Monday, September 14, 2009

Electric Guitar Experience

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to play bass at a church in Oakland, since the regular bass player was out of town. Since playing bass is one of my favorite things to do, I happily agreed. After the service, the worship leader asked me if I played any other instruments. A week later, he called me up to see if I wanted to play electric guitar during their morning service. Although I have played bass and acoustic guitar in public settings more times than I can count, I've never played electric guitar in any sort of live performance. My sense of adventure and natural enjoyment of challenges drove me to quickly volunteer.

There were a couple of challenges that I immediately knew I had to face. First of all, while most instruments roles and stylistic choices are fairly simple, electric guitar is a different sort of beast. When you're playing bass, no matter what sort of music you are playing, you have to focus on harmonic grounding and groove definition. The bass notes serves as clear cues to the listener of where the music is, harmonically, and where it is going. The interplay with the drums and the rhythms you use serve to clearly define the groove and provide a foundation for the rest of the band. Likewise, with acoustic guitar, simple strummed chords is all you need to play. Playing any open-flavored voicing of any chord works like magic. Electric guitar is different because of several things. First of all, since it a low-mid range instrument with potential to play some upper register notes, the very harmonic range gives it more prominence than other instruments. Secondly, the amplified nature of electric guitars gives it the most potential for prominence based on volume. Third, the vast array of effects that can used to process the sound and the ubiquitous use of effects leads listeners to expect not simply interesting playing but also interesting sorts of sounds. Because of these three factors, the electric guitar has more natural prominence, role flexibility and stylistic options than any other common instrument.

Now, in this particular instance, I wasn't sure what sort of stylistic trappings the worship leader would want. Would the guitar play a prominent role, or would it be a more subtle mixing? Should my playing lean more towards a modern rock flavor with plenty of distortion, or should I keep it clean and mellow? Should I focus on simple chords, or focus on writing and playing interesting lead parts that add more interest and depth to the music? In addition to the uncertainty I had regarding my particular role for this performance, I also didn't have a chance to seriously look at the charts themselves or practice them until late on Saturday night--just hours before the worship service.

In preparation for the gig, I knew that the most important thing I could do was set up all my tones and effects so that I could easily switch between them. I spent about an hour tinkering with four different sounds, tweaking them until they sounded good, and adjusting the volume levels so that I wouldn't have to worry about suddenly being too loud or too soft. I figured that I would use a nice, warm, clean guitar tone with a touch of reverb for my main bread and butter tone. A fatter tone with a bit of chorus and delay would sound pretty for some mellow leads. For my third one, I crafted a tone with a bit of crunch that would work well if I needed to rock out a bit. Lastly, I decided to prepare a harmonically rich lead tone, overdriven sufficiently in case I needed to play a solo.

When Sunday morning came, I was feeling pretty tired, so I juiced up with a nice cup of black coffee. During practice I wasn't quite feeling the magic. We played this weird version of Blessed Assurance in 4/4 (the original hymn is in 3/4, and that's what I've played in the past), and it kept throwing me off. After a few songs of practice and a few suggestions from the worship leader, I finally had a clear idea of what he was looking for stylistically. Since there were 6 people in the band and lots of backing vocals, he wanted most of the instruments to be fairly subtle and only stand out occasionally. For our offertory song, we rocked out a little more with an uplifting number called, "Can't Bring Me Down." The original recording had a really fun organ lick that I liked, and since we had no keyboard player in the band, I decided to play the lead lick on my guitar. It sounded really awesome, and the band leader really liked it!

The worship time itself was by far my favorite part of the day! Having worked out all the kinks during practice, I was feeling ready, excited and confident. All of the songs sounded really great! I especially loved the beautiful melodies that Eric played on viola. It's not everyday that you have classical string instruments used for worship. The use of strings adds a rich emotional dimensions that other instruments just can't convey. And of course, my favorite song to play was "Can't Bring Me Down." It's always fun to rock out more, and the song has such a jubilant, joyful spirit that I couldn't help but rejoice! Besides, as a musician, solos are almost always my favorite part of performing a song. For a first time playing electric guitar live, it was a highly encouraging experience! I can't wait to do it again in the near future!

1 comment:

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