Church Guitar 101
by Bernard McDonagh
1. The Guitar and the Church
Hello brothers and sisters out there in church guitar land; although it’s probably only brothers I’m ‘talking’ to isn’t it? There aren’t really any female guitar players in the Church are there? Why is that? Is the keyboard a more female instrument, or the guitar a more male instrument? Hmmm, interesting… Anyway, hello and thanks for tuning in to this article; the first of three. I’d like to start with a look at the relationship between the guitar and the Church. Needless to say I don’t know everything about any subject, but I have learned a few things in my time here on this planet, and I’d like to share some of my own perspectives on music with you.
The guitar is such a great instrument. It is probably the most versatile and widely-used of all musical instruments. Because of its size you can take it just about anywhere! It is a melodic and harmonic instrument, meaning it’s able to play not only melodies, but chords as well. It is highly expressive, and is capable of a huge variety of tonal colours. It is fascinating in that it can be played in many different ways; more on this in part two.
The guitar is capable of completely shaping and determining the character of a song, and many a song is made complete with a classic guitar riff, or a signature guitar sound. The guitar has revolutionized popular music more than probably any other instrument, and it’s at the heart of so much modern music that it’s an obvious choice for many people; young and old. One of the great charms of the guitar is that virtually anyone can get started and learn to play some simple things quite easily. It’s even comparatively cheap to buy, and so is a good choice financially to a certain degree.
However, the reasons that the guitar is so common - it’s accessibility, and unique place in popular music - have in my view led to an overly simplistic view of the instrument. In fact, it is not an easy instrument to play properly at all. It’s actually a monster, and should only be approached with caution by trained persons! I am joking, but there is more than a grain of truth in my jest. The guitar is an inherently frustrating and very difficult instrument to master. Like all other musical instruments, it has its own particular limitations and weaknesses as well. However, if you’re a guitar player there’s probably nothing you like more, musically speaking, than some great guitar work, or a beautiful tone coaxed from a great guitar.
To some ordinary folks (non-guitar that is), ‘guitar’ would probably mean ‘lead’ guitar solos. They would probably also think that a ‘rhythm guitar’ player is someone who can’t play ‘lead’ as well as the other guy in the band! (You know the rest of this story: the third-best guitar player becomes the bass player! And the drummer? Well… don’t even talk about it!) However rhythm guitar playing is an absolute art; and a science! I love having a melodic voice to bring to the music, but one of the most appealing things about the guitar to me as a player, is being able to add texture and colour to the music, in an almost orchestral sort of way.
The guitar is fantastic in this role as an instrumental colour (make that ‘colours’!), and as a textural element in music, and there are some fascinating sound-scapes and textures possible for the creative player. One of the exciting things for me is that I’m talking about completely natural guitar sounds too; not phony digital ones. Oops, there goes potentially-offensive comment number one! Perhaps we had better talk about those things another day… but, if the guitar is so wonderful…
Then Why Do Keyboreds Rule In Church?
Let’s assume for a minute that you agree with the above heading. Keyboards do “rule” in your church don’t they? Despite absolutely dominating Rock and Popular music (pre-Rap, Hip Hop, and Electronic dance music anyway), the guitar is really a kind of fringe-dweller in church isn’t it? Is it only me who senses this? Sure, the guitar is ever-present in church, but don’t you get the feeling that it’s on a sort of 1000-year probation period?! Truth is the guitar seems to have a difficult relationship with the Church. I believe it’s because of the Church’s fear or distrust of anything new or contemporary. The guitar has been the main instrumental voice in the Popular and Rock music revolutions of recent history, and is therefore highly suspicious. As a result of this, in my opinion guitar players have an unspoken but very real bias against them from the outset; at least when it comes to life as a modern-day minister/worshipper. I’m not crazy – it’s true! Go and ask the sound-man! :)
Another reason for the lower esteem given to the guitar in church is that the standards haven’t been too convincing. There hasn’t been, and still aren’t generally speaking, a great number of informed and trained guitar-oriented music ministers out there has there? There are writers, musos, and worship leaders who play or use the guitar, but not many who really play well. By this I mean well enough to play for a large meeting with just the guitar and nothing else; or perhaps guitar, bass and drums only.
