How to play Spontaneous Worship on Electric Guitar
If you’ve been in church for a while, you’ve probably heard – or heard about – something called ‘spontaneous worship’.
And you’ll probably either love it or hate it!
Either way, as a Worshipping Musician – what is it and how can we play along to it?
Let’s start with an example of where we might end up:
To understand how we get here, let’s go right back to basics.
What is Spontaneous Worship?
Normally in a worship service, the worship team helps the church express themselves through singing along to a set of praise and worship songs. The songs typically flow into each other, and they will have been chosen earlier in the week. The worship team will have met at rehearsal to create, refine and learn musical parts to play.
Spontaneous Worship – often also called improvised worship – is where we leave the set list behind.
In place of pre-arranged music, we will be making up worship songs as we go along.
And this can be a real challenge to musicians.
So what are we to do?
There are three cases to cover.
How to handle Spontaneous Worship
1. When started by the Worship Leader
The lead worship singer on stage will either announce that ‘they are going to try something’, or simply start singing something we don’t recognise from the set list.
This will almost certainly fit in with the song you were just playing.
There may be alterations to the melody. There will certainly be new lyrics. Often, a form of sung prayer is used. Or sung scripture/encouragement/whatever is on the lead’s mind.
The key for us is that it fits the song we were playing before.
- Action: repeat the song section we are playing
2. When started by someone singing over a background loop
With this, I mean that we will be playing a musical ‘loop’. A repeating pattern of some chords. It might be played by the band, a backing track or a synth pad.
It will usually be one of the common chord patterns used in contemporary worship.
The key for us is that it repeats a sequence of chords regularly – we know what the sequence is.
- Action: Keep on repeating that sequence
3. When started by the congregation: ‘The lone voice’
From time to time, you’ll encounter a situation where there is ‘space’ in the service. Perhaps quiet music or silence.
And then you’ll hear a member of the congregation begin to sing.
They may choose to invent some lyrics. Or – quite often – they may start a recognised song, one not previously in the set list. Something that will have meaning to them at that time, that they feel the need to share.
The key for us is that we have played the song in the past.
You may also have times where the song is not known to the musicians present. And the key here is to find or define the key.
If nobody on the team knows the song, we have three options:
- Play nothing
- Play percussion / rhythm
- Play the root chord only, but sparsely . If the song was started in the key of F, play F major or F5 chords gently.
If some but not all people on the team know the song:
- Let one instrument play along. Everyone else drop out for that song.
When the congregation starts Off-Key
Sometimes, the congregation start the song off-key.
In this case, the best thing to do is rescue the key:
- Wait for a musical break (end of verse or chorus)
- Cue the band in on the right key.
The transition itself may be a little awkward. It is worth it. It makes it easier for everybody else to join in.
How to play spontaneous worship on Electric Guitar
How do we make this sound interesting as an electric player?
Let’s break down the video example earlier.
The basic approach is known pattern + improvised parts/dynamics
The example piece uses the simple 4-1 loop in E from the Worship Chords in E lesson as its ‘known pattern’.
Then, the backing track band adds some common dynamics:
- Gentle start
- Crescendo to a loud, triumphant feel
- Ends quiet and reflective
Here’s how we add variety to what is essentially two chords:
- Gentle picking – leaving the distortion sound fairly clean
- Slow strums through a quarter note delay pedal setting. This gives a feeling of waves on a beach.
- Playing broken chords – picking out individual notes in a chord, then letting them ring out
- Volume Swells – fading in the chord and controlling how far we push into crunch tone distortion using a foot based volume pedal
- Playing up the neck using higher frets to give us a different texture
- Using mute clicks – the section starts with a choppy ‘clicky’ sound to really kick start it
- Picking harder – really digging in to get a loud, crunchy overdrivven tone
- Adding Chord/Melody notes Starting from the basic chord shape, add notes from the major scale to add melody
- Playing pinch harmonics with a wah pedal to get that ‘screaming’ kind of sound; vocalising a ‘cry’ on the guitar
- Very sparse playing – more space than sounds
- Very light picking – so the sound is almost clean again
- Ends on a final strong, loud chord, which fades
(There’s a lot of possibilities! That’s why all these techniques and more are shown step by step in the full paid course)
Working as a Team is Key
Notice this; the above guitar part would not have worked without the rest of the team.
