“Yeah, I used to play guitar… not like what you guys play though.”
Over nearly 20 years of playing worship music in the local church, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a congregant or visitor say these words. They usually come right after I say something like “You play guitar? You should think about serving on the team!” I’ve come to recognize the sentiment that is often hidden behind this statement: I don’t know how to make the kind of sounds I hear you make every week.
Among guitar players, worship music is not considered to be particularly difficult to play. However, if you grew up playing rock, country or jazz music, the type of sounds and equipment used in modern church music can be a foreign territory, and getting started can be intimidating.
In the next few minutes, I’ll break down the key building blocks of how worship guitar players achieve their sound by walking you through the equipment you’re likely to find on a worship guitarist’s pedalboard, from the front of the chain (where you plug in your guitar) to the end of the chain (the line out to the amp). I’ll also provide links to the equipment I’m currently using (no affiliate links or endorsements, just a reference of what my setup looks like right now).
Let’s get started!
Volume swells play a big role in recorded worship music and an even bigger role in live worship. But can’t you just make volume swells using the volume knob on your guitar, like John Mayer does at the end of the live version of Gravity? Yes and no. Using the volume knob on your guitar affects your signal gain, not just volume (trying playing a big dirty chord and then turning the guitar volume from 10 to 7. It got quieter but it also got cleaner). It’s also very difficult to subtly swell your volume with your right hand, especially while playing. Once you get used to pegging your guitar’s volume knob at 10 and controlling the output volume with your feet, you’ll never go back.
WHAT I’M USING: Dunlop DVP4 Mini Volume Pedal
In my opinion, having a tuner in your pedal chain is essential. Worship guitar parts are often just a few notes played in harmony along with a pad or a piano part, and a slightly off-tune note can stick out like a sore thumb. Micro-tuning adjustments matter, and you will learn to tune obsessively between songs and pretty much anytime you aren’t playing. Yeah, Snarks and other clip-on tuners are cheap and convenient, but they are also more cumbersome and obvious. There’s no substitute for being able to just take a quick glance down at your board to check tuning during a second verse so you can fly in on that chorus part with confidence. This is well worth it’s spot on your board.
WHAT I’M USING: TC Electronics Polytune 2 Mini
Worship guitar tone is deceptively clean. Clean signals fade away quickly. A good compressor/sustainer pedal will make the notes you play stick around a little longer and subtly boost your volume without making your signal any more overdriven (crunchy). Except for a few very rare moments in worship songs, a compressor pedal is an always-on for me.
WHAT I’M USING: Keeley Compressor Plus
Worship guitar is pretty clean but doesn’t need to be TOO clean. A little overdrive crunch is called for in a lot of worship songs. Overdrive is the effect created by overloading an amp speaker so that it creates the crunchy, distorted sound associated with rock music. Overdrive pedals simulate this effect by boosting the signal gain to create a “crunchy” sound even at low volumes.
Many guitar amps have a “clean” channel and a “dirty” channel intended to create this effect natively. Even those that only have one channel with have a gain knob separate from a master volume control that can create this effect. It’s worth noting that in modern worship music “amp overdrive” (using a dirty channel or boosting the gain on an amp to get distortion) is rarely used. Most often, worship guitar players will use “pedal overdrive,” where they run an amp very clean and create a distorted sound by layering in a compressor pedal and a couple of overdrive pedals. This is often called “stacking” overdrives. The easiest way to build this kind of sound is to start with clean guitar signal into an amp. Then add a compressor to get the gain boost and sustain. Then add an overdrive pedal after the compressor, adjusting the gain and volume controls until there’s just enough crunch (this one will probably be left on most of the time). After that, you can stack another overdrive after the first one to be used sparingly as a boost (for a particularly heavy song, or as a boost for a guitar solo that is meant to stick out). This is all trial and error, so you’re not doing anything wrong if you find yourself making tweaks to these settings again and again for years. But starting with a good clean signal and creating your overdriven tone from pedals is a key part of the worship sound.
