bass, or vice versa
  • Canon or antiphony
  • Implied bass line to actual bass entrance

And finally, a short list from Joe Walsh  of string band arrangers to model and emulate:

David Grisman

Edgar Meyer

Bela Fleck

(And may I be so bold as to add)

Joe Walsh

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