A Rhythm Section Primer

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Rhythm driven music seems to have really begun to have it’s impact with the invention and popularity of the Radio. Not long after this electronic invasion into the American home, we began to see a real dichotomy between the music people sang on Sunday and what they listened to the rest of the week. The “Hymn Style” was reserved for Sunday but, particularly after WW II, there was a major shift in the taste of the public.

The Big Band era, Jazz, Country & Rock changed our listening habits forever. What do all these popular styles have in common? A small rhythm section is the heart beat of each style. Percussion becomes essential to the groove or feel, while the bass directs the movement of the chord progression and harmonic instruments punctuate the aforementioned “groove”.

I’m not going to discuss the merits of various music genres, but I believe it is helpful to have some historical perspective on this inescapable shift in the musical appetite of the general public.

Today’s more popular sounds of worship music lend themselves to what I call a “grass roots” sort of approach. Meaning that the style is less complicated than some past styles and is possibly a bit more accessible to the individual in the pew. This “grass roots” music, to the chagrin of some and the delight of many, is rhythm based. That is, the most essential instruments are no longer the harmonic and melodic instruments but rather, those that clarify the feel or groove.

This type of music requires a different understanding than the more historically traditional views of church music.

I have often joked of starting a school for praise and worship teams and the prerequisite would be to play or sing for at least one year in a bar. How sacrilegious, one might gasp! Well, there are some very real principles to be mined in this attempt at skullduggery. One has the opportunity to learn how a group works. If you don’t take the time and interest to learn… you’re fired (don’t ask me how I know this).

Whereas a solo musician lives or dies to himself, a rhythm section, similar to a symphonic performance, lives or dies together. A sort of “all for one, one for all” mentality.

There are some basic elements to the successful execution of a good rhythm section. Let’s discuss a few:

Song example: Lord I Lift Your Name on High

First, the order of instruments:
Rhythm Guitar
Lead Guitar

You will have to trust me on this. This order will improve your groove. Which is a way of saying, not only will you sound better, the congregation will find it much easier to participate in your music.

I find it interesting that Asaph was a composer of several psalms and David actually committed several of his own compositions to Asaph to be arranged and directed. Why am I surprised? Because Asaph was a “percussionist” a drummer, if you will.

How many drummers do you know capable of such an assignment? For rhythm based music, percussion is not an “add-on” it is the essential element. Let’s take a look at some of the drummer’s responsibilities.

– Foundation
– Establishes Meter (pulse)
– Sets Mood
– Creates Energy (at ppp and fff)

If your drummer doesn’t own and work with a metronome, buy him/her a good one. Metronomes should be used in rehearsal as well as personal practice.

(How can you tell if the platform is level?)

It is the right tempo and the synergy between the bass and drums that produces the mystery we musicians term as tight, in the pocket, groove.

– Helps Establish the Foundation
– Establishes Meter w/Drums
– Provides Energy
– Determines (Establishes) Chord Progression

A well seasoned bassist , through the judicious employment of passing tones, inversions and other such techniques, can bring solidity and richness not otherwise possible.

Rhythm Guitar
Helps Establish Meter using complementary rhythmic figures, often on the Backbeat.

– Establishes Chord Progression in deference to the Bass.
– Can be a useful Coloring Instrument, as well (effects, tasteful volume swells, harmonics, etc.).

Charles Emerson Winchester III said, out of instruments that are worn on ones body, the sales figures document that the Guitar has been, and is, the most popularly bought and played instrument in the world.

Having said that, guitarists need to be educated in the inner workings of the group, along with everyone else. They should learn to read music and should be mentoring others in the process.

(How do you get a guitarist to turn down his volume?)

The role of the keyboard is quite drastically altered from it’s more historical role of playing elaborate accompaniments ie. melody, harmony rhythm and ornamentation.

However, keyboards fulfill an integral space in this context.

