Church Guitar 101
by Bernard McDonagh
2. Working at Making a Difference
Hello again fellow guitar players. In the first ‘101’ article, “The guitar and The Church”, I attempted to examine how I saw the relationship between the modern-day Church and the instrument we call the guitar. From my perspective I would say it’s been a relationship with many ups and downs; the ‘ups’ (if that’s what they are) only coming quite recently. Despite the guitar being almost ever-present in Church these days, I get the feeling that it’s really only grudgingly accepted; and with very big strings attached (pardon the pun).
In this second article I would like to further discuss some of those things from part one, and then offer some suggestions regarding a way forward. Hopefully these ‘guitar Solos’ will provide food for thought and a creative impetus for fellow guitarists. Whatever your views, I hope this article will promote healthy debate about our worship culture as I ask you and seek to challenge you by way of these words about your own convictions on worship, music, guitar playing, music-ministry, and Christian living.
You may have noticed that although it was guitar focused the first article was not a ‘How To Play guitar’ lesson. This article is also about guitar issues, but it’s also about the how, why, and what-for of making music. It’s about our character; about demonstrating and living out our inner Christian values in the context of our being musicians, and in our music itself. It may seem incredible, but I think this is an overlooked area for musicians! I expect we have all heard a lot about holiness, and about commitment, integrity, and so on. Yet I wonder if we have paid enough attention to how our music itself, our music-making, and our efforts as musicians in the Church shape up in the light of those things.
I venture to say that when any of us think about issues within music we would usually think right away of other people, other places, and other times. Somehow, we don’t often question our own motives and efforts, and we do not like to associate our own music with any notions of right and wrong, good and bad, or tasteful or tasteless. To some, music is just a job. For others it’s a vocation; a ministry and a spiritual service. For some it’s only a hobby, or even (God forbid) a ‘ministry’-hobby!! It may be our calling and passion, or just something we ended up doing, but I believe it’s time we all examined our hearts.
Somewhere in a persons' music will be that persons beliefs, their motives, and their whole philosophy of living. This may sound a little ‘out there’, but it’s really not; our spirituality really is revealed in what we do. For example, if one’s philosophy is that music is just a business, believe me it will show. If we are dedicated and passionate about music, this will show too. If deep down we think the standard of our music doesn’t really matter because “it’s just worship music” so “it’s only the heart that matters”, likewise this will show too - in the awful music we would probably make. We will have already failed if we live by such a (false) standard, because our heart will not be in the music we are making. If it is only the heart that matters, then surely our heart ought to be in what we are doing!! Worship is not just singing words is it? No, it is everything we do, musical and non-musical!
Keeping It Real
It was noted last time that the guitar has some competition in Church life and in the affections of Christians. For me the piano deserves its place of high esteem, but if you’ve read my “Confessions of a Music Fundamentalist” article you’ll know I think electronic keyboards are awful things. They are legitimate instruments of course, and they have their merits. In the right hands they can sound great. However, they can also be abominable! There’s almost nothing worse for me, musically speaking, than hearing keyboards and synthesizers imitating other actual instruments. To a certain extent honesty is being ripped from the heart of music, and its place is being taken by sequencing, rhythm tracks, and other falsehoods. Thanks to our technology-loving, keyboard-playing friends, programmers often take the place of musicians, and soul-less imitations of real instruments are now everywhere in music.
Now I’m sure someone will have a good comeback on this one. That’s ok; this is onlymy opinion after all. I will be expecting some good replies from keyboard players! As for my point though, think about it: technology imitating real instruments!? NO actual instruments or musicians involved in playing what you are listening to? (Save for the synth and its player.) It beats me why anyone finds this attractive. What’s real about this ‘music’, and what’s honest anymore?
On top of this, when it’s all said and done, I think it sounds really awful anyway! Call me old and in-the-way, but I can’t figure out how people can actually listen to and enjoy the sound of synthesizers! Naturally, brilliant musical minds can do amazing things with keyboards. It’s definitely possible to enjoy that creativity, but I usually find this has to do more with the notes and the music as such, not the sounds. There have been times when a creative musician has moved me with wonderful originalsounds on a synthesizer, but never with the awful sounds of imitation brass or woodwinds, imitation drums and percussion, imitation guitar, etc. that we’re usually bombarded with. Even with digital sampling giving really life-like sounds, there is still no actual life. The phrasing and the true character are just not there, and the keyboard – despite all the breath-controllers and pitch-wheels – just cannot provide the soul of the player or that of the instrument itself. The bottom line is: IT’S NOT REAL!
