One Guitar Player’s Journey from the Secular to the Sacred
I started playing guitar in the late 90s and cut my teeth on bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Rage Against the Machine, and Radiohead, just to name a few. With my Schecter C1 Classic and Zoom 505II, I would spend hours learning the riffs and solos to my favorite songs so that I could impress my friends and show off to girls. Sonically, I was drawn to thick walls of sound, creamy distortion, and blistering solos with a healthy dose of wah pedals.
When I got older and had some money saved up, I bought a Traynor YCV50, which is a Marshall-styled tube amp, a Rat, Big Muff, Ibanez Weeping Demon wah, and a TC Electronic Nova System to handle all my various effects needs. I still had my trusty Schecter and was on the bridge pickup exclusively, which was outfitted with a Seymour Duncan JB. With this setup, I was able to get the sound I had in my head that combined the tones and techniques of my favorite guitarists into an amalgamation of fuzzed out Drop D riffing and psychedelic solos that channeled my inner Billy Corgan and Dave Navarro.
I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior at the end of college, and with my newfound faith, I volunteered to join the worship team. My motivations had changed from trying to impress people to wanting to express my joy and love for Christ in the best way I knew how – through music. I was a changed man, but that didn’t mean I had to change my music taste or playing style, right? Jesus accepted me the way I am and created me with unique giftings; I shouldn’t have to change that just to conform to a specific music genre. Plus, worship music could use some more power chords and guitar solos. My church mostly played songs by Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Bethel, and David Crowder, music that I never listened to outside of Sundays, and in my ignorance and arrogance, I dismissed all worship music as simplistic, consisting only of the same four-chord pattern and maybe a quick lead line if I was lucky. With that mentality, my approach to playing worship songs on the electric guitar was this: noodle around on a scale and fill up space during the quiet parts and add a generous amount of gain during the chorus to bring the energy. And if the spirits of the guitar gods prompt, which they seemed to do often, don’t be shy to improvise a solo when a song calls for one. I continued to play this way for the next several years, and no one seemed to mind, other than a few people who complained that my guitar was too loud, but I just took that as typical church commentary.
As I grew in my relationship with Jesus, I started to listen to worship music outside of church and started to appreciate it for what it was rather than comparing it to my collection of rock bands. At the same time, I had a new worship leader who was much more attuned to tone and had specific parts he wanted me to play for each song. My free reign of being able to play whatever I wanted had come to an end. “Oh well, that was fun while it lasted, but this shouldn’t be a problem. It’s just worship music,” I thought to myself. Now I’m not a guitar virtuoso – far from it, actually. However, up to that point, I felt like I had learned enough theory and techniques to play rock music, so I could handle anything in a worship context. Did I already mention that I was ignorant and arrogant? I had a big piece of humble pie waiting to be eaten.
Over the next several months, I was made aware – usually with a measure of grace – of ways my sound and playing style needed to improve to better suit the worship context: my tone was too dry and abrasive, my playing dynamics consisted only of clean and quiet to full-on high-gain distortion with nothing in between, and playing only cowboy and barre chords made the guitar sound muddy in the mix. While these suggestions bruised my ego, I was determined to figure out how to properly play worship guitar while still incorporating my own style. This led me on a journey several years long as I bought and sold gear, watched countless Youtube videos, and spent hours practicing and tweaking my amp and effects settings. I want to shout out to Troy Trahan from Guitar for His Glory, and Brian Wahl and Bradford Mitchell from Worship Tutorials. While I’ve never personally met them, their YouTube videos were instrumental in guiding my approach to worship guitar. With their help, I learned 3 fundamental skills for truly transitioning to worship guitar.
