I’ve been a church guitarist for 15 years. I’ve learned a lot along the way, I’ve bought a lot along the way, and I've wasted a ton of money along the way. Let me share some gear wisdom so that you don't have to make my same mistakes in your career.
Note: This blog post is purely my opinion, but I’d like to think it’s an educated and experienced one. I'm that guy who obsesses over the tiniest little details and reads everything. And in addition to over 15 years playing in churches, I toured with a professional worship band throughout college.
To give you a little more about my background, after college I travelled with other bands, but I always found a church to play at on Sunday. Nowadays, I play for local churches as a musician for-hire, or for special events. I play conferences and conventions and weddings, and I typically get paid around $200-500 each weekend.
Because I have a full-time job, I sometimes play for free, especially if that cash could go to getting even more and even better musicians around me. I'd highly recommend getting plugged in with bandleaders and worship pastors in local churches. You may not get paid much at first—neither did I—but you'll gain valuable experience.
Alright, now let's talk gear.
In my opinion, in order to play Hillsong, Passion, Bethel, and Elevation type stuff, you really don't need a lot of gear at all. Praise and worship is essentially pop or rock music, really. Don't be fooled by their guitarists, who each have enormous amounts of gear. Listen to the songs—it's all quite simple stuff.
In fact, some of the more experimental sounds you might hear in their music risk being inappropriate in your church's setting—you want to enhance, not distract from the worship experience, always considering your own context.
Also, as with any pop, rock, jazz, or country music, anything and everything can be simplified. I'd actually encourage you to work to simplify the sounds you're hearing on these worship albums, it will make you a much better player (as simplifying is often harder than complicating things).
There is very little that you need for church. Some of these guys who have enormous pedalboards don't even use all that they have! Some have all of that out of enjoyment and a desire to explore new sounds. It's a hobby. And that's perfectly fine. But the worship service is not really for exploring, keep that in the practice room.
In other words, you want to have your sounds and tones planned out before the worship service, just like you'd plan out the structure of the song itself and the parts that you'll be playing.
To me, the only gear that is necessary for church guitar is a guitar and an amp. Start with those before buying effects.
A great guitar is any guitar that you like the sound of, that stays in tune for longer than one song, and plays comfortably. Where your guitar was manufactured does not matter whatsoever.
The most expensive Stratocasters I've ever played were $50,000 (vintage), about $10,000 (masterbuilt custom shop), and about $6,000 (custom luthier-built). I can honestly tell you—no lie—that one of my buddies has a Standard Strat that played and sounded better than each of those ultra high-end models.
Why? Because there are gems and duds in every single price range. I personally had a $4,000 guitar made by a very well-known, highly sought-after builder and it turned out to be kind of a dud. I sold it after four months.
I'm telling you—buy what feels and sounds right, don't buy based on brand or pricepoint or year or origin. And don't buy something just because so-and-so has one.
After a couple of less than favorable experiences buying super expensive guitars, I just bought a Fender Stratocaster (American Special) that felt perfect. I didn't love the sound, so I changed the pickups in it. I used to own all kinds of $3,000+ guitars, this one was just about $1200 total.
You might find a Fender Standard for $350-500 that totally rocks. Heck, you might find an SX for $120-150 that totally rocks. Those are Chinese-made copies of Fender guitars that are surprisingly pretty good. I have a buddy who plays two of them—both feel and sound great.
I like to get my guitars set up by a professional so that none of the strings buzz or slap against the fretboard, and every note comes out in tune (that's called intonation; when one note is in tune but another on the same string is out of tune, you've got bad intonation).
This is a matter of preference, but I tend to like bright guitars rather than warm guitars. For an example of this, bright guitar tones can be heard on a lot of country music—the Telecaster "twang" sound. Warm guitars are featured in a lot of jazz music. I think brightness helps with clarity and authority in the voice of the guitar.
I also like loud guitars. What I mean by that is that some guitar's pickups are "rated lower" in DC resistance (measured in ohms). They output lower volumes. John Mayer's Strats, for instance, have a low output. I tend to prefer higher output single coil pickups.
