Planning the Practical – Set Preparation

I’ve played with a lot worship leaders and one of the experiences that I had will always stick with me as the pinnacle example of unpreparedness. I received a phone call 15 minutes before rehearsal asking if I could play; As we frantically set up the stage and started to dial in the monitor mix, I was running back and forth to the photocopier to grab the 15-20 charts that were printing for me there, most in the wrong keys. Of the 5 songs we practiced, only one of them made it into the set that was still being chosen in the green room as the service started. It was a stressful night, and all of this could have been avoided with some advanced planning.

While most large churches now are placing an emphasis on planning their sets, unfortunately, the above process still seems to be the standard cycle in small churches. Having these things sorted out ahead of time takes a lot of the stress out of the equation so you can focus on leading. Here’s some practical things that I do when leading a service that have helped prevent this type of situation.

Preparing the Set

Have your sets picked and setlists emailed to any musicians playing at least two days before your first rehearsal. If you only rehearse on Sunday right before service, have the set to everyone by Friday afternoon. This gives everyone a chance to learn any new songs.

My day job is software development, so I ended up rolling my own set planning software that spits out PDF charts to email, but many churches are using PCO for planning and distributing their services/sets. I also like to put together a Spotify playlist of the set and email a link to that as well.

I know many like the iPad/OpenSong rigs for stage. Personal opinion; I think they’re tacky. In every instance that I’ve seen them used, the musician tend to lock into staring at them and never look up, or worse, hide behind them.

Personally, I try to memorize as much of my set as possible and only use a paper setlist with song keys and cues noted. A confidence monitor is preferable as safety blanket and I have paper chord charts or lyrics sheets for others.

Know the songs and have solid arrangements before you rehearse with others. Play though the set top to bottom to make sure it’s going to flow. Nothing is more frustrating that working with a leader that doesn’t know where they’re going.

Plan Transitions

Equally as important to learning the songs is having a plan for the transitions between songs. Plan and practice any segues or cues ahead of time and have them noted in the order of service and on the music. Bad transitions will derail your set faster than mistakes.

Plan What You’re Going to Say

I’m not a public speaker. Put a guitar in my hands and let me sing, I’m fine, ask me to talk and I’ll make a fool of myself. I always knew it was bad, but until I saw a Facebook Live video of me dismissing a congregation after service. It was ugly.

Now, I make sure I have what I’m going to say planned out before I say it. Some people adopt the mindset that God only speaks through spontaneity. To that I say, “Your pastor studies and plans what he’s going to say, you can too.”

Communicate

Along with the set distribution, include any special information about the service and any rehearsal times. You may consider having a call time for rehearsals that is a earlier than the start time to give everyone time to set up.

Also, make sure you send a digital, proofread copy of the set to whoever is responsible for lyric projection as well. Frantically trying to type songs into ProPresenter five minutes before service is not fun. Send a set to the sound tech as well, (with an input list if you can). Everything goes more smoothly if they can pre-plan.

Do what you can to keep the folks on your production team happy. They can make or break your service; you want them on your side.

Pack Your Gear

There’s nothing more stressful than getting to a service and not having what you need. A couple days before I’m leading or before a rehearsal, I go through all of the equipment that I’m going to need to make sure it’s accounted for and and pack it up. Here’s a list of the common things that I toss in my bag.

Have anything that’s part of your preparation that we didn’t cover here? Drop it in the comments! Catch you next week to talk about some practical areas of service day preparation.

Using a Cut Capo

I don’t think that I can express how much I love the Kyser Short-Cut capo. I love it too much, using it way more than probably should. I just adore the full, open-tuning tones you can get.

Here’s the theory: the short-cut gives your guitar the essence of an open tuning when placed on the second fret by fretting only the 2nd through 4th strings. The advantage if has over an open tuning is that you don’t have to learn any alternate fingerings; the chord shapes from the key of D translate. However, there’s some alternate open shapes I really like, and I’ll detail them below. Be aware, since the Short-Cut will be on the second fret, playing D shapes will translate to the key of E.

A few months ago, I was installing new WiFi access points in our church the day before I was scheduled for Sunday worship. While terminating the patch panel, I sliced my fretting hand open on my Electrical Shears. Due to the simplified chords available with the Short-Cut, I was able to get through set without much pain.

Here’s a chart of the open voicings I use a lot, they’re a great getting started point:

One final tip; if you need to transpose up from E, you can make use of a standard capo and then place the Short-Cut two frets up from the standard capo.

Have any questions or tips, hit me up in the comments or social media.

Cords and Cable Types

“I can’t wait for your article on cables”, my friend replied.

“You can’t be serious”

“No, honestly!”

Despite his reaction, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who’s going to be excited about cords and connectors, but you’ve got to know this stuff. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with technical details or impedance formulas; just the basics you need to get the job done.