As a result of these things, when the Pastor/Minister conducts an ‘altar call’, who is he/she gonna call? The keyboard players of course! When the Worship Director needs to discuss an arrangement or whatever, who is he/she gonna call? Again, it’s usually the keyboard player. If I could put it in a nutshell, keyboards tend to rule in church because, a) the guitar, and the guitar players, tend to be stereotyped as less knowledgeable, less able, and thereofre less suitable, and b) until now the guitar players themselves haven’t done much to dispel that theory. Let’s open up this nutshell, and look at this in more detail:
The Exploding Nutshell:
1. Image Problems - Real and Imaginary Shortcomings
As has been said, across the Church generally there are problems with the guitar; particularly its image. If you know anything about the Church’s historic love for Rock music, you’ll know what I mean! The guitar has a bad, or at least inferior, image to the keyboard. Most would associate the piano (and hence the keyboard too by default) with musicianship, training, and competence, but would probably associate the guitar with: a) rebellion/counter-culture, b) young people, who are often big in noise and enthusiasm but small in musical skill, and c) well-meaning brothers who are big on heart-to-serve, but are also short on musical skill, and let’s be frank: it’s not pleasant to hear, especially in a sensitive ministry situation...
Personally, my view is that skill and expertise are necessary and should be a prerequisite for music ministers. Musicians in the worship ministry MUST be able to play! Sure, everyone’s got to start somewhere, and we must judge this prayerfully. Often there haven’t been skilled people available either, so thank God for those who stood, or maybe still stand, in the gap when needed. Yet I’m not suggesting the opposite either, that simply anyone with talent and ability qualifies automatically. The appointed leaders of the worship ministry must make decisions about who is or isn’t ready to worship and serve with their music, and if there is the right heart attitude. The Levites were called and chosen by God to minister to Him and to serve and minister to His people. They were not self-appointed. They could however, choose to wake up and get to their appointed work if they had missed their calling (Deuteronomy 18 v 6-7).
2. The Music Is Missing - Have You Seen It?
Let’s be honest, one of the biggest reasons that keyboards rule in church is because most of the guitar players haven’t been able to play well enough; plain and simple. The beautiful language of music is poorly spoken by many whose job it is to excel! Rock-type ‘lead guitar’ noises? – yes, we definitely have some of that. Out-of-tune strummers? Yep, seen plenty of those! How about an understanding of rhythm, and the ability to lay down tasty layers of seriously deep rhythm? What about harmonic sense? Know any guitar players with more than stock ‘barre’ or ‘power’ chords? Well, we do seem to have some current-model ‘inversion-equipped’ guitar slingers in churches nowadays…, but actually no, not really. Have you heard any harmonic and rhythmic sophistication? Heard any creative guitar playing in church? Probably not, but praise the Lord if you have!
3. Sdijumun Tio Djungonimus? Sidanto Wahne Teria
Another reason for keyboard dominance in leadership roles within church music and ministry is that for some reason most guitar players can’t read music; it’s strange, but true. Any written music would look to them like the above heading does to you. I believe this has probably got a lot to do with the guitar’s easy accessibility, and the self-taught approach that this has tended to generate. Think about it: most guitar players are self-taught! Amazing! This has changed a lot over the past 20 years or so, but the keyboard players have always had lessons, learned to read music, studied music theory, and gone on to be pretty competent at all of it. So when someone is needed to read from a score, or play/teach a new song, etc. it will usually be you-know-who: the keyboard player.
The exception of course is the ‘Classical’ guitar students. They read music, but like their piano-playing cousins usually cannot improvise. Yet the ability to improvise is critical in playing the popular-style music used for most church praise and worship. There are no worship songbooks written for classical guitar as the main instrumental voice are there? But even if there were Classical guitar scores for Christian worship music, it would still not be the right kind of music for congregational worship would it? So the Classical guitar people have a tough time fitting into the context of church worship music and ministry.
Can you worship with Classical guitar? Yes! True Classical guitar music is wonderful. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t really have very many applications in the praise-and-worship music ministry as we know it, due to the fact that: a) it’s a guitar, not a keyboard, and b) it’s rooted in a ‘play-from-the-page’ tradition. Yet with some much-needed creativity, it could have more applications than it does now. This could be further helped by the ‘Classical’ people learning some improvisation skills. The self-taught guitar people would benefit from the reverse of this, by learning to read and write music. Get some lessons; get some help!