Here's a super basic rundown of the different types of pickups that are found in most guitars: Single coil pickups are pickups with a single coil wrapped around the magnets that reads vibration from the string and turns it into electricity. Because there's only a single coil, these pickups naturally emit a humming sound that is perfectly normal.
In contrast, pickups with two coils are called humbucking pickups. The hum is bucked by one coil cancelling the other out. Single coils are usually quieter and brighter than humbuckers.
There are many, many different kinds of single coils and many, many different kinds of humbuckers, so find what you like. Personally, I like P90 and Telecaster-style single coils best. They're higher output than most single coils, but lower output than most humbuckers. Just right for me!
There's a whole host of ways that a guitar can be customized and tailor-fit to the player, so I'd invite you to just go to a guitar store and play and explore. Find what you like.
The second and final necessity is an amp. I like to use a tube amp. A tube amp uses vacuum tubes instead of transistors to bring your signal up to the right level. It's a 70 year-old technology that still works well today. Tubes are warmer and fuller sounding, generally, than transistors.
Tube amps are sometimes called valve amps, transistor amps are sometimes called solid state amps. There are some solid state amps that do a pretty good job of impersonating a tube amp, but in the words of Marvin Gaye, ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.
There are different kinds of tubes, which produce different sounds. There are different kinds of transformers inside the amp which can produce different sounds. And there are different kinds of speakers which can produce different sounds. So, again, explore and find what you like.
Every amp is unique, but we can make a few generalizations. Generally speaking, Fender amps, made in America and Mexico, have more bass and run cleaner at high volumes. While tubes react in such a way that at high volumes, your sound becomes gritty, spitty, or distorted (we call this overdrive), a Fender amp starts driving later on the volume knob.
For examples of the Fender sound, John Mayer is a great place to start. He uses big, loud, clean Fender-style amps, like the Bandmaster and Dual Professional. Eric Clapton uses Fender Twins. Jonny Buckland of Coldplay is another great example. He uses Fender DeVilles.
Vox amps, made in England and Asia, tend to be more bright and have a nasally quality about them. Some guys really prefer that, and rightfully so, in the proper setting that sound can be incredible! There are a lot of Vox amps in worship music.
For excellent examples of Vox tones, look no further than the Beatles, U2, and Queen. For more modern examples of the Vox driving and distorting, listen to Jimmy Eat World. The Futures album starts right off with a nasty nasty good example of Vox tone.
Still speaking generally, Marshall amps (also made in the U.K.) bridge the gap between Fender and Vox and are often used at exceptionally high levels of volume and drive. The Marshall sound is used in a lot of rock and metal. Jimi Hendrix and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are great examples of Marshalls playing clean.
I like to use small amps. That way, they're easy to carry to church each weekend. Small amps are usually also small wattage as well. That means they require less power, but are lower volume than larger amps.
The benefit of a small watt amp is that you can turn it up higher without making people's ears bleed. The louder a tube amp is, the more rich and full and warm it will sound, and the more it will begin to drive. Pair that with a bright guitar and you have magic.
If your church is cool with it, hide your amp backstage, crank it, and mic it up. That way, you can use the volume knob on your guitar to roll back and bang out rhythms, roll forward (volume up) for a solo boost, cranked. Your guitar will naturally clean up when the volume is lowered, and when the volume is raised, you really get the amp screaming. Sounds glorious.
Turn up loud. Make those tubes get really hot! You'll get ripping, gritty, spitty, driven rock n' roll tones. Hiding the amp backstage and miking it means that such a loud amp won't offend anyone or step on your bandmate's toes musically, won't drown anyone out…
I also like simple amps. More is more to lose. More features means there's more that can break down or fail you or surprise you. I like an amp that has two volume knobs and a tone knob. One's the volume of the guitar coming into the amp, the input volume. The other is the overall volume of the amp, the output or master volume.
If you were to crank up the input volume but lower the output volume, you could get natural grit and drive without being too terribly loud. If you were to run the opposite, input low and output high, you could get a big clean sound.
Tweaking a tone knob allows you to compensate for different guitars, as one guitar might be significantly brighter sounding than the other. A lot of amps have more control over the tone than that, but I've found that that's all I really need.
