Frail and faltering follower of Jesus

When am I ready to play in a band?

By Gavin Davies

When I speak to beginner musicians, they often seem shy about playing with other musicians. How do you know you’re ready? And, for Christians, when are you ready to join a church’s worship team?

When I returned a bass I worked on to its owner, we were chatting about when she would be ready to play in the church band. I thought about the question of when musicians are ready, and wrote this…

Well, my raw instinct is “trick question”, given that I sold all my Lego and bought a bass when I was about 13 and started playing with my mates more or less right away! Honestly, getting in to live music in a practise room with people of a similar experience level is an amazing experience.

However, not everyone is a 13 year old metalhead; some people are a bit more circumspect about getting out there. Plus now there’s cellphones (I used to go and dance at a lot of jungle/DnB nights, which I stopped once everyone had cameraphones. Post-90s technology is truly awful and I want it to go away and I’m not even kidding). Every Tom, Dick and Harry has social media where they’re trying to construct a flawless image of themselves as gurus, beauties, geniuses, paragons of virtue and so-forth, so I guess the potential for live music not being fun and instead blowing up in your face is far higher than it was for me, Adam and Dave in Dave’s music room in the mid 90s. So, I acknowledge it may not be as easy as it was in the 90s.

OK stop prevaricating, when is someone ready to play in a band?

fine, fine.

To play competently with others, here’s a list of what I think is useful to be able to do. It’s from a bass player’s perspective, as bass was my main instrument.

Know your gear

You should know your gear inside and out. You don’t have to be a technician, but if the hot lights are on you and the band’s ready to go and your gear is just going BAAZZZZZZZZZ you’ll want to have some idea of what to do!

  • Are your cables in good nick?
  • Are there any weird crackles? Do you know why?
  • What do all the knobs on your instrument do?
  • Do you have a DI box or amp? What do all the controls do?
  • If your gear gets the settings faffed with, do you know how to set it up again?
  • Can you tune your instrument?
  • If you use effects, is the volume sufficiently even with them engaged/disengaged?
  • Are there excessive buzzes or hisses? (there will always be a tiny bit of interference, don’t get super OCD about it, you just gotta minimise it)

Gear you’ll need

Have a gig bag ready with all your bits in it. Here’s some of what I used to carry:

  • Spare strings etc
  • Gaffa tape
  • Earplugs/IEMs (DO NOT skimp on hearing protection. You do NOT want tinnitus.)
  • Spare cable
  • Batteries if you use an active instrument
  • Tuner
  • Adapters
  • Power supplies
  • Picks
  • Multitool
  • Pen and paper (or some kind of tablet, IDC)
  • Music stand
  • Deodorant (trust me)
  • Change of shirt

Know song structures

What’s a verse? Bridge? Chorus? Middle 8?

You don’t need THAT much music theory at first, but you need to learn the DSL (Domain Specific Language) of musicians

Know a bit of theory

If you can confidently answer the following, that’s probably enough:

  • What’s a key?
  • What’s a chord?
  • What’s a scale?
  • How do you derive chords from scales?
  • What’s 4/4 and 6/4 time?
  • What does it mean to “transpose” something?

Control your volume

Make sure you have good control over your volume. Sometimes players are all over the shop attacking the instrument hard then soft in the same bar, but not intentionally so! Make sure you are playing precisely as hard or soft as you intend to. Practise going from gentle to aggro and back. CONTROL!

You don’t need mega chops technically, but you really need control. Clean notes, without buzzing, even playing.

A compressor effect can help with evening out volume for live performance but you shouldn’t rely on it as a crutch.

Be able to play to a click or drum loop

Make sure you can play reasonably well in time. A metronome/click track/drum machine is your best mate.

Eye contact

Many musicians are shy types; I’m painfully, constrictingly shy. However, eye contact is essential. You must be able to play whilst looking across the stage to the singers and drummer so you can lock in and get a feel for what’s coming next. This means you should be able to play by feel without gazing at your hands constantly.

Most bassists get shoved at the back of the stage, so I always tried to position myself out in the wings where I could see across the stage and see what the rest of the team was doing.

Work with a keyboard player

Keyboard players need their left hand tying behind their back in a worship context - many of them don’t realise they’re in the bass player’s frequencies, which results in absolute mud, sonically! Make friends with the key player and make sure you’re not both in the low notes at the same time.

