Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tasteful Guitar Playing...In Regards to the Recipe

Note: This was written over a month and may be scatter-brained.

Fellow guitarists,

So many times when I am playing guitar I have a sense of what "should" and what "shouldn't" be in the mix as far as guitar sounds. This morning I was thinking about the fact that everyone (every guitarist, every musician) has a unique set of "should" and "shouldn't-s", and I figured it might be beneficial to some if I shared mine. All of this is coming from 5ish years of experience playing guitar in churches, both good and bad experiences, as well as many conversations with musical friends, attentive listening, and lots of online reading and research. I don't have THE way as far as playing guitar, but God has given me a very keen ear for what sounds good and what doesn't. So take it as you will!

The most important element of music, ESPECIALLY worship music, is dynamic. Wikipedia says that,
"In music, dynamics normally refers to the volume of a sound or note, but can also refer to every aspect of the execution of a given piece, either stylistic (staccato, legato etc.) or functional (velocity). The term is also applied to the written or printed musical notation used to indicate dynamics. Dynamics do not indicate specific volume levels, but are meant to be played with reference to the ensemble as a whole."

I think that says very clearly what is encompassed in musical dynamics. If you have heard me talk about guitar playing or music, you will know that I am very passionate about dynamics. The reason behind this is simple: I believe that dynamics are (from a macro perspective) fundamentally more important than how fast you can play, how skilled you are, and how well you know your guitar. These elements are obviously all crucial to guitar skill, but without an understanding or more importantly a good ear for dynamics, these other things will come across wrongly and abruptly.

When I refer to dynamics in worship music, I am referring to multiple aspects of the music itself:

1. The overall dynamic of a song (including tempo and what kind of song it is)

2. Drum dynamics and how every instrument relates to the drums

3. Guitar effects dynamics in relation to the song and the band

4. Guitar playing dynamics in relation to the song and the band

I will explain more on each of these soon, but first I want to delve deeper into the various types of dynamics and models of dynamics that exist in guitar playing.

When playing guitar in a worship setting, there are many factors in play. First of all, and of utmost importance, is training yourself to be in-tune with the Holy Spirit, being open to what He is doing, and learning how to join in with your playing. This is a different subject. I've learned a lot through experience. Maybe I'll write about that another time.

Second of all, and of critical importance, is learning how to be on board with the worship leader and in sync with the band. It's particularly important to have an idea of what the worship leader wants, what they're looking for, and what they like. One primary role of guitar playing, after all, is supporting the worship leader wherever they're going. And how do you know how to do that if you don't know where they're going? I've been in many a situation where either I don't know the worship leader well, or don't know what they're looking for, and though the song may go smoothly, it loses so much impact from not having a single focus! I'll be building the song up when he wants it quiet, or I'll be playing softly when he wants me to be building the song.

Third of all, and also very important, is understanding the song. When covering a song, whether it's by hillsong and has been done a billion times, or is off world mandate 2010 and is fairly new, you want to get to know the song. Going into a song blindly can be beneficial SOMETIMES, if you're wanting a unique, original take on it. But, for the most part, the musicians who recorded the songs played certain parts for a reason...not by accident. I know many guitarists and musicians differ in opinion on the subject of staying true to a song's original version or making it "your own." My personal opinion is usually to try to stay true to the song's original feel. I almost always stick with the original guitar part, maybe varying subtle things, changing it every now and then, changing effects, or adding in small parts, but keeping the main melody intact. It was written that way for a reason. This also is subject to what the worship leader wants...whether he wants it like the cd or a fresh take.

Many times it's good to vary it according to the situation. If you're playing a song that could either be really hard hitting or really pretty..but you're playing it during offering or communion...maybe tone it down. But if you're at a lifegroup leader retreat where everyone's fired up and ready to go...I say let loose and go for it. You also must be aware of the situation as it relates to your band. If you're a 4 piece, maybe you shouldn't throw in all of the cool lead parts in the chorus and instead play some good inverted power chords up high to keep it driving. And if you have 2 guitarists and 2 keyboards, think of what will cut through the mix and add something to the huge sound your band probably (hopefully) has.