The backing track arrangement builds the song.
- We start with simple broken chords on the acoustic guitar, and a very light touch on drums with just Hi Hat and kick drum.
- The drums build intensity, hitting harder, and filling in more. The acoustic starts to strum, increasing volume by picking strings harder.
- The loud section kicks off with a snare drum fill and crash cymbal. The drums then use the ride cymbal to give a fatter top end sound than the HiHat would.
- The bass plays full, deep notes, adding busy bass melody fills at the end of each two bar phrase.
- As we return to quiet, the snare drum transitions to gentler rim hits. The bass simplifies to whole root notes. The acoustic strums slowly.
The whole team must play sensitively for this to work. Not just the electric guitar.
Knowing when to Stop
Stopping the spontaneous segment can be another tricky point.
In practice, you’ll just know when it’s time to move on.
If a known song has been introduced spontaneously, it will have a known ending point.
For other variations of spontaneous singing, they all have in common a certain flow.
As a team, you will recognise it. The singing might rise in dynamics dramatically, and come to a natural place to stop. It might simply fade away.
The worship leader may – in certain situations – decide to draw this segment to a close early. Perhaps due to time, a request from the service leader, or a sense that this has ‘gone off track’.
You can have cases where members of the congregation literally ‘go off on one’. For whatever reason, their words seem neither helpful, nor encouraging.
In this case, it is wise to politely yet firmly move on.
Resuming the Service Flow
What happens next depends on the service flow.
- You may resume the set list as planned.
- You may use a song transition pattern.
- You might hand back to the service leader and draw sung worship to a close.
As a guitarist, the key is to be sensitive and watch the worship leader.
It’s good to look around all band members at this point. Especially the drummer. Maintain eye contact, and all agree an endpoint.
Getting Started with Spontaneous Worship
The best way to start is privately. Just you. Alone. In your private practice time.
I recommend starting with the 4-1 pattern.
At first, just strum the open chords. Sing along. Use a psalm as a starting point. Make up the melody. Then keep singing as new thoughts occur to you.
Form prayers, requests, petitions – and then sing them to a melody that fits.
The 4-1 pattern is better than just singing over a single chord. You get a sense of movement. That makes it easier to make up melodies.
After this, start to embellish the basic chords by creating guitar parts.
Use fragments. Use volume swells. Play power chords. Be free and create!
As you build your confidence, branch out to other common worship chord patterns like the 6m – 4 – 1 – 5, or the 4 – 5 – 1.
How to Prepare as a Team
- Agree the chord patterns you will practice
- Set aside time each week to rehearse one chord pattern
- Practice dynamics building the song louder, then falling quieter
Initially, experiment with having your worship leader improvise singing a psalm over the loop.
This can be an ideal way to introduce this idea to your congregation.
Footnote: Is this really ‘Spontaneous’ ?
Yes – but it’s also musical, and kind.
The cornerstone of this approach is to layer improvisation over a rehearsed foundation.
By picking a known chord pattern, the whole band can practice a basic approach to it.
This avoid players having to guess what chord comes next. They already know.
It means the band can play as a unit. Everybody changes chords together. They play in time.
On its own, this is not spontaneous.
We improvise over the top. That’s where the spontaneity comes in.
We choose loud or soft. Chord substitutes and fragments. Effects and tones. Volume swells. Harmonics. Busy or spacious playing.
Our team is guided entirely by the flow of the moment.
Given our solid foundation, we can freely improvise over the top. Maximum spontaneity.
It is the best of both worlds.
I hope you can see that to do this well, we must have a lot of well prepared ‘worship playing techniques’ ready.
It’s no good feeling ‘this part needs to be played more sensitively’ if you don’t know how to do that.
Hence the apparent tension between all this preparation, and playing spontaneously, in the moment.
Two benefits of this approach
- It helps our congregation improvise singing. Having a known foundation builds your confidence.
- It makes our band sound together and musical.
Using this approach makes us free to improvise, yet still keep the congregation with us, and keep the band together.
A bonus is that players of all levels can contribute. If all you know is the basic open chords, you can play along. If you can play more advanced techniques, you can add depth.
But we are all playing the same piece of music.
Over to You
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