#KnowYourTone; or, The Devolution of Worship Music - Part One

Praise Him with tambourine and dance; praise Him with flute and strings.
— Psalm 150:4

 

PREFACE

Some things to get out of the way first.

Speaking as a musician, this article is something I have been passionately thinking over and is a topic I personally love to discuss. I would love for you to comment any thought on the issue because I write to discuss and not solely to inform. This is not an attack on any specific musician, effects company, or personal taste, but is an address to a trend I have seen only getting worse in recent years. It will be delivered in two parts. I will express concerns about modern church culture, worship music as a genre, and what happens when worship gets it wrong. So sit back, take notes, reason together with me, and let's get down to business.

PURPOSE

First, we need to talk about music and its purpose in the church. One of the most popular references to "worship" can be found in Psalms, an entire book saturated with music and poetry dedicated to our Father as a means of praising, questioning, and discovering Him. It is concrete evidence that music shares an emotional connection with human nature when we urge to use words and instruments to create a harmonious sound to praise our Creator. So naturally, worship music has evolved throughout the years alongside the church. With the separation of denominations, we see a separation of music preference, as well: some churches have a full choir and orchestra, others have an acoustic guitar and a Cajon, others have full bands, others have no instruments at all. Even within the same denomination you will see a variety of arrangements. Frankly, none of this matters.

The point is, worship music can be used for both preparing the congregation to hear the Word of God and for responding to Truth shared from it. The vocalists may be flat, the instruments may be off, but musical worship is not an audition into Heaven--it is a heart's cry to God. Worship music in Jamaica is going to sound different than worship music in Israel, which will sound different than it will in Uganda. Style frankly doesn't matter; what propels the style does. So it is interesting that "Worship" has evolved into a genre. 

When I say "Worship Music," most readers of this site will probably think of Hillsong or Elevation or Chris Tomlin. Some will think of vi-IV-I-V progressions played on a loop. They'll think of huge conferences with lots of people raising their hands or the part of a service that they have to sit through to get to the sermon. 

I'm going to talk about what Worship music has become, but from the position of someone on the inside--as someone who makes the kind of music that you probably associate with what "Worship Music" is. Spoiler alert: it might not be what you think it is. 

THE "MODERN CHURCH"

Some of you may know exactly what I mean when I say "modern church," but for those that do not, let me share with you my transition into one so that you have a clear idea of what I'm talking about.

I came from your typical Southern Baptist church. We sang out of the hymnal and our drum set had to be plugged into the wall, but dangit that black grand piano was always on point. There were no schedules, no one used Planning Center, and the ratio of music to preaching varied on a weekly basis; it was determined by "how the spirit led" (which I perceived as "how much coffee the congregation had that morning"). We all shook hands and there were always the senior citizens that shook a little too long, but in the end, the entire experience was very "homey." However, I left that church during my freshman year of college for reasons that may be discussed in an entirely different article. It is nonetheless true that the moment I entered the modern church culture, I was forever changed, both in a good and bad way.

I was invited to a few of these modern churches before I found one that I truly enjoyed playing in and attending, but there were similarities between all of them: the "sanctuaries" were not lit by dim, yellow bulbs with stained glass on each wall, but instead were darker and lit by multicolored stage lighting. Everything was digitally controlled: the lights, the sound, the presentations on the screen advertising upcoming events, etc. It felt like I was about to attend a concert, but I somehow felt more at home than I previously had. The congregation's average age was slightly younger, the decibel level of the experience was slightly louder, and for once I found myself truly "into" being at church. For whatever that's worth.

When I first arrived, I couldn't imagine the whole experience could feel personal, for I was just one of very many people in a loud, dark room listening to a live band worship.

But I was wrong.

I was immediately welcomed and encouraged to try out to be a guitarist and I knew had found a new family. Sure, the preacher may have been on a screen, but it was something I got used to. I understood that there were multiple service times in several locations in a couple of different cities. I wasn't going to be selfish. I liked these people, this environment, and, as cheesy as it sounds, like I belonged. 

Don't mishear me. I know the point of church isn't to feel like you "belong." I also completely understand people's complaints with modern churches. That's not what this is about. We're getting to that. 

 

STAGE CULTURE

Like I mentioned before, I was invited to audition for a position in the church band. I had played in a church all of my life, but every church experience in the past had been along the lines of being atop a small platform holding an acoustic guitar and singing "Open the Eyes of My Heart" for youth while they did interpretive dance. Going from that to a designated spot on a stage with a spotlight and moving lights, in-ear monitors controlled via a smartphone app, and a click track to keep everyone in sync, was quite a thrilling experience. To be honest, it felt "pro."

