In this series I try and address different aspects of the practical side of playing electric guitar in church music. This week we’ll talk about leading vs. backing with the Electric Guitar. How the two are similar, and how the two are completely different.
One Guitar. One Rig. Two Purposes.
My guitar rig is set up for versatility. I’ve talk a lot about this before in this series of articles. But I haven’t really touched on the versatility between leading the band and being in the band. What’s the difference. Is there a difference? And is it a big deal? Let’s talk about it.
THERE IS A DIFFERENCE
There is a difference between leading the band and backing the band. When I’m in the band, backing up a worship leader on electric guitar, I play a lot more than if I’m leading the band. The most basic way that I can explain it is that I’ve moved my guitar from the “lead” spot to the “rhythm” spot. I’m not trying to do fill work or different chord voicing. I’m now just a basic rhythm guitar player who shouldn’t be doing much more than supporting what the other musicians are doing in the song.
I ESSENTIALLY HAVE TWO DIFFERENT RIGS ON ONE BOARD
Above are two pics of previous incarnations of my pedal board. They represent two different points in my thinking. The first pic shows a pedalboard set up with signal chain in mind. My guitar’s signal went into the volume pedal, through all my gain pedals on the bottom row, and out to the amp. It then came back via the effects loop to the three pedals up top (trem, delay, and reverb) and back to the amp. That’s all well and good. The problem was that if I needed the delay for songs like Hosanna (Praise is Rising) or The Wonderful Cross or if I needed to switch my reverb from one setting or another, it wasn’t a big deal if I was in the back of the stage, but it was much more awkward if I was leading the band.
The second pic shows my first change in this thinking where I slid my delay pedal to an easy position and moved the drive pedals that I didn’t use as much when leading up a row. Basically, pedals like Tremolo, tape delay, heavy distortion, or comp that were either always on (comp) or rarely used (tape delay) when I lead the band got moved up, and pedals that were used frequently were placed in easy access.
I’m in the next stage in the evolution of my thinking here, and currently working on separating my rig into two boards. My “lead guitar” board (the home made one pictured above) will be the one I use when I’m in the band with all of the delay and mod effects I need. Then I’m going to take the Pedaltrain Nano that I’ve used as my travel board and put a reverb pedal, overdrive, and either tuner or comp on as rig when I lead the band. I’m currently selling a few things on ebay to fund the project and then figuring out which pedals will work best with each set up.
The idea is that I have a rig that’s set up to be efficient, functional, and in the case of leading the band, not awkward or distracting in the worship service.
NOTE: I know this approach is overkill. But it’s not unreasonable. If you mainly do one thing or the other it may not be necessary at all, but if like me you flip between being in the band and leading the band, it might make a lot of sense. Especially since you can easily make or buy a small “leader” board for cheap.
I TRY NOT TO PLAY LEAD GUITAR
One of the differences between being in the band and leading the band is the spot light. If you’re the worship leader you have a lot of attention naturally focused on you. That’s just how it goes. I don’t believe it’s good or evil, it’s what we do with that attention that counts. I want to use that attention to point people to Jesus. To that end, I try to avoid things that bring more attention to me.I try to leave the “solo” work to another guitar player or piano player or some other lead instrument like a violin. When I’m leading the band I try to be strictly rhythm.
ESTABLISH A BASE TONE
I try to use my pedals as little as possible when leading a band. I usually set up a “base tone”. This is home for me during the set. I usually set up a tone with some light compression, clean (no overdrive), with a little bit of reverb. This usually stays pretty static during the worship service. I will add overdrive or delay if the song needs it but otherwise I try not to touch my pedal board. I also really enjoy pedals with “clickless” switches. Over the years I heard a lot of complaints about the “clicks” from effects pedals. The on and off of Overdrives or the tap tempo of digital delays. Clicks are something we have to live with, but if I’m deciding between to pedals and they’re equal, the click less switch will be the trump card because it removes a possible distraction.
Something else to consider about base tone is the sonic difference between acoustic guitar and electric guitar. People are used to the acoustic guitar. Truthfully, so are you. The electric guitar and amp, by themselves produce a thin tone. It’s not a bad tone, but it’s not as full as your standard acoustic. My normal base tone is set up to full in and warm up my tone. It’s clean, with a bit of reverb and compression. I’ll add a mild overdrive or boost when needed, but that’s about it. I might add a slight effect here or there, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
I’M NOT PLAYING ACOUSTIC GUITAR
The acoustic guitar, like the piano, is a main instrument. You can lead worship with a piano and your voice. But try leading with a monophonic synth and your voice, you can do it, but it’s tricky. The same is true with an electric guitar. I can lead worship by myself with it, but I need to recognize the differences between the two instruments. When I replace my acoustic guitar with an electric guitar in worship leading, I change how I strum. I change the chord voicings I use. If I’m using effects like delay, then that changes how I play. If I add overdrive on an upbeat song, maybe I don’t hit all the strings in a chord that I would have with my acoustic.
Recognize the difference, and rearrange your playing to match. Too many worship leaders think it’s the same thing, grab a cheap electric and plug only to find that they aren’t sounding that great.
WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO USE AN ELECTRIC TO LEAD THE BAND?
That’s a really good question. It’s also a terrible one. Here’s why:
Why do I use an electric? Because music and musical expression is in constant flux. Music is a stream that’s moving. The person who asks “why” because they like things the way they were is the same as the person 40 years ago who asked why lead with an acoustic guitar when the piano or organ was just fine. So part of the reason I lead with an electric is keep moving forward. Part of the reason is that it allows me to do more and express more. There is something powerful in a driving rock song that fulfills the Bible’s multiple calls to “shout to the Lord”, and in my opinion, a controlled distortion on a song comes the closest to the visions of the heavenly scenes from where we get lines like “Holy, Holy, Holy, who was and is and is to come”. The electric guitar can also just sound really good.
So it’s a great question to ask, because if your just trying to be cool or showy, it’s a bad thing. But if you’re trying to keep things the way they were, this is a great chance for us to break bondages of tradition and legalism that should never exist in Christ’s church.
SHOULD I USE AN ELECTRIC TO LEAD THE BAND?
Generally speaking, if you don’t have a drummer, you probably shouldn’t lead with an electric. I’ll do it rarely, but only on slower songs, other than that, there has to be drums. Also, do you have the time to invest in practicing a new way of worship leading? Do you have the money to invest in decent gear, because it costs more to set up an electric rig than to get an acoustic guitar. Does it fit with your church culture and would your leadership be cool with it?
If you answered no to any of these questions, then take a pause and hold off until you’re sure.
HOW DO I START?
See my series on setting up an electric rig for worship HERE (note: you won’t need as much gear if you’re just leading the band). Since you’re leading the band you still need to make sure you have the “lead” or “solo” instrument in the band (see thoughts on that HERE). Practice a lot. Don’t just decide to do it one morning out of the blue, make sure you have a good base tone, and keep it really simple to start. Other than that, get out there and lead the folks in song to bring glory to God!