Keyboards are great for identifying chords in a progression and, those with percussive qualities, can enhance the “feel’ or “movement” of rhythm oriented music.

Today, they are generally used to create interesting intro’s and turnarounds, supporting “pads”, color and they are expected to “ride” from time to time. (The solo or ride may be premeditated (written or arranged) or improvisatory).

When two or more keyboards are being used, they should find individual chord voicings, creating colors that broaden the sonority (color scope) of the piece. Each keyboard must take a different approach to the same tune to make successful contributions to the arrangement. For instance, one keyboard may be called to take the “primary” role (chord progression), while the other would then pursue a supporting role (String Pads and Fills).

Remember, keyboards today have a veritable infinite palette of colors and sonorities that can provide texture and interest to the rhythm section.

Brass and Woodwinds
Wind instruments should generally have a written arrangement that specifies exactly what is expected in the arrangement. And as a rule stay away from the melody (true for all melodic instruments, generally) Counter melodies, harmonies, stabs (think “Chicago”) are just some of the ways this group of instruments can contribute to the group.

Keep in mind the more instruments used, the less each instrument will actually play. Another way to say this; the less busy individual instruments will be.


Rhythmic Figures (patterns) are used to create a groove.

Beat stress examples:

– Four on the Floor (Rock)
– Two and four Back Beat (Country, Rock, Reggae)
– Eighth/Dotted Sixteenth (Island Feel)
– Quarter, Dotted Eighth- Sixteenth, Two sixteenths- Eighth, Quarter (Dave Matthews)
– Eighth rest- two sixteenths/ Eighth rest- eighth note. Reggae (Bass on the down beat, rhythm inst. on the two sixteenths/ single sixteenth)

Once you can recognize these patterns (and play them well) you can, and should, take some liberties with the “rules”. But, you should always have the feel of each style firmly in your grasp.

The Primary Instrument
A Working Definition: The instrument that dictates chord changes and aural mood.

It is helpful to designate a Primary Instrument for each tune or transition. This can help reduce a lot of confusion as to the function of the band. Who do we watch, Who is giving the cues, etc.

Remember, things like primary instruments, hand signals and musical queues are meant not to exacerbate but eliminate confusion.

Personal Development
In this process, do not devalue more traditional styles of music. Let’s work to find ways we can integrate and blend them into what is today “mainstream sounds”.

If you live long enough, the “mainstream sound” will change many times during your journey. The sound of music is forever changing, what will not change is the authentic, genuine, organic sound of the “Worshiping Heart.”

Each member should take personal responsibility to advance his/her craft.

The more you know about your craft and are able to articulate that knowledge, the more advantage you will be able to offer those that work with you. Teachability is the order of the day. It is imperative that we attend each rehearsal with an attitude that is teacheable and ready to contribute to the success of the team.

The Worship Team is not part of the fivefold ministry of the church. It is a service ministry. We do what we do to facilitate the congregational worship experience.

This understanding should govern our participation and pursuit of proficiency.

We are here to serve. (Ps 19:12-14)

A Practical Word For Leaders
Leaders, Conductors, Directors please consider this.

Not long ago, I was teaching a Guitar Intensive at the International Worship Institute.

This intensive costs about 75.00 to each participant. One of the registrants came up to me after class and said essentially these words: “I teach wood winds at
(a noted university dept) and conduct a jazz band there, as well. I play a little guitar, but my purpose for attending today is to learn (humility) to better communicate with my student guitarists.”

Now that’s humility. That is an example of putting your resources where your vision is.

If you are having a problem casting your vision for your team, take them out (with propriety) to a nice jazz restaurant. Buy them a nice meal (maybe you can put this in the departments budget) and ask them to listen and evaluate the band. I didn’t say “criticize”, but discuss how the players are working together, observations of techniques, mechanics, etc.

If a picture is “worth a thousand words” then there is no telling how valuable a “picture with sound” might prove to communicate your vision.