As an example, let’s look at an instrument cable:

The common instrument cable is a shielded, two conductor, 1/4″ TS (tip and sleeve), unbalanced cable.

Okay, that sounds complicated, but stay with me. It’s pretty easy to understand when it’s broken down. Let’s break it down.

Shielded vs Unshielded:

There’s a lot of outside forces that attempt interfere with your signal. Radio frequency can leach into your instrument signal through the cable and will introduce noise. Shielding is a metal jacket that lives under the outer rubber jacket that surrounds the wires inside the cable to prevent the interference. Most instrument cables are shielded, speaker cables are not. With this in mind, (among other reasons) speaker cables should not be used as instrument cables.

Conductors:

The number of conductors indicates how many wires are inside the cable. If you cut open an instrument cable and through the shield, you’ll discover two plastic coated wires. Two wires are required to circuit, a signal wire and a ground wire, so an instrument cable can send one signal. The ground wire can be shared, so a three conductor cable can carry two signals (Think stereo – Left and Right Signals),

The connector (Plug or Jack):

The first thing in that list is the connector: ¼” refers to the width of the plug. The following connectors are common:

 

⅛” – Typically found on headphones and consumer devices. Casually referred to as an “Aux Cord”. Two or three conductors.

 

 

¼” – Typically found on instruments. Two or three conductors.

 

 

XLR – Typically found on microphones and DI Boxes (1) Three conductors.

 

 

RCA (Phono) – Typically found on recorders and playback devices, typically in a stereo pair. Two conductors.

 


Speakon  – Found on Unpowered Speakers

 

 

Still with me? Cool! Just a couple more to get through…

TS Vs. TRS

⅛” and ¼” cables come in two variants, Tip Sleeve (TS or Mono)  and Tip Ring Sleeve (TRS or Stereo). TS connectors work with two conductor cables and can send one unbalanced signal, and TRS connectors work with three conductor cables and can send two unbalanced signals or one balanced signal. You can differentiate between the two by counting the insulating rings on the tip of the connector (See above image). One insulating ring = TS, Two = TRS.

Balanced Vs Unbalanced

This one is more complicated. Simplified: unbalanced cables can pick up noise and hum across long distances and shouldn’t be longer than 20’. Balanced cables send an extra copy of the signal to prevent interference and can be run for hundreds of feet. XLR cables are the balanced cable of choice, but ¼” TRS cables are sometimes used as well.

Most analog instruments put out an unbalanced signal. If you need to run a long cable out of an unbalanced instrument you’ll need to convert it to a balanced signal using a direct box to convert the unbalanced signal to balanced. A ¼” to XLR cable should almost never be used as it can not convert the signal to balanced. (2)

There’s still discussion of gauge and impedance, but this should be enough to be confidently grab the right cable when you need one. Hit me up in the comments section or on your social media platform of choice if you have any questions.

  1. Until researching this article, I had know idea what XLR stood for. It’s Canon (X) Series, (L)ocking connector made with synthetic (R)ubber.
  2. Unless your instrument has a ¼” TRS Balanced output. Then, this cable is acceptable. The Taylor expression system pickups are the most notable example of this configuration.

A Guitarist’s Guide to Surviving the Bass

Bass players always seem to be in short supply. There’s not a lot of glamor in mostly playing one note at a time, and bass solos are seldom appreciated.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in on bass for a worship night at a church where a friend leads worship. While I’m not an amazing bass player, I’ve really come to look forward to the opportunities I get to play bass. I’ve come up with a few strategies that have really helped me move from just surviving the bass to playing it confidently.

Bass is a “One Note at a Time” Instrument

Unless you’re Victor Wooten, you’re only going to be playing one note at a time. No chords, period. Additionally, to get the cleanest tone out of the bass, all of the other stings of the bass should be muted with your hands to prevent sympathetic resonance. Without muting the strings, the bass will sound muddy and undefined.

When I was in the School of Worship, one of the most valuable instrument techniques I learned was from a bass lab that was taught by Gordon Rustvold. He employs an unusual method of muting the lower strings using his thumb on his right hand, sliding it up and down as needed. You can see an example of this in this video. Then mute the higher strings with your fretting hand.

This Pattern Will Get You Through Most Songs

 

I’m planning on talking about Nashville Numbers in the future, but here’s a quick rundown. In the major scale, each note is assigned a number. Based on the key of the song and the number you can work out the chord. The table below indicates the type of chord for each number and gives an key of C example of the system. Most simple songs make use of the 1, 4, 5, 6. Knowing how this translates in each key is useful for translating this pattern to the chord chart in front of you. I’ve marked 3 and 7 as passing chords. 90% of the time, you’ll use these as passing notes into the next note in the scale (7 to 1, 3 to 4). Additionally, I’ve marked these notes with the alternative inversions that are more commonly in worship songs.