While the subject now is musical literacy, I must add something here with regard to improvisation. It may seem like an over-generalization, but perhaps it is fair to say that most (?) classically-‘trained’ guitar (and keyboard) players have had little development in the area of their intuitive or creative skills. Many are unable to express themselves or improvise on their instrument at all! It doesn’t mean they are without creativity, just that they’ve had little teaching or encouragement in this area. I believe this is a serious problem, and a major handicap for any musician - every bit as serious as not being able to read music.
Personally, I believe improvisation skills are vital for the modern Christian musician, because worship is by nature something from the heart, not something from a printed page. Worship is not primarily a scripted exercise or practised response, although it can be. For example, we should want to give God the very best we can in areas like composition, arranging, performance, etc. Anyone who hears Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ would surely be moved by its immense beauty, it’s amazing depth and detail, it’s deeply spiritual and worshipful character, and it’s sheer magnitude. It is an immeasurably great masterpiece from the Church’s glorious past. In this sense, to give God the best we can is worship in itself. Essentially though, when we are talking about worship, we mean something spontaneous; something from the heart, happening ‘in-the-moment’. It’s not fundamentally something we rehearse or memorize; especially today, when we have the type of services and worship that we do.
Logically then, it follows that improvisation in music has, or should have, an important place in our modern worship. This concept is still largely unknown or untaught in the Church at present, although many churches do have times of ‘free worship’, possibly without even realizing the full musical and spiritual meaning of what they are doing, or its significance. This ‘free worship’ is a reasonably good start, but I know there’s more to discover! It would also be fitting if we kept this ‘free worship’ we’ve begun to explore ‘free’, don’t you think? I believe that if we try too hard to structure it, it will lose its inherent beauty, appeal, and awesome potential.
4. Valid Alternatives
Let’s be fair and realistic about things though. It’s not just the guitar players’ fault that keyboards rule in church. Probably the main reason is that the piano has a huge range which the guitar cannot match. When you hear a solo piano player, you know you’re gonna get the melody, chords, and bass as well. Yes, I know the guitar is capable of this too; and we don’t have a sustain pedal either! The fact is though, the piano can do it on a massively bigger scale (pardon the pun). It’s capable of great harmonic complexity, and it has a range of notes that leaves the guitar in the shade. The guitar also has its own charms that the piano can’t compete with, but the piano is very hard to match!
The piano has also been around for a very long time, whereas the guitar as we know it hasn’t been round for quite as long; especially the electric guitar, which has that image problem as well. The acoustic piano is one of my favourite instruments. It has beautiful tones, rich harmonics, is dynamically powerful, and really just totally delightful. Electronic keyboards? For me, no thanks… It annoys me that a sad-and-sorry instrument like the electronic keyboard (obviously this is only my opinion) receives the same esteem given to the piano - something it just does NOT deserve! (For more on this subject, please check out my recent article: ‘Confessions Of A Music Fundamentalist’.)
5. The Acoustic Guitar - Stuck In A Rut
So if the guitar doesn’t have the power and range of the piano, or even the keyboard, what’s it got going for it? The beauty of the steel-string acoustic guitar is found in its intricacy and intimacy and of course it’s lovely, sweet tones. Sadly, all of these factors are almost completely lost in a large venue, such as the ones most church’s use for their auditoriums or ‘sanctuaries’! This is especially so in the noisy, mostly-electric bands that dominate today’s church music scene. The result is that the acoustic guitar is usually assigned (or relegated, depending on your perspective) a background, strumming role. There’s no problem with that from a musical arrangement point of view. In any band or orchestra each instrument has an assigned role or part. Trouble is, the acoustic guitar seems to be stuck in this role in church. The acoustic guitar is a beautiful thing, but right now it is suffocating; struggling to breathe on an overly-noisy bandstand.
