Playing with Other Musicians

This is an interesting subject……because most musicians really, honestly don’t want to play solo……unless there is a band behind them. Know what I mean? For example, few lead guitarists want to be the only person on stage, because then it lacks the depth of the bass, the drive of the drums, and the power of the piano. And you gotta have a vocalist, otherwise you have to carry the melody on your guitar, which means you can’t melt faces as freely. And you gotta have another guitarist, otherwise you have to anchor chords in your solo, which also sucks the fun out of your solo by meaning you actually have to stay within scales and modes (psh….who wants to do that?!).

So you want a band……but unfortunately, once the band is there, now we want to be solo……we want the band behind us only to support our face-melting. And of course that’s a gross generalization, and very few musicians would actually admit that in words (although I have met a few who would, without any shame). But it comes out in little ways. I mean, seriously; keyboardists, that last service, when the recorded song clearly had a synth solo, but the worship leader thought it was an electric guitar, and he gave the solo to the guitarist, yours would have been so much better. No, seriously. Deep down, you know it would have. 😉 And I’m the same way……I mean, I love my other guitarist, and he’s great, but really, if I could have played that part, my melody would have been, well……a tad more musical. hehe (I was going to put another winking smiley in right here so that it’s clear that I’m being facetious and making fun of myself, but if you use those things too much, it starts to look…well…a little Justin Timberlake, if you know what I mean.)

JustinTimberlake.jpg picture by rypdal95
(If you didn’t know what I meant, you do now. I know he’s not supposed to be the former N’Sync member that’s ‘alternative’; but seriously…look at that photo.)

Now, I (inexplicably) have the opportunity to play in some really, really amazing worship bands……and none of them seem to be helped at all in their individual amazingness by my presence. But, they tolerate me anyway. There’s another guitarist in two of them named Danny, and he’s incredible. And he and I have really learned how to play off of each other very well……and most of the bands that I play in are very humble, and listen to each other well. I say all of this, so you know that this story is not about anybody who reads this blog. So, if you’re reading this, it’s not you. 😉 I was playing with a different worship team a few days ago, of which I’d played with a few of them before, but never the whole team. And the bassist was awesome……a little too awesome, if you know what I mean. Just all over the place. All good stuff, but dear sweet mercy! Let the song breathe a little! So, me being the humble, adapting, accomodating, and sweet-spirited person that I am, proceeded to pretend not to hear what he was doing, and play my normal U2-rip-offs over the chords as if the bassist had been playing straight ‘four-on-the-floor’. And it was pretty chaotic.

Now, luckily, I’m a minimalist anyway, so my guitar-playing is more on the melodic, soundscapey side; so it wasn’t too crazy. And plus, he was definitely a talented bass player. But what I should have done was come into the band going, ‘Ok, what does the music need? The harmonic color is being given by the bass (every blasted second, but no matter), and in order to support the vocal melody, the harmonic structure is what is needed. And then I should have melded some chordal-ness together. But instead, I threw down…..musician style. It was like a wanna-be Johnny Buckland versus Victor Wooten. (And Johnny Buckland is Coldplay’s guitarist, for those of you in the majority of the population who don’t have guitarist-fixations.) But instead of one of us losing, we both slapped each other on the back at the end of the service and lied about how much we liked each others’ playing (no……we worship musicians never do that!); but it’s the congregation, audience, or listeners who become the ones who end up losing, while we proceed with our face-melting throwdown.

GuitarBattle.jpg picture by rypdal95
(Ya, kinda like this guitar throwdown. Except, we didn’t have a photoshoot for it, and actually think this photo would be good for publicity. Is James Hetfield giving that little guy the ‘A-Okay’ sign?)

Here’s another good one……I’ve actually heard this (and said it myself in my younger years): ‘Can you turn down ‘x instrument’ in my monitor? What we’re playing is clashing.’ ?????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So now, somehow, since we can no longer hear the clashing, it’s magically no longer there! The audience can’t hear it either! Like magic! It sounds stupid, but it happens all the time. We’re up there to hear ourselves sound good……and if that other instrument is clashing with us, we just stop listening. The problem is that unfortunately, the congregation doesn’t have the choice to stop listening. Well, they do, but most (at least if you’re playing in church) are too nice to just walk out. Other venues I’ve played in……ya……you can tell when they choose to stop listening.

So the thing to remember is this……in whatever venue you’re playing in, the audience or congregation or listeners, are only hearing one instrument–the song itself, as it is coming out of the front of house speakers. We’re on stage, and hear different amps, monitor mixes, the drummer pounding his kick drum like it just tried to date his sister, and many times it’s so difficult to realize that all these different sounds are being mixed into, in essence, one sound. So one G chord played in the same register on three different instruments can get muddy quick. And three different instruments all playing their very own unique solo, anti-solo, riff, pad, swell, or whatever, can get downright disgusting in like, 3 seconds. So perhaps…..just perhaps……we should actually talk about parts……even when we know there’s an ‘improvy’ part coming up. Talk about what octaves to hang around to compliment each other, which guitars to play to either off-set each other or meld together, who’s taking the lead, if we both need to lead, or if neither of us lead. What chord inversion are you playing? When are you building? How can I help anchor the chords so your lead passage sounds better? Wait, we have a piano? (Ya, the keyboardists know what I mean. I feel you guys.) This is the stuff that makes great music.

Keyboardist.jpg picture by rypdal95
(This is the obituary photo of the late Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen’s former keyboardist. Ya, that guy out of focus, in the bakground. My wife found this online. Notice that even for his obituary photo, they couldn’t find even one picture of him not hidden in the background of the other musicians. So I looked up another obituary, and that one had a closeup of Bruce Springsteen. Yep. Just Bruce. Although he’s still alive. The obituary was for poor Danny Federici. Ah, the life of a keyboardist.)

Listen to your favorite band, and hear the fullness. Now listen to a clip of your last service. Unless there’s people reading this blog from Desperation Band or The Editors (which is quite, quite doubtful), your clip will sound a little less clear. That’s because we listen to our favorite bands, hear the fullness, and then try to replicate that same fullness on our one instrument. Which is great in your bedroom. Get on stage and add 5 other instruments, and that fullness becomes mush.

So maybe just try it……just on one song next time. You don’t even have to be pushy about it. Take the first verse and chorus off, and listen to what the song needs. Then take a look at what everyone else is playing. Then play the part that the song needs that isn’t currently being played. You’ll be surprised, too, by how many times that part that the song needs…that no one else is playing…and that you need to play…is silence.

And for the love of everything that’s good in this world, let’s not have passive-aggressive face-melting battles. Ever. In fact, I am hereby outlawing face-melting altogether. (Oh, and John Mayer is excused from that law.)


23 thoughts on “Playing with Other Musicians

  1. Hmm, I’m pretty sure John Mayor is excused from every law… at least according to your blog thus far 🙂 And thanks for spreading the keyboardist awareness, hun. Someday, the world will know we exist. Someday.

  2. oh man, this reminds me of a keyboardist I play with once in a while (I think they stopped scheduling her with me actually). She’s an elementary school music teacher so she’s used to playing the piano and being the whole band. She plays the same WITH a band which is crazy. Left hand pounding out a funky bass line, right hand playing a combo of chords and solo and even the most contemplative song rushes it’s way up to 120 bpm and is loud all. the. time. I know that’s just how she’s used to playing at school but I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell her how to play with a band.

    I’ve had similar things happen in other bands where the keys and bass are playing two totally different things and everything is chaos already. Sometimes the worship leader will tell me I can play more and I just say, “there’s no room for me today.”

    Sometimes you just have to play whole-note chords to give a few ounces of stability to the song. That’s no fun though. It makes me wonder why I got up early and carried 300 pounds of equipment. But other times the players know how to fit and it’s a blast – not just to play fun parts but to make good music.

    Sorry for the mini-blog rant, I guess I’ve never vented about this 🙂

  3. Actually Mike wrote a very nice article on his blog about “EQing an Amp”

    if I remember correctly:)

    Had a very nice statement:
    “The goal with EQing an amp is to make it sound good through a sound system in the context of a full band playing. When you’re setting up your amp it’s tempting to make it sound great as an individual instrument. The result will be a warm sound with a lot of bass that will sound great when you practice, but won’t cut through the mix when a band is playing. This goes back to knowing your roll in the band – it’s the bassist job to lay down the low end, not yours. If you’re both adding bass things will get muddy fast.”

    That is part of the goal (and perhaps why I don’t like the “bass response mods” on Keeley pedals– I sound great in my bedroom, but not on stage):
    Thats why I love my TS9- its soo smooth and not very bass responsive. But, as the unspoken rule goes for us Electric players, you shouldn’t play lower than the 4th fret, stay at home higher up. I have a bass player and a rhythm acoustic play the low notes. My job is to fill in the space.