For me, 15 watts is enough for church. I like 12-15w tweed Deluxe amps, and the 15w Matchless Spitfire. Those are my favorite amps. They're not particularly affordable, I'm afraid, so on the budget-end I would opt for a Fender Pro Junior or Blues Junior, myself. But use your ears. Go out and find what you like.
If you're wondering how you should allot your cash, what you ought to spend on the guitar versus the amp, here's something that I wish someone had told me early on: The amp makes the biggest difference. If you can, reserve more cash for the amp. A good guitar sounds great through a great amp, but a great guitar can sound awful through the wrong amp.
Once you've got a guitar that sounds good to you, plays well, and stays in tune, and you have an amp that sounds good to you, that you can really get cranking, you have all you need. I'll repeat: You have all you need.
Well, you'll need a tuner too. But that doesn't count! After guitar, tuner, and amp, congratulations! Hop onstage, you're an electric guitarist now. You can stop reading here. Everything below this line is an accessory to what you've got in that great guitar and great amp.
Let's start looking at some effects pedals to string together between that great guitar and great amp. You better save up and buy the great guitar and amp first, though, because, well, if you start with crap and end with crap it doesn't matter how much you've spent on great guitar effects pedals, the end result will be crap.
I'm going to say it again at least three more times. Nothing is greater than taking your guitar straight into your amp. But effects can enhance and deliver a song, they can liven things up, they can add spontaneity or variation to your set, and they can sometimes serve as inspiration for songwriting and writing guitar parts.
I think of effects pedals as like, sprinkles and chocolate chips and gummy bears on the cupcake of your tone. They can make it more interesting, but at the end of the day, it's hard to beat just cake and icing—guitar and amp! I can't reiterate that point enough.
Regardless, here are some popular effects used in worship music and an explanation of each.
Dynamic effects: Overdrive, boost, EQ, and compression
I'm going to work backwards a bit here, for the sake of flow.
You're not always able to crank your amp up so loud in churches, especially small churches. So to simulate that tube amp grit at much lower volumes, use an overdrive pedal. I like to have two: one for rhythmic parts and another for solos.
I use two different overdrives because rhythm and soloing are two totally different styles of play, different postures, different places on the neck even, yielding different responses from the guitar and filling different frequencies in your band's overall spectrum of sounds.
Banging out a rhythm is often loud and full, and full of midrange and harmonic frequencies, whereas playing single note melodies can lack that fullness, can be much more bright and trebly, and have more of a nasaliness—it can be thin. At the very least, single notes stand alone, so they're naturally quieter than full chords.
Pairing drives strategically ensures that when you drop out to hit a solo, the band doesn't sound empty all of a sudden. For this reason, I like to pair a drive that just adds drive with a drive that adds a bit of midrange. We'll get into what that means a bit more later.
My personal favorite pairing is a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver with a Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive, though now I use a slightly tweaked "Blues" pedal called the Breakers, with a Fulltone Full-Drive, which is an SD-1 that has more oomph (the SD-1 can be a bit brittle). But again, one thousand times over, use your ears and go find what works for you.
Sometimes you don't need another overdrive, you don't need more grit, you don't need to simulate that cranked amp. Sometimes you just need to get louder. That's where a boost comes in.
Put simply: A boost pedal boosts your overall volume going into the amp. Sometimes that makes the amp start driving harder and you get more grit. If your amp is big, loud, and clean (like a Twin Reverb), you'll just get more guitar.
There are different kinds of boosts, but I'll just highlight three: Clean boosts, treble boosts, and midrange boosts.
A clean boost is a boost pedal that tries its best to just boost your volume, without affecting the sound of the guitar in any other way. Sometimes these are called 'transparent' boosts but that's a stupid marketing buzzword. Nothing is invisible, every effect affects the tone of your guitar straight into your amp, in one way or another.
A treble boost can be the most awesome tool in a guitarist's arsenal or it can be the absolute worst sounding thing ever. I tell church guitarists to avoid them. Here's where a treble boost shines:
When you crank a big, loud tube amp like a Vox AC-30 up all the way, it gets really warm—not just temperature-wise, but tonally as well. The amp gets so heavily distorted that it starts to sound woolly, or farty, or like the speakers are trying to turn inside out or like you draped a mattress pad over the amp.
