Distortion in Worship | Crafting that Perfect Guitar Tone

Hitting that distortion button may be tricky business if you’re afraid it may be ‘too heavy’ or

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: dominic bartolini)

‘too loud’ for your congregation; especially playing in a band that is highly improvisatory & dependent on the Holy Spirit. Here are some things I try to develop in my guitar tone to best suit the needs of the band & congregation.

  • Clarity – Can you distinguish all 6 strings in a bar chord? If not, your distortion may be either too heavy, grainy, or saturated. Get it to that point where it sounds clear & resonant at the hardest you’ll be playing.
  • Sustain – How well do your single notes carry? In other words, how long does the note last after you’ve picked it and you’re still depressing the string to the neck? If you have trouble keeping your gain/distortion low enough for clarity, yet maintaining a decent sustain, try pairing your distortion with a good-sounding reverb or tape-delay.
  • Warmth – As a preference – I like warm guitar tones better – and it will vary between your amp + whatever effects/distortion you’re using. Be aware of those ‘low,’ ‘mid,’ and ‘high’ knobs; they do work in crafting the tone that suits your needs.
  • Versatility For getting the most out of a distortion – I like to use velocity as a variable. Velocity is more of a synthesizer/midi term meaning how hard you attack/pick/articulate the note. In this instance, playing with more velocity will create a heavier distortion & less velocity will yield a cleaner sound (less distortion)  I feel having this characteristic in a distortion to be favorable because of the following;      1). I’m not pressing so many stomp boxes for every song section.                                2). I can easily adapt to the improvisation & fluctuation of dynamics during worship just by changing how hard I’m playing.                                                                        3). I can focus on changing effects (chorus, delay, phaser) for subtle changes instead of the abrupt & sometimes awkward & unfitting heavy/soft distortion.
  • Buzzless – Stay away from distortion units/effects that cause a buzz whenever you
    SWR BASS 350 RedFace

    SWR BASS 350 RedFace (Photo credit: jovino)

    stop playing. There’s no better way to sound like an amateur or distract others from worship than with an annoying buzz. Also, in regards to this – other causes of such buzz may be your amplifier, pickups, occasionally bad cables, and even cellphones (a la, Blackberry often causes radio interference near cables, amps, & other audio equipment).

In terms of what distortions I really enjoy, check out the below couple of links for some really good & favorable examples.

Jesus Culture – Rooftops

Michael Ketterer – You’re Beautiful

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Worship With What Ya Got

Leading the church when you’re short of a full band

Animal (Muppet)

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I think more times than not – I’ve been in praise in worship bands that are missing at least one key instrument on Sunday morning. And if you’re a worship musician, you’re like “c’mon.. really?” – And if you’re the worship leader, you’re simply doing the best with what you have to work with while secretly hoping Animal will walk through the sanctuary doors to play drums for you because your band seriously lacks charisma too.

In a situation like this, the most important thing to do is keep your focus on the Lord – for both your benefit and the congregation’s – you really should not portray anything but the unhindered worship of God.

Guitar and/or Piano, Bass, & Drums is typically your normal core ensemble; however, things can get tricky with contemporary worship when you’re missing one or more of these

Here’s some tips for various scenarios your worship band may be in

  • Guitar and/or Piano, & Bass – If you’re missing a drummer, my biggest suggestion is to keep things rhythmically simple. This can be best conveyed through the bass playing straight quarter, half, and whole notes. The guitar/piano have a bit more freedom in rhythm, but because there isn’t any percussion, the bass has a new role in helping keep that pulse there.
  • Guitar (acoustic), Guitar (electric), Bass – Definitely the most dreaded – the “rock band without a drummer.” As above, the bassist has the job of keeping that pulse there – quarters, halves, and whole notes are you palette.  The acoustic guitar work doesn’t have to change that much – simplicity is gold. I might also suggest keeping your chord voicings to the standard open chords when possible – You’re using all six strings and keeping the texture full this way. The electric guitar should stay away from distortion as much as humanly possible. Depending on the harmonic rhythm (how often the chords are changing), you may be able to supply some higher atmospheric chords through the use of appropriate amounts of reverb, delay, and/or slow phaser.  If you’re playing a hymn or anything that has very quick chord changes, do stay away from the reverbs & delays – Your best bet here is to play higher voicings of what the acoustic guitar is playing – otherwise, things will get real muddy real quick.
  • Guitar, Piano, & Drums – While you have a bit more freedom rhythmically all around, the pianist may want to play lower on the piano than usual as to keep the sound full in the absence of a bassist. This is really not a bad ensemble situation to be in. Be sure to communicate well with each other – there’s a lot you can do dynamically here.
  • Guitar (acoustic), Guitar (electric), Drums – I’d most likely suggest here that you keep the acoustic guitar to the full open chords – the acoustic is as much bass foundation as you’ll likely get here.  The electric guitar should keep things relatively simple – higher voiced chords if clean; long swells & single notes with delay/reverb with a light creamy distortion work well too.  For drums – if you’re playing a kit – simple is the theme of this post so let’s stick with that; however, if you have a djembe  available, go with it & perhaps a shaker. These work incredibly well together and provide an organic & intimate feel to worship.

Of course, these are all simply suggestions & wisdom from my years of playing in praise & worship bands. The above are the most common scenarios I’ve run into – Be creative with whatever comes your way and make the best of it –  It’s worship, after all.