3 Fundamental Skills for Playing Worship Guitar
- Create Ambience: When I started on this journey of discovery, I had made a playlist of popular songs by Bethel, Hillsong, and Elevation so that I could study them. The first thing I noticed was, “Hey, where are the guitars on this?” I didn’t hear a lot of riffs or lead lines like I was used to. To my untrained ears, the guitar seemed buried in the mix or was mistaken for keys or synth parts. Like I had mentioned, my tone used to be dry as a bone with minimal reverb, and modulation and delay typically reserved for making my solos stand out. One of the signature sounds of worship music is the lush ambience created by big bloomy reverbs, swirling modulation, and tasteful delays. From pad swells to simple lines, worship guitarists use ambient soundscapes to fill in the space without having to be loud or busy, since the electric guitar is not the focal point and needs to support the song and the vocals.
- Learn Chord Inversions and Triads: Learning chord inversions was a game changer for me, and they are integral to how I play and a big component of modern worship music. Chord inversions opened up the fretboard and allowed me to add different flavors of the same chord depending on where I played. Even with a simple I-V-vi-IV chord progression, it can sound different with inversions and add a lift to a song. For example, I may do some light strumming or picking with open chords during the verse and then drive it with inversions on the big chorus. Another great thing about inversions is that, like barre chords, they have the same shape, so that no matter what key the song is in, you’re playing the same thing, just on different frets, which is great if you don’t like using a capo like me. And by combining different shapes, you can play the chord progression without having to move around the fretboard too much. For example, you can play a I-V-vi-IV progression in the key of G without your index finger leaving the fifth fret. With worship guitar, oftentimes, less is more, as playing too many notes of a chord can sound muddy. This is why, along with inversions, I also often play triads (chords consisting of 3 notes: the root, 3rd, and 5th) and even dyads (2-note chords) on the higher strings to cut through the mix while creating space in the frequency spectrum for the other instruments.
To learn more about chord inversions, check out this helpful video: How To Play Worship Guitar Chord Inversions (Moveable Chord Inversions and Shapes) EBOOK! – YouTube
- Fit into the overall Mix: As musicians, it can be very easy for us to focus solely on our parts and our instruments, but in order to serve our teams and the songs with utmost excellence, it’s important to understand how our instruments fit in a band context. I’ve alluded to this above when I talk about filling space and creating space, and this is something I’ve come to understand better from also serving as a sound engineer at church. The electric guitar covers a wide sonic palette and fills lots of different roles musically, from ambient swells and chimey cleans that create movement and build atmosphere, to overdriven chords and distorted lead lines that bring the energy and excitement. If you’re in a band with two electric guitarists, decide who will play which parts. If one of you is playing big open chords, the other should play an inversion higher up the fretboard. If you’re the only electric guitarist, pay attention to what the other instruments are playing and fill in the spaces that sound empty. The electric guitar can sound muddy if playing in the same frequency range as the keyboard or bass, or can clash with and distract from the vocals. Also, when dialing in your sounds at home, hear how it sounds as you play along with the song. There have been a lot of times when I’ve got a great overdriven tone when playing by myself, only to have my guitar disappear in the mix on Sundays when the snare and cymbals come in.
A Rig Transformation
No discussion about worship guitar tones and techniques would be complete without also talking about gear! With a new purpose for my playing, I knew I needed to rehab my rig. The tones I’d need to play worship guitar just wouldn’t be possible with my alt rock board. I’ll walk through my rig evolution over the years, and talk about what worked for me, what didn’t, and why I’m extremely happy with what I’m currently using, and hopefully this helps other guitarists who are in the same boat just starting on this journey to make better-informed gear choices.
Guitar: Schecter C1 Classic
Amp: Traynor YCV50 Blue
Pedalboard: ElectroHarmonix Big Muff Tone Wicker, ProCo Rat, Ibanez Weeping Demon Wah, TC Electronic Nova System
As mentioned previously, this was my ultimate alt rock rig that was perfect for getting those 90s grunge tones. The Traynor YCV50B is a 50-watt tube amp with EL34s to get that Marshall growl when saturated with distortion and fuzz, courtesy of the Rat and Big Muff. When it was time for a solo, the Ibanez Weeping Demon conjured up sounds reminiscent of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Definitely nothing subtle with this setup.
