What To Play When You Don't Know What To Play

Obviously, being prepared is exponentially more preferable than going in blind, but being unprepared is inevitable for many musicians, especially in the mostly volunteer world of church worship teams.

You could be unprepared because:

·      The set was changed at the last minute

·      You were scheduled or switched to a different instrument at the last minute

·      Your kids were sick this week and you were too busy cleaning up puke to prepare

·      You forgot

·      You prepared the wrong part, or one that doesn’t work in your context

·      You were kidnapped and had to be rescued by Liam Neeson and dropped off on Sunday morning

Regardless of why you aren’t prepared, it takes a significant amount of mental fortitude and dexterity to go from not having a clue what to play for a song to actually playing the song, sometimes within a couple hours or less. So, due to the intense, stressful nature of coming up with a usable part during that crunch time, i think it will be great to examine the thought processes of a musician who's been there before.

When I arrive at rehearsal and realize that I haven’t written a part for a particular song, there are a few rules that I follow right away:

1.     If you aren’t familiar with the song, do not attempt to play a pivotal role in the song. Be honest with yourself and your worship team and try to play supplemental parts that fill space rather than taking the lead.

2.     Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to improvise over the whole song like you’re in some kind of blues jam. Electric guitarists have a tendency to noodle around when they don’t know what they should really be playing, and you’ll need to intentionally keep that in check.

3.     Don’t play the same open chords that the worship leader is playing. Not knowing how to fit your own sonic space doesn’t give you permission to swallow someone else’s space alive.

These rules might sound like they aren’t giving the electric player any wiggle room to figure out what to play, but if you’re familiar with a few important concepts, these same limitations can make writing a part that fits the song easier than expected, especially in spontaneous moments where you have to play something usable without any time to plan. I use two broad concepts to come up with nearly all of the parts that I play, even when I have some more time to plan.

1.     Chord Voicing/CAGED System/Partial Chords

· This is a fairly vast topic, but essentially, the same notes that we use to make the big open chords that we play all the time reoccur on the neck in little clusters, and by utilizing those higher iterations of the chords, especially in two or three string versions, we can sit our electric guitar right “on top” of the space the acoustic is occupying, adding to the mix of sound in a way that is unobtrusive. Google or Youtube any of the terms I used for the heading of this section if you aren’t familiar.

2.     “Pocket” Licks

· There are some licks and melodic parts that seem to work well in nearly any song, over any chord progression. In fact, many of the poster-child licks within the contemporary worship guitar community are based around the same concepts, like utilizing the 1 and 5 of the key as common tones over several chords, for example. I call these kinds of parts “pocket” licks, because I keep them in my musical pant pocket so that they’re ready to be whipped out whenever I need them like a pencil or lip balm.

  • Famous “Pocket” Licks

    • The ending melody in Rob Thomas’ “Ever The Same”

    • The hook in Kristian Stanfill’s “Lord Almighty”

    • Anything Hillsong ever

    • Anything Chris Tomlin ever

    • Anything using only the 1’s, 3’s, and 5’s  (Work these like your life depends on it.)

Obviously, there are more ways to come up with great parts when time is of the essence, and an accomplished player will be able to draw upon the millions of parts he’s played in the past to assemble a hybrid part and crush nearly any song, but these simple ideas should be able to get anyone started, regardless of skill level.

Anything’s Possible!