- Does John Mayer’s theory of sonic space have a place in today’s services of worship?
As an electric guitar player and music fan, I have always been on the lookout for great albums to listen to for inspiration, enjoyment and challenge. A few years back I was caught off guard and pleasantly surprised when I picked up an album by John Mayer called “Try.” I was familiar with John’s previous albums, which while being full of good songwriting and interesting hooks, had always struck me as being a little heavy on the pop for my personal tastes. Hearing “Try” for the first time was a refreshing experience. The live record featuring John on guitar and vocals with Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Jordan on drums instantly grabbed me as this “power trio” took me places I hadn’t really been before as a listener and as a musician. The minimalist approach of the three-piece accomplishes things sonically that many larger bands fail to achieve.
In an interview about the record Mayer talks about the dichotomy of “space” in the music and how a three-piece band has to ride the line of trying to both “respect” and “destroy” space in the song.
As a worship leader, I have thought a lot about the idea of space in music. Admittedly it can be intimidating as the less instrumentation you have to work with, the more exposed each player is. If you listen to most popular worship albums today, there are generally many layers of instrumentation. It’s not uncommon to have 4 or 5 guitar parts layered in a song not to mention keyboards, pads, loops, and percussion. The same is also true for a lot of pop music as well, which is what made the John Mayer Trio album so unique as well as risky.
I recently lead worship at my church on one of those holiday weekends when everyone seemed to be out of town and we were very light on available musicians. I found myself with only a bass player, drummer and one other vocalist in addition to myself. This situation put me in a position to have to deal with space. My dilemma was whether to go for it with the instrumental trio I had and choose to be comfortable with the space or to try and supplement the small group with some multitracks to help fill in the gaps. I weighed my options and against my (and my wife’s) better judgment, decided to use the tracks.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I am by no means against using loops and multitracks in worship as long as it is in the right context and venue. I am a self-proclaimed gadget geek and I love the creativity and options that sites like Loopcommunity.com and Multitracks.com give worship teams by allowing worship leaders to run tracks along with the live band. I have, myself, used tracks on and off again for over a decade. However, that morning I couldn’t help but notice that the worship seemed very rigid and mechanical and somewhat uninspired. This particular team hadn’t used tracks before and while we got through it without a train wreck it seemed to lack a certain authenticity. Some people in the congregation even asked if we forgot to turn off the CD when the worship set started!
After the service, I couldn’t help but ask myself what would have happened if I had been willing to take a risk and put our team out there in perhaps a more authentic way for our small church.
As the trend toward high “production” on worship albums has become the norm and worship teams often strive to create a wall of sound and textures using layer upon layer of patches, samples, and loops, I wonder if we sometimes try too hard to make church “sound like the record.”
While technology has certainly given us the luxury of doing this, I question whether we lose some the raw emotion that comes from a good “live” sounding band that supports the feeling of the song and allows the church to sing out uninhibited. The danger of chasing perfection is that it can very easily cause what is real and organic to take on a polished veneer that ultimately leaves us feeling a little empty and longing for what is authentic and true. Maybe at times we should approach the set a little less like we are in a studio cutting the next United record and a little more like the John Mayer trio, armed with nothing but our talent, experience and willingness to Try.
Eric Heinrichs has served in worship ministry in many different capacities throughout Southern California for the past decade. He and his family currently serve at Saddleback Covenant Church in Mission Viejo, CA. His greatest passions (besides leading worship) include: Starbucks Cold Brew Iced Coffee, tinkering with anything with an Apple logo on it, and spending time with his beautiful wife Nicole and their 5 amazing kids. (But not in that order.)