The Nova System handled the rest of the effects, mostly delays and reverbs, and phaser, chorus, and tremolo when the song called for it. For its time, the Nova System had great, pristine-sounding digital effects. There were a few quirks and limitations for live use though. The order of the effects was fixed, so I couldn’t put a phaser before the overdrive, for example. And you were limited to using only one type of effect at a time, so I couldn’t use a chorus and tremolo together. The biggest quirk for me was that the effects were turned off/on when the button was released, not pressed, for some reason, which was a bit tricky to time when playing live.
The C1 Classic was my first electric guitar which I got in high school, and with a Seymour Duncan Jazz and JB in the neck and bridge, respectively, it worked well for the type of music I was playing. The neck was also very fast and comfortable to play, especially since I have smaller hands.
In-Progress Worship Rig
Guitars: Partscaster tele & Gretsch G5422TG
Amps: Ibanez TSA15H & Yamaha THR100HD
Pedalboard: Mooer Micro Power Supply, MXR Il Torino, TC Electronic Polytune 3, Ernie Ball VP Jr., Ibanez Weeping Demon wah, Tech21 MIDI Mouse, Tone Bakery Creme Brulee, TC Electronic Nova System, Tree of Life Pedals Octodrive (Zendrive clone), Like My Pedals Mayflower Overdrive clone, TC Electronic Polytune 3, Xotic SP compressor, Line6 HX Effects, Greer Lightspeed, Mad Professor Supreme
Once I started becoming more serious about playing worship music, I needed to do a complete gear makeover so that I could better fit the musical context without being a distraction, and I started with my amp. After I sold my Traynor YCV50 Blue, I used an Ibanez TSA15 head and cab. At 15 watts, it was much lighter and manageable for live use than a 50 watt tube amp. It was a cool little amp and had a built-in tube screamer circuit, which I honestly didn’t use that much. Like all tube amps, it sounds best when the volume is up and the tubes are cooking, and in a church that had a small stage and no amp room or iso cabs, it was a constant struggle with the sound guys who kept telling me to turn it down, and I kept trying to explain why it had to be as loud as it was, especially since it didn’t have a master volume. After a couple years, I decided to sell this and switch to an amp modeler so that I could go direct to FOH and have consistent sound each week without having to worry about stage volume and mic placement.
To make the switch from analog to digital amps, I sold the TSA15 and got a Yamaha 100THR100HD. This is basically two amps in one, as it has two completely independent circuits with the same controls. It has 5 different amp types ranging from solid-state cleans to high-gain amps, so it could be used as a 2-channel amp to switch from clean to crunch, or as a stereo setup like I did, with one side emulating a clean Fender amp and the other having a Vox-style chime. Both channels also had different boost and reverb styles, and you could load your own cabinet IRs, in addition to the ones it comes with. This amp combined the flexibility of digital technology with the immediateness of analog controls so that I didn’t have to menu dive to change my settings. The XLR outputs on the back meant that I could plug in directly to FOH and have consistent sound week to week. The limiting factor here was that I liked the higher-gain amp styles and wanted to use them more often, but running my delay and reverb into the effects loop didn’t sound as good as they sounded too sterile.
In regards to effects pedals, the Big Muff and Rat were replaced by the MXR Il Torino and Tone Bakery Creme Brulee. The Il Torino is a light gain OD that I always kept on to add some breakup to my clean tone. The Creme Brulee is a Klon-style pedal that was my go to OD pedal since I liked it better than the TS and Rat-flavored drives on the Nova System. I got an Ernie Ball VP Jr. so that I could add volume swells for those ambient parts. To minimize the time and effort needed to switch between presets on the Nova System, I added a Tech21 MIDI Mouse. This really helped me not have to tap dance as much going from the verse to chorus to back again. For this iteration of my pedalboard, I still had my Weeping Demon! I kept trying to find an excuse to use it in a worship setting, and used it maybe once or twice, I think for the guitar solo in Hillsong’s “Hosanna.” I eventually sold it to make room on my board for more useful pedals.