    In fact with my current band, the piano “leads” and sometimes the acoustic rhythm does- I listen during practice (given up changing some of the styles etc..) and figure what fits them best for OUR best overall sound. Again, the styles are a tad weird for me at times (I’m in Puerto Rico Ya’ll!) and I may not love what I’m doing but I like our overall sound.
    Same goes for effects: I love my Keeley DS1 (i know, i just dissed him, but hey, I’m a guitarist) and love how it solos. But it doesn’t fit this band. I use the smoother Analogman DS1.
    One day I will have a band where we work together and I can use what I want, but until then we as worship members have to focus on our priority, and frankly, sounding good is 2nd priority to the bands flow.
    Last example: we had a hurricane (thanks Karl for the wishes!) and no problems with it, but had to cancel practice. Come Sunday we realized our Don Moen song “Thank You Lord” wasn’t going to fly. With everyone freaking out, and 20 mins til service start, I made a call: “We’re doing “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” in G!!!! I said triumphant. Then decided to do Chris Tomlin’s “Take My Life” in D to close.
    Easy— band could play, easy chords, people worshipped.
    I was disappointed that we didn’t sound all Hillsong, but with no practice our end result- the people’s worship- was more important than a new song or my solo in it.

    Can’t wait until we CAN play it tho….

  4. i think the key really is being able to communicate well with other musicians as supposed to having to limit what we or any other musicians for that matter to a certain way/style/key/notes or whatever. its amazing what different ideas come out when we talk to the person beside us 🙂

  5. Jams–you’re the cutest ever! I love you!

    Mike–“There’s no room for me today.” Classic!!

    Larry–Exactly. You have to sound good, but in the band’s context. Great comment! And ya, you wrote a lot…but all of it rocked. 😉

    Rhoy–talk with the other band members? I’m not sure I understand what you mean…? hehe Great comment, bro!

  6. Hello Karl and everyone else,

    I’m very new to this blog and haven’t read everything yet and I’m curious how the “no-face-melting” rule applies to someone like Lincoln Brewster? If we are going to give good old John a pass, shouldn’t it be extended to Lincoln.

    Second, my experience is that with an anti-solo, no-face-melting style, a song like “Everlasting God” becomes anti-climactic (the traditional Brewster solo seems to be as much of a face-melter as anything I’ve ever heard.)

    I love what you say about the battles between musicians. Couldn’t agree with you more. So many times it seems a worship set can be a time of competition between guitarist rather than team work. I’m guilty more than most.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  7. Heh… Lincoln Brewster is DEF excused from the Law. I dare say he could take on John Mayer and Johnny Bucks and still fix that sweet, sweet doo of blond locks. YOU LINCOLN HAVE BROUGHT ROCKSTAR TO WORSHIP!!!!

    I agree with Everlasting God comment- Lincoln’s arrangement is awesome, and the solo is the peak–> THE CLIMAX of the whole song. It melts faces, it does, but I think Karl’s point is how the band works together to achieve this. If the bass was playing a mad riff pattern, the face melter may have sounded… not hot at all.
    In fact, compare Chris Tomlin’s version to Lincoln’s and you can really hear how the arrangement and the band playing TOGETHER allows the melt to happen.
    And I love both versions…
    As Karl and I go back and forth on, the END product as well as the perception of the audience for worship, is what matters most.
    If I am in the 8am service, I’d pull out the acoustic and do Chris’ version with folky acoustic lead. By time 11am service comes around, Hello Lincoln!
    That help? 🙂 and Welcome to Karl’s blog 🙂 (hehe, check mine out too, and Mikes is good too!)

  8. Hey Jed,

    Welcome! Thanks for taking the time to read some posts from a wanna-be guitarist (that would be myself). hehe

    By face-melting, I mean the ‘Watch how many notes I can hit in this measure’, regardless of staying in the key, or fitting the song, or what the other musicians are playing, or what fits the worship set. And of course as worship musicians, what is drawing unnecessary attention to you. hehe That’s what I mean……there are many incredibly ‘fast’ or ‘technical’ guitarists that are very good and highly respected, and find a way to use those talents to help the music, rather than take the song over. I’d definitely put John Mayer in this category, but that’s just my hopefully humble opinion.

    But you will find that I am a minimalist to a fault. I personally would rather hear the 2 note (6th to 3rd scale degree) solo that Tomlin’s guitarist does in Everlasting God than Lincoln’s solo. Does that mean that Lincoln is bad? Absolutely not. Does that mean that Lincoln is still a way better guitarist than me, even if his solos aren’t my favorite? Yep! Does that mean I’m in the minority on liking the Tomlin 2-note anti-solo better than the Lincoln solo? Oh ya! In fact, I’m getting ready to avoid the flying objects thrown in my direction as we speak. hehe

    All it means, is that music is meant to reach in and grab your soul. And for me, it’s usually (not all the time) the minimal, melodic stuff that does that. For others, it’s the fast and technical stuff, and for others it’s no guitars altogether! That’s what makes the world not boring!