In smaller churches the keyboard is often used to cover up a perceived ‘problem’ of not having brass, or strings, or whatever. Please read on, because I hope to show that this is a fallacy and that we can and should appreciate what we have! It’s not wrong to aspire to big things, but to think we must have a large band, lots of instruments, a choir, etc. reflects a very narrow perspective of what is good musically. Worse still, is that the whole basis for this view could just be someone wanting what someone else has got! The keyboard fills the gap for these people, appearing to give the bigger sounds they think are necessary or attractive. As a result the instrument is forced into a corny imitating role instead of a possible contribution of originality and worth.
At its best, the electronic keyboard is a valuable instrument adding something unique and vital to our music and worship. At the other end of the scale it’s an absolute horror. For me this misuse (as I see it) basically boils down to poor taste (highly subjective), or perhaps an uninformed following of the patterns set down by others. Yet despite this history of being used in such corny ways most of the time, the synthesizer itself remains an amazing invention and an amazing instrument. It’s capable of incredible sounds; unique and completely original, unheard-of-before sounds! Shame then, that it is so often used just to imitate something it can never be.
Guitar Solo: Not Imitating the Imitators!
1) Ninety-nine percent of the time a synthesizer is controlled by a keyboard, but sometimes by another instrument – like a guitar. Here’s a strange thing: some guitar players delight in doing what the keyboard players do. They have a guitar synthesizer, and delight in making their guitar sound like a piano, or flute, or some other known instrument! This is the same corny thing the keyboard hacks are doing! Why in the world would a guitar player want their guitar to sound like a flute, or a piano?! A strange thing is that all synthesizers seem to be programmed with preset sounds that facilitate this backsliding! However, just as keyboards can be used creatively and tastefully, the guitar synthesizer can also be great when used thoughtfully and creatively. I hope that guitar players will avoid the pointless and tasteless exercise of imitating other instruments! It’s already been done, and the results are awful.
2) Closely related to the above point, is that the guitar is a beautiful instrument with its own unique sounds. It’s always something to be admired when a guitarist gets a great sound without relying on technology. There’s nothing wrong with technology at all, but being dependant on it for even your basic sound and tone is sad! It’s a shame because the guitar sounds great without those layers of chorusing, delay, and whatever else we bury the actual guitar sound with. I use those sounds and effects sometimes too, but in my opinion too much of it is like when a pretty girl wears way too much makeup. Why do they do it? :) Or it’s like processed food. Pure, natural, and fresh produce is best! Pure, unaffected guitar tone is just what the doctor is ordering too! (More on this in part 3...)
Music Department Structures: Thinking Set In Stone
On the subject of instruments in the Church and church services in particular, it was said in part one that I think it’s a shame the prevailing trend is one of Rock band domination. I don’t see much Church music being loud, up in tempo, and full of driving intensity anyway - i.e. ‘Rock’. So yes, it’s the instrumentation I’m referring to as much as the style of music. So many instruments are excluded because they are not part of the standard Rock band setup. But where does this standard come from, and why must it be the standard?
The Rock-band line-up of guitars, keyboards, electric bass, and drums is all-prevailing, and this is why so few other instruments are found in church. You can’t Rock with a trombone or a violin, can you?! Of course, there are trumpets, saxophones, and violins, etc. to be found in church, but they’re usually only found in a horn or string ‘section’ in the bigger churches. We usually won’t find solo violins, saxophones, or trumpets, etc. though we might occasionally. We’ll probably see a blue moon before we ever see a mandolin or dobro in church though (parts of the USA notwithstanding), and when you see a harmonica in a church worship service you’ll know the end is surely nigh!
