Is it OK for a female worship leader to ask for a lower key if that messes with the lead guitarist’s sound?


We had an interesting question raised in our Facebook Group recently that we wanted to share more widely (we know that not everyone uses Facebook)

I am currently a Worship Leader in training. I also play keys and will be leading from the keyboard. Our church has mainly been acoustic lead by males and only recently have been open to the concept of leading from keys. It has also taken a long time for our lead guys to grasp the concept that women do not sing well in male keys. I will be leading in different keys. i.e. They may sing a song in the key of G, and I would lead it in D or E. I am encountering some opposition. One electric guitar player suggests not changing the key because the guitar riff etc. doesn’t sound the same. But I can’t lead in those keys. Sorry for the long explanation. If you play guitar, can you help me understand this and perhaps give me any suggestions for dealing with this matter. I mean, should we really be trying to sound like an original sound track? 

Now the topic of congregationally friendly keys comes up ALL the time (and this link has a great graphic to help you select one that should work for your church). There were plenty of diverse responses to Kimberley’s question which you can read here (you need to join the Facebook Group first) and it is easy to simply assume that the guitarist in question was being awkward but what we wanted to share our own Andy Chamberlain’s response as a lead guitarist as this question is not quite as simple to answer as you might think.

Andy’s response:

The thing about changing a key is there’s always a level of compromise somewhere and you have to be aware of which musician’s or singers it will impact most and make your decision from there.

Of course the main focus is making it singable for the congregation, but that ideal probably won’t be the ideal key for the lead singer’s own voice. So for instance when you mention taking a song from G into D or E to suit your voice and female voices, depending on the song’s range you may find the men dropping out or sounding very low.

Conversely, some here have said the lead guitarist should just play the song in the key required of them, but again depending on the song and the skill of the guitarist that’s not always a realistic expectation.

This mostly comes into play when we’re dealing with songs with prominent guitar riffs or lead lines. These kind of lines are often built around the interplay of sounds you get when moving between fretted and open strings in specific guitar friendly keys (A, C, E, D, G). Using a capo can get round this but ONLY if you’re taking the song up higher and by not very much. If you’re taking the key down, even in a guitar friendly key the combination of fretted and open strings available radically changes so may well change the sound or feel of that guitar part.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t change the key but do be aware of how much stress that puts on your musicians and how it could change the overall feel and energy of the song you’re singing. The same will apply to any instrument without a transpose button so the compromise can be around how integral that instrument part is to the sound of the song.

Personally, I don’t think you have to sound like the original version, but those original arrangements do work for a reason and any key change will add an element of compromise somewhere. So your job is to balance which compromise is the most important and most achievable for congregation and team in the moment, which can be a moving target from session to session.

Great question! Thanks –

Want to learn more?

For guitarists Andy covers this subject extensively in the Intermediate Electric course (available on DVD, as a download and also in our subscription site).

Its basically about understanding where the nice fretted/open string sounds typically occur in the guitar friendly keys of C A G E and D. Then learning the electric guitar voiced chord shapes and understanding where to put the capo, so in theory you could play any song in 5 different portions.

After that its about aligning the rhythms so it gives the same feel as the original. Some key changes are more tricky than others to get similar sounding voicings and it does take some good practice but it is possible. That’s exactly how Andy approaches it when we record the Worship Backing Band tracks, so depending on whether you like the tracks or not, you’ll either agree that it works – or not!

What about the Worship Backing Band backing tracks?

We often don’t follow the original key and often adjust the song structure when we create our backing tracks. Here’s why.