At this point, I wanted to replace my Schecter because I wasn’t getting the clean tones I wanted. The humbuckers sounded dull and wooly when played clean, and when coil-split they sounded weak. I’d been bitten by the tele bug and saw this cool-looking project partscaster on Reverb that I grabbed without knowing too much about it. The bridge pickup sounded really good – punchy and smooth without being too bright. The neck pickup, as with most teles, was dark and veiled. That was okay because I was on the bridge about 90% of the time, and used the middle position when I needed something cleaner.
I replaced the Nova System with the Line6 HX Effects, and it was a massive upgrade with all the effect types and ease of moving the effects around on the signal chain. Using snapshots for the different sections of a song made it easy to focus on my playing as opposed to tap dancing and mentally calculating when and which buttons to press. I also added a couple more drives for variety: a Zendrive clone and an OD based on the Walrus Audio Mayflower. These were mostly used to add some extra push to a clean section or boost a lead part. I also got the Xotic SP compressor, which was always on to even out the dynamics and add more sustain. All the effects ran into the front of my amp, which sounded good, but like I had mentioned previously, there were times when I would’ve liked to run the delays and reverbs after the preamp to take more advantage of the amp gain.
As is the case with most guitarists, I wanted to try other overdrive variations, so I replaced the Creme Brulee, Zendrive clone, and Mayflower clone with a Greer Lightspeed and the Mad Professor Supreme dual overdrive pedals. The Lightspeed was one of the best sounding overdrive pedals I’ve tried as it sounded so smooth and added the right amount of top end sizzle to cut through the mix. The Supreme was basically two overdrives in one, and I switched between the two sides depending on which pickup I was using on my telecaster. If I was on the bridge, the highs were lowered and the mids and lows boosted, whereas if I was using the neck or middle positions, the highs and mids were boosted and the lows were cut.
The partscaster tele definitely fit the bill of a project guitar though, as there were things I started noticing the more I played it: the strings didn’t quite seem to align evenly with the fingerboard and pickups, the wiring and pots were cheap and needed to be replaced after a few months, and the truss rod needed to be greased as it wouldn’t budge. I had poured in a lot of time and money into this guitar – upgrading the pots, wires, and socket, replacing the bridge with a Mastery bridge, and getting a bone nut – because I really wanted it to be my number one guitar, but eventually I was spending more time trying to improve the playability rather than actually playing it.
I have a thing for blue guitars, and when this Gretsch G5422TG showed up on Reverb, I just had to get it. This is definitely the classiest guitar I’ve owned. The fit, finish, and playability was a huge upgrade from my tele. And it did that Gretsch sound really well that we all know and love: that chimey, gritty sound with clear note separation. Perfect for worship music.
If I played strictly worship music, I’d still be rocking this. But outside of worship music, I love playing Chili Peppers-influenced funk rock, fuzzed out Pumpkins riffs, and heavy chugging in Drop D. The thing I’ve come to learn about Gretsches is that while they nail their signature sound and do it very well, they aren’t the most versatile. And this isn’t a knock on Gretsch. No one picks up a semi-hollow body Gretsch to play heavy metal. And in an ideal world, I would still have this guitar, along with all of my other guitars probably. But as a volunteer guitarist who plays at church 1-2 times a month, I can’t justify owning multiple guitars, especially with the ridiculous cost of living in Los Angeles. So in my quest to find the one guitar to rule them all, I had to let the Gretsch go.
Current Worship Rig
Guitar: Balaguer Semi-custom Woodman
Amp & Effects: Fractal Audio FM3, Hotone Ampero Switch, Ernie Ball VP Jr.