The prevailing trend of worship music sees the domination of one-dimensional ‘Rock’ bands. I wonder what they would have said about this back in the 60’s and 70’s!? On this subject there’s much to say, but I dream about worship services where acoustic guitar and double bass play along with violin and percussion, or a couple of acoustic guitars are joined by just some sweet vocal harmonies. We could have organ, drums, and electric guitar; or the same with added horns - tenor sax, trumpet, or trombone. Then we could have acoustic piano, double bass, and drums - the classic Jazz piano trio! We could have the Rock bands too, which are valid of course, but who says we have to have Rock all the time though? How boring! The Church seems to have progressed from complete Rock-phobia to complete Rock-overload! Then again, we could just have a keyboard player doing ‘drums’, ‘bass’, chords, and melody too couldn’t we? Wow, that would be great wouldn’t it? Yeah, right! Sadly, some keyboard players would actually think it is! To me that would have to be about as abominable as it gets...
6. The Electric Guitar - Pigeonholed
The electric guitar is by nature obviously more powerful than the acoustic, and is extremely versatile. Its beauty is found in its almost infinite sonic possibilities, with intricate shades of tone, and an almost inexhaustible palette of technical and stylistic possibilities. It’s capable of crying, singing, shouting, and just about anything in between.
However, one ‘problem’ for electric guitar players, as I see it, is that they have also been cast in a limited role; one that is difficult for it to break out of. Because Rock music is the current language of church music, the Rock aspect of electric guitar is all we see. The cycle perpetuates as the nature of the songs chosen or written demand a conventional power chord, or a generic distortion sound, etc. Of course, ‘electric guitar’ has so much more than this to offer, yet that is mostly what we hear. One way of looking at this, is to conclude that we are making sterile, cookie-cutter music! There’s nothing wrong with any of it per se, but there’s so much more possible! We don’t seem interested just yet.
Both the guitar players and the non-guitar-playing band-leaders and Music Directors could think a little more about the possibilities in the music, arrangement-wise. The difficulty there, is that a given song will have been previously interpreted in a certain way, or been first heard done in a particular way; from a CD for example. It’s then forever cast in that mould. This doesn’t have to be the case! Are we not creative people? Guitar skill and technique are critical, so please go for it! Yet creativity and musical vision are just as important. I think they are even more important when you get to the stage where you can actually play well. Ultimately then, I think it’s the creativity and the good taste of the individual guitarist that will serve the music best.
On the subject of electric instruments in general, it is my opinion that any electric instrument, by nature, does not always sound good as a single, solo voice. A solo acoustic guitar or piano is fine; great! One electric guitar or piano would not be as fine for me though, and a solo electronic keyboard would be a digital nightmare! Even so, if a solo electric guitar was to be an option, it would take an exceptional player to carry an entire service with just one electric guitar and nothing else; or even with bass and drums for that matter, though some great trios come to mind…
Same ol’ same ol’
I may upset some people by saying this, but I think the Church (meaning all of us) would be so much better off without the dependency on the keyboard we see now. The guitar phobia needs to be addressed, but there are other instruments out there too, which at the moment don’t seem to fit in with the standard church scene. Although the guitar doesn’t ‘rule’ in church, it has had a great deal of exposure and prominence nonetheless. But what about the mandolin, dobro, fiddle, accordion, and harmonica? How about vibes, and other pitched percussion in church? I for one think it would be great.
I’m not proposing ‘Classical’ orchestras or arrangements when I say this, merely greater varieties of instrumentation. Why not ‘Classical’? Well, here goes, a few more offended… As I explained earlier, or hopefully did, for me spontaneity and improvisation are vitally important elements of ‘worship’, bearing in mind the meaning or aspect of worship I’m referring to. These things cannot happen in a large ensemble, especially a classically trained one which by nature does not function that way at all anyway. Small ensembles on the other hand can improvise effectively, and it’s possible to achieve an almost telepathic understanding between musicians. With God’s miraculous power at work it would even be possible with the singers too. (Yes, that was a vocalist joke!)
This is not the same as saying written scores and arrangements don’t belong. I’m certainly not saying that! The written-out, clearly-defined form of music is the standard, the norm. I’m simply saying more music created in the worship moment would be wonderful. I wouldn’t want to read out someone else’s written prayer when I talk to the Lord; nor would I find joy in playing a song exactly the same way every time in worship either.
Well, fellow guitar players, that’s it for part one. See you next time for some more guitar talk. God willing, we will discuss some ideas for moving forward from the status quo I have outlined here. May your praise and worship be always fresh, from the heart, and sweet to the Lord!
© 2010 Bernard McDonagh
[Download this article]