    Oh, and I do joke a lot about how much I don’t like face-melting…just because when you read this blog, you find out how laughable some of my strong opinions are. So I usually make the pretense of making them stronger for humor’s sake. If anyone loves fast and technical playing, more power to you! I’m sure God is totally glorified in that, and I’m behind you all the way.

    Anyway, hope to hear more from you soon, and I look forward to learning a lot from your comments and opinions as well.

    In Christ,

  9. I’ll get ready to be hit with flying objects too…. I don’t like the brewster solo in Everlasting God. I definitely like Brewster and know he’s a great player, I just don’t like that particular solo. I heard it for the first time a few weeks ago on a “learn this, we’re playing it this weekend” CD. I remember thinking, “where did that come from?” when the solo was over. It just doesn’t fit the song… the guitar has a totally different tone, it’s in a mode that doesn’t show up in the song anywhere else, and even within the solo there are three different styles (Celtic in the middle??). I ended up playing more than the tomlin version but far less than the brewster version, and we cut the length in half from the brewster version.

    I’m a big fan of “theme and variation” for worship solos. Meaning I’ll take a melody (or counter melody) that’s already in the song somewhere else and use that as the foundation of the solo but wander and meander around it. IMO it’s more cohesive than playing a solo that’s totally different from anything going on in the song.


  10. @karl – talking is one of those things that we, internet junkies, are starting to forget. we let our fingers do the talking most times nowadays 😉

    re: everlasting god solo – i like how the solo started out and ended but not the middle part where lincoln goes into his favorite pedal-note licks.

    re: soloing itself – i am not a shredder and not a big solo-er as well. but i do love a well-executed solo section. each different genre/music has different way of applying it. what mike is referring to is pre-dominantly what i call “pop”-ish way of soloing. i enjoy lead guitar playing that brings the song to another arrangement, sort of an interlude, if you will. each to its own.

  11. Facing melting…solo’s…what goes in a worship song…this is all so subjective! 🙂

    “Technically, I’m not a guitar player, all I play is truth and emotion.” ~ Jimi Hendrix

    “It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz.”
    ~ Oscar Peterson

    The greats are the players who can do both.

  12. Larry–thanks, bro,. You explained it great!

    Mike–totally agree. We’re on the same wavelength, definitely.

    Rhoy–ya, I do admit, there are some screming solos that really rock me. There’s a time and a place, for sure. 🙂

    Chris–wow, great stuff, brother. That Hendrix quote just instantly redefined my life. Well, almost. hehe

  13. As far as Lincoln’s EG solo, the first time I heard it my jaw dropped, not because it was technical or fast, but because of the emotion it communicated. It took you somewhere the vocals (and I would say the Tomlin-two-note solo) couldn’t. I loved it beginning, middle and end. Have no fear, Karl and Mike, I’m not reaching for anything to throw.

    As far as soloing goes I think we can all agree that serving the song and good taste should always reign supreme, whether fast, slow, minimalist or Brewsterist. I have heard both performed poorly. Come to think of it, I have heard myself perform both poorly.

    As far as Hendrix, I really do like the quote and I think that’s what every guitarist should aim for. But…I’m in my mid 20’s and have no real context for the 60’s. I think that’s why I can’t figure out what truth or emotion he is trying to communicate. It just sounds sloppy and rough to me…hmmm…maybe I should duck.

  14. haha What a great discussion here! When I first wrote this, I wondered if anyone would even care……and now we’ve already managed to slam Lincoln Brewster and Jimi Hendrix! This is fantastic! 🙂

    hehe Just kidding. But I really am enjoying this discussion, and Jed, it’s great to hear from you again. +1 on the performing both crazy, minimalist, and in between parts poorly. I have also done them all…and of course, quite poorly most of the time. And I agree, taste should be at the forefront of our minds…no matter what style of playing we tend to gravitate towards.

    And in the end, that’s why we have so many talented musicians out there playing so differently from each other. Because with a world full of people and each one with a different taste, it takes a lot of styles to make sure each person’s soul is touched.

    And speaking of different styles, I have my itunes on random right now, and MxPx ‘Do Your Feet Hurt’ just came on. Ah, the junior high days. See? Right now, that song is touching someone’s soul. Unfortunately, it is not mine…and this incredible ‘skip function’ they have these days on itunes and cd’s comes in quite handy. 😉

  15. I have a hendrix live CD. At one point, he makes comments to the effect of “I’ve blown most of the tubes in my amps but I’ve got enough to keep going.” It’s emotion that drives that. The need to express yourself through music regardless of problems or limitations.

