This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Fall 2013 issue
A reader dropped me a line to ask if I could help make a guitar arrangement work for him on the mandolin. The arrangement requested was Tony McManus’s setting of “Ye Banks and Braes,” a Scottish song whose lyrics (and perhaps melody) are credited to Robert Burns, dating it to the late 18th century. Now, this is one gorgeous tune. And Tony McManus is about as fine a Celtic guitarist as currently graces our planet. That being said, taking such a setting and retooling it for mandolin turns out to be quite an undertaking and raises a number of points I will enjoy sharing with this space.
The first compromises I needed to face dealt with Tony playing finger-style while I and most of my mando colleagues play with a pick. Thus, arpeggiated chords offer different options from guitar to mando due to the pitch of the strings adjacent to the melody line and the available left-hand fingers. In this setting I encourage you to gently arpeggiate each chord, whether it be two, three, or four notes. This should help you keep the tempo easy and the rhythm a bit free.
Many traditional tune lovers wonder just what is an appropriate chord choice when arranging a trad tune. Well, friends, that’s been a fuzzy question for some time and the answer evolves with time and popular tastes. I like chords that advance the tune without unduly calling attention to themselves. I like the listener to enjoy the way the tune unwinds rather than being pulled out of the tune by an overly-clever moment. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge in the occasional surprise. Just ask yourself if it serves the tune. Whether it serves the tune in a traditional way is up to you to decide.
Just as popular song form hasn’t changed much since Robert Burns’s time, for the simple reason that the basic form works so well, chord theory hasn’t really changed since the time of Bach.
The basics of western music theory show us that there are stable chords that are happy to stay where they are, and unstable chords, that itch to take the listener somewhere else, up or down, but always forward in search of another stable moment. You don’t have to know too much about music theory to be able to hear when a chord is happy where it is or trying to go somewhere else. So a good starting place in choosing a chord from available options is simply to ask yourself if this place in the melody where you’re considering chording under a melody note is a continuing thought, or a breath or comma in a long phrase, or the satisfied end to a phrase before the next phrase begins.
So look for the breathing spots or cadence points in the tune. These are your most likely places where a chord can be useful and pleasing. Stop at each and assess your options, testing for emotional content and physical availability.
The chords and implied chords in this setting are influenced by Tony’s choices in his YouTube video, but are more stripped down. (Tony plays the tune in F, capoed on the third fret, but I’ve moved it back down to D.) It’s also important to note that when you are exploring your chordal options around any note in the melody, there will be at least three solid choices, with the melody note either the first, third, or fifth in the triad you try. You may end up using different chord combinations each time through the tune, as well as inserting chords in different places. Tony certainly does, and makes it sound as natural as breathing. Now, if this sounds daunting or confusing, don’t worry about it. Read through the chords as I picked them for this setting and see how the chords grow (I hope) organically from the melody they are designed to embellish.
Most of the chords are built of simple triads (1-3-5) starting on different scale steps of the key, which in this case is D major. Chords based on the first, fourth, and fifth scale steps in D will sound major, which those based on the second, third, or sixth step will sound minor. The seventh scale step is problematic, but so rarely used that I’ll leave it out for this setting.
The first four bars of the B part offer a descending chromatic line that moves counter to the melody while creating an implied chord progression of D, Dmaj7, D7, and G6. It moves the melody forward at a point where, in Burns’s day, the figure would simply have repeated itself. No bad thing, but thanks to Tony for this lovely modern touch.
There is no single “right” way to present a tune like “Ye Banks and Braes.” So don’t worry about it. Chords that logically connect and that serve to move the melody forward are all good, and each might have its place in an arrangement, depending on what you are trying to say. And again, every double-stop or chord here should be gently arpeggiated and lingered over. This air is written in 3/4 sort-of waltz time, but this setting is meant to be dreamy and free of any strict tempo. So take your sweet time and let every note ring perhaps a little longer than you usually do. Burns is always worth lingering over.