Dynamics Tips for Drums, Guitars, and Synths

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By Greg Jones

If I had to point at just one thing that separates the ‘men from the boys’ when it comes to observing various worship teams I’d have to say that it is the subject of dynamics. Dynamics can take away the monotony and repetitive nature of the music being played and add emotion to the expression. Dynamics can make the music interesting.

By dynamics, I do not only mean differences in volume levels (pianissimo and forte) but also differences in intensity (playing busier contrasted with leaving more space). For all instruments, the amount of notes we play and the amount of space we leave contributes to what I’m calling ‘dynamics’. Often times, ‘less is more’ so because the temptation is to be too busy in our playing, we have to govern ourselves to hold back. I’ll refer to this strategy as ‘dynamic intensity’.

For contemporary music, the drums are the most dynamic instrument on the platform. At the softest parts of a song, a good drummer will not even play. But there is a level slightly above this dynamic that many inexperienced drummers miss. That level is where a drummer can simply play with light cymbal strokes to add an ornate ‘air’ to the sound. The drummer can even add crescendos to the cymbals at various points for builds. A step up in dynamics from here, a drummer may simply add a kick drum. The drummer could add it sparsely in combo with a rim shot, high hat or ride. My preference is to use a ride when the dynamics are soft enough that the music still needs that sense of ‘air’. I always think of synth pads and delays (as used on guitars) when I think of this concept of ‘air’. If the music’s dynamics are at a softer level where these sounds are appropriate, a ride’s sustain is the ticket to further add this ‘air’.

A drummer can add a rim shot or go for a sparsely added snare to bring the song up to the next level of dynamics. The greatest dynamics are of course found when the drummer plays full on with kick and snare going, with appropriate tom fills and well-placed crashes (usually on the downbeats).

Bass Guitar
The bass guitar isn’t a very dynamic instrument in terms of strict volume, however bass players can contribute a lot here via dynamic intensity. For straight ahead rock styles found in most contemporary worship these days, the bass will generally play driving eighth notes for the biggest dynamics. Bass players should generally take cues from the drums though. When the drums are laying low in dynamics, the bass should generally do the same.

Unlike higher ranged instruments, bass players can actually reduce dynamics by playing higher up the fretboard. Often times, the bassist might play melodic fills. The loss of the bottom end they would have contributed if playing lower is what reduces the dynamics.

Electric Guitar/Synth
Electric guitarists and synth players can contribute to dynamics via tone/patch choices. Guitarists can go from clean to overdrives to screaming distortions. Delays and moderate use of modulation effects can sweeten lower dynamic parts. Volume pedals and knobs can be helpful for swells. Synth players might lean towards pads for softer parts and organs for bigger parts. Pianos can work for both small and large parts but be careful you don’t get buried in the mix if you’re competing with hugely distorted guitars. Sometimes contrasting ranges is the ticket. If a competing instrument is low, you might play the piano higher or vice versa.

Acoustic Guitar
Acoustic players can use dynamic intensity by choosing between finger picking or single picked arpeggios to more aggressive strum patterns.

It is important to listen to one another as you ride the ‘waves’ formed by dynamic changes. If a song is guitar driven, get out of the way of this ‘elephant’ so as to leave room for it. Leave space for other instruments unless your instrument is ‘the elephant’.

As a worship leader, I usually ask my worship teams to imitate the dynamics of the original recordings of the songs we are doing. This is not because I want to clone the song or take away our original contribution. I give my teams freedom to reinterpret their parts for the song and come up with new creative ideas, but generally within the dynamic framework of the pre-existent recording. I take this approach because the dynamics of the studio or live recordings was already thought out and we usually can’t afford the time investment to ‘reinvent the wheel’ by coming up our own versions using different dynamic shifts. Exceptions of course abound…

A careful attention to adding dynamics in worship music optimizes the music for greater emotional responses. One can look at this as being emotionally manipulative, however the goal is not manipulation but rather to ensure that the music is not an obstacle but is rather a conduit for corporate worship expressions when the Spirit so moves.

Greg has over ten years of experience serving as a contemporary worship leader at various churches in the Dayton, Ohio area. He is currently a worship leader seeking new worship leader opportunities. Greg is also an adjunct professor of guitar at Cedarville University. He has recorded three albums, The Science of Music (with his former band The Collaboration Element), String Theory, an instrumental guitar oriented rock album and Manifest Destiny, an instrumental piano album.

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    5 comments on “Dynamics Tips for Drums, Guitars, and Synths

    1. Pingback: Dynamic Tips for Drums, Guitars and Synths | Refuge Worship Arts Blog

    2. Great article, Greg! I like your concept of “less is more”. As instrumentalists in our worship team, we all tend to fall into the temptation that we need to play full-on all the time. However, a quiet momentary pause between phrases or the hushed playing of verse three us often quite effective. I especially like you comments for drums.

      Thanks again. I plan on forwarding your article to the rest of the members of our worship team way up here at Lazy Mountain Bible Church in Palmer, Alaska.

    3. Nice article Greg, right on! I’ve been teaching dynamics for a while now to my worship teams – including the vocalists and technical teams (lighting, audio mix etc) The whole worship experience can be a palette to create with. When the band, vocalists and technical teams are all paying attention to dynamics you open up a whole new level of impact through the arts.

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