Guitar tips for playing in a small worship group

Being a worship musician in a small group (just guitar and vocals or piano, guitar and vocals) is a challenging but very honorable role. If you are advanced on your instrument things may be slightly easier but what if you have but limited knowledge of and/or skills on your instrument. You may well be sort of like a beginner but, the music ministry/worship singers need you badly, not tomorrow, yesterday.

There’s a lot you can learn about music but for now there are some key skills that take priority.

1) Chords and Rhythm

If there is one thing you will need to focus on as quickly as possible, it is being proficient inn playing chords and being able to play a clear rhythm. Getting these two right will help your church community to sing out their praises with confidence.

If you are the worship leader, make sure you know your songs by heart. I firmly believe that it is better t0 have a smaller repertoire that you completely believe than forcing yourself to come up with new songs week in week out that you do not actually master yet.

As far as chords go: in small settings you want to look for ways to be able to play rich sounding chords. I believe that that boils down, at least for a guitar to not so much all the flash chords with lots of additions in which you need all your fingers and your thumb even. Less is more most often and I personally think that open string chords work great to create rhythm, atmosphere and enough body.

I can hear you think now: but my psalter hymnal says the song is in the key of F, or let’s say Db. There are two options: either transpose the song or consider the use of a capo. ¬†Another option is to play a song with an alternate tuning. As an example, I have found that the song Everlasting God works great if you use a C tuning (CGCGCE) and transpose it to that key. There is a lot of richness in the C tuning already with the extra low. Also keep in mind when playing in an alternate tuning that many of the best worship songs are based on either I IV V type of progressions or I II IV V VI progression which are easily transferred to alternate tunings.


2) Less is more: dynamics rule

Bill Evans, the famous jazz piano player had a relatively small repertoire. But he was able to play the songs he did do with such an amazing wide range of variety that it seemed fresh every time he played it.

Now I do not expect anyone to go for that aim of trying to make the same song sound like a new one every week. What I am trying to say here is that there is value in going deep on a song so you have a range of options, perhaps from small and modest to an all out version of the same song, and internalized to such an extend that you can take the people somewhere: you can actually lead them , and the other way around where you have the option of being lead by your church. You lead and are being led: you are there to lead but serve at the same time and is it not the most beautiful thing? It reminded me of a saying of Gandhi:

“I must go now: I am their leader therefore I must follow them.”

What this all comes down to is being able to play with dynamics: from loud to quiet but also from big sounding chords to small and fragile. The dynamics come from the rhythm, the harmony and in the last place the volume at which you bang out the harmonies.

What I have learned in the is that there is considerable merit in learning to play a song really banging out loud and really quiet and everything in between but… WITHOUT LOOSING INTENSITY. Try it out for yourself, does the song you are playing carry the same intensity when you play it really soft? Practice those dynamics. Practice songs in different dynamics without touching your amp, and when you use a DI learn to play your songs so softly that the DI is wondering what happened to the signal up to a point where it wants to throw up because of all that is coming through. There again, besides technique, rhythm and chord forms are your best ally.

I practice even the simplest songs (technically) in different dynamics, trying out alternative harmonies, different grooves. Good songs to try this out with are for instance:

3. Song Choice

Depending on the instrumentation available in your worship team (if any at besides piano or guitar) you will find that some songs work better than others. In leading song choice is very important in relation to the service as such, but I am talking here about, knowing what the limitations of your team are. Make sure that you choose songs that are suitable for your team (if a team at all). Sometimes you may want to rearrange a song in order to make it suitable.

Songs that stand or fall with specific riffs, breaks or otherwise may have impossible to perform on your own sections, no matter how much you like the songs may well be found as not working. In choosing songs, do not just let your taste be the only guidance or the fact that songs are currently in the praise charts. Find songs that are relevant for the service and that can be played convincingly in a small setting. Otherwise look at how the songs may be made suitable for a smaller setting.