Here are the different dynamic patterns I see in guitar playing.
1. Soft --> Loud

2. Low --> High

3. Slow --> Fast

4. Staccato --> Legato

5. And usually a combination of all of those.

1. Soft to loud refers to the actual volume your guitar+effects+amp is putting out. This is influenced mainly by velocity of picking, pickup selection, and effects. I find that when I'm wanting to play softly at the beginning of maybe a really quiet and pretty song, I'll switch to my neck pickup to take off some treble, take off most or all overdrives, and pick really lightly. Maybe even fingerpick. On the other hand, if I'm trying to play loudly for a solo in a big song, I'll switch to bridge pickup to cut through with lots of treble, turn on all overdrives, add delay and/or reverb, and pick really strongly.

2. Low to High refers to both pitch and location on the neck. This is a pretty standard model I commonly use. It works simply: as the song builds larger, guitar playing goes higher. A great example is the song Came to the Rescue, off United's United We Stand album. It begins softly with a fairly low guitar part. It builds into the chorus with a similar and slightly higher guitar part. The second verse starts a little lower, and the second chorus is slightly higher. Then, for the instrumental going into the bridge, it goes up to the 12th fret for a really high guitar part. At the climax it moves even higher.

3. Slow to Fast refers to picking/strumming speed (and can also involve delay). This is a less conscious model for me. If I play by this model at all, it would probably involve something like picking quarter notes in an intro or verse and speeding it up to 8th notes in a pre-chorus. It also is seen in the fast dotted 8th delay...though that's just FAST. no slow.

4. Staccato and legato refers to fluidity...softer parts are usually very legato, and the dynamic is raised when playing more staccato notes because they stand out. This isn't too prevalent in guitar.

All of these influence dynamic in a cohesive manner. None of these elements exist separate from the rest. Usually in my guitar playing, I simultaneously increase volume and pitch. But remember, all of this is subconscious! It's innate in my playing because I have devoted myself to learning to add as much as possible to a song.

If you've ever sung in a choir you will have heard of the term blend. It is crucial in voices and singing but also applies with guitar. There ARE times where a simple melody should ring clear above all other instrumentation. That's tasteful. But for the most part, your guitar part should blend/mix well with everything else. No one likes hearing a ridiculous jazz solo in the verse of a song. If there's singing, stay out of the way. That will save a lot of trouble. One thing I like to do is play a winding melody, always very simple, through the verse amidst the singing. It will rise and fall, and I will play something different and distinct in between the phrases of the lyrics. So what you hear is words, lyrics, singing, and then a space that is filled with a melody from guitar that carries you into the next phrase. It is pretty and it makes things smooth.

This brings me to a very, very important key in guitar playing. Simplicity. For the sake of everyone, including yourself, make things simple. Beauty is often found in simplicity, even moreso than complexity WHEN the dynamics are done well, the playing is confident, and the instrumentation fits. I often play VERY simple, very EASY guitar parts. But they sound beautiful. Why? I'm not showing off. I'm not trying to make something more than it is. I'm accepting that good tone and a few CONFIDENT notes will sound much better than a lot of muddled noodling. People can hear and understand a simple melody. It's usually hummable and rememberable. That is a great quality to have. Many times in more prophetic worship settings, there is room for people to join in this melody and sing it. Even add lyrics to it. No matter what, if you're listening to the holy spirit, these melodies will not be your own. They will be from Heaven. And they will be powerful.

A balance is found between showing off and shining through. Attitude of the heart. Rarely do I go crazy on a solo. For one thing, I usually can't. But it wouldn't be right of me in most situations because it would draw the attention to me. If there is an appropriate moment where this in fact draws attention to worshiping Jesus, do it.

Ultimately the main things I can offer are these:

1. Keep it simple.
2. Use delay sparingly.
3. You must learn to enjoy the simplest guitar part to be ready for anything complex.
4. Feel it, don't think it.
5. Build the song up...make it epic...
6. Worship Jesus, fix your eyes on Him, and ask for more! You have not because you ask not!

Hope this helps. I have nothing good to offer apart from Jesus, so God I ask that you would send you practical wisdom to rest in my friends as they read this! I pray if anything you've given me is of use to them, that it would pass to them. Let my friends exceed me in skill and creativity so that people may be blessed and we can give our BEST to the King who deserves it ALL!