A treble boost maintains that crazy distortion, but shifts the guitar's overall signal to be brighter, focuses and tightens the amp up so it doesn't sound like it's flubbing out on you. For a perfect example of how a treble boost sounds into a stupidly cranked up amp, listen to the guitar solo in "We Will Rock You" by Queen.
If a treble boost boosts the treble (or high) frequencies, then you can guess what a midrange boost does. It boosts mids! Some people try to avoid this, when a mids boost is characteristic of a particular pedal. Like, a Tube Screamer overdrive has a significant mids boost.
But I urge you: Don't fear the mids. The guitar plays in vocal frequencies, and needs a bump in mids to stand out over vocalists and keyboardists when appropriate. When it's your time to "sing," a mids boost is your friend. That's why I like the Boss SD-1 and the Ibanez Tube Screamer. Used as boosts, they can add such a presence.
Now, you might just opt for an EQ pedal. EQ is short for equalizer, and for the guitarist, an equalizer pedal is just a pedal that can boost (or cut) whatever frequencies you want, be them bass, mids, or treble. And if you bump everything up a bit at once, an EQ just acts as a clean boost. On an EQ, that's called "running it flat."
You do understand what I mean when I talk about frequencies, right? The bass guitarist and the kick drum are low frequencies, they boom and thump. The guitars and keyboards occupy a wide range in the middle frequencies, they have a vocal quality, they have body, they fill up the range of space that is most pleasing to the human ear.
Midrange frequencies are often split into "low-mids" and "high-mids." Pretty self-explanatory. A bump in low-mids provides body, but too much will often be described as honky, or muffled, like Charlie Brown's teacher's voice. A boost in high-mids adds presence, but too much will often sound nasally.
I've used the word 'presence' a lot without really explaining what I mean. I apologize. You'll find a 'presence' knob on many amplifiers. Presence is called presence because boosting it is like, a reminder to everyone in the room, "Hey! there's a guitar over here."
See, upper-mid frequencies are most audible to the human ear, so boosting them means that, without boosting your overall volume, you still become more audible. You boost "out over the mix" as some say.
Because upper-mids to high frequencies are the most audible tones to our ears, there can be a lot of competition in the mix among high instruments like the snare drum, the cymbals, horns, most female vocals too. These will often be described as bright, brassy, tinny, shrill, brilliant, or having a "sheen to them."
Sound is a spectrum, and all of these voices on the spectrum must blend together to make good sounding music. As a guitarist, you've got to learn to hear when you're being too honky, or when you lack presence, or when you're drowning out another musician. And again, that's not always about your overall volume.
You can be the same volume as another band member onstage, but because of what you're playing on the guitar, you could be much much much more audible. The human ear has a preference for those upper middle frequencies and highs—we can't hear the highest highs or lowest lows nearly as well. We can often feel them, but that's another story.
As a guitarist, you occupy a wide frequency range from bass notes to treble notes. The guitar is the most supportive instrument on stage, driving rhythms to push the song forward and playing chords to undergird the melody and to fill up space. When you drop out, a major part of the overall sound goes away. So all that said, choose your effects with that in mind.
Matching your dynamics pedals (the drives and boosts) will aid significantly in filling space when you go from playing all six strings to three to one (big chords to small chords to solos). We call this gain-staging, setting each stage of gain to cascade into one another, so that one pedal is not significantly louder or quieter than another.
The term 'gain' is often interchanged with the words 'drive,' or 'overdrive.' This is a mistake. Gain is essentially volume. 'Input gain' on a mixing console is volume before clipping (causing distortion). That's kind of a simplified explanation but suffice to say, with drives (overdrives, distortions, fuzz pedals) we want clipping.
The last type of dynamics pedal, working backwards from drives, is a compressor pedal. Usually you'd want to put the compressor as close to the front of your effects chain as possible (there are a couple of exclusions to that rule).
