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Be Salty!

Article by:  Tom Lane

Ever feel like you’re losing your saltiness as a player?  We are creatures with habits and sometimes they’re hard to break.  That includes using the same 4 chords we learned years ago in every song, playing the same exact riffs and lines, etc.  It also applies to attitude and behavior; we burn out, feel entitled, deserving, get bitter, jealous, envious, you name it.  

Without a doubt we have developed a whole doctrine around the musical portion of worship and leading.  In some ways we’ve become so people conscious we’ve removed the fun and freedom right out of it.  We can certainly over police it to the point you almost need a seminary degree and an appointment from on high to be on some teams.  I’ve written a lot about the heart and will say again that’s where it starts and what God alone sees!  So that’s the good news and hope for us all.  What I’d like to address here is more the playing with excellence and skill part of the equation.

The level of musicianship has been improving in the Church the past 10 years and we now have a crop of young talents playing circles around some of us old guys.  I was teaching a seminar for guitar players not long ago and heard a 13-14 year old kid playing in the hall during the break-almost asked him to come teach the class!  Putting aside competition, which is not what it’s about, we can become too comfortable and satisfied with where we are.  And reach the point we stop learning or even trying to be better.  I never want to diminish or judge another’s efforts or heart to serve in worship.  The hope is that you’ll read and feel inspired to simply do what you can to become the best player and help to your team that you can.

5 tips to sharpen your skill:

1.  Improve you chord and scale knowledge:  With good reason most worship songs are simple and have just a few chords.  Still every chord can be played in more than one way or position and inversions are good to study and know for that reason.  It’s not simply knowing a bunch of chords, but playing the same chord different ways.  A chord is made up of a triad; root, third, and the fifth.  Inverting it just means playing the triad in a different position e.g. third, fifth, root.  There are many resources for you to learn inversions and it will help make your parts more interesting for sure.  Also helps you voice your chords opposite what other players are doing which is more like layering than duplicating.  Scales help you develop better dexterity and facilitate melody.  Try singing and playing a scale at the same time as an exercise.  The more scales you know and can play with ease and freedom, the more second nature it becomes allowing you to contribute more readily.

2.  Improve your reading skill:  While good that most worship songs are easy enough to follow along with just by reading the words with chords above them, many have no idea how to follow a real chord chart.  Even if you’re not a schooled reader you can follow a chart if you can count.   By chart I mean a road map of the arrangement, as it’s supposed to be played.  With bars, rhythmic notations, repeats, time signature, etc.  There are books galore with charts of your favorite songs.  The difference is your following along every bar and not blindly hoping you place the right chord over a lyric you may not know.  Many with good ears just rely on hearing once then repeating which is fine; again we’re not being legalistic.  But it is frustrating when players “hunt and peck” around.  Till they learn a song it sounds like a mess and even if they know the song they never play it the same way twice.   Especially if you hope to work as hired player, reading will always help!

3.  Learn to construct parts:  Yes, less is more sometimes, but you can be tasteful and inventive without stepping on an arrangement.  Take a song and think about it in sections.  Do something different in each section.  It helps to first listen to what everyone else is doing, and then find your voice within the mix.   An intro may mean a riff or melody for a guitar or solo inst., pad for a keyboard player, and nothing for the bass player.  Decide ahead of time, which player if any, will take the fills for the verses-great way to incorporate all the band members and not hinder others playing.   Instead of an “All Skate” approach to a song where all guns are blazing from the top to bottom, leave spaces and holes.  Find your parts for the sections, commit them to memory and/or chart them and get used to playing them that way every time for a season.  Tweaking as you go to fine tune and building from there.  I promise if you come up with one cool line, even a single note part that’s tasteful-that’s what others will remember most.

4.  Spend time with your gear:  The better you know your instruments and gear the more prepared you are and you’ll spend less time taking up “valuable” time to tweak.  An example for guitar players is; if you use effects; experiment at home with running your time-based effects (delays, modulation efx, verbs) through your effects loop.  It’s quieter and sounds different than putting them in the chain with your distortion and overdrive pedals.  You may find you like it and get better tone.  Google “Effects Chain!” 

Keyboard players almost need a rocket science degree to operate some synths.  As you learn your particular synth, create 5-10 staple sounds and store them in a performance patch so you can recall them live at the touch of one button instead of tweaking on the fly.  

Bass players, learn the difference in application between a fretted and fretless bass.  They’re not necessarily interchangeable for every song.  Fretless is a bit like slide for guitar players-not everyone can do it well.  Intonation is key.  Practice first!   Buy a compressor and learn how to use it, it’s the main effect you’ll see used by most bass players. 

Drummers, can’t say enough how helpful it is to most drummers I know, to understand electronics, computers, and be able to use them live as adeptly as you use your sticks.  It’s a matter of using technology to your advantage and making you even more useful to the team in many cases. 

5.   Study Up!  Pick two players who do some of what you’d like to do better and study them for your homework.  Find out what you can about their influences, learn to play some of what they play till it sounds like them.  I’m not saying we become copycats but we can learn from others.  Ask one of your friends or a good player you have access to spend 5 min, 30 min, or 1hr-just one time and show you 5 things they work on or do well.

Finally, sometimes we actually need to take a break from the routine to refresh. It can be a healthy pattern to develop and makes room for others to grow as well.  Prayer and Google; also wonderful tools of the trade I think.  Add back some salt to your playing, you’ll never regret it!

Tom Lane • August 9, 2009


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