1. Play The Song As Close To The Original As Possible
This rule is first because If you do this, you’re way ahead of the game! All of the following rules will fall into place if you just simply do this.
Don’t want to play the parts like the original? Humble yourself. There’s a reason they have sold a gazillion records. That’s all I will say about that.
2. Play Electric Instead Of Acoustic
Now I’m not saying give up acoustic. What I’m saying is that if you are going for a full band sound and you only have 1 other electric guitarist or none at all, play electric. Instead of playing chords on an acoustic, grab an electric guitar, hook up an amp, and play the same chords on an electric guitar.
Why? Because the electric is going to give you way more of a full sound. Acoustic is more of a percussive instrument that isn’t filling up much space or doing much for an overall mix. This will also free up your other electric guitarist to play some lead lines and add a whole new dynamic to the band.
Having dissected guitar parts and gone through the original stems of hundreds of worship songs, I can tell you that the majority of worship music tends to not even have acoustic in it. Many times a worship leader will play acoustic on a live recording, but they won’t even use it in the final mix of a song for the album.
And just a mixing tip, almost never should an acoustic be heard significantly in a mix, unless it’s a quiet part of a song or you’re playing an acoustic set.
3. Split The Parts Into Rhythm and Lead
This rule is assuming that there is no artist recording, it’s a song you wrote, or your guitarists just flat out don’t know how the original parts go. Unless you have spent some serious time writing creative parts that enhance the song and don’t get in the way or busy it up, split the 2 electrics into Rhythm and Lead. Especially if you are only learning or rehearsing the song together right before the service.
This ensures you are going to get the best sound. You don’t want both guitarists trying to play leads at the same time. Then no one is left giving the song body. So make sure it’s understood who is rhythm and who is lead.
Now sometimes, even if you have prepared parts, this is still the best way to go. Jesus Culture splits all of their parts by rhythm and lead. This is mainly because one electric guitarist is leading worship, but also because it’s great for worship music. More on this in rule 4.
4. Never Sacrifice Rhythm For Lead
This is what makes rule number 3 so important. At least someone should be giving the song body. Now I say “someone” and not a guitarist, because it’s possible for other instruments to fill up a song enough for a guitarist to play a lead part. However, 90% or the time, it’s going to take a guitarist to play big open chords to really fill up a song. Unless you just have a huge a band, but even Hillsong will have an electric guitarist playing chords most of the time.
This also means that if you’re the only electric guitarist, you’re going to have to resist playing some of those leads in order to play something that’s going to make the band sound full. And for the love of everything that’s good, do NOT solo!
What type of chords you play depends on the song and how well your other instruments (keyboard/synths) are filling up space. Just be aware of how the band sounds. If it sounds empty or like it needs something more, give it some big open chords. This is especially important for big parts of a song like big choruses or bridges. It’s all about being conscious of how the band sounds.
If it’s an electronic song, you may want to play power chords or some 3 note chord inversions. Because in this instance, big open chords may muddy up or change the feel of the song. (Check out pretty much any of the Hillsong Y&F stuff. And one of my favorites is Risen by Covenant Worship.)
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Not Play
Verses and down parts of songs obviously can be left more “empty,” or even just strummed much softer. Remember to work the song dynamically. If you’re just full in playing big chords or something the whole time, it can get very “boring.” So don’t be afraid to sit out and give the song some space in quieter parts of a song. A great musician not only knows when to play, but he knows when NOT to play. I talk more in depth about this, in this post.
6. You Can Never Go Wrong By Creating Tons Of Ambience
Playing worship guitar, we have a secret go-to weapon. Ambience! Especially if you have a smaller band without tons of keyboard sounds. In the beginning of softer songs, or during down parts, swells and ambiance go a long way.
7. Think Simple
When coming up with a lead line, think simple. You never want to over complicate or make a song too busy. If you just don’t know what to do in a song, assuming someone is already playing rhythm, start with a single note line with lots of delay and reverb.
Try to listen for melodies/something that will make the song “interesting.” Many times a lead line is a replication of, or very close to, the main vocal melody of a song. The lead line at the end of It Is Well by Bethel is a great example of this. And even the chorus line in Jesus I Come by Elevation Worship.
So don’t over complicate and think that someone always has to be playing a cool lead riff or something. Sitting back and letting the song “be the song” by doing something simple that just gives the song some body, shows a lot of musical maturity.
8. NEVER Get In The Way Of The Vocals
Vocals, words, lyrics, singing, they are how the congregation is worshiping. Singing scripture, giving praises to God, making declarations, it’s done though the vocals. Vocals are key. In worship music, they are in charge. Never play something over the top of the vocals. For instance, a lead line that clashes with the melody. Or a solo! In everything you play (or not play), prepare or give way for the vocals.
9. There Is Nothing Wrong With Both Electrics Playing The Same Thing
This isn’t a waste of a guitarist like some may think. Think of vocals. Vocalists aren’t always singing harmonies. Many times they are all singing the melody. This creates a large group or choir effect. If both electrics are playing big open chords, this can give the band a much larger and wider sound. And sometimes it’s exactly what is needed. I love what the pre-chorus of You by Hillsong does. Both electrics play the exact same riff just before splitting off to parts in the large chorus.
10. Lead + Rhythm = Chord Inversions
Chord inversions/rhythm parts up higher on the neck are a great way to boost the sound of a song as well. I’d say at least half of the songs on CCLI do some version of this. It’s a great way to have rhythm and lead parts without necessarily having the lead playing a riff or lead line that could get in the way of the song or melody.
It makes the song sound larger because you typically have someone playing big chords in the lower register, and then you have someone playing chords in a higher register (chord inversions).
The guitarists are playing complementing rhythm parts which can make the song sound more full, give it a creative feel, and you’re not getting in the way with “lead lines.” I’d say that Planetshakers does this in the choruses of most of their songs. One Thing Remains is a great example of both guitarists playing the same open chords, and then Electric 1 breaking to chord inversions in the big bridge part of the song.
11. The Goal Of Playing Worship Guitar Is To Enhance Worship
I’ve saved what might be the most important rule for last. Don’t forget why you are there playing guitar in the worship band in the first place. You’re there to enhance the overall sound of your band. Or else, why would your worship leader bother to have you there. You’re not there to “jam,” or do your own thing. You’re there to serve the band. Now how well are you going to serve it?
Can you think of some more important “rules” when playing worship guitar? Share below in the comments!