I recently went to a conference for worship leaders and attended a breakout group designed for electric guitar players. As we crowded together for the session, the leader made a comment that this room had just become the most opinionated room in the whole conference.
It’s funny, because it’s true. It’s sad, because it’s too true.
Electric guitar players seem to have a special proclivity to strong opinions. We love to think that our way is THE way.
Over my years of playing electric guitar in a worship context, I’ve been confronted with the truth that God wants me to die to myself to serve His church. When we realize this as electric guitar players, we can learn not to hold too tightly to our preferences and opinions.
Below are some of the things I’ve learned from years of playing for worship gatherings. Many of them I learned the hard way. Whether you are just beginning to play in a worship context, or you’re a veteran of many years, I hope that these principles can be a help and encouragement, and perhaps they can save you from making some of my mistakes along the way.
We don’t really use this word very often. The Google dictionary defines the word meek as “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive.” Sounds like most electric guitar players you’ve heard of, right? I thought so.
How does this apply to playing electric guitar in church? I could tell you some wonderful stories about guitarists playing 100-watt half stacks or 60-watt quarter stacks in churches of less than 100 people, but I’d only be telling you stories about myself.
When I started out playing electric guitar in church, I was trying to bring my love of rock music onto the stage with me. My setup was complete overkill. When I would play at churches, they would tell me my amp was too loud – after I’d turned it down to one. I was frustrated, thinking that everyone else was wrong or evil for telling me to turn down my amp.
Looking back, I realize that I was the problem.
Most people hear the word meekness and immediately dismiss it as weakness. I fell into the same trap.
I mean come on, I’m an ELECTRIC GUITAR PLAYER. It’s supposed to be loud, right? The only people who have a problem with that are old and irrelevant, right? Wrong.
Meekness is so near to the heart of God, that Jesus says this in his most famous sermon: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Wow.
Instead of dismissing meekness, let’s cultivate it.
For our purposes, let’s use this definition of meekness: power under control. I’ve heard this definition so many times that I’m not sure where it originates, but I think it captures the word perfectly.
Jesus is our perfect example of meekness. Though he was God, he clothed himself in human flesh. He lived as fully God and fully man, and did not use his limitless power for selfish gain. Instead, he lived a life completely submitted to the Father, even to the point of death on a cross.
When I read through the story of Jesus’ brutal torture and death, I see a beautiful display of meekness. Because of Jesus’ meekness on the cross, I can be forgiven for all of my failures – even the failure to display meekness through my playing.
Instead of being distracting guitar players, let’s be humble servants looking to worship Jesus and serve his church. Electric guitar is an instrument full of power, so let’s bring that power under control, and submit joyfully to those in authority over us.
What does this look like practically? There are more ways to display meekness through our playing than I can detail in a blog, but here’s a few bullet points to get you started.
- Play tastefully. Don’t use 25 notes when three can do the job. Don’t use 80s shredder tone over a beautiful hymn arrangement. Play with excellence. Meekness doesn’t give you an excuse to play sloppy or without authority. Practice parts until you can play in a way that doesn’t distract from what’s going on in the service. Get familiar with your gear. Electric guitarists are notoriously gear-crazy (my wife will tell you that I’m guilty). If you can resist that urge to buy a new pedal every week, and really dig into the pedals you have, you will learn a lot. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t get new or better gear, but know that it won’t help you if you don’t have a sound understanding of the concepts behind using effects well.
- Play submissively. If your worship leader is trying to lead a song that sounds like Coldplay, don’t play the blues. If your worship leader is trying to lead a soulful blues song, don’t play it like U2. Serve your worship leader well by serving the song. If he asks you to change something, trust him and do it. It’s never bad to have a healthy dialog with your worship leader, but you must do so out of a place of respect for his role. Go the extra mile – ask your worship leader what he likes and shape your style around that. You can play whatever you want however you want in your free time, but at church, lay aside your preferences and serve.
- Play contextually. Are you in a 4-piece band? Learn how to fill up space appropriately. Learn to create a reverent atmosphere in between songs. Help take the burden off of the worship leader by learning to create smooth transitions. Are you playing with 10 other musicians on stage? Learn how to leave room for all of those other players. Make your parts simple so that other instruments have a chance to shine. Watch your stage volume – this is a huge problem in many churches. Buy a long cable and run your amp off stage with a mic on it. If that’s not an option, put a mic on it and surround it with some sort of sound suppression. The less stage noise you make, the more likely you are to contribute to a great mix. Be a team member. Communicate with your band (and the tech team), and work together to create something that displays the majesty and beauty of our God.
- Play humbly. There will always be someone better at guitar than you. We often see these people as threats, and seek to tear them down. But when we are humble and put down our jealous criticisms, these people can become friends and mentors. Learn from people that intimidate you. Ask questions. If you’re really brave, ask people to critique your tone. Ask your sound guy if you need to change anything for him to get a better mix. Ask your worship leader if you’re playing appropriate parts. Let other people sharpen you as a player. It’s not easy, but everyone benefits when you play out of humility.
- Play like you are loved. This is a huge one. If you treat every song as a chance to prove yourself, you are in for a huge disappointment. If you have to show your worth or your chops as a guitar player in every song, you will use songs to serve yourself. The wonderful truth is that in Christ, you are already adopted. You are already accepted. You are already loved and valued. You don’t have to go earn those things on the stage. If you try, you will feel empty and worthless. I’ve got a newsflash for you: people won’t hear everything you play. Our services, arrangements, and mixes are all imperfect. You can’t always be the center of attention. Depending on where you play, your notes may be seldom heard or not heard at all. This can be a huge struggle – one that I have wrestled with over and over again. But the cure for this discouragement is not by begging the sound guy to turn you up. It’s not by playing more and more obnoxious solos in the instrumental, hoping that someone will compliment your sweep picking. We serve a God not limited by imperfect mixes or circumstances – he hears every note. And this God delights in you. He delights in your worship. He delights in the notes you play for his glory. And I look forward and long for the day when I see Jesus face to face. I don’t know all the things that he will say, but I have this daydream of him looking at me and saying, “Taylor, I heard every single note. All of them. And I loved to hear you play for me.” And at the end of the day, that is more than enough reason to play with everything I have – whether it’s heard or not.
Worship guitarists, what if we had the reputation of being humble servants instead of stubborn, opinionated band members?
What if we were known as people who were willing to sacrifice our preferences to serve our churches?
May we be known by our meekness.