What about all those other instruments? There are very few musicians coming along who play those other instruments; most probably because there’s just no place for them at the moment if they did come along. Do we have the desire and the skill to graft them in if they did appear among us? Even aside from people being left out, other musical possibilities aren’t getting a look-in either as this ‘Rock-band’ saturation continues. Think about this: most churches have the same instruments and same Rock-band format, and play mainly straight 4/4 Rock rhythms. Most big churches have a choir, and nearly all churches have 3 or 4 singers out front! They are all playing a lot of the same songs, and they’re all playing them the same way! This looks and sounds a lot like musical fast food to me…
Who says Rock-band has to be the template for worship? Of course no-one says it has to be, but it certainly is at the moment. (It could be worse I suppose, Hip-Hop worship anyone!? :) Rock became the popular musical language of the times quite a long time ago, (we still think it’s new though, don’t we!), and Rock-band is the format for most church music because the band structures have followed on from that music’s cultural dominance. Rock is still going strong, but it’s not as all-prevailing anymore. Don’t be too surprised if other musical forms, or hybrid forms, eventually assume greater prominence in church music; just as things changed from the Church music of the 50’s and 60’s into the Rock band thing we have now. If we look closely, perhaps the lines may be blurring already.
Guitar Solo: Beyond Predictability
If we are Music Directors, Pastors, or others in leadership, then what we can do is surely obvious: we can set about creating a place and opportunity for people in the congregation who may be without place or opportunity at the moment to worship on their particular instruments. I think it would be cool to have a trombone playing with a church Rock band; so too a tuba, fiddle, vibes, or accordion! It will mean having to create fresh arrangements, and steering away from what we know to less familiar things. Creative musical alternatives will be needed; no doubt about it. The tuba player may need some help too!
Apart from varying the instrumentation, creative use of existing instruments would be great too. We always try to include new songs - sure, we know about that, but what about fresh arrangements as well? Are we bringing new songs, yet bringing them with the same old rhythm, the same old keyboard sounds, and the same old everything? How about having melody and/or harmony parts for the bass?! What about a short-term ban on straight-Rock feels, or asking the drummer to use the drum kit as percussion only?! What about a few slots in the monthly timetables without any Rock-Bands rostered? How about all-acoustic Sundays? Keyboard-free days? guitar-free, or drum-free Sundays?
I also think there’s a strong case for older people to be more involved in Church music. Rock bands have been around long enough for great-grandparents to be playing in the services, but they simply aren’t doing it. I’d like to see more of our older musicians involved, even within the existing Rock-band framework. No offence is intended to young musicians and singers. They’re welcome too, and need to stay involved. I’m saying more age-balance would be a positive thing. The trouble is we oldies have got a lot of other responsibilities. We are rightly busy with our families and other commitments, but sometimes we’re probably scared off by the average age of the musos! Whatever our reasons for not being involved, we should be serving the Lord and His body the Church if we have musical gifts. Of course this article is ‘Church guitar 101’; evangelistic callings aren’t being addressed here, and there’s a world of possibilities there for musicians too…
Whatever age we are, if we are not in leadership roles we can still make suggestions to those who are, and help with the awareness of issues. Perhaps the best thing we can do as individuals and as guitarists is to be dedicated and work hard on our music. We should seek out creative ideas and fresh ways to do things. We can strive to play creatively, and write original songs. It’s also important to stay away from clichés and pitfalls like the imitating of others. As a guitar player myself I definitely seek to play something fresh and original every time I play. It’s challenging, but I’m committed to being as creative as possible. Last weeks’ worship time, arrangements, and solo were just that: last week. Stale offerings should have no place brethren! Whatever the ensemble size or its makeup, I believe we need to approach each occasion of worship with an attitude something like: “what fresh, genuine music and worship am I going to offer to God today?”
Small Is Beautiful…
I spoke earlier of smaller churches finding some sort of Weapon of Mass Deception in the keyboard. It’s a fact of life that smaller churches usually have only a few musicians. Most will see this as a problem, but the only possible issue I see is a potential burnout problem. There couldn’t be any musical problem with small numbers could there? Sadly, prevailing trends seem to suggest small churches just aren’t ‘happening’ without a choir and huge band. This is a shame because it’s just not true. It’s one thing to be undermanned, or have no-one at all, but another thing entirely to have small groups or even two or three musicians available. Rather than seeing this as being poor cousins of the big churches I would encourage anyone in this situation to count their blessings and see this as a wonderful opportunity, and fertile ground for something creative, fresh, and vital to take place. As for burnout, inviting guest musicians and/or teams is an idea that can work well.
