Playing Acoustic Guitar In Worship - Part 1
I started playing acoustic guitar when I was 12. I can vividly remember that summer in 1986, sitting in a friend’s kitchen working my way through Russ Shipton’s Complete Guitar Player teaching books. When I was almost good enough, the church would let me sit on the front row to play along with the choruses on Sunday morning. While the pastor cranked out the tunes and left a trail of broken strings in his wake, I would follow along on my as best as I could, leaving out the chords I didn’t know (still guilty of that occasionally).
Fast forward 32 years or so and I’ve lost count of the number of live worship recordings for which I’ve patched up the guitars. From local church projects to big name worship leaders playing before congregations of thousands, I’ve repaired them all and I know where the bones are buried!
For this first outing, I’d like to talk a bit about really knowing your instrument and the way you play it. It might seem a bit like teaching grandma to suck eggs, so I’ll apologise for that in advance, but getting some basic stuff right is key to your acoustic guitar to sitting where it should and helping you to serve best in your worship environment.
I used to do freelance work for Taylor Guitars as a product specialist around Europe, where the first half of each roadshow was dedicated to the effects of body shape and wood type on the sound of the guitar. Even within the same brand and style of instrument, no two guitars are going to sound identical. Furthermore, the same guitar will sound different in the hands of two different players. There are plenty of resources online to checkout on this topic, or you can go into a well-stocked guitar store and hear the differences first hand.
One of the most important contributors to the tone of an acoustic guitar is probably the transfer of energy from the strings into the top of the guitar via the saddle and bridge. The bigger the guitar, the more energy is required to get the top vibrating (generating tone) and vice versa. So a light player with a skinny plectrum might struggle to get a good sound out of a jumbo-style acoustic, whereas a heavy-handed player attacking a little parlour guitar with gusto might rapidly get to the point where it starts to compress, sounding ragged and unpleasant.
Unless you have unlimited resources to go out and buy one of everything, taking time to get to know your instrument and the way you play it (adjusting if necessary) is time well spent. Find out where the sweet spot is on your guitar and practice playing around it, exploring the dynamic range where your instrument sounds at it’s best. For whatever reason, worship leaders can tend to beat the life out of their guitars as a means of spurring the band and congregation on. It might feel right to them at the time, but it’s really not a great experience to be the other side of the speakers when that’s going on!
The flip-side of that coin is when a player doesn’t dig into their acoustic enough, so it never generates the warm, percussive tone we expect from it. I’ve come across a good number of players who asked me how to get a richer sound from their guitar, when they’re pretty much tickling the strings with the skinniest of picks. Take the time to try out some different plectrum materials, styles and weights to find what works for you. I’ll often go up or down a gauge or so, depending on the tempo and feel of the song. Also, experiment with where your picking hand is striking the strings – you’ll find a tremendous amount of variation based on how close you are to the bridge of your guitar.
I can remember getting schooled on tone and dynamics by a friend who is a great guitarist, engineer, producer, all-round legend called Neil Costello. I was on an overdub session and he had me strum my guitar evenly, gradually increasing pick attack until it started to really sing, then strum it harder until we could hear it start to compress and get ratty. After that, he got me to dial it back about 10% or so, so the guitar sounded great throughout the track and still had a little bit left in the tank for when we needed it. That lesson stuck with me.
If you struggle to hear the difference while you’re playing, try recording yourself, or having somebody record you while you play. Even on a very basic setup (or your smartphone) you should start to recognise when your guitar sounds great and when it’s not so good. If you don’t have any resources like that to hand, you could try playing your guitar facing a wall a few feet away so you get some idea of the sound coming back to you.
I remember organising a worship seminar and concert by Bryn Haworth when I was in my teens. Hearing him simply strum his acoustic had a profound effect on my own playing style. His pick attack on the strings was so balanced that it made one guitar sound like a choir of angels! More importantly, for the purpose many of us are engaged in, there was no distraction or unease in his playing, so it was the perfect springboard for confident congregational singing.