Let’s be honest about two things:
1. Church bands tend to “overplay” and step over each other on a regular basis
2. Church bands are often a hodge podge of who’s available instead of who is needed.
What I’m going to suggest will hopefully unmuddy the waters sonically speaking and give structure to arranging and picking your church’s band for a worship service.
When I put a band together for a Sunday or Wednesday I first look at who is available. It’s all well and good to want a thick analog synth sound on a song but if all your keyboard players are on vacation, you’ll need to rethink your plans. Once I know who is available, I start to fill roles based on my “5 point band”. I admit that I don’t always do it consciously, because I’m so used to doing it. But it’s always there in the background of my mind. So here are the 5 points that I look for to put a band together. I’m going to write them in order of importance.
THE LEAD VOCAL
We are leading the church in singing worship to Jesus. It’s kind of hard to lead singing without a singer. Usually when I put a band together I’m the one singing so this is the easiest. But if you’re the band leader or worship director who doesn’t sing but plays in the band, then having a singer is your first priority. Not just any singer. There’s a difference between choir and solo voice. You need someone who can pull off the songs so it’s not a distraction but a blessing.
Notice that I’m specifying lead vocals and not backing vocals. Having someone sing harmony can be nice and it has it’s place. But its not required or a must have.
THE MAIN INSTRUMENT
Unless your church tradition does music a cappella, then you’ll need some accompaniment. The main instrument is the one that could be played on it’s own without a band. This is generally an acoustic guitar, piano, or keyboard. There are others but these are the big three.
It’s important to understand what the main instrument is because guitar and piano are fundamentally different. I’ve had piano players playing at odds with my rhythm and I’ve been guilty of doing the same to them, all because we didn’t understand, accept, or acknowledge our basic differences. If you’re not the main instrument, step aside for the one who is.
This does not mean drums. It’s probably drums. But it doesn’t have to be drums.
You need rhythm. But let’s say your church doesn’t have a drummer, or they’re sick or on vacation or something. What do you do? The rhythm comes from somewhere, you just have to find it. The first place to look is you. If you’re the worship leader and you play piano or guitar, you might just be the rhythm you need. I started out as a worship leader in a church with no musical talent besides myself. Because of this, my playing style tends to be very rhythmic. Three years of being on your own will do that to ya.
How does it work? Well, you can change things up, do all down strokes on the verses or bridges. Sometimes I double the rests, meaning that if I was going to strum in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm. I’m now going to play 1-rest-3-rest, to add some rhythm that the drum would have provided, usually I do this in a verse, or bridge. Another example is on the song “Mighty to Save” where during the bridge I will often use my left hand to mute all the strings and strum in a steady rhythm that turns my guitar in to a drum. Some guys will tap or slap their guitar like a drum. Don’t try this unless you’ve practiced it to proficiency at home.
If you’re on a piano, maybe you play a little straighter, or you use you left hand as a “bass rhythm”. Check out how Coldplay does this to great effect live.
Maybe it’s not you. Maybe this is a chance for some to stretch themselves. Does your church own a cajon? If not, it’s a worth while thing for a church of just about any size to invest in. At my current church, our bass player can jump on it if we don’t have a drummer. At my last church, I found out that one of our singers had good rhythm and she could keep a simple “boom-boom-boom” beat happening.
Rhythm bring energy, drive, tempo, and movement. Every song and band has rhythm of some type, it’s up to us to find it.
THE LEAD INSTRUMENT
This is the “high end”. Lead guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, the right hand on a piano. It’s not just a guitar solo, but the little bits over an intro or on a bridge. Bass players are even capable of filling this role if the song calls for it and if they are proficient enough.
The reason it’s important to know about and acknowledge this part of the band is that so many instruments can take this role. I’ve seen a lot of church bands with several instruments that could take the lead role. They all try to do so and they are all step over each other in a confusing, muddied mess.
As a band leader, if I have some combination of electric guitar, 2nd acoustic guitar, piano, keyboards, violin, or other capable instrument, I will assign the Lead Instrument role for the whole set, or for specific songs. If the piano is selected, then the keyboard can hold out chords or go to a pad. If the 2nd guitar is selected, the electric can sit out or do arpeggios over the chord progression. The idea is to have some order to serve the song. As your band gets tighter and more comfortable with each other, you can even switch the roles mid song, so that the electric guitar takes prominence in the intros and the piano takes the lead spot on the bridge.
THE FILL IN
Once you have the rest of your band shorted out then you can look to fill in the sound. This can be a pad on a synthesizer or an electric guitar using delays and reverbs to create the same effect. You can fill in the sound with extra vocalists or extra instruments like a 2nd guitar player or strings or something else along the same line. If I don’t have a bass player, then I’ll ask the piano player to focus on the low end if I have another lead instrument to take that role.
Since you’ve already assigned the other roles in the band, you can have more players and singers and you can allow them to serve without creating a sonic mess.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A FULL BAND?
This a blog the average worship leader in the average church, so this is a real possibility. Well, you can always do more with less!
Like I said earlier, I played for years with no one but myself. I was the lead vocals [check]. My guitar was the main instrument [check]. I learned to provide the rhythm with things like palm mutes, etc [check]. I provided the lead parts by adding little riffs here or there in the chords themselves, or doing transition riffs or walk downs from one chord to another [check]. I would sometimes fill in the sound with an effects pedal, and there is always reverb which can be added to the vocals or the whole mix. You could also add a bass drum (ala Mumford & Sons) or a floor pad of some kind
“The Shade of Poison Trees” by Dashboard Confessional is a great example of doing more with less. The main instrument is the guitar, which also does a little lead work and the rhythm. Rhythm is also provided by the keys with does most of the leads and the fill in. No drums, and nothing that couldn’t be done by one or two people.
BRING ORDER AND UNITY TO YOUR WORSHIP BAND
The point of all of this is 3 fold:
1. Bring order, unity and clarity to your church band, so you can better serve your church.
2. If you have a large pool of musicians, you can use this method to find roles for most or all of them.
3. If you have a small pool of musicians, you can use this method to make a small band sound big.
Hope this helps. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments section.