The standard line-up in a worship band usually comprises worship leader/acoustic guitarist, lead guitarist, drums, bass, keyboards and a couple of backing singers. It’s rare for a band to have a lone acoustic guitarist.
As a result nobody is really quite sure what to do with an acoustic guitarist who isn’t the worship leader so, usually, they are left own devices and nobody’s really thinking about the parts they play. Therefore the demands on acoustic guitarists are not too great. If they stick to the chord chart and play in time everyone’s happy: they are usually on auto-pilot anyway.
That’s pretty counter-productive. The reality is most worship songs are written on acoustic guitars so there is a fair amount of responsibility that goes with this role. The acoustic guitarist should help to shape the songs the worship leader has chosen to sing. The acoustic guitarist – and a particularly accomplished one – can help to take the worship to another level and that’ll yield vibrant, spirit-filled services.
So, if you are one of those ‘anonymous’ acoustic guitarists here’s a few pointers to help you play a key role in the worship band.
1 Do… be finger pickin’ good
The plectrum is a useful tool but if you use it all the time you are selling yourself short. Of course, most services start with a bang – a ploy to wake people up – and as such the plectrum is a must-use. However, you do need variety and having the confidence to put down the plectrum and finger-pick shows you are a versatile musician and that you have a sensitivity to the music.
When you do put the pick down it is absolutely essential that you use your volume pedal to bring yourself up to the required level: there is a tendency for acoustic guitarists to disappear when they start finger-picking.
Don’t always assume that the slower songs require finger-picking – this is a one-size-fits-all mentality. The song may just require a different strumming pattern.
2 Don’t… become an extra lead guitarist You may be a very accomplished player and possess the technique and musical qualities that put you (at least) on par with the lead guitarist. You might feel then that you might like to take on a few lead lines every now and then because a) you can and b) it alleviates the monotony of what you are playing.
It is true that a lot of worship songs – although inspiring and melodic – are not much of a hoot to play. You are a musician after all and constantly playing C, D and G in varying tempos isn’t exactly an excitement-fest is it?
This is where you have to suck it up, stick to your task and appreciate that what you are part of is something beautiful even if at the time it doesn’t seem like it. It could be worse: you could be the bass player…
3 Do… stay in tune
Sounds simple and basic but there are guitarists who find it difficult not to sound like a deflating balloon. If you are one of these constant offenders buy a decent tuner pedal that’ll allow you to tune in silence and ‘on the hoof’.
If tuning is a problem for you it may be that you are not actually listening to the sounds you are making. You could be making an unholy racket when all you need to do is take a few seconds out to tune a couple of strings. If your guitar regularly goes out of tune get it looked at and put a humidifier in the case to help iron out annoying variations.
4 Do… change your strings
Sounds obvious but an acoustic guitar with year-old strings on it sounds like somebody sandblasting the church building. Old strings are the curse of the acoustic guitar and if you leave them on for anything more than three months, you’ll have a dull sounding instrument that’ll fail to inspire you week in, week out.
5 Don’t… be the King of the Swingers
To swing, or not to swing, that is the question. Well, it’s not really it’s just we’ve just made a gratuitous Shakespearian reference and we’ve been dying to do this ever since we started this series.
If you are a habitual swinger people will start to think you are preparing for a future career as a holiday camp pit musician. Swing rhythms usually start to become a problem when somebody has just discovered the joys of… um, swing. The swing rhythm is really only useful on very specific songs and if it is used inappropriately it sounds pathetically twee. So, our advice is: keep it straight unless you are certain the song is written in this style.
6 Don’t…. abuse the capo
The capo is an extremely useful tool that can enable you to move from one song to another seamlessly. You have to think of it as an instrument in its own right and that it is there to help but it can also lead to abuse whereby you’ll play in, say, a G-shape key… all the ruddy time. Don’t get stuck in this rut because everything will end up sounding the same and before you know it the worship will start to have that horrible, homogenous feel about it.
Stretch out a bit by learning a few replacement chords and be prepared to play in unfamiliar keys. The capo is your friend but don’t let it become too familiar.
7 Do… buy a silent jack
There’s silence – a purposeful, beautiful silence – punctuated by the thud of the guitarist unplugging his or her instrument. Then, to add insult to injury, repeats this horror by plugging the lead into another guitar. This musical broadside will cut right across everything and a guitarist who does this on a regular basis should be battered over the head with an Amplified Bible. Over time the serial ‘jack-out jack-in’ offender has learned to assume that sheepish look that says ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. It’s the technology’s fault’. There is something that you can do to stop this: you can buy a silent jack – a very useful piece of technology that’ll stop you freaking the congregation out every week.
8 Don’t… become an unholy strummer
There is a fine art to strumming that many guitarists have ignored, or failed, to master. Simply sticking to your favourite pattern and applying it to every song won’t win you many friends and your appearances in the worship band will start to diminish. The classic ‘down down up up down’ pattern is fine… for a while, but don’t keep drawing from this musical well because we’ll all get bored.
There are a couple of basic rules/considerations that’ll make your strumming much more reliable and musical and they are as follows:
Keep your hand moving when you are strumming even when you are not striking the strings. Stopping is the devil’s work.
Once you have chosen the strumming pattern, then stick to it. This will ensure you stay consistent and in time. Remember that it’s the spaces inbetween that help to punctuate the notes that you are playing.
Seek out new strumming patterns. If you are stuck for ideas check out our Intermediate Acoustic Worship Guitar Course where there are 35 different strumming patterns for you to follow.
9 Do… work with the rhythm section
As we have said, most worship songs begin their life as guitar-based compositions and in that respect your interpretation of them is hugely important. The guitar part is usually the template for a worship song so have an open mind and not just stick with the first thing that comes into your head. If it doesn’t sound quite right, have a chat with the worship leader and the lead guitarist and see if you can take the bare bones of the song to another level. What’s written down is not necessarily gospel. Listen to what the drummer and bass player are doing and don’t be frightened to throw in a few ideas for them – they’ll appreciate it. You must remember that you are playing a rhythmic instrument as well as a tonal one.
10 Do… play to a metronome
Acoustic guitar players who focus heavily on chord shapes can be guilty of regular timing meltdowns. There’s a number of criminals in this arena: the quick-quick-slow player who unsettles the groove, the gradually-getting-faster player who never sticks to the required tempo and the straightforward out-of-time player, who is well… out of time. Then there’s the funereal player who plays the Happy Song like a Requiem.
If you even suspect that you are any of the above go to the music store and buy yourself a metronome. Start practising songs at a medium pace – say 84bpm – and then move to quicker and slower speeds. Playing at slow speeds is difficult because the gaps between the notes are extended and it requires a greater degree of accuracy. If you can play in time at 68bhp, you’ve probably got it licked.