Compression is meant to manage spikes and dips in volume as you play, to even things out a bit. Compressors can be tricky. If you know how to use one, it can make you sound awesome. If you don't know how to use it, it can make you sound terrible.
I'm willing to bet some of you have bought a compressor pedal in the past, played around with it, only to find that you totally hate what it does to your guitar tone. But before you go saying, "I hate compressors" to everyone you meet, check out the tips I've listed here.
These are some basic principles to get amazing tone out of a compressor, and these principles don't just go for the guitar, they apply to vocal compressors, as well as compressors used on drums and bass:
- First, you gotta understand what comp is for. Compression is meant to manage dynamics—spikes and dips in volume.
- A comp can raise your lightly picked notes to a higher volume, and squash your heaviest hit notes and chords to prevent unwanted spikes in volume.
- When fingerpicking, not every finger strikes or plucks the guitar in exactly the same way, and sometimes a fingernail catches the string and makes a Pop!—a compressor helps prevent that.
- A compressor raises the overall volume of your guitar signal without necessarily boosting the front end of the amp or adding gain.
- Compressors often include EQ controls to add or take away frequencies that stand out in your guitar's overall tone.
- Vocal compressors and studio compressors are a bit different from guitar compressors but the principles are the same.
- You can use a studio compressor to control the threshold (what's getting squashed and when), as well as the attack and release or open and close of the compressor.
- A fast attack means that the compressor "hears" and squashes the note quickly. I'm not into fast attacks, because they threaten pick transients and spontaneous noises that make music sound authentic, unpolished in a good way.
- A slow attack means the compressor takes a little time to get to work. I like a slow attack.
- A fast release means that the compressor recovers quickly off the previous note.
- When in doubt, use moderation. Set volume and tone to nominal (where the volume of the effect matches the volume of the signal). Set the compression to 25%. See if you like it. Hit hard notes and pick soft notes. Use your ears.
- If you're on a studio compressor, like an 1176, try the Dr. Pepper trick. 10/2/4. That's gain at nominal, attack at 10:00, release at 2:00, with a 4:1 ratio. Sounds great on vocals too.
- If your compressor includes a threshold control, that's the level at which the compressor starts compressing. I watch my input signal and try to set the threshold just below my loudest notes.
- Ratio is the amount of attenuation. For example, a 4:1 ratio means that signals exceeding the threshold by 4dB will be squashed down to unity gain (also called nominal or flat).
- A limiter is just a compressor with a high ratio, like 20:1, ensuring that no notes exceed the threshold.
- Compressors react differently with humbuckers and single coils. When switching between guitars, sometimes I bump the tone or EQ control up to compensate for a darker guitar. The Diamond Compressor is great for that.
- Use your ears. Use your ears. Use your ears. If it sounds good, it is good, regardless of price. My favorite compressor pedal is one of the cheapest, the MXR Dyna Comp.
- Try different compressors. Like overdrive circuits, they're all a little different from one another.
- Find out what compressors were used on your favorite albums.
- A little goes a long, long way.
- As you're listening and trying out comps, play dynamically. Play a mix of soft and loud, rhythm and lead, high and low on the neck to really get a feel for the effect.
- Realize that it's not wrong to not have a compressor. You're not weird if you dislike them and they're not often a necessity per sé. But if you learn to use one, it can be so, so great.
- Try the compressor out before and after overdrives, and listen to how it changes the noise floor.
Now, on to the fun effects!
At the beginning of many worship songs, there is a 'hook' or a melody. This introduces the song, often teasing the melody of the first verse so that the crowd knows what to sing, even if they're unfamiliar with the song. This hook can be significantly enhanced by modulation, echo (often called delay), or reverb effects.
Echo, or delay effects
Delay pedals have a psychological effect on the audience. If a part is being echoed, it tells people to listen up—this part is important. I don't put delay on everything because then the effect loses its significance. Not everything is important enough to be echoed over and over.
In the hook of the song, I like to use a short, bright echo mixed relatively low (so that the melody isn't crowded by repeating notes). The terms 'short' and 'long' refer to feedback: the amount of times a note repeats over and over and over and over. Most delays have a tone control to brighten or darken the repeats; dark can get murky-sounding.