At this time, I had played guitar for 13 years and had always dreamed of a large, live-performance experience. Though this was not a sold-out arena with thousands of screaming fans, I was much closer to that than I had ever been so I was super into it.

I got the part and things went fantastic...at first. It was during my first few Sundays that I began hearing some critique on my "gear." Here's the thing. I know it was not the absolute best setup. I was a broke college kid chasing that mythical American Dream and trying to get the almighty college degree. I was teaching guitar as a side job along with my studies to make ends meet. My roommates were my parents and my car was lucky to make it from point A to point B.

I loved playing guitar and I owned a decent guitar setup, but I never funneled a lot of money into my gear. My board was a little multi-effects setup that had gotten for Christmas a year or two before and my amplifier was a small solid state Vox that at least had an onboard EQ and reverb. As far as I was concerned, my sound setup worked. I played Fender and Gibson guitars and I had hundreds of effects at the tip of fingers; what else could anyone want? 

Well, it turns out what people want is everything opposite of what I had. (Side note: I don't mean that I got complaints from the congregation that my tone was hindering people from giving their lives to Jesus Christ; the people I am referring to were simply other musicians in and outside of the church who turned their noses up at my somewhat rudimentary setup.)

I soon began picking up on words like "true bypass," "solderless cables," "boutique amplifiers," "first and second stage overdrives," "pedal order," etc. It was all about tone. Every. Single. Thing. Revolved. Around. Tone. I was a decent player, but people didn't seem to talk about that.

Here's what I began learning: multi-effects sound too digital and ruin your tone. Solid state amps suck because hey have no warmth to them and ruin your tone. You need a tube amp, preferably a boutique amp; then you'll get good tone. You need a pedalboard (pedaltrain or a customer built one, or your tone will suck), a power supply (it better be isolated, for that clean-power tone), a handful of pedals (volume, tuner, multiple overdrives, delay[s], reverb[s], chorus, tremelo, etc.--for the tone, you know) placed in the correct order for optimal tone, and a buffer pedal because all of the cables that connect your handful of pedals will cause tone loss. 

Essentially, you need a multi-thousand dollar rig setup in order to have THE tone needed for THIS type of music. Let me say this though, no one was ever rude to me about this. There was not a single person that said "your gear sucks" to my face. It all started as suggestions here and there and then one person offering to let me use some of their gear every now and then until it just became the norm and my gear began collecting dust at home. I did not want to rely on others whenever I played so I bit the bullet and did what I had to do: shop for gear. 

$$$

I really could not think of a good subtitle for this section. I'm sorry, but three dollar signs will have to do because this part is literally about how much of a money-pit you can dig yourself into when shopping for gear. Like I previously stated, I owned a $400 board that was a gift and an amp that may have cost $200 and was also a gift. I was in over my head when I began shopping for the holiest of pedals.

I was averaging about $150/pedal on top of a $150 pedalboard with a $120 power supply. Luckily, I was able to score a cheap tube amp from a buddy selling his so that helped with the funding. All in all, I spent a ton of money buying and selling pedals to get the "tone" that I was supposedly after. It may have taken about half a year to reach a point where I felt "accomplished," but it was worth it. I felt absolutely great and I had a setup that The Edge would be proud of. I had pedals for every single occasion that could come up and I felt like a true musician up on the stage.

People started praising my pedalboard. They would see what pedals and I had and in what order, and said it sounded great. My last purchase was a high-end amplifier. I really, really, REALLY, wish someone had told me in the beginning to invest in a good amp before anything. It was what made that final, true difference. All in all, I was finally finished.

I WAS NOT FINISHED

Something did not feel right. It sounded great, but my setup was so dang heavy that I typically left it at church and did not have the energy to pack it up, load it into my car, unload it at home, hook it back together, and enjoy it at my leisure.

The board was around 50-60 lbs and my amp was around 20 lbs. It took multiple trips to get it all anywhere and anytime I did have to move it I contemplated hiring a personal tech to handle it because I was just so over it. My gear that I was so proud of, which I had spent time and money making absolutely perfect, somehow became swallowed into the church itself. It lived there and I rented it from the stage whenever I wanted to play it. It didn't feel like my stuff anymore; I was back to borrowing someone else's again. This went on for almost a year. An entire year of being semi-happy with a huge investment that I didn't even felt like I owned.

I couldn't do it anymore. I just recently downgraded my board and sold nine pedals (in the short span of three days by the way), moving to a raw and less ambient, sustained tone. It was a literal (and figurative) weight felt lifted. What led me to sell, you ask? Well...

I realized I had never been critiqued on my playing--every problem I had faced could be solved with different reverb or more delay. I mean we never played anything extremely complex, but as a lead guitarist it was my job to fill in an emptiness with catchy riffs or whatever, which apparently I did fine with. If I did try anything a little more complex, it just didn't matter. I could play the exact same lead over every song and it no one would bat an eye because the tone synced well with the style. The fact is that, within the genre, guitar was just another keyboard. It did not matter what was there, so long as it fit.

I thought that surely this was just an isolated incident. But then I listened to and watched other guitarists at churches via Vimeo, Youtube, etc. and I noticed the same thing: a giant pedalboard and the same old boring playing. 

EPIPHANY 

It was then I realized it. I had my epiphany: this modern church culture just enables a lack of creativity into the world of contemporary christian and worship music. You do not have to be good to be a christian musician and you do not need to be innovative.

I and my circle of friends noticed that it was not a problem isolated to churches, but crept its way into worship music on every radio station and LifeWay bookstore around. Megachurch bands are recording albums and are saturating the market with ambient one-liner worship songs and are following the Tomlin Technique they so loved to criticize, where you just repeat chords over repetitive, spiritual-sounding lyrics.

It is sad when some of the best Christ-centered lyrics that truly express the difficulty of understanding grace or paint a realistic picture of Jesus are so far underground that their shows are found in small clubs or living rooms while the popular market is saturated with watered-down, sugar-coated expressions of Christianity that makes people feel good. The music is simple and the lyrics are elementary--not in a simplistic way that is effective in its brevity, but a lazy and vapid one.

But it was not always like that. Listen to the newest Passion album and then listen to DC Talk's Supernatural album (which is almost 20 years old) and let me know which one feels more like a worship album (Spoiler Alert: It probably won't be that Passion record). Listening to and playing worship music these days has as much effect as only teaching from a Noah's Ark coloring book you had as a kid. There is no depth. There is no growth. The music and listeners have plateaued and been replaced by loud, synthy computer tracks. 

Now I began this speaking about the church for one reason: the church is where it begins. It is everyone's first intro into worship music, so it is where we can break the cycle. Maybe we should consider what we are playing and singing before deciding how we are playing and singing it because this backwards setup is ruining "worship music". Guitarists: there are other tones besides "ambient" and it is time we realize it.

I would much rather listen to some band play a multi-effects pedalboard through a solid state amp and actually have emotion, innovation, and passion to their playing. Or depth, artistry, and meaning to their lyrics. Anything more than what we are doing now. Tone can be added; heart cannot. It should never come first in any situation and it is haunting that it has a central place in a worship environment. 

I had fallen victim to the culture and knew I had to change. I sold stuff that I didn't need and went to a core sound. I have begun the detox process by backing down to just minimal effects on a tiny board (that I may still downgrade) and my amp. We need to fix the music before we fix how it sounds. You do not give a crappy junk car a new paint job and say it's perfect; we don't spritz a turd with fruit spray and call it an apple. So why do we do this with worship music?

FINAL THOUGHTS

I truly believe that CCM (contemporary christian music) and Worship music peaked a decade ago. Some of those albums still stand the test of time and express Christianity in a realistic sense--it expressed doubt and fear and real encounters with a risen King who demands that we renew our minds daily and sing a new song. This current culture we are seeing is doing more harm than anything and it is up to musicians in the church to fix it. If we can bring the level of creativity back into worship worthy of the God who gave us the ability to be creative, it can be a useful tool for expressing our faith, displaying our hearts, and worshiping Jesus.

Though I am not psychic, I already know what the biggest argument against this article will be: "well you said in the Purpose that the singers could be flat and the instruments could be off but that it did not matter as long as worshipping was happening." You would be correct. We all can scroll back up and read those very words. However, when praise music plateaus, our faith does the same. The depth is needed so that we can grow in our faith. 

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
— Brennan Manning

Unfortunately, the problem does not end in the church, for as I said, the crippling mediocrity present in "church music" has infected worship, even "Christian" music in general. I think that we will find that the same things apply as we discover, in Part 2 (whenever that comes) that the industry has drawn its water from the same poisoned well--one that is, essentially, creating worship music pointed in the wrong direction.