Worship has no prerequisites in terms of band size, instruments used, or anything else. God gives us tremendous freedom and liberty in these things. It’s a shame we don’t take Him up on it! Why must we have the bigger, stages full of musicians? No reason at all, other than cultural conditioning. We are led to believe that this is the way things ought to be, and pity the poor church without the choir (don’t forget those robes too!) and all the razzmatazz of mega-church music. The Lord showed Moses that with what he (Moses) already had “in his hand”, He (God) would do great and wondrous things. Small church people - look and see what you’ve got in your hand. With trust in God it can be something powerful, something special and something unique.
There’s wonderful music possible in smaller groups! Have you never heard any great duos, trios, or quartets? These smaller groups have an intimacy and freedom that bigger groups can never match. Small ensembles allow for the players themselves and their instruments to shine. The weight of responsibility is greater of course, and it might be scary for the players to have just two or three instruments on a Sunday morning. However, what musician wouldn’t want the chance to really play something of substance? Who wouldn’t want to make music unto the Lord and really shine on their instrument in His presence?
Is it cool to have a string section? Sure it is, but personally I think the rich, singing voice of one solo violin is even more beautiful. The same could be said for brass and woodwinds. They sound great together, yet to my mind one trumpet or saxophone in the hands of a great player is ultimately more beautiful without doubt. Can you see the intimacy I’m talking about here? I love orchestral music, and Jazz big band too, but most of the time I would rather hear a smaller group of musicians. There’s a special kind of chemistry and an uncluttered musical clarity that shines through. Bigger ensembles have their own charms, but a whole stage full of people cannot produce the same intimacy, subtlety, or interaction of the small groups.
Far from needing large numbers of musicians we could easily get by with just a few don’t you think? Do you have two or three musicians? Like Elijah’s small cloud in the distance, or David’s three hundred men - that’s enough; that folks, will do! Most churches have a worship/music department somewhere between the two extremes of having lots of musicians, or having a few, but the size of a church music department does not matter. Wonderful worship and great music is possible with any number of musicians and any combination of instruments. We need to teach this and practise it. This would be better than worrying about numbers, or looking to get the same thing other (usually bigger) churches have got. Don’t knock the small groups, or despise the small churches. They’ve got the intimacy bigger churches will one day be starving for.
Guitar Solo: A Time To Shine
It was mentioned in the part one article that the acoustic guitar is being suffocated in church bands. Its beautiful tones and characteristic charms are being overwhelmed by the electric instruments, and the drums, etc. It is also being suffocated by other things, including unsympathetic sound-people who mix it into nothing-ness, and the arrangement of the music itself (or lack thereof). Smaller groups, and more varied groups of instruments, would allow the acoustic guitar to breathe, and ultimately to sing in its true voice. More varied and interesting arrangements would help the music in any case.
As for the electric guitar, one interesting measure which I think would force musicians to think a bit differently would be to roster the electric guitar in groups without drums occasionally. The usual things wouldn’t quite work, and it would be a great challenge. Anything to steer us away from the endless power chords and other predictable habits.
… and Flexible
Also touched upon in part one was the idea that smaller groups are significant in the critical factors of spontaneity and improvisation in worship. I believe that improvisation is essential in worship in the same way that it is in prayer. We don’t read other peoples’ words to the Lord in our prayer times do we? Why would we think worship should be scripted and planned in every detail? Some planning is needed, and order and decency observed, yes of course. However, worship needs to be fresh and uniquely offered, not stale and repetitious, or ‘cut and pasted’ from last week! I cannot see a place for rigid routines and the following of formulas. ‘Worship’ must be in-the-moment, and certainly in terms of music this will take creativity and effort on our part.
Any improvising musician or singer knows the beauty of making music or singing a new song to the Lord in the moment of worship itself. With smaller groups the intimacy and communication needed between the musicians and singers for improvisation is possible, and musical worship can happen on an amazing level. The bigger the band, the more important the structures and arrangements become, and the less likely it is that improvisation will be possible to any significant degree. So the smaller the band the more possibilities for the musician; and the singer!
(Of course, improvisation is a highly specialized area. There are probably a great many churches that have seen little or none of these things before, and there’s undoubtedly a real need for teaching and training in this area. It’s certainly a deep subject, and one that demands attention in our music departments and congregations. God willing, perhaps we can discuss this subject in greater detail in the future.)