Which brings us to my current guitar and the end of my search for the perfect guitar (for now!): my custom-designed Balaguer Woodman. And yes, I have a thing for blue telecasters. I first heard about Balaguer Guitars through Ryan “Fluff” Bruce’s Youtube channel, Riffs, Beards, and Gear. Back then, he was a Balaguer artist and had a signature series with them. What interested me about Balaguer is that they offer “semi custom” builds where you choose from a wide range of options, everything from the neck and body woods to the color, body shape, and pickup configuration, all for less than $2,000 (FYI, this was pre-pandemic pricing). I was sick of constantly buying and selling guitars, and modding and upgrading budget guitars, so this was my chance to get a guitar that looked and sounded the way I wanted. The most important thing was to have strat pickups in the neck and middle and a tele bridge pickup. There’s nothing like a strat neck pickup for cleans and edge of breakup tones, and I love the growl and bite of a tele bridge pickup when pushing the gain, and this guitar gave me the best of both worlds. These are vintage-voiced at around 6.5k ohms; I find that low-output pickups provide clearer clean tones and better playing dynamics than high output pickups, which is important when considering a guitar for worship music. In addition to the standard 5 pickup positions, pushing in on the tone knob puts the pickups in series for thicker humbucker-esque tones. The majority of the time I’m either on the neck or bridge pickup, but it’s nice to have other tonal options when the song calls for it.
In terms of playability, the wenge neck, ebony fingerboard, and stainless steel frets provide a buttery smooth playing experience, while the locking tuners and truss rod spoke wheel make string changes and setups quick and easy. This guitar is my number one and only, and for the price and value, I couldn’t be happier.
Likewise, my quest for an all-in-one amp and effects unit led me to the Fractal Audio FM3. I had been wanting to go the all-in-one modeler route for a while because of the convenience of having everything in the same ecosystem that I could turn off/on with a single button and have different signal chains from one preset to the next without having to deal with cables. Initially, I had my eyes set on the Neural DSP Quad Cortex. They had just come out with the announcement and I put my name on the waiting list. I also got a chance to test drive it at NAMM 2020, so I was excited. It looked sleek, I loved the form factor, the big touchscreen, and was already a fan of their plugins. Of course, a couple months later, the pandemic shut the world down, and production of the Quad Cortex was delayed indefinitely, so I started looking at other options.
At first glance, I didn’t think the FM3 would work for me because it only had 3 footswitches and had less processing power than other modelers like the Helix. But the more I looked into it, the more it made sense for my needs, so I took the plunge and have not been disappointed. The footswitches have multiple functions, and I use the footswitches to toggle between 2 scenes on each footswitch, and run a total of 5 scenes per preset: Swell, Clean, Pushed Clean, Drive, and Lead. While it would be nice to have more processing power to be able to run 2 amps, 2 reverbs, and chain together more effects, those are luxuries that I can do without, and there’s plenty of tonal options with what is available. Fractal is second to none when it comes to the quality and quantity of their amp and cab models, and I’ve still only scratched the surface with exploring different combinations. I was initially considering adding another reverb pedal to supplement the FM3 since I read that the reverb is very CPU-intensive, but after hearing the algorithms and using them live, I am totally content with just the FM3 reverbs. In addition, Fractal continues to release free firmware updates that add new features and effects and improve functionality. The XLR outputs also let me plug directly to FOH without a DI box. And best of all, everything fits into my backpack. I want to give a special shoutout to my VP Jr. because it is still working as good as when I bought it 12 years ago.
For those who are on a similar journey, I pray that this article sheds some light and helps you in some way. With all the gear options out there nowadays, it can be very overwhelming, and there are lots of competing options about what’s the “best gear.” It’s easy to fall into the trip of getting gear just because it’s popular or because so-and-so worship guitarist is using it. My encouragement is to look for and try out gear that best fits your needs, style, and budget. Whether you have an all-analog rig or digital modeler or something in between, whether you play a Gretsch or a Jazzmaster, the best gear is going to the ones that allow you to most excellently serve the songs, the worship team, and the congregation as you lead them in praising and glorifying God.