Listening for More Than Notes: Tips for Electric Guitarists

May 04, 2020 |

Electric guitar can be a tricky instrument to play in a worship setting. Not only do we have to learn the right notes to play, but often times the parts that we hear on records have multiple effects on them that we are expected to emulate. This might be a chorus pedal, or a specific delay rhythm, like a 16th-note or dotted-eighth. Maybe there is a dual-delay happening. Maybe there is an octave pedal on.


So much of the modern electric guitar sound, even outside of church music, relies on these kinds of effects and we as electric guitar players would do well to learn how to pick these things out in a mix so that we can execute a particular part beyond just the notes. But where do we begin? How can we learn to hear these things? Below are some questions to ask and tips to help you get started in learning to listen for more than just notes.


Phrasing – Are the notes staccato (short and plucky) or are they legato (long and smooth)? Are the note changes that are happening "picked" or are they "hammer-ons" or "pull-offs"?

When playing chords, your hand can be in various positions on the guitar neck yet use the exact same notes. These different positions will affect your ability to connect to whatever chord or melody is next in the phrase. Learning to link chords and melodies together will help guitar parts sound smoother and more natural, and make them easier to play.


Timing – Timing is a big, big part of playing that doesn’t get a whole lot of air time. Playing with good feel is vital for any musician, but it becomes particularly important for guitar players when we use time-based effects like delay. When you tap in your delay times (assuming you do that instead of programming in the tempos for each song to your delay pedal which would remove this from being as much of an issue) you need to make sure that you are tapping in the tempo accurately. Even a single bpm can make things begin to sound muddy and cluttered.


What can also happen is that you will be tempted to play in time with your delay repeats instead of with the click and the rest of the band. While this works at home when it is just you, it does not work when you are playing on a team. Making sure your delays are accurately beat-synced and playing in time are important components of executing parts to make them sound like the original recordings.


Color – As mentioned above, chords with the exact same notes can be played on different parts of the guitar neck. Playing a triad on the G, B, and E strings low on the neck will sound very different than playing the same triad on the A, D, and G strings on the neck. Using the higher pitched strings low on the neck to play the triad will give the notes a thinner tone that cuts through the mix. Using the lower pitched strings higher on the neck will give the notes a thicker tone. Listen to the recording to see if you can hear whether the part and tone sounds thicker (lower strings) or more cutting (higher strings).


Another component of color is pickup selection. If a part sounds darker and thicker, the neck pickup is likely what is being used. If a part sounds brighter and more cutting, the bridge pickup is likely being used. Listening for color will also help in how the electric guitar sound fits together with the keys sounds that are happening. For example, if the keys sound is warm and full, a brighter, thinner electric part can serve as a really great contrast to that particular sound. So listen also for how the electric part fits in with other instruments in the mix.

Listening to these kinds of subtleties will enhance your musicality and the overall quality of your band’s sound.


Effects – Guitar in worship contexts often gets caricatured into being only dotted-eighth delay. While that is certainly a significant part of a particular sound, guitar players would do well to listen for some of the following things in regard to delay and other effects.

Clean or dirty – is overdrive being used here? How much?

Modulation – is some sort of pitch shifting or modulation going on, ie vibrato, tremolo, chorus, or POG?

Delay – how much is actually being used? Am I using too much delay? Is a dotted-eighth being used alone or in conjunction with another delay like an 8th or 16th-note.

Reverb – is there a long, wet reverb sound being used or is the reverb sound short and shallow? Is reverb being used at all?


We want to pursue excellence for the glory of God. Part of how we can do this is by developing in our skill as a musician. We grow so that we can serve our people by creating beautiful, compelling music that we wrap around the truth in the songs we sing. When we do our hearts and our heads connect quickly, and we treasure Jesus in our hearts as the Holy Spirit points us to Him!


Adam Westlake

Adam is a Producer, Mix Engineer, and Guitar Coach at The Worship Initiative. He holds a Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and serves in the Worship and Counseling ministries of Northway Church in Dallas, Texