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Leading Worship on Acoustic Guitar

The acoustic guitar is the most popular instrument on the face of the earth. Its portability and clean distinctive sound make it popular for both serious and casual musicians. No wonder why so many worship leaders are leading with an acoustic guitar. As we get started there are two things that are “assumed”. First, many of the principles I will talk about are transferable to those leading on electric. The second is that, although I’ll touch on some of the spiritual aspects of leading, the majority of our time will be spent talking about the technical.

The Plus Side
Today’s music definitely works to the guitar players’ advantage since much of the popular worship music is being written by guitar players. (Matt Redman, Martin Smith, and Bob Fitts, just to name a few.) There is definitely a movement from piano driven worship, to guitar driven worship. This gives us the ability to recreate a sound that seems more “cutting edge” just due to recent trends in music.

The acoustic guitar is really a percussion instrument since it’s very easy to establish rhythms as you lead through a song. One area that I encourage young guitar playing worship leaders to grow in is to listen to the drum lines in music. Listening to different styles of music and focusing on the percussive aspects will help you to develop strum patters that can really add to the overall feel of a song. What goes right along with that is the ability to create a more sensitive and intimate atmosphere in worship by learning to fingerpick. Soft strumming and plucking the strings, with your fingers or with a pick, can drastically change the dynamic of worship. Having a variety of strum patterns and rhythms in your arsenal, allows you to have a wide dynamic range without using any effects.

Most people find it very easy to worship, while playing the guitar. Very few instruments are held this close to your body while playing; this allows the instrument to become a part of you, and an extension of your “worshipping being”. This is the main thing you need to learn when beginning to lead worship with your acoustic. The best way to learn to lead worship on guitar is to WORSHIP WITH YOUR GUITAR. Your instrument shouldn’t only be a tool for ministry; it should be an essential part of your worship to the Lord. Use it in your personal devotional time, as well as, in preparation for leading your congregation. I found that many powerful moments in our church’s public worship service came because of something that happened in my own private worship time that week. Find time to just play your guitar and worship for no other reason than to focus on the Lord.

When my twin boys were little, they would not stay in their room at bedtime. Unless we posted a guard at the door, the kids would be running around upstairs; so, I had to sit at the top of the stairs until they went to sleep. After sitting there for several nights, I started to bring my acoustic to the top of the stairs and just worship God as I sat vigil. A couple of things happened during those years. I had some amazing worship times with the Lord and the boys actually stayed in bed because they could hear me right outside their room. Now, when I’m asked to lead worship, I often will bring my 16 year old sons with me. Tim is an awesome bass player and Jon is a great drummer. I often wonder if the time that I spent worshiping the Lord on my guitar outside of their room in those early years had any impact on them. I can’t tell you for sure, but I know it didn’t hurt.

A Few Pitfalls
Unless you have a game plan, it can be difficult to lead a band while playing the guitar. Unlike leading from the keyboard, playing guitar requires the use of both hands; therefore, hand signals can become very difficult. You need to establish good communication, especially with your keyboard player.

Transition between songs can be a little more difficult for a guitar player, especially for those who have not been playing very long and have yet to add the more difficult chords to your list of tools. Depending on the key you are playing in, or what key you are wanting to transition to, means knowing or learning chords that can be difficult, especially for the young player. For many, this means being very limited in what you can play and/or transposing songs into keys that you can play in, but are many times hard for you and the congregation to sing.

Another pitfall is that unless you’re working with a keyboard player who can pick out vocal parts, it can be very hard to teach the vocal team their lines. Keyboard players have the ability to play melody and harmony lines simultaneously, while this is virtually impossible for the guitarist. If you’re in this boat, you’ll want to cultivate a good working relationship with your keyboard player.

The last pitfall that I want to address is that there will be times where you will need to lead a song that was written for piano or is written in a key that is hard to play in. These issues take a little more time to resolve, but this is where building a TEAM comes in. As a leader you have to know what your gift is and what you can and cannot do. Your choice is to either rearrange these songs or have your keyboard player be the lead instrument. Another “fix” for this is learning how to use a capo when you lead. I’ll address this, in detail, later.

What I have attempted to do here, is to address the pros and cons of leading on the acoustic guitar. Now let’s get down to some real practical stuff.

The Starting Point
The first thing you have to ask yourself is; “Should I be leading on acoustic guitar?” Many people can lead worship and many people can play the guitar, but the glaring questions is; “Can you do both at the same time?” The things that you need to know to be an effective worship leader and to be an effective guitar player are different. These things have to work together to be an effective guitar playing worship leader. Processing this will be slightly different depending on your circumstance. Are you a guitar player, becoming a worship leader, or a worship leader becoming a guitar player? In my case, I began guitar lessons at age 7 and really cannot remember a time when I didn’t play. I played in several semi-professional bands in Upstate New York as a teenager and even played and sang at the same time, but this is vastly different from leading worship. As a worship leader, you have to be constantly aware of the band around you, the vocal team, and most importantly, the congregation. When I started leading worship, I didn’t have to learn the guitar as much as I had to learn how to lead worship.

Then there is the scenario where you have been a worship leader and are working on your guitar skills. Here you have a much harder road, because you are working on skill level issues and your focus will be on the technical aspects of your playing until you get some years under your belt. Remember my story about using the guitar in your personal worship? This is really the best way to train yourself to lead. When you can play and sing to the Lord without being locked into sheet music or having to worry about transitions, you are ready to begin leading worship with your guitar. The plus side is that you can continue to lead worship without your instrument while you develop your skill level. One great way to do this is to begin planning your services on guitar. That way you can lead in your planning time and see where your weak areas are.

