To Play the Album Part or Not To Play The Album Part

That may not be “the question,” but it certainly is a question that many instrumentalists ask themselves on a regular basis. While some bands (whose names you probably hear fairly often) play nothing but original songs, most worship musicians spend the majority of their service playing other people’s music, often leading to this dilemma:

“Do I play the album part, or write something new?”

This may seem like a non-question, but for many musicians who want to add their own personality to the songs their band plays, it can be more of a concern. How can I change the album part, or play something completely new in a way that is ethical, and that the rest of the band and worship leader will like?

Ultimately, the decision of whether to play a part you created or the album part should be made on a part-to-part basis. Sometimes the decision is pretty cut-and-dry, and other times it’s more complicated. For the sake of this post, I’ll focus on the “no-brainers,” and touch on the harder choices towards the end. In later posts I’ll examine how we can create new parts for the song, should we choose not to use the album part, so stay tuned!

Reasons to definitely play the album part (or something very, very similar):

1.     The part is crucial to the song, to the point that people might be distracted if they don’t hear it and stop singing.

  •  A great example is the hook in “Always” by Kristian Stanfill. I’m not the biggest fan of this part, but if you play something different, you stand the risk of coming off as unprepared or self-absorbed. You don’t want to be seen as either, not for the sake of your image, but because both are potentially distracting to the congregation in a way that might cause them not to sing. We've expressed this before, but we win if people sing, and lose if they don't. Its that simple. 

2.     The worship leader wants the album part.

  • It’s the worship leaders job to make sure the entire arrangement sounds good, so be nice and listen to them. This implies a certain level of humility, especially if you've already written a part that you like, so kudos to you if you're submissive enough to plod through that chordal melody when you could be sweeping out thirty-second notes till our ears bleed. We see you, shred master. We see you. 

3.     The album part is better than everything you’ve come up with so far.

  • Often, the album part is simply the best part for the song, and it makes sense that it would be. Sometimes it’s best just to concede to the notion that the best part may already have been written, even if it wasn’t created by you. Again, humility is key here, and when you're humble enough to admit that someone got it right before you, it's refreshing, whether or not someone tells you it is. 

Reasons to definitely not play the album part (or something very, very similar):

1.     The album part will not work in your musical context.

  • If your band is comprised of an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a cajon, and the album part consists of an octave line that utilizes a synthy, gated fuzz tone, the discomfort that you feel every time the part comes around should be enough to make you want to change it into something more appropriate.

2.     You simply can’t play the album part.

  • If the part on the album calls for equipment that you don’t have (ex: Whammy pedal) or a technique that you haven’t mastered (ex: tapping), then it’s in your best interest to come up with something new. An example I can think of is the solo from the Sojourn track “Warrior.” I’m a competent player, but neither I, nor most people I know, can play a convincing rendition of that beautiful solo, so I change it to make it work for me.

3.     Your part has been established as better than the album part.

  • If you write a new part for a song, and your band members, and especially the worship leader indicate that your part is better than the album part, play it without reservations. You just won. Get yourself a dilly bar because you earned it. 

Its important to note that these ideas apply mostly to the “hooks” of songs or counterpoint parts that stick out in the mix. For most rhythm parts or for parts that are meant to blend into the mix, as long as it sounds good, serves the feeling of the song, and doesn’t step on the vocalists’ or other instrumentalists’ sonic real estate, you should be good to go.

Most creative players will be more interested in playing parts they have written themselves than just recreating an album part, but sometimes its hard to know exactly when putting in your own parts is a good idea. As far as situations where the decision is less obvious are concerned, you should probably play the part you’ve written over the album part if:

  •  It fits within the sonic space better than the album part
  •  It fits the sound of your band better than the album part
  •  It sounds like “your version” of the album part
  • Your band is trying to put a new spin on a song

Ultimately, if you read this post and are still unsure about a particular part, keep this axiom in mind:

Playing the album part is associated with minimal risk and modest, but predicable reward. Playing your part has greater risk, but potentially exponential upside.

If you’re feeling unsure, no one will blame you for adhering to the album, but I’d suggest going for it from time to time. I mean come on, what’s the worst that can happen? You might end up like that video of the drummer going bananas during "Oceans," but even he should be admired for taking the song and making it his own. After all, if we were really going to be insistent about execution, all of us would be found to be lacking from time to time, and should be thankful that our sub-par performances haven't been immortalized on YouTube...yet. 

Do you have any ideas on when the album part should or should not be played? Any experiences that you'd like to share that are more or less relevant to this post? Leave us a comment and lets start a dialogue and build community and all that!

With the love that Kanye has for Kanye, 

Ian White