What makes a good Worship Guitarist?
If you’re new to playing guitar in a worship team, it’s a good question to ask. What makes us effective in this role? What should we aim for?
As with most things, it’s good to step back and look at the big picture.
Whom should we be serving? And how do they want to be served?
Serve the Singer
If there’s one rule above all others, it’s this: serve the singer. And in our case, this means the worship leader.
I’m thinking of the time Jesus was asked about ‘what’s the most important commandment?’. Jesus broke it down into two: serve God, serve everyone around you. The rest is just detail.
It’s like this in the worship team. We’re hoping to do all sorts of things. We want to inspire others to worship. We want to create the right mood. We want to flow. We want to play some good sounding riffs. All these things are good things to do. But the one shining beacon that will tell us we are on the right track is the worship leader’s face.
Are we helping our lead worshipper to lead? Are we making their job easier?
Think about the many ways we can do this.
We can show up on time. We can have spare leads. We can play in time. We can leave spaces for the vocal lines. We can watch them for cues – like ‘play the chorus again’. We can have an appropriate volume. We can can play interesting chords that fit the mood. We can smile at them. We can memorise the songs. We can be active and engaged in the worship service, not stand around looking bored. We can remember to not ‘noodle’ around between songs. We can flow songs together.
If we do all these things, we’ll serve our singer well. But we’ll also be doing the very job we are called to do.
‘Good’ for a worship leader means they can count on us to support their leading of the service, moment by moment, as it unfolds.
Serve the Song
The song is king.
When it comes to choosing guitar tones, effects settings and deciding what notes to play, our guide is clear. It’s the song.
In the worship team, we’ll play a mixture of things. There will be gentle ballads. Power ballads. Out and out rockers. Textures, that sit behind spoken prayers and readings. ‘Filler’ – in the best possible sense – for when someone is invited up to stage to speak, and we want to avoid an awkward pause.
In each case, there will be ways we can play that just ‘fit’ – and ways that sound wrong. The song leads the way.
During the quiet ballad, where perhaps our congregation is reflecting and praying over something, this isn’t the time for flashy rock pyrotechnics. It’s time to dig around our quiet playing skills.
It’s not about what we can play, nor about what we want to play.
It’s about what the song needs us to play.
By serving the song, rather than just cranking out our favourite riff (on 11, of course), we help the congregation. We help our family and friends to worship, without being ‘jolted’ out of the moment. We help build our church.
‘Good’ for the song means getting the right blend of space, volume, dynamic and tone to keep out of the way of the vocals and other instruments, but still add our unique contribution.
Serve the Team
It’s not a solo sport, this worship team business.
We call it a worship team for good reason. We create an overall sound. What the congregation hears is the final blend of all of us, playing together. Drums. Bass. Acoustic guitar. Synths. Loops. Percussion. Orchestral instruments, maybe. Backing Vocals. The lead worship vocals sit on top. Between ourselves, and the hugely important job of running the sound desk, we play many different sounds at the same time to create one sound.
It’s worth letting that simple fact sink in.
Doing this successfully does not happen by accident. And that’s why some teams – the sort who ‘let anyone play’ – never quite gel together.
We need specific skills to hear what others are doing, and then create a part that complements that. We need to learn how to use different tones, or different rhythms – and use space – to keep our parts clear and distinct. So they don’t ‘trample’ or overpower other parts. We all need to think that way on the worship team.
There are other great ways to serve our team.
We all make mistakes. So when the ‘Train Wreck’ of a song happens, if we can keep our cool, keep smiling and help get back on track quickly, that’s a huge thing. Building each other up is massive as well: ‘hey – I liked what you played today!’ is simple to do, and can really lift someone’s day.
Worship leaders – you can help by not taking the team for granted. Typically, the team is full of busy volunteers. They have demanding lives. Worries. Problems. They simply can’t always be here. So you can help by having in place a system whereby you can still run an effective service if someone cannot make that week. Holidays are most welcome, too.
We can serve each other at rehearsal by just helping each other set up, and shift heavy kit from cars to stage.
‘Good’ for the team means we are good people to be around, and we go out of our way to help bring the best out of those around us.
Serve the Congregation
I think ultimately, this is where we stand or fall.
I once asked my church leader what he thought a brilliant worship service looked like (Hi John – *waves*). His answer was brilliant. Roughly paraphrased, he described looking out on the congregation. He wanted to see some people being expressive, perhaps with arms raised. Some people smiling. Some people tearful. Some bored and distracted. But overall – people being moved in the presence of God. He wanted worship to connect people to God. And he wanted that to be so real, and so vibrant, that it couldn’t help but have an outwardly visible component.
Secretly, I was hoping he would have said ‘the music will sound as good as at Hillsong Conference’. But he didn’t. And he was right. Whilst this site is all about being better craftsmen, it’s all for nothing if what we do fails to bring people closer together, and closer to God – in whatever small way we can help that.
Musically, we cover this in detail on this site. We can help by creating ‘flow’ – and not causing anyone to ‘snap out’ of what they are doing at the time due to some musical mess up. We can learn how to portray emotions in our playing. We can create textures. We can be neither too loud, nor too quiet. We can have good tone. None of this is the endgame; but all of it is important in getting us there.
As musicians, we have some other important roles.
We stand at the front. Like it or not, this makes us ‘ambassadors for the brand’, in marketing-speak. New visitors will make a bee-line for us and introduce themselves. Especially if they are musical themselves.
This is our chance to be welcoming. Introduce them to new people. Get them to say Hi to the minister, and others on the wider church team. Simply let them know ‘you are welcome here’. Check back with them next week if you see them again. Take them for a coffee after the service.
Whenever I have loved a church, it has been because people took the trouble to say Hi, and made me feel special. We can do that for others.
I’ve always found this doubly important with children. They absolutely love coming up after the service and strumming your guitar. Stick a delay and a flanger on, and get them to strum some open strings. Their little eyes light up! Because it is magic the sounds you can create with an electric guitar. Making a little boy or girls day is just a kindness we have the power to do. And that’s part of what we are called to do – create more kindness in the world.
‘Good’ for the congregation means we actively help them worship, and our actions help create a little more kindness in the church.
Mixing great musical skills with great people skills, then being an active, worshipping musician – that’s our goal. Combine these things, and we will be well placed to help and inspire worship in the people around us.
Over to you. What have I missed? What else do you find important to being ‘good’ as a worship guitarist?