Tag Archives: christian

Breaking With Conventions

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We can call this the “Probable Last Blog of 2017.”

I used to get very serious around this time of year. Some of that was stress or cynicism, maybe part of a youthful desperation to be cool. That’s all long past. Now I simply enjoy the opportunities for merriment and lightness. So if you’re looking for something deep and/or meaningful. it ain’t here. :)

So…

Lately I have been busily replicating or re-inventing cover songs (the choice of song is pretty random). I enjoy the challenge of trying to exactly replicate an arrangement; finding the right sounds, playing the right notes, etc.

Changing a song is easier in some ways, since matching the original is already an ethic that has been discarded. However, changing a well-known song is a huge risk. Well, I like risks.  In fact, here I am with my brown pompadour and matching tie/pants emsemble, cheerfully hastening toward risk.

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As Christmas careens recklessly around the corner from Thanksgiving and heads straight at us like a windshield towards a bug, I start thinking about working on Christmas music. This of course, is way too late to achieve results.

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So I started earlier this year. Actually, I started LAST YEAR, and just casually refined and finished them this year.

The first is “Away In A Manger,” which was recently described to me as a boring carol that could never be redeemed. The next is “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Over the years I have voiced my low opinion of turning hymns and Christmas carols into ROCK SONGS. So you may hereby enjoy my admitted hypocrisy.

This is approximately how I looked while recording, except that I have way better guitars, a taller tree, and my recording space may never be this tidy.
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For “Away In A Manger,” I wrote a chanting sort of chorus to break up the cloying verses. I had hoped that my church’s creative team might like to see the band work this up, but they just sorta sat there looking uncomfortable.

Me: “Hey guys, I worked up a rockin’ version of ‘Away In A Manger.’ I think the band could do it. What do you think?”

Them: …

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Had I known they were going to balk, I might have done it in a higher key (the music director is a baritone). That said, the guitar riff works a whole lot better in this key. Maybe it’s just not that good. In any case…
Here’s “Away In A Manger.”

Moving forward…

“Children Go Where I Send Thee” presented some challenges. First of all, it goes on FOREVER. So I abbreviated it, added a modulation, a Pink Floyd flavored guitar solo, some Queen-flavored harmonies, and threw in a little joke as the numbers count down. Enjoy the hilarious levity.

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Here’s “Children Go Where I Send Thee”

 

How do you break out of creative conventions? What do you think of my silly little Christmas experiments? How do you creatively cope with the assorted holiday vibes? Feel free to share your thoughts.
~See you in 2018~

 

Recordings Retrospective, Pt. 1

I attended a repressed christian high school that communicated this idea:

“Rock and Roll is bad, unless it’s ‘christian,’ and even then, it shouldn’t sound too enthusiastic.”

This is probably what they thought of me:
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And this is generally what I thought of them:
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And this is what  they seemed to want from me:
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By the time I was fifteen years old, I was a pretty competent guitarist, cutting my teeth on Led Zeppelin, Clapton, Hendrix, Rush, Iron Maiden, etc. Those players’ work was both challenging and accessible. Van Halen would get my attention next.

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At seventeen I became devout in my faith, and began a sincere quest to figure out how I could play rock guitar in a “christian” environment. Some of my school buddies and I were given a handful of songs by a pastor who used to play in a christian band. We played once at a youth group which was fizzling out, and then later at my senior chapel. That chapel service  concluded with my principal telling me what an abomination both the music and I were. I then got an earful from each of my teachers. In. Every. Single. Class.

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Approximately 1/6 of them  clandestinely offered encouragement, afraid that any public praise might have a negative backlash against them. What a sad commentary on a subculture.

It took my a few years to recover from that, and frankly it’s a miracle my faith survived. It did lay the foundation for a healthy distrust of religious organizations though. In the years that followed, a complex fortress has been built on that foundation. It’s not a ringing endorsement for the institutions and/or the people running them.

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A year after that fateful senior chapel, I was coached by some older musician friends on how to use  a 4-track cassette recorder. It was a time-consuming  process using uncooperative gear, but it taught me how to squeeze every last drop out of what was available. To this day, I think that approach yields the best final product, because everything is so dear.

Last week, a friend of mine lent me an old  4-track cassette recorder, so I could digitize  the tapes I made back then. THE ORIGINAL 4-TRACK TAPES. I was taken back to yesteryear, the home project studio era, the age of tape hiss and track limitations…

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[I would have given ANYTHING to have a home studio that was this well-stocked!]

I’m starting at the beginning- 1988 or so.  This was the first song I recorded. It was given to my high school bandmates (I was not present) by a pastor named (I think) Dan McCollum. I don’t know if that’s the writer’s name, or if I have even spelled it correctly. The song is called  “More Like You.” I recorded this when I was 18-19 years old, brand new at singing lead vocals. It took me hours, and  sounds like a sheltered kid making his first recording, because it is. I thought maybe I could be some kind of christian rock star at this stage.