I typically like an echo that has a quarter note setting, so that every repeat falls one quarter note after the note before. You know quarter notes, right? Think: 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4. The repeats (the echoes after your initial note) will go: Dot dot dot dot, Dot dot dot dot (where the capital-D indicates the 1). This gear post is turning into a theory lesson…
Other rhythmic delays can be cool too. There's the eighth note delay (count: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, or Dot dot dot dot dot dot dot dot). The triplet delay (Da da dot). And the ever-popular dotted eighth delay (Dot di-dot di-dot di-dot, where the "di" sound is the dotted eighth note, you don't hear the "dot" in "di-dot," you hear Dot di- di- di-). When you play eighth notes into a dotted eighth delay, it goes: Dot digga digga digga.
The dotted eighth note delay sound is used on sooo many worship songs. If you want a very clear example of that sound, look up "Sweet Disposition" by the Temper Trap or "Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2. To me, it sounds like a galloping horse. So I only like to use it on 'triumphant' feeling parts. If you're playing a sad or introspective song with a galloping sound, it can feel a little out of touch, out of place. Like a horse bursting into a funeral.
Some delay pedals have added control over the tempo of the repeats. This is called tap tempo, because you're using the extra footswitch to tap in the tempo of the song. Some parts require you to be locked to the beat, but honestly, tap tempo is overrated. Guys think that they need it when they really don't.
I often let my tempos float. It lends itself to a soupier, more spontaneous, more full sound to me. But I also mix my repeats very, very low (where the echoed notes come out much quieter than the initial attack). I mention this because the least expensive echo pedals often exclude a tap tempo feature, and I don't want that to hold you back, if you can't afford to spend as much.
Once you get into the song, playing dynamically sometimes requires you to just strum a big chord on the 1 and carry it through the bar. You know, a whole note. Some people call these 'diamonds' because the whole note looks like a diamond on a sheet of music.
When playing supportively like that, sometimes I like to add something light—barely there—to make it interesting. By the way, this is not a prescription or a formula in any way; find what works for you. I'm only telling you my approach.
Usually, I go to a modulation pedal for 'interesting.'
There are several types of modulation pedals. Choruses, phasers, flangers, tremolos… and there are subsets of each. Explore. Use your ears. Find out what types of modulation were used on your favorite songs. If I were starting out—and again, this is totally not necessary—I would start with a tremolo pedal.
A tremolo pedal modulates the volume of your guitar signal. It's a rather conservative effect, and a little goes a long, long way. The tremolo was the first guitar "effect" ever produced. It's classic, and ubiquitous, and sometimes separates a good guitar part from a great guitar part.
For an example of a soft and tasteful tremolo sound, where the guitar is playing diamonds and simply supporting more prominent parts in the mix, listen to the guitar parts in "Brothers On A Hotel Bed" by Death Cab for Cutie. Throughout the song there are soft whole note strums like I was referring to before. Listen closely for the electric guitar.
Another great example of tremolo is the rhythm guitar in "Lucky," by Radiohead. In fact, Radiohead's whole OK Computer album is a goldmine of great, out-of-the-box guitar tones. For an example of a much deeper, yet still super tasteful tremolo, listen to the guitar solo in "New Slang" by the Shins—one of my favorite guitar parts of all time.
For an example of a cranked, aggressive, choppy tremolo, listen to the beginning of "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" by Green Day. For an example of stereo tremolo that almost makes you seasick, put on headphones and listen to the beginning of "How Soon Is Now" by the Shins.
Another early modulation effect is called a vibrato. Vibrato modulates pitch, ever so slightly on conservative settings, to simulate the movement of a vibrato bar on the guitar (sometimes called a trem bar or a whammy bar), or the vibrato in your fingers by lightly bending the string like B.B. King (look up his butterfly vibrato technique).
On faster, less subtle settings, vibrato can give you a drunken, swirly warble, like Jimi Hendrix's signature sound (he used a Univibe). Not often needed in church, very cool nonetheless. For the perfect example of an intense vibrato, listen to "Sick Love" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Chorus pedals slightly slightly delay your signal to produce a double-tracking effect that makes you sound bigger than just one guitarist. Sometimes they add subtle pitch modulation as well. Chorus was the effect of the 80s. Think Prince's "Purple Rain" and Johnny Marr's part in "This Charming Man."