Sometimes if the keys player spend a lot of time in octaves 0-2 I’d go up an octave for that Peter Hook tone.

Work with a drummer

If you’re a bassist, the main person you need to link with is the drummist. They’re a strange type of human but drum machines are expensive and can’t drive you to the show so we’re stuck with them. Try to get your root notes on the kick drum - make sure the drummer plays kick patterns you can follow. If the drummer’s right foot is a random beat generator, it’s time for a gentle but firm conversation about laying down a solid right foot. I don’t care what the drummer’s hands are doing!

If there was a bad mix or I couldn’t hear the kick drum, sometimes I used to take my shoes off and stand next to the kick drum so I could feel it through the ground.

Be in shape

Ideally, if you don’t have any disabilities or conditions, you should be able to carry your own gear and help others with theirs. The drummer ALWAYS needs help lumping gear!

Good timekeeping

Not just in the clicktrack sense, but being at every rehearsal, recoding session or performance well on time. Don’t mess people about, it’s not OK to be late. It’s not a character trait or a quirk, it’s rude, unprofessional, and disrespectful. Of course, sometimes circumstances go against you, but I’m not talking about those times. I’m talking about being prepared and respecting your band and engineer’s time.

Respect sound engineers

Be unfailingly polite to sound engineers. They have a tough job that’s only noticed when there’s a problem. Be patient and kind with them and listen carefully to any notes they have for you.

Church worship team specifics

I played bass in worship teams until very recently. In fact, it’s probably where I have the most musical hours, despite the dozens of bands I’ve played in (many of which are lost to time and do not feature on this website).

SIDEBAR: my conscience doesn’t currently permit me to play in what many worship teams are. It’s become a convention that “worship music” means a rock band playing emotive I-IV-V-vi in the style of Coldplay/U2 with a lot of self in the song, coupled with breathy vocals from extremely attractive young people. It’s a “scene”, a genre. I’m not sure that’s what is meant by “offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28b).

There are even elements I consider new-agey and manipulative, like mood lighting and pads that provide constant drone tones.

Then there’s the “let’s have the band back up” during times of ministry, implying that God can’t act without our providing the “correct” atmosphere for Him - it’s essentially Finneyism/decisionalism, whereas I am convictionally a Calvinist.

It’s complex, and I’m articulating myself poorly (I struggle with clarity), and of course I’m critiquing a cartoon strawman here in many cases, but for me at this point, I’ve laid down my bass and attend a church with a broader pallette of worship songs from over the centuries that touch on themes of God’s righteous acts in history, His love for us, His righteousness and rule and so on. My conscience is at peace now, but I’m not throwing rocks at others, perhaps I am the weaker brother, this is just where I’m at. I expand more upon these topics in The Relationship Between Sung Worship And God-Breathed Scripture.

That said, if your conscience is clear on this matter, then I would say that the bar is higher than for just messing about in a practise room with mates; you don’t want to damage the worship of God.

I think that a worship team player should be able to do the following:

Be a Christian

Sounds obvious, right? Well, in larger churches with a big platform, some are attracted by appearing on stage. There are also commonly many pretty girls and handsome guys in worship teams! Do it for the right reasons, or don’t do it at all. If your only hope isn’t the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, if you don’t love Him and long to obey His word, then leading worship is not for you until you are born again. I’m not being deliberately harsh, just laying it out there - you don’t want to offer fake worship to a Holy God.

You don’t need to reach some bar of sanctification or anything, you just have to be a Christian. It’s about direction, not perfection!

Know your Bible

This is way more important than any musical knowledge. Seek out God, know His word. Be sure you’re not worshipping an idol of imagination, but the God who has acted decisively in history to bring about redemption. The fearsome God who crushes His enemies; the tender God who gathers His sheep. THAT God!

Every worshipper is a theologian in a sense of knowing God. If you were looking to serve a merely human person, you’d want to know their likes and dislikes, right? Now you’re serving the King of Kings and you must take that with grave seriousness.

There are some worship songs out there with truly dire theology. You should over time develop discernment about what songs you’re not OK with playing. This must come from a sanctified conscience, depending on the Holy Spirit, and a mind being transformed by God-breathed scripture. If something doesn’t sit right with you, you must have confidence speak to your worship leader. Correspondingly, worship leaders must not treat musicians as simply sidemen or session players to boost the worship leader; the whole team should have a vital relationship with Christ and iron must sharpen iron.