 

Nashville Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Chord type (major key) Major

Root

Minor Minor

Pass

Major Major Minor Diminished

Pass

Example – Key of C C Dm Em

C/E*

F G Am Bdim

G/B*

* Indicates alternate inversion

Know what chords pertain to each number in each key. Know where these numbers fall in the pattern. When this is second nature, all you need to know is the root note and you can track with most songs.

Use Pitch to Simulate Dynamics

Bass sounds best when it’s consistently present. With this in mind, most sound techs will compress it quite a bit, killing most of the volume dynamics of the instrument. You can simulate dynamics by playing in higher octaves for softer parts of the song and lower octaves for louder parts of the song.

Neck Position Affects Tone

I’ve found it easier to get a consistent, warm tone by playing up around the 5th fret. When possible, I try to stay up in that range.

Follow the Kick

The kick drum sets the pulse of the song. While you don’t need to play a note with every kick, it usually makes a great starting point for the rhythmic elements of your playing.

Be Confident in the Changes

The Bass really should be only melodic instrument that occupies the low frequency, or your mix will sound muddy (1). However, when this is applied, if you make a mistake, miss a note, or arrive late, there’s nothing that going to cover it up. Know where you’re going and get there in time or it’s going to stand out.

Getting to the Note is Just as Important as Being There

After proper muting technique, this tip as made the most impact in my playing. The sure sign of a insecure bass player is the transitions between the notes. Unless it’s for rhythmic effect, try to eliminate gaps between the notes you’re playing. If you’re staying on the same string, slide into note. If you’re changing strings mute the previous note at the same moment you play the next note. Clean transitions are secret to sounding confident; know where you’re going and have a plan for getting there.

Have any bass tips for me? Leave them in the comments!

  1. Keyboardists, leave room room in the low end. Anything you add down there will just make the low end sound muddy. I made this mistake for years. Don’t be like me… Now, I’ll even highpass my pads and synths to leave room down there.

Tune Your Guitar

Tune Your Guitar

This is the musical equivalent to having to tell someone to wear deodorant. There’s no way to say it that isn’t awkward.

You need to tune your guitar.

There, I said it.

Maybe you never learned… Maybe you know something is off, but have no idea how to fix it… Maybe it sounds okay to you (but not to everyone else)… Maybe you have an aversion to blinking red and green lights…

Regardless, you need to tune.

Okay, the awkward part is over. Let’s talk about what we need to do to get this done.

Step 1: Invest In a Quality Tuner

Oh, it’s going to get awkward again.

Yes, you can tune by ear. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to play with a by-ear tuner that had anywhere as good an ear for tuning as they thought. A computer will always beat your ear. Tuning by ear should be be reserved for emergencies only.

I’m a big fan of the Boss TU-2 (now TU-3) pedal tuner. In addition to using as a tuner, it’s also a really convenient mute switch and great for getting your guitar unplugged at the end of the set if your sound tech isn’t paying attention.*

Make sure you pick up a power supply for your tuner. I’m willing to risk a 9V battery for a couple hours, but anything longer than that, it gets plugged in to power.

*As an aside, don’t leave your guitar plugged in when you put it on a stand. You’ll kill the battery in the guitar and will stress the cable. Mute with your tuner, pull the cable and hang it on the height adjustment knob on your mic stand.

Step 2: Plug Your Guitar Into the Tuner

While we’re discussing awkward things, let’s just get all this out in the open.

You really should have an undersaddle pickup in your guitar (sound hole pickups don’t sound great). Miking a guitar should be reserved for emergencies unless you have a really good reason; it’s too hard to get consistent tone and level with a mic. Undersaddle pickups can be purchased and installed for around $250. I like Fishman, but I’m not dogmatic. Consult with your local, reputable guitar repair shop or luthier.

Because you have a pickup in your guitar, plug that guitar into the tuner and then plug the tuner into the DI. Leave that tuner in line until you’re ready to pack up.

Step 3: Tune the Guitar

Know the names of each note for each sting before you attempt this. I once watched a worship leader break not one, but two guitar string because he just kept cranking the tuning pegs up and up until, trying to get a green light, without paying attention to the note readout.

E A D G B E

Commit that to memory. Also, know what your tuner does to designate sharps/flats. The TU-2 displays a small dot next to the note to indicate the note is a sharp. Don’t make the mistake of tuning to a sharp.

Start with the low E and work your way to the higher strings. Play each note and give it a second to settle in. Pay attention to the note display on your tuner to make sure you’re at the correct note for the string. If the light is to the left, the note is flat, to the right, it’s sharp. Shoot for the green light in the center.