Delay effects are a bit of a misnomer. To those who haven’t previously heard them, the effect of these pedals may be better described as an “echo.” A delay pedal will allow the original signal (or a portion of it) to pass through and add on a series of “delayed” repeats of that signal at a specified interval. A delay is usually programmed or timed to the tempo of the song so that the repeats are heard at a regular interval in the tempo of the song, such as quarter notes or eighth notes.
Worship music uses delay A LOT, and a worship guitar part almost always has some delay, even if it is hardly noticeable. One popular use of delay is to run two separate delay effects at different intervals, most commonly an eighth note and a dotted eighth note run in sequence. This may be confusing to read but the sound is very distinctive. This technique was made famous by The Edge, the guitar player from the band U2, and has been used extensively by worship guitar players for decades. For the quintessential example of this sound, listen to Where The Streets Have No Name by U2. The guitar part your listening for drops in at about 0:41 on the recording. A dual delay is also the secret to playing the intro guitar part for Raise A Hallelujah by Bethel Music.
When you’re buying a delay pedal, make sure that it either has a dual delay setting or that it can be programmed to run two delays in sequence. Most good ones will. As far as how to program delays, there is a split among guitar players between those who program different settings for each song with a specific tempo and delay parameters vs those who save setting for different delay parameters only and manually “tap in” the tempo for each song. I typically program settings for each song but it’s certainly not necessary to do so.
WHAT I’M USING: Boss DD-500
HONORABLE MENTION: Strymon Timeline (I don’t personally own this pedal but it is BY FAR the most popular delay among worship guitar players).
Reverb is another effect that is almost always on to some degree in worship guitar. A good reverb pedal will simulate the sound of your tone reverberating in an a large echoey room, giving the impression that the sound is hanging in the air. A little bit of reverb and delay together can take a boring clean tone and make it sound lush and full without sounding overpowering. Some settings on a good reverb pedal can sound more synthetic as well, adding a shimmery echo to the sound of your guitar. Get one of these and spend some time messing around with it. You’ll likely end up keeping it on at a fairly subtle setting most of the time, but some songs will call for a more extreme reverb sound as well.
WHAT I’M USING: TC Electronic Hall of Fame
These effects have become very popular in the last several years among worship guitar players. If you ever hear a guitar tone that sounds vaguely robotic or a little bit like a space organ, an octave pedal is probably the source. These pedals take your guitar signal in and output some combination of the original signal and a signal an octave higher and an octave lower. This effect is not a must-have for most worship songs, but its ubiquitous use in modern worship guitar earns it a mention.
WHAT I’M USING: Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork
HONORABLE MENTION: Electro-Harmonix POG (the POG and its variations are by far the most commonly used octave pedals in worship music).
These effects are worth mentioning in that you will hear them used relatively frequently in modern worship recordings. However, I personally wouldn’t consider them to be essential for worship guitar players. If you are trying to perfectly nail the sounds from the last Phil Wickham record, yes you will need some of these effects. But the difference they make is almost entirely cosmetic.
Guitar players—especially church players—LOVE nerding out about gear. Never be afraid to walk up to a guitar player in church and say “hey, what pedal are you using to get that sound?” It’s not an annoyance, it’s going to make his day. Almost every piece of gear I own now I bought because I saw it on someone else’s board and loved the sound they were getting out of it. If you like a sound, ask about it. Please!
There is no magic amount of gear or experience you need to have before you are “ready” to get involved in a worship team. Just do it. You will be refining your pedalboard setup and developing your skill as a player throughout your entire life. Honestly, if you’ve read this far, you’re officially a guitar nerd like me. Welcome. You’re a part of (or about to join) a cadre of really fun people who get to use our particular brand of nerdiness to help lead people into the presence of God. So if you’re just getting started, don’t stop. The church is always going to need people like us, who are passionate enough about the details to become the best players we can be, and who use that passion to serve the church.
God didn’t put that in you for you to keep it to yourself. He gave you that to you for the benefit of the church. Don’t keep it to yourself. Get involved.
I’ll see you out there.
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