How And When To Use Instrumental Solos In Worship

Featuring Branon Dempsey Posted on June 2, 2009

Leading worship and playing in a band, you need to know exactly when, where and how to apply musical wizardry. So the question for us: when it comes to soloing, how do we stay true to it's role, art and application?

It's all about purpose and role. Most every time, when I pick up an instrument, my initial thought is "why?" In other words, I search for the reasons of why I am going to play the instrument at all. Is there another acoustic player? Is there another keyboard player? How many singers are present and what are they singing? These are important questions to consider because they help determine our purpose and our process. As I find my musical position in the group, the next important thing I find is to consider my place. Am I going to bang through all the chords and notes and blow everyone out of the water? I could, but I probably would never be asked back or worse, be escorted off the stage by the sound engineer. Here are a few of my processes in determining what I play/sing and how I would approach a solo.

Listen. Seek out the musical landscape. Listen to what's going on in the environment. If any band has a word here, it would probably be that there is much happening in the musical space. Yes, the musical space; it is not about filling the room, but creating room. The drummer is doing his thing, also the guitar player, keyboard, bass and so forth. Use your ear and find out who is really occupying the musical real estate. Another way to think about the direction of the music is visualize who is driving the car. Next, I begin to determine how I will adjust. Notice how I did not say - how the band will adjust to me. Your best move is to go with the flow of traffic. Adding a few notes here and there is keeping with the speed limit. You don't have to move much because the band is already in motion. It is true, if you do too much, you will indeed rock the boat - and I don't mean like Townsend or Hendrix. Adding just enough to keep the momentum going is all that's needed. Here is where we find our purpose - supporting each member in the band. You know have a good idea of what instruments are present, who's driving the car and where you are heading musically.

Once I establish my purpose, now I decide on how I will play the role of my instrument. Will I be loud and proud, nimble and quick or patient and persevering (this last one is tough!). Patience is the underlying virtue that produces the peaceable fruit. Patience also requires you to say "no" or "wait" to yourself. In a team setting my concern is do I want to be a sour note, or a sweet sound in the ears of others and God? We all hear music differently. We all interpret music differently. Therefore, we will sound differently. I want to make sure that what I am hearing and playing is going to be in sync with others. This all has to do with our overall playing and soloing. My role as a musician and/or singer is to help support the musical activity that is taking place. Like Scripture says, I am to esteem others better than myself - not steam roll over them. Ultimately, my notes need to be in line with what's happening around me. Is the band playing hard, fast, slow or soft? My adjustment and support will help make all the difference as well as compliment. Here's another kicker-question. Does the song even need a solo? Here's a good word I love: just because you can doesn't mean you should. No matter how great of gear we own, or how well we can play, it does not merit for us to flaunt it musically.

Great solos come from great skills in listening. Learn to also match the music and the moment. Matching the music requires a skill that incorporates notes that are already heard in the tune. Like a great conversation, using familiarity draws people's interest. We connect better to words and language that is common. In attempting a solo, we need to stay within the same musical language: key, tempo, progression, dynamic and texture. Think about what an Eddie Van Halen "Panama" solo would sound like to the tune of "Lord I Give You My Heart." Ok the solo may be great by itself, but was it really great in the context and mood of the song? Also, think about the number of notes that are used. If I am playing a fast tune, then I would use fast notes to match the conversation. Maybe employing slow and long notes would help widen the spaces. Complying or contrasting the speed and length of notes is another method to help shape the musical context.

Here is another, yet the bigger side of the role - my heart. Jesus said that what proceeds from the mouth is really from the heart of a man. Is this any different from the music in which we play and sing? Is my heart really into what I am playing? Is my heart in tune with the words of the song? Carl Albrecht wrote a great article regarding this issue entitled "Now this time with feeling." He wrote these words, "I approach each event like it deserves the honor that God has assigned to it" (Musician Magazine of July/August 2008). Carl continued to say that he did not want to just "go" through the musical motions, but he wanted every note to count every time - unto the Lord. When our hearts are not in sync with the Lord and with others as a team, the music we play will not translate effectively. In fact, we read in Amos 2 that we can simply become noise. It's one thing to be a great player and to know all the notes. It's another to be a great listener to God and know what He is saying. He speaks to us even when we play or sing. How often do you pay close attention to the lyrics? Especially in worship. Is your heart in connection with the words as you worship through what you are playing or singing? Provided that the music has Biblical errancy, our hearts will respond if we are listening. From a heart of praise, we exude the music from our souls. This is what David meant in Psalm 33.3.

Instrument solos I feel are right to do in a service, provided that they have context. Like anything else, a solo must have its place. Recently, I had a worship leader ask me if it's proper to even implement a guitar solo in worship. As he explained the background of his church and music style, I became aware that this congregation did not embrace change. Has he ever been to our churches? He was afraid of the disapproval and what the older generations would say. More importantly, he was curious to learn a positive and effective way of introducing a solo. Man, I thought, this guy is asking the right question. I shared with this worship leader that every good work of art must have its context. Proverbs tells us that without vision, the people perish. The congregation has a better chance engaging when they understand what's happening.

Communicating purpose alleviates confusion. Instead of dropping a solo bomb, there are other ways to help the congregation engage. Here are a few suggestions of words to say when introducing a instrumental solo in worship. Speak this timely before the solo section arrives, in any of these manners: "Let us now praise God through our instruments." "The Bible says in Psalm 145 to praise Him with stringed instruments." "The Psalms declares for us to play skillfully to the Lord." "In honor of our Lord, let us worship him with sweet melodies." After a single statement is made, then proceed right into the solo. Keep the solo at a reasonable length. Churches who enjoy allot of music, may not mind a 1-2 or more minute solo. Other churches may simply want a taste of 4-8 bars.

What to play? I typically, pull out memorable sections of the song that people know. This is not a new concept. Using a line from the opening verse and chorus sections are great. They help maintain the continuity of the song and keep you from rabbit trailing (or rabbit hunting). To make the solos more interesting, after you choose your section, pick out the best 5-6 notes that really stand out. Solo on those memorable notes that frame out the section. Try repeating the notes, playing them in different order and doubling or elongating the rhythms. You will find that you have more varieties and colors to explore that are already built into the song. Soloing and improvisation is not throwing any old kind of notes that you can spew. Look at great musicians and observe how they approach and stay true to the music: Charlie Parker (sax), Thelonious Monk (piano), Miles Davis (trumpet), Steve Gadd and Tony Williams (drums), Ron Carter and Abe Laboriel (bass) and guitar work by Buddy Guy, Larry Carlton and Joe Bonamasa.

Now keep in mind, the videos ahead are for examples of approach, context and support from the band. These clips are to give a bit of flesh to the bone. You will notice that the band and soloist use great coordination of control, eye and ear contact.

Watch this example of soloing by Abe Laboriel, check out how the band compliments and follows his moves:

Try this video link by Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and Darryl Jones. You may or may not be a jazz fan but this video is packed with great solos and compliments.

Even in drumming, watch how these three drummers (Pridgen, Laboriel and Bozzio) follow each other while keeping the groove.

Steve Lukather on guitar:

Joe Bonamassa on guitar:

Seriously, learn the pentatonic scale for soloing (rock styles) try this video from Berklee Music:

If you are beginning to play guitar and need a great basic rock lesson, try this shot from Jack Black:
To learn more about Carl Albrecht and his services for drums, please visit: www.CarlAlbrecht.com