Chorus is making a comeback, as the 80s are making a comeback in music. For recent examples, listen to "Towers" by Bon Iver or the rhythm guitar in "Love Me" by the 1975.
Phaser is one of my favorite modulation effects. Put simply, it imitates an old recording practice of splitting the signal and playing the dry signal in and out of sync with a filtered signal. Say "wore-eee-air-eee-yore-eee-air" over and over, out loud, slowly, as if you have marshmallows in your mouth. That's the phaser sound.
A slow phaser is the sound of all your favorite old country records—it's the Waylon Jennings sound—and it's being revived in the albums produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell).
For a great example of a country phaser, listen to "Hard Livin'" off of Chris Stapleton's From A Room, Volume 2 album. Or listen to "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" by Waylon and Willie. Both were performed, over 40 years apart, using an MXR Phase 90.
Eddie Van Halen used a subtle phase effect on "Eruption." A more aggressive phaser sound might be the electric parts in the first and second verses of "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead. Jonny Greenwood uses an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser.
Flanger is another popular modulation effect that's derived from old studio gear. A tape flange effect was created by pressing down slightly on a tape reel and then lifting off, causing one side of the split signal to slow down and then quickly ramp back up. It's a sound you hear on a lot of great, old 70s records.
The clearest example I can think of, of the actual tape flanging effect, is the instrumental and bridge sections of the Doobie Brothers' "Listen To The Music." Flanger pedals try their best to simulate that effect, but they're kind of their own thing. I'm afraid flanger pedals don't get much love in the church world.
For the perfect example of what a flanger pedal does, listen to "Message In A Bottle" by The Police. In the intro, first verse, and pre-chorus, Andy Summers uses a flanger pedal. For the chorus, he switches to a chorus pedal and plays diamonds, like I talked about before. Once you start listening for things like that, they really jump out at you in great songs.
There are other types of modulation effects, of course. I've just highlighted the major ones. There are all kinds of great pedals out there, that do all manner of cool tricks. But again, remember: All you really need is a guitar and an amp. Everything else is accessory.
Reverb and ambience
For many worship songs, the guitarist is relied upon fill space for the sake of filling space, or gluing the song together, or giving the song a more introspective and dramatic feel. Some people call this 'ambience,' it's a big fad right now. I call it the keyboardist's job.
But a good keyboardist is hard to find, so if you've got to play ambient-style stuff, pads and whale noises and the like, here's how I do it:
- Clean up. Don't drive too hard—makes everything sound too murky or farty.
- Mix delays: Use a bright, short delay mixed a hair below unity into another delay, preferably a warmer analog-sounding delay mixed low with a long feedback time. Let the pedal reach near-oscillation (where it feeds back into itself over and over and grows), but keep it under control.
- When it comes to mixing reverbs and delays, think 'space and time.' Let the reverb handle atmosphere or space, while the delays handle time. What I mean is, don't have such a prominent splash at the front end of your reverb or such a long decay rate at the tail.
- Mix in a bit of modulation to taste: A lush chorus, a tremolo ramping up speed and slowing down, or a slow moving phaser.
- Don't overplay. Use your volume knob or a volume pedal swell that big lush ambient sound up, like a tide coming in. Hit the crowd with waves—aka, know when to back off.
- A little goes a long way. You're not cooking stew—don't throw everything in the pot and hope it comes out right—you're making pasta. A few simple ingredients, mixed well.
There are several different types of reverbs. Modulated digital reverbs are my personal favorite. A modulated reverb mixes a subtle chorusing effect into the decay. This can't be done with analog components, so digital verbs have a computer chip in them.
Like the modulated reverb, there are some wildly unique reverb pedals out there, but the reverb effect itself was originally designed to imitate a room.
You ever go into a big, empty room and clap your hands? That's reverb. Small room, hall, and cathedral—these are all words to describe common rooms that are emulated by digital reverbs. To me, adding a short hall reverb to your guitar sound lends a sort of breathy, airiness. That's kind of the Bethel Church guitar sound.