There are a couple of indicators that will tell you that you’re ready to lead with your acoustic. The first being that you’ll be able to play through a song, knowing all the chords and being able to flow from one chord to another without gaps in the middle. Seamless chord changes are very important. Even if you are currently leading worship with your guitar, a key tip is to NEVER lead a song that you don’t feel comfortable playing all of the chords. The guitar needs to become a part of you, and as I said earlier, a part of your personal expression of worship.

I have worked hard to be able to accomplish this, and it now comes very naturally. In fact, I didn’t even realize it until I was asked to lead communion at my church, and chose to lead a few worship songs both before and during communion. While I led communion and talked about the elements, I underscored what I was saying with quiet finger picking through a simple chord progression. The following week, my pastor told me that he had been distracted by my playing during communion. I have underscored my pastor speaking for years and no one ever mentioned this to me. He went on to explain that my playing was not distracting, but he couldn’t get over the fact that I could play the guitar and speak at the same time. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was the first time I realized that I was able to do this with little effort. This came from years of practice. I share it only to say, yes, it can be done.

Some Practical Issues
Here are some bullet points of things that I have learned over the years. These have been a great help to me in developing as a worship leader on the acoustic guitar.

Practice Worshiping with Your Guitar: Practice by yourself. Practice with your worship team. Practice by yourself some more. One thing that I used to do, when I started leading on my guitar, was to go into the church on Saturday night and get everything setup. No one was in the worship center so I would kick on the sound system and work through the next day’s worship set alone. I would think through transitions, sing each song as I planned on leading it, but most importantly, I worshipped the Lord. I remember one occasion where half way through my practice time I opened my eyes and found my senior pastor sitting in the back of the church. I have to admit that I felt pretty weird, but you know what… he was worshipping too. This discipline alone made a huge impact on my ability to lead on my guitar.

Learn Ways to Communicate with the Worship Team: As I mentioned earlier, it’s almost impossible to give hand signals while leading on the guitar. First of all, you need both hands to play and secondly, when you can free up a hand it has a pick in. One major advantage that you have is the ability to move around, unlike a keyboard player who must stay in one place. I learned a long time ago that being able to turn away from the microphone allowed me to verbally communicate as necessary. Once I went to a headset, I gained more freedom in movement, but lost the ability to give those verbal commands.

Since I lead the congregation verbally, I had a talk with my team and began to teach them to follow the same cues. I just had to learn to give them a little earlier so they would know where we were going. This worked well, once I learned the skill. One final word on communication is that you have to consider the positioning of the band and vocalists on the platform. I have found that when leading on the guitar, I like to have the band to my right.

This way I can use my right hand to give signals. If the band is on my right, they can see me better than if they were on my left. On the same note, I can communicate better with the vocal team if they are on my left. It’s easy for me to turn and look right at them when I sing a line and easy for me to catch their eye.

Know when to Pick and when to Strum: There are a couple of different schools of thought here. First is the general rule that you should strum most of the time so the other band members won’t lose your sense of timing. It’s also easier to sing with strumming than with finger-picking. The flip side is, as a worship leader learning to flow from strumming to finger-picking, you have the ability to change the dynamics and the mood or feel of a song. This is a skill level issue. I encourage you to practice songs while finger picking and singing, so that this becomes as natural as walking and chewing gum. Once you get to this point, you have more freedom to lead. If you can do both simultaneously, you will not lose your sense of timing.

Learn to Effectively Use a Capo: For the worship leader, especially the beginner, the capo can open up a whole new world of music. Now, let me say that learning to use a capo is not an excuse for not learning all of the chords on your instrument. Capo use allows you to play in the more difficult keys in a more natural fashion. Using the capo in the 2nd and 3rd frets will give you access to play in any key very naturally. Take a look at the chart below which should be self explanatory.

A Word About Tuning: Just Do it! I use the Korg DTR-1000 tuner in my rack. It’s run inline so my guitar is always running through it. This is a digital chromatic tuner that has a strobe setting. Once I initially tune my guitar, I set the tuner on the strobe setting. This allows me to see that I am in tune while I am playing. The bottom line is that you need to be in tune.

Playing with the Band: Leading worship by yourself is easy since all you have to worry about is yourself and the congregation. However, once you start playing with a band, it changes things and you have to consider what everyone is playing, especially when you have other guitar players in the mix. The basic rule here is “less is more”. You can have any array of instruments on the platform as long as everyone is playing a different part. Once you have two guitar players playing the same thing, the sound begins to get muddy.
Learn to share the road, one guitar strums and one guitar picks or pick different tonic ranges to play in. Perhaps you have a transition that allows you to drop out completely and the piano can lead into the next song. No matter what, when you play with a band, you have to start thinking about being a team and not just a solo leader.

In Conclusion:
The acoustic guitar is one of many tools that will help you in your pursuit of leading people into the presence of God. But let’s remember, that it is just that… a tool! Any tool should never be seen as more important, or even as important, as the job that it is doing. Heartfelt worship occurs when God meets us with His presence. This can be accomplished in so many ways: just a voice, just an instrument, or a full band. Our focus remains on God and His glory; not what instruments we are using to lead! May these few tips help you grow in your ability to use the talent that He’s given you towards the goal of leading God centered, God pleasing worship.

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