On the matter of balance though… My hearts’ delight as a musician and as a worshipper is the improvisation, but there is a lot of pleasure and enjoyment to be found in playing good arrangements too, that’s for sure. Understanding and developing ensemble skills basically goes hand in hand with knowing how to play your instrument. guitarists should of course be well-versed in the common language of guitar. The challenge is to avoid the predictable, while still coming up with some great guitar parts. Being able to create musical arrangements for a band is a necessary skill too. Ideally we would be able to arrange for any group and include virtually anyone; including those we discussed earlier who are usually left out.
Whatever situation we are arranging for or playing in we have the chance to be fresh, and to be original. Let’s take it! Whether the arrangements are thoroughly written out, loosely sketched, or just verbalized, it remains our challenge as guitarists and musicians to negotiate our way creatively in each musical situation.
Guitar Solo: The World On a String (Well, six actually…)
When we are discussing playing in a small or large group, flexibility, or improvisation, it is eventually going to come down to one thing - our skill as musicians. While negotiating the development of our skills, having the right course set from the start will be invaluable:
1) I hope guitarists would never resort to trying to sound like a piano by using a synth just because there’s “only” guitar, bass and drums! The guitar trio is a beautiful, classic grouping of instruments! It’s big challenge for everyone, especially the guitarists, but creative bass players and drummers make all the difference! The guitar is a fascinating and versatile instrument, and it’s easily capable in the right hands of filling up a worship service or a musical performance with more than enough interest and colour.
2) The guitar doesn’t need electronic enhancement to sound good. There’s such a special quality in the acoustic guitars’ tonal character, and a good one has such a beautiful sound. If you combine this with the nearly limitless ways it can be played… well, it’s a wonderful thing! Then there’s the mind-boggling array of colours in the tonal palette of the electric guitar. Either the acoustic or electric guitar option would be great tone-wise, and when you add a multitude of different strumming, arpeggio and picking patterns, rhythmic and accompaniment techniques, and all sorts of options for playing a melody you get an amazingly diverse instrument.
This is not to even mention: 1) harmonics, 2) slide playing, 3) alternate tunings, 4) the use of capos, and 5) other cool stuff like string-tapping and two-handed stuff! The possibilities for guitarists to sound fresh and interesting are almost unlimited. All this and we are still only talking about the playing techniques, the technical possibilities, and the tones we can get from our instruments; we haven’t even started on creativity with the music itself yet!
As guitarists in church we would do well to remember that we are to WORSHIP on our instruments, not demo our great techniques. Yet I don’t accept the notion that we are here just to be a backing band for the singers to do their thing! Of course words and singing are vital and that is the main thrust of our worship services, because most people need those things to express their own worship to God. However, the music is not merely a backing track for you, singer! Music is a language of worship in its own right. Many don’t seem to understand this, or cannot accept the consequences of it being true.
This is the essence of much friction regarding music in the Church: the conflict between musical function and music as an art-form. It is here that musicians are often caught in the crossfire. We long to play beautiful music to the Lord on one hand, while we are told to stay quiet and keep it as simple as possible on the other hand. Many leaders see only the functional side of music, and are unable or unwilling to see any point in artistic endeavour and creativity. Music is then censored, and becomes stunted like a bonsai. Is there any place for artistic excellence in our worship? Is there any place for striving after quality in what we do? Yes, without doubt there is. There’s far more to music in church than just the accompaniment, or functional side. There’s a whole world of creative worship endeavour.
There’s an abundance of direction, a wealth of inspiration and clear examples of the artistic vocation in scripture. I say this emphatically and without hesitation. The Psalms alone are full of references for all the conceivable aspects of music ministry. God gives us the biggest book in the entire bible as one of worship, poetry and music!? What does this mean? The obvious implications are there. Are you are willing to accept them?
Finally, we often hear talk of ‘comfort zones’. I believe we have comfort zones in our music and even in our worship too! I’m sure we could almost turn up for a service, hit a button and the service just about go ahead on autopilot; things can be that routine for us. We need to watch diligently and be on the lookout for any bad habits. Lazily following patterns is only one of them; there are many others we could uncover. God willing we’ll look more into such things and some other areas next time, when we’ll also try to sum this all up. Till then, may God bless your musical endeavours.
© 2010 Bernard McDonagh
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