Focus Track: Electric Guitar
The electric guitar is arguably one of the most important and distinct instruments in what establishes the classic Contemporary Worship Music sound. However, I feel like I need to make an important (though unpopular and potentially hurtful) statement about the electric guitar from the onset: the electric guitar should NOT be considered a foundational instrument when it comes to church worship music.
I know, I know… it kind of hurts me to even say it, but I think this is a true, helpful, and important statement to begin with as we take a closer look at the electric guitar as it pertains to the typical church worship team. So, with that statement out of the way, if you are an electric guitar player, or a Worship Leader who is trying to speak their language and give them direction, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind (appearing in no particular order).
The fundamental frequencies for the electric guitar are really all across the spectrum. Unlike the acoustic guitar, the electric is often played all across the fretboard, so the fundamental frequency of the note you are playing could be anything from the open sixth string ringing at 82Hz to just over 1,000Hz (or 1kHz) if you are playing on the 20th fret of the first string. That is a LARGE range of frequencies. Typically, and especially because the electric guitar is not a foundational instrument in church worship music, a good strategy for the electric guitarist to employ is to first listen to what frequency range everyone else is playing in, and then fill the void.
The dynamic range of the electric guitar can be problematic, as well. Because so many electric guitarists are getting their sound from stomp box pedals, or even separate channels on their amp, there can be a significant volume difference from one setting to the next. Of course, you can also use this to your advantage if you are willing to think critically through the song! If there is a part of the song where you need to be louder to cut through the mix or to add energy to the song, then you can actually set your stomp box to give you that boost you need and engage it at just the right time.
The electric guitarists “musical buddy” is actually the lead vocals (along with the keyboard or other auxiliary instruments). Many of the signature riffs and instrumentals that become iconic, memorable parts of church worship music are just inversions of the melody line. In fact, playing the individual notes of the melody line during an instrumental is typically a great place to start when determining what to play for an instrumental. It is also very important for the electric guitar player to NOT play over top of the lead vocals. The electric guitar is NOT a foundational instrument. It is an extra piece that enhances the foundation. A good electric guitarist knows when to play and when to not play. Leaving space for the lead vocals and adding intentional riffs between vocal lines will typically yield the best results.
One thing that many aspiring electric guitarists need to understand is that the electric guitar is NOT a second acoustic guitar! (It is not a first acoustic guitar, either…) I have seen way too many worship team members strap an electric guitar around their body and then proceed to play it as if it is an acoustic guitar. It’s not. You strum it differently. You often chord it differently. It sounds different. In pretty much every way, the electric guitar is NOT an acoustic guitar. The electric guitar plays a completely different role in the band. If you want to just play open note chords and strum along with the high hat, please play the acoustic guitar, instead.
The fact that the electric guitar is not a foundational instrument DOES NOT mean that it is an unimportant instrument! Quite the contrary! Many popular worship songs have a signature electric guitar riff, or part, that immediately makes the song recognizable and invites worshipers to enter in to passionate worship. For that reason, electric guitar players should strive to learn the signature, recognizable parts to each song, and play those parts as well and consistently as they possibly can. There are very few worship songs that are actually enhanced by an electric guitar player’s improvising.
If you have a second electric guitarist in the band, definitely consider having one guitarist play power chords down in the lower register of the frequency spectrum (maybe even only playing during the chorus and / or other “big parts” of the song). The other guitarist can then focus on playing signature riffs and mini-chords in the upper register of the frequency spectrum.
So many electric guitar players find themselves on an endless (and fruitless) quest for perfect tone. They acquire pedal after pedal, guitar after guitar, amp after amp, and they are never satisfied with the sound that they are making. What they fail to realize is that so much of your tone comes not from the gear you use, but from the fingertips. Tone is primarily in the fingertips. In other words, how you physically play the instrument is so much more important than what gear you are playing it through.
It should still be noted that electric guitarists use a LOT of gear in order to create the sound that they are looking for. Take the time to understand how to properly organize and use your stomp box effects. Typical stomp box effects that could be considered “essential” gear to invest in include: tone-based effects like compression, distortion, and overdrive; and timing-based effects like delay and reverb.
Because the electric guitar is being played all over the fretboard, it is essential that the electric guitar player properly intonate their instrument. This means that they set the action and string length to ensure that the open string and the same string held down at the twelfth fret produce the same note (though an octave apart from one another). If this is not the case, it needs to be fixed!
Artwork provided by my good friend, Brooke Gehman, an authentic and wonderful man of God, devoted follower of Christ, and an amazing husband and father. Brooke is a gifted Worship Leader, an incredible artist, and a Potter by trade (check out his website).