Playing Guitar at a Traditional Church

playing guitar at a traditional church

I was the music director at a small Lutheran church for over a decade.  My official responsibilities did not include providing music for the worship service, but I often did so out of necessity or because I really wanted to be more involved in the music ministry.  As a guitarist, I found there was not a whole lot of information and resources available to guitar players in traditional churches, though there are loads of resources for contemporary Christian guitarists.  Since the pool of organists seems to be shrinking, I believe it is more important than ever to introduce other instruments, especially guitar, to lead the congregational singing as well as provide instrumental music during worship.

Here I share with you some helpful information you can use to help get started as a guitar player at a traditional church.  By “traditional” I mean the kind of church that uses hymns written in four parts, with most of the songs written before the 1940s.

Resources for leading hymns and songs

Though some publishing houses for traditional congregations do not publish guitar arrangements, you will find there are still resources available for guitarists.  Some of the new hymnal editions have a guitarist edition which is formatted much like a “fake” book: the melodies and chord names/frames are included. I have seen these editions for upwards of $70, which isn’t cheap.  Note that there is also often a similar “easy piano” edition with simplified arrangements which also has the chord names. If your congregation already has this book, there is not much need to drop more coin on the guitar edition, however, the guitar edition book will provide capo position chords for the less guitar-friendly keys.

Arrange 4-part harmonies into guitar chords  

If you have good music theory knowledge, you should be able to read the chords and mark them on the music.  The next step is to arrange out some of the chord changes so the hymn doesn’t sound so choppy. Instead of chords changing on every beat, try to find the common chord that works for at least two beats at a time.  This will work if your congregation isn’t into 4-part singing. You may also be able to find some traditional hymns chorded for guitar by searching the internet. One such site is  

Ask someone who plays a C instrument to join you  

Having someone to lead the melody on another instrument will make it so much easier for the congregation to follow the music while you strum chords.  C instruments include flute, recorder, violin, oboe, and another guitar; remember to play the melody on guitar one octave higher than written. You can also use other instruments, but you will have to transpose the melody to suit the key of that instrument.  For example, a Bb trumpet would have to be transposed up one whole step to match the concert pitch of the music. If you can’t find someone to accompany you on an instrument and you have a good singing voice, perhaps you can introduce the hymns by humming the melody or singing it on “ooh.”  

Use caution playing guitar with the piano 

While it is also a C instrument, the guitar can clash with the piano for more than one reason.  If the pianist plays the hymn as written, it will most likely contain passing tones or chords that change each beat while the guitar is playing chords that are harmonized to change at least every other beat.  Even if the two instruments are playing a similar arrangement, they can take up the same space musically which will make a “muddy” sound. The guitar is basically a tenor instrument when strumming open chords, so have the pianist take the melody up an octave which will sound more pleasing to the ear.  Another alternative is to play capoed chords higher up the neck while the piano plays in its usual range.

Follow the singing tradition that is established in your congregation 

Some congregations are used to hearing one full verse as the introduction for a song, and some introductions are just a couple of measures; some are used to adding an extra beat between verses, but some keep the rhythm by adding an entire measure, or go immediately to the next verse with no addition of any kind.  Keeping to the usual tradition will help the congregation know when to sing.

Provide instrumental music

If you are a little more of an advanced guitarist, you may play fingerstyle arrangements of hymns or certain classical guitar pieces.  Classical-style arrangements tend to stick more closely to the traditional style of chords changing on every beat, while fingerstyle tends to use arpeggiated chords.  Arrangements of hymns for fingerstyle or fingerpicking guitar exist from beginning to advanced levels. A couple favorite books of mine are “Favorite Hymns for Classical Guitar” by Joseph Castle and “Hymns for Fingerstyle Guitar” by Craig Dobbins.  You can also find some arrangements online, for example:

Most churches happily invite musicians to participate in worship, so be sure to talk to the pastor and/or music director to offer your gift of music.

Joanne Fekete is an amateur guitarist, oboeist, and singer, as well as a former church music director and choral director. She currently plays for the Really Terrible Orchestra of PA (Lehigh Valley). You can find her on Facebook at Joanne’s Guitar Page.

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