The Righteous Riffs
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]lectric guitar has been responsible for changing the face of the western music scene arguably more than any other instrument in the modern era. From the blues of BB King to the screaming riffs of Van Halen, the electric guitar has shifted an entire generation’s paradigm of music. As guitar solos and overdrive pedals claimed the throne of popular music in the late 20th century, the church was forced to ask if electric guitar had a place in worship music. The answer was at first a resounding no, but as Christian artist, such as Petra, combined the controversial music and their faith, things began to change. Now, Christian music relies heavily on electric guitar and the beauty and power that it can convey. Yet, when looking at the electric guitar scene there are a number of troubling worldviews that contradict Jesus’ standards of humility and servant hood. As electric guitarists and Christians, we need to look at what the popular culture praises in a musician, and see where it clashes with the values Jesus wants.
Playing guitar is often no different than a beauty pageant, except that winners aren’t usually given crowns. When I was first learning to play, I practiced an unspoken competitiveness against anyone I knew who played electric. There was an inner drive in me to always be better than my friends who played, to shred faster, to have better tone, anything that would make my skills surpass their own. It was only natural, given the role of guitar in the styles that I played. Basically, I lived for a solo, for the chance to show everyone that I was the best guitarist around. For many guitarists, that’s what works, and it’s how they get famous. It’s a fact that in our culture, electric guitar is all about self-promotion. The problem was, I played worship music. Worship is about promoting someone else, God. Worship is about submitting one’s own fame and strength to one who is better and greater. See the issue?
To change the way that we play as guitarists we have to change the way that we think. First, in worship applications, electric is a supporting instrument. Instead of looking for a chance to show your best licks, we should listen to the other member’s of the worship team for what they do best. The electric is there to take the momentum established by the core instruments, like drums, piano, and vocals, and multiply it. Instead of always thinking about what riff to play next, pay attention to what the other members are playing and think of how to support it. If the singers are singing a cool melody, play it. If the bass is playing a tight groove, play it in a higher octave. The other team-members will likely notice someone is picking up on their ideas and it will give them confidence. Listening to each other will help unite the team, build trust, and foster respect. Not only will the music sound better, the team will be more Christ-like.
Another thing that I noticed when playing electric is that it was often hard for me to feel God’s presence when I was playing over-complicated riffs. Simple isn’t always better, but in a worship context it has a number of benefits. First, it’s much easier to focus on God when playing a simple riff as opposed to an intricate one. Don’t be afraid to play chords, or even to stop playing on a quieter part of the song. This adds dynamic to the music, and it opens an opportunity to turn our attention to God instead of only on what we’re playing.
Thankfully, this approach to guitar still allows for a chance to rip out a sweet solo, provided it’s at the right time. As you build a repertoire of trustworthiness with the team, opportunities to flex your chops will come, because your worship leader knows that it’s coming from a heart that is humble and cares about serving the team. It’s okay to ask for a solo if you feel that there’s a melody that expresses something about God pertinent to the service. Every worship leader is different though, and it will take time to learn the way your leader wants to organize things.
In God’s eyes, humility is the key to being a great musician. Humility gives us the courage to restrain ourselves instead of promoting ourselves. Let’s change the stereotype of electric guitarists, and show the character of Jesus.
Gilbert Randolph is a writer, musician, and artist. He’s spent much of his life involved in worship ministry and loves to share a Jesus centered approach on music and life.