Always tune up. if the string is sharp, tune down until you’re slightly flat and then tune up until the string is in tune.

Once you have tuned all the strings, start at low E and check them all again one more time. As you progress through the running process, it can cause the previously tuned strings to go a tiny bit flat.

Play a chord and check it by ear. If it sounds good, you’re all set.

See, that wasn’t too bad.

Good talk.

My Tuner Died, What Should I Do?

Have a smartphone? There’s great tuner apps that will get you out of a bind. I’ve use Guitar Toolkit on the iPhone and GuitarTuna on Android.

… but my phone is dead too!

Seriously?

Okay.

Fine.

I say this under great protest.

Tune by ear.

If you have a pianist, have them play each guitar note and tune to that. I find it helpful for them to play the root note and an octave up simultaneously. Then use the 55545 method to make sure the guitar is in tune with itself.

Worship Leaders Toolkit

A crucial part of working your craft well is having the proper tools to do the job well. Over the years, I’ve amassed an kit of worship leading tools that I keep packed in a bag that I grab every time I lead worship, presented in no particular order.

For Everyone:

Fisherman’s Friend Lozenges

These throat lozenges taste horrible but if you’re ill, they’ll get your voice through a set.

Bottle of Water

Surprisingly, not always provided, readily available, and bad water can be worse than having none at all.

Vocal Microphone

Owning your own mic isn’t typically a necessity, but my reasons for bringing my own microphone are threefold: hygiene, quality, and consistency. Hygiene speaks for itself, but additionally I’m guaranteed the mic that I bring is not of suspect quality (who knew they sold mics in 10 for $100 packs?). I also know the tonal and proximity characteristics of the mic that I bring, and won’t be caught off guard. Here’s my mic buying guide.

DI Box, 2 Instrument Cables, 2 Microphone Cables, and Adaptors

99% of the time these items stay in the bag, but you don’t want to be caught without them. I’ve lead worship at some churches where you had to sort through a rats nest of ten cables before you found a working one.

I also keep a small tin of various adaptors with me. RCA to ¼”, Gender Changers, and a ⅛” to RCA cable.

iPad Mini

I don’t use an iPad on stage. I have really strong opinions about iPad music stands which I’ll share in the future. That said, the iPad Mini is a great item to have off stage as a reference tool.

Backup Paper Copy of Your Set

Unlike an iPad, paper doesn’t have low batteries, install software updates in the middle of a set, or break when you drop it.

For Guitarists:

2 9V Batteries

Don’t be the guy who needs to borrow batteries when your guitar or tuner dies. Just don’t. Keep two spares and be the hero who has batteries when someone else needs them.

2 Extra Sets of Strings

…especially when you’re leading worship at a retreat, hundreds of miles away from music store…

…not that I would know.

Extra Guitar Strap

I also know nothing about forgetting my guitar strap… for a retreat… hundreds of miles away from a music store.

Extra Picks

Bring enough to share.

Boss Pedal Tuner With Power Supply

Almost as important as being in tune, is the ability to quickly mute your instrument to tune or unplug your guitar.

I’m fond of the TU-2. I hear they make a TU-3 now. That’s one whole number better! It features great advances in tuning technology, I’m sure…

Kaiser Standard and Short-Cut Capo

Key changes happen, and they happen quickly with a standard capo.

The cut capo is the real hero, though. I once sliced my hand open the night before a set and lost the use of one of my fingers on my fretting hand. I was able get through the set with just a cut capo and two fingers.

For Pianists:

It’s rare for me to lead from piano, but when I do I’ll do some recon first to at least try to figure out what model of instrument they have. I’ve been running a laptop-based keyboard rig for over 10 years, so as long as what is provided has enough keys and a USB or MIDI out I don’t need to drag a keyboard with me.

Audio Interface

I don’t like fussing with the headphone jack on my laptop for output. I keep a small audio interface with my kit just to get the audio out of my laptop. The interface I have also has a MIDI input. Most keyboards have USB connections now, but drivers can be an issue and there’s still a lot of old keyboards out there that don’t have USB. I used the discontinued M-Audio Fast Track Pro, but the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 is great replacement (the 2i2 doesn’t have MIDI).

MIDI Cable

Proof that a well designed protocol can still be relevant after 40 years; MIDI just won’t go away.

MIDI to USB Converter

This little guy has gotten me out of some scrapes. My audio interface died, and I was able to limp along with this and rigging my headphone jack to a ⅛” to RCA cable with RCA to ¼” adaptors.

Sustain Pedal

I’m not a strong pianist; if the sustain pedal is broken or missing, I’m in bad place. I bring a spare.

Quiklok Adjustable Bench

If the provided bench is adequate, I use it as a laptop stand.