Have your chords ready and transposable

I can’t play by ear. I just can’t. I don’t know every worship song by heart.

Give me the chord charts, though, and I can play more or less anything. Most beginners will be in this situation, particularly those of us who didn’t pick up musical instruments as small children.

I found OnSong absolutely INDISPENSIBLE. If you enter your songs in there, you can change the key at the flick of a button. Believe me, you’ll need to! Because THIS scenarios is a guarantee:

Worship leader A, 15 minutes before the service: “can we do this in C?” Vocalist B: “no, I can’t get up there, can we try it in G?”

This will happen to you EVERY SINGLE WEEK so a static PDF or print out of static chords is no good. You’ll need to transpose.

Know Onsong, learn it well, and make sure you get the chords off the worship leaders! I often found this was like pulling teeth. Many of the worship leaders couldn’t understand why I needed chords; I think they were very talented and couldn’t quite appreciate that I was not a natural musician like they were, rather, I had to get there with a lot of help! So you’ll need some diplomacy to say “no, really, please give me chord charts, or at least a song list so I can source my own”.

Then, run the versions you have by the worship leaders. Often, they won’t understand why because they are naturals or have done it for so many years its second nature. It never became second nature to me; I guess that’s not my gift. I always needed dem chords. A good worship leader will work with his or her band; one who won’t is suspect in my view.

Know the Nashville chords style

If you don’t know what I IV IV V means, then look up the Nashville chords style. It relates to our last point.

Have your own IEMs (In-Ear Monitors)

This is for larger churches who have sophisticated sound systems. IEMs are indispensible. Get them, learn them, use them.

Rudimentary mixing skills

You’ll probably want to do your own headphone mix onstage. You don’t have to be an expert, just a “fader pusher” who can figure out what to cut and boost so you can play the best you can.

Ability to NOT play or to downplay

From a bassist’s perspective; a bass player in worship is usually the first person to get glared at for playing when he “shouldn’t”!

Because “worship” has become a style in-and-of-itself (a sort of breathy Coldplay/U2/Mumford genre, purely musically speaking), there are musical expectations that come with it as a genre (again, not theologically, but aesthetically). The conventional expectation is that the bass player is basically going “dum dum dum dum dum” pedalling root notes. (Except in many black gospel churches, where the rhythym section really goes for it! I’m speaking from my own experience here though)

I always found pedalling roots hard. Not because I’m a particularly flashy player, or because pedalling root notes is somehow “beneath me”, but because THAT’S NOT WHAT I HEAR IN MY HEAD; bare root notes is seldom what my soul wants to add to the music. It’s very hard to play notes you don’t “hear” or “feel”. I grew up on Black Sabbath, MJ and Motown, so the way I “hear” music is with relatively “busy”, grooving, mobile basslines that outline the chords and add colour. So, worship teams could be tricky because some worship leaders would literally turn round and tell me note-for-note what they wanted to play. You will find as a bass player that you’re expected to be in an extremely narrow box musically; all the funk and jazz lines and extended techniques you learn will largely get you glared at by some worship leaders!

I am not for one moment suggesting that bass players should be front-and-center (it’s basically an instrument to glue percussion and harmony together, to my mind), rather, I’m saying that what has become known as “worship” as a genre has rigid constraints, and you have to kind of think of yourself as a session player, and play what’s expected, rather than what your soul wants to hear as a musician. I am not a session player - I’m not honestly good enough to play stuff that I don’t “hear” - so this was the hardest thing for me.

One piece of advice - no-one criticises you for not playing on a slow number. You can even put the bass down, no-one will complain about that.

Closing thoughts

This is all just one man’s opinion.

There is NO BARRIER to renting a rehearsal room and piling in with some mates to have some fun. Just do it!

Playing in a more serious band requires a bit more chops, but you don’t get there without making a racket first, so again, get out there and do it.

Playing in a worship team is something to think very soberly about. It calls for discernment and for a reasonable level of competence not only musically, but with equipment and interpersonal skills also.

No-one’s gonna do it for you, life ain’t a bouncy castle party with cake and ice cream; you make it happen, captain!