I remember sometime in 2006 buying a CD by Hillsong United called United We Stand. I had been playing guitar for while and I loved playing electric guitar on Sunday mornings for my church. If I remember right, my pedal board was from this new company called Pedaltrain, and it was equipped with a Tuner, Crybaby 535Q, a Rat, and a Line 6 DL4 that kept breaking on me.
I loved that album. It made a huge impression on me as a guitar player, as a worship leader, and as a worshipper. The songs were passionate, the melodies were soaring, the guitars were huge yet orchestrated.
As a guitar player, this album was like a sign, a message, telling me that the way I was used to playing music in my church was going to have to change. Really, the way I was used to thinking about music was going to have to change.
No longer was I able to just look at the chord chart and play whatever I wanted. The guitar meant to much to these songs to just play whatever I felt like.
I was going to have to learn specific parts for specific songs because the guitar was a necessary part of these songs. I could no longer use whatever tone I felt like. I was going to have to shoot for specific tones that sounded like what was on this album, because the song needed it.
This album was a message to many of us. It said that everything we knew about worship in the church was about to change.
That was a decade ago. It’s time for another change.
Two years ago Hillsong released a new album called We Are Young & Free. And who is Young & Free? You could say they are the new youth group band. They write, record and produce songs for Hillsong’s youth.
It’s energetic, dance based music, highly produced, EDM influenced and infused with synths. It’s calculated in it’s musical orchestration and layers, and it’s carefree in it’s execution.
If you haven’t listened to it yet, download it (or buy the CD if you’re still into that sort of thing) and listen to it front to back. This album is a sign, a message, telling us things are about to change. A new generation is coming of age in the church, and with them, a new sound and expression of worship.
If you’re a musician in the church, you need to pay attention. This will change how you play and think about music.
Here’s a short primer on how.
Late in the last century the human race created these things called drum machines. They were fun and if you were a rapper they were useful, but for everything else they left you wanting. They could never really sound or feel like a real drummer.
That was the last century and paradigms have shifted since then.
This century isn’t about trying to get a drum machine to feel like a real drummer. It’s about real drummers trying to feel like a drum machine.
This actually isn’t really anything new. Bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers have been playing disco beats for a long time. It was to be expected that these beats and sounds would make there way into the church.
Don’t fight this change; embrace it. This means your drum parts are actually more important now than they ever have been before. This will steer you to play grooves and beats you might not have played before. That’s a good thing. That’s growth.
Drummers you are the musical foundation the entire song is standing on. Without you, it all falls apart.
So for last ten years, you’ve mostly been able to switch between three sounds: pad, piano, and, if the song was rocking out, a B-3 style organ.
You’ve also taken a back seat to the electric guitar. You have been filling out the sound while guitars have been playing iconic leads and hooks.
If you’re a little introverted, you may have liked this role. You’re not up front. You can musically hide behind the rest of the band. You contribute by adding layers to the music rather than specific parts.
That’s all about to change.
You and your instrument are going to be are know going to be responsible for leads. Without these leads, the song won’t feel the same. There are specific leads and hooks that you will be expected to know when you show up to rehearsal.
Also, you are going to have to expand your sound library. Even though you’ll still use pads, piano sounds and maybe even the occasional organ, you’re going to be using synth leads and that’s a whole other world of sounds.
You are about to become a center piece of worship music. You are an indispensable part of what the next phase of worship music will be. It will be a growing experience for you, but we’re going to need you.
It’s important that you fill this void, because if you don’t, the electric guitar player will naturally fill that void, and we don’t want that.
Guitar players, we have been used to playing the leads and hooks songs need in order to feel right. That will still happen from time to time, but for the most part, the keys are going to take over that roll.
This doesn’t mean that we will just be playing the chords on the chart. If you give the song a closer listen, you’ll start to notice counter leads in the song the compliment what the keys are doing.
For example, take the song This Is Amazing Grace. It’s a great song with a huge keyboard lead at the beginning.
Our tendency will be to play that lead even though it belongs to the keys player; however, if we do that we’re missing a beautiful guitar part that acts as a great counter to the lead and adds a melodic layer that is just awesome.
If you’re not sure what part I’m talking about, watch this video for the first 30 seconds. That’s the part that happens while the synth lead is playing.
We are going to have to listen to songs more carefully. Our parts aren’t going to be pushed to the front of the mix of recordings like they used to be. We’re going to have to listen for the counter parts underneath the lead. When we get those parts right, it will create a musical richness that wasn’t there before.
Worship leaders, a lot of us have gotten used to hiding behind an acoustic guitar while we lead worship. You may notice that in a lot of these songs there isn’t really an acoustic guitar anywhere. Acoustic guitar won’t be leaving worship music anytime soon, we should still work on getting out of our comfort zone.
For many songs, it will be appropriate to put down the acoustic and do what our vocalists already do (as well as the rest of our congregation), stand and sing. If you’re hesitant, that’s understandable. The norm has been to lead worship while playing acoustic guitar for three decades. But realize that most of your church isn’t playing acoustic while they are singing. For you to take a posture that many people in your church already are taking is a good thing.
And don’t worry. The acoustic isn’t going away for good.
Bass players, did you know that you define the chord the band plays as a whole? If the whole band plays a C major chord and you play an A note, guess what, people won’t actually hear a C major. They’ll hear an A minor seventh (Am7) chord all because of the one note you played on the bass.
You have a lot of power and you are going to get more power. The keys and the guitars will be playing more parts and riffs as opposed to just chords. This means your instrument will define how the song sounds even more than what it did before.
So be on top of the song. Know the transitions, know the order and know how the song goes. The song will go where you take it.
Also, more churches than ever are getting high quality subs installed, so your church should be able to hear you even more. No pressure.
- I think this sound will eventually become a dominate sound in worship music going forward, but I don’t think it will be the only sound contemporary churches will be worshiping to. I wrote an article last year on that subject that you can read if you click here. I think there will actually be more diversity in the future.
- I was orginally planning on having a section on Ableton Live and playing with tracks and loops and I realized that’s another post that will have to wait for another time. If you’ve never experienced playing with live tracks before, it’s pretty fun and is what every major performing act has been doing since U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992. It might be new for your church, but it’s really not that new to music.
- Audio Engineers, if you’re reading this, you’re going to have to get sweet subs installed. I know you’re probably heart broken about that.
You may have caught on to this in your life, but styles change. As styles change our expressions of worship change and the way we play our instruments change. This isn’t something we should fight. We should think of it as a growth opportunity in our musical journey.
Will it challenge us? Yes. Will it be easy all the time? No. But we may find that the biggest challenge is actually emotional, not technical. Even with changes in style, the goal is still the same: to worship God and to lead His church in His worship. Let’s not let something like style get in the way of that goal.
Good luck and keep sharp,