    Truth or emotion in music…listen to the blues. That’s what hendrix played. When you play the blues, either you play through emotion or you don’t. When you don’t, it’s just mechanical. I remember playing some solo blues stuff in a dorm room in college after I was dumped by a girl [insert flashback video]. I knew the pentatonic scale a little but I played the notes like they were teardrops from my heart. When I was done playing, I felt better. I had released a lot of my sadness through the guitar. That’s truth and emotion in music.

  16. just another info to add. i saw this video of Lincoln Brewster on his solo in Today is the Day but he kinda talks about his approach in soloing as well

    oh yeah, i also rather hear someone play his hearts out than a very technical finger aerobic master. maybe once in a while.

  17. I wasn’t sure where to insert this thought, but here goes. Say you have a church with multiple worship leaders who generally don’t overlap on the songs they use. One brings in a few new songs over time and the band and congregation learns them.

    Then worship leader #2 starts doing a few of those new songs, but does them quite differently — different key, different rhythm/feel, even different occasionally on melody and may or may not use the bridge, for example.

    This bothers me ( the one who brought the songs in originally ). I sit in on guitar with leader #2 occasionally so I suppose stopping that might reduce the aggravation level, but the problem remains for the rest of the church — or maybe it’s just my problem.

  18. Ya, I hear you. It depends on how much different, ya know? If it’s so different that it’s like the congregation has to learn a totally new song, then I would totally say that’s a bad thing. Or if it sounds the same to the congregation, but it’s different enough for the band that they don’t pull it off as well and hence the congregation can’t get as into it, then I’d say that’s a bad thing, too.

    But every worship leader is different, and if it’s just minor differences, and if they’re changing keys just to fit their voice better, I’m cool with that.

    I don’t know, just my humble opinions. I could be wrong! 🙂 But I think the main thing is to make sure that the congregation is worshiping…whether that’s with different songs, same songs, or different worship leaders. And making sure the leaders are all humble enough to strive for that end. 🙂

  19. Well I think the new songs I’ve introduced are being re-interpreted by another leader in a significantly different way. Inadvertent melody changes here and there, dropped bridge — no it’s not just key changes, those are understandable. However my Senior Pastor told me today this is to be expected and that he likes the variety.

    So, it seems to be something I’ll have to adjust to. Intially I just won’t join the other leaders when it’s their week — we’ll see if that changes.

    The only one I’ve been interested in joining uses newer music ( our youth pastor ) but his strum is almost impossible to mimic so I find myself pretty constrained ( playing whole note, full measure strums ) or arpeggios, just to blend in.

    Adding the new song issue is too much. It isn’t that he uses a song I’ve already “taught,” it’s that he isn’t even aware I’ve used it.

    I guess this leaves any leader with the option to completely re-interpet a ‘known’ song as they see fit. A couple of the other musicians aren’t crazy about this and wish there was one leader, but now I don’t see that happening here anytime soon.

  20. Huh. Do you guys have a point guy who schedules and organizes all the worship leaders? Like a music director? It sounds like that might help. Or is it just your lead pastor?

  21. I “coordinate” the 3 leaders in the sense that I negotiate who is taking which week, that’s it. I sense that not being on staff as a “pastor” handicaps me a bit, as far as being taken seriously.

    Well I finally had a long talk with our Senior Pastor today. He likes the variety of 3 leaders and expects our interpretations of the same song to be different. So… I will have to get over any notion of “ownership” on songs I bring in first.

    Also, I’m recognizing that playing backup guitar for a leading guitarist doesn’t always work, no matter how you try. If your ages and musical backgrounds are vastly different, it can be a struggle, more than it’s worth. Given the relatively limited amount of time we have in a weekly rehearsal to pull things together, I find myself limited to full measure ( whole note ) sustained chords and/or arpeggios. I can almost never strum in a style that would be natural to me.

    So that is my problem and I now know the solution – stay home. I am lovingly passing this decision on to the worship leader in question, letting him know it’s me who has the problem.

    I think the most time I’ve spent collaborating with other guitarists was in a jam group back in the 90s. We were all similar in age and had a common history of country and rock ( some leaned more one way, some more the other ) but we just clicked.

    One other time when I was about 35 I took a junior college course in musical performance — basically the singers ( girls ) chose songs and the musicians ( guys ) played. We did Pat Benatar and other stuff popular in the 80s, had a blast even though everyone else in the class was about 21. I don’t remember any issues, but some of that might be due to the fact that the young guys mainly wanted to shred and I provided a solid rhythm for them on my strat ( with the college’s big Mesa Boogie amp setup ).

    Have any of you tried to collaborate with another guitarist where the pain was more than the gain — just didn’t meld?

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