The earliest forms of reverb were made using analog components—wood and wire. There were spring and plate reverbs in the beginning. Spring is the type of reverb found on most amps, especially vintage amps.
A spring reverb can imitate roominess in a primitive sort of way, but cranked up, it produces a splashy, drippy effect, and sounds like old school surf and country music. Think Dick Dale's "Miserlou." For a modern example, listen to the chord stabs in "Hard Times" by Paramore.
How does a spring reverb work? You ever pluck a spring when it's tense, and hear the vibration it makes? A spring reverb sends your guitar signal (the electricity) through a set of springs and reads the vibrations. This creates separation between the sound of the guitar and the sound of the guitar through vibrating springs.
Plate reverb is similar to spring reverb, except that, in analog models, a large metal plate was used to vibrate rather than a set of springs. Much less common because of their size, you could find plate 'verbs in many studios back in the day. Plate reverb is much more metallic-sounding (you could have guessed that), with more complex reflections.
Digital reverbs can often simulate springs and plates without all the size, cost, and hassle.
What I would buy…
Again, use your ears and buy what sounds good to you. Don't just take my word for it, or the word of any other guitarist. Experiment, play around, and borrow gear. But here's where I would spend my money if I were just getting into the guitar and had a budget of, say, $1,000.
I would first shop around and find a Fender Standard Telecaster. If you look at used prices, they range from about $250 to $500. I wouldn't spend more than $300—I've played some great ones for about that much. For me, I think I'd spring for one in Lake Placid blue.
Next, I'd search for a Fender Blues Jr. Not a dealbreaker, but I'd look for ones that come with a protective case, or come in a limited edition color. I love the factory special-run two tone blue one—it's pretty. I would try not to spend more than $300—I see them used for around this price all the time. I'd look for one that has recently been serviced, with new tubes.
Here's how I'd spend my remaining $400: I'd look for used pedals, and get a Boss SD-1 and BD-2 ($100), a Boss DD-7 ($100), and a Boss RV-5 ($100). That last $100 would go to accessories: I'd need cables (building them yourself is the cheapest route, if you can), a tuner, a tap footswitch, a power supply, and a small pedalboard to carry all of this around.
I've already talked about the Boss SD-1 and BD-2. They're classic and pair super well. They'll also last you forever—you're going to be stomping on them a lot, so choose drives that are well-made and will hold up. On a budget, I would skip a compressor and any kind of modulation pedals.
I say I'd opt for a Boss DD-7 because they're easiest to find. But if I could find one, I'd get the now discontinued Boss DD-5. It's the delay pedal I started out on, and I've owned one for nearly 20 years. It's also a staple of every Hillsong album. There are a bunch of Hillsong Creative videos on showing Droff playing all of their parts with just the DD-5 (source).
For reverb, there's no question. I'd buy a Boss RV-5. The modulate setting literally is church—period. And it's the pedal that most worship guys use. Daniel Carson, James Duke, Michael Pope, Droff… the list of Boss reverb users among church guys goes on and on.
Lastly, don’t waste money on expensive cables at first. Some trendy solderless kits have a really high fail rate. And to my ears, the difference between most cables is totally negligible. I use and love Evidence audio cables, but wouldn't dare recommend dropping $200+ on cables alone when you’re building your first rig.
This has been a long blog post. Thank you for reading. I could write a book on this stuff. Ultimately, take my experience into account but go out and find what you like, what makes you sound like the guitar player you want to be. Use your ears.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that I have a lot of regrets when it comes to gear. Early on, I had everything I needed but kept buying and selling, thinking I was missing out on something that another guy had. If I could do over again, I would have become a much better player if I had focused on learning how to use the stuff I already owned.
I purposely left out the names of well-known praise and worship guitars until the very end there, to show that it doesn't matter what they play. They use what works for them. Consequently, the Boss RV-5 I mentioned before works for all of them!
But I urge you, don't just buy something because it's popular, or because someone else has it, or because you think it will make you look cool. Buy what you need to deliver the song. Your number one job is to lead your people in worship, so buy gear with your own community and context in mind.