 

Remember when you hear this degraded, lo-fi recording that I was young, new to recording, and had never sung a lead vocal before. I covered my vocal with some era-appropriate effects which actually turned out quite well. I tried to replicate this many times and failed.

Anyway, here’s me singing and playing, as a teenager. It’s totally OK to make fun of me, my mullet, and my “play ALL the notes” approach to the guitar. Enjoy the slides of 1988 equipment, too. That’s the stuff I used back then!

 

Being an Inspired Guitarist in the Modern Church

This one may touch a nerve, so I apologize in advance.

Let me first say that it’s my great honor to have played with some of the area’s finest musicians in several of the region’s largest houses of worship. I don’t mean that they’re “good for church players.” I mean that they’re considered GREAT by anyone who hears them anywhere.

Therefore, it grieves me that since I’ve gotten to be among such fine players, as a rule, christian/worship music is so derivative and unremarkable. Certainly, it is  expertly produced, copying all the most successful current formulas, but it covers no new ground. Now it’s considered provocative or edgy only if someone writes a phrase like “wet sloppy kiss.” I neither want to know the artist nor hear the song. Don’t tell me. Just. No.

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I’m not convinced that these people know what deep, real songwriting entails. It can’t just be something quickly scribbled out in response to s brief emotional surge (though I concede that could legitimately happen occasionally). If the net result is a lyric that rhymes “praise” with “days” again, it might be time for a new writing scenario.

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I’m not sure what chord he thinks he’s playing. 

Check out this example: Regardless of your opinions on the band or the song, Led Zeppelin spent THREE YEARS writing Kashmir. First, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant traveled through the East, absorbing music and culture. Afterward, Page began writing a part he found interesting. The band began working on it together after he brought the idea in. Three years after the writing started, they completed what is generally considered their finest work. Here’s a more detailed account from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_(song)

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Here’s another one:  Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was an idea being kicked around for a while. There is some indication that Freddie Mercury had been writing parts of it as early as the late sixties. When the song was released in 1975, they had spent three straight weeks RECORDING it (after the writing process was finished). From Wikipedia – “May, Mercury and Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day. [emphasis mine] The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs.” Read up on it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemian_Rhapsody

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Let’s be honest. Christian/worship songwriters are clearly not investing this amount of time or attention, at least in the music-composition… OK, and yeah, probably not the lyrics either. The genre seems desperate to make the smallest possible changes to its formulas, and it shows. There are no innovations or departures, only safe repetitions, tendered over and over again.

So how can this subset of the music industry move into a new era of creative growth? I think the MUSIC ITSELF has to be inspired. When you hear Kashmir, the music speaks volumes before Plant sings a syllable. It took a long time of trial and error to arrive on the sounds that were being used, and the parts each instrument played. This is what christian/worship music needs to do- something new, inspired and different… something AUTHENTIC.

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An artist friend of mine attempted to pay me a compliment a couple of years ago. He said, “There’s something so worshipful about the way you play guitar.” What he tried to convey in that statement was that there was a distinct mood that was being created, and that it ushered him in to a place of deeper spiritual communion. Well, that’s exactly what I have tried to do all the time, no matter where I played (most of which was outside of the church). Success! As an artist, I want to move people emotionally/spiritually. If I’m not playing something that inspires ME, how can I expect to inspire others. That’s MY authenticity, for good or bad. It can’t just be default chords and the coolest effects. The actual phrases that I’m playing need to be saying something.

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I include this picture only because it’s awesome and hilarious.

I approach what I do with great care, and a thousand questions, like… What sound am I going to make? Which guitar does it best? Which pickup? What notes/chords/fragments/phrases? Is it better to play the notes low on the neck, on the higher strings, or high on the neck on the lower strings? Will I use a different type of pick for this song? Slide? Ebow? What effects? Should I play more in concert with the song’s mood or should I add contrast?

Then I’m interested in seeing how I can get the rest of the band to interact with that.

Caution: Not everyone is ready to make changes.  Worship leaders, in particular, are usually successful by perpetuating the status quo, so they have no pressing need to change their game (understandable). In my modest experience, they tend to be resistant to ideas that don’t originate with themselves or other worship leaders. If you press, you might find yourself sitting at home on Sundays.

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“Look, they really just want to hear me doing the same thing I did last week.”

If you’re a guitarist (or any musician) playing in a modern church, what can you do to drive your music team into a new place of authentic expression? Do you just copy the trends because the trends are what your bandmates expect to hear? Or do you reach for something beyond the music; something you hear in your heart/mind that you’re inspired to find on your fretboard (or equivalent)?  I will always try to bring the full measure of my influences and inspiration to my playing, either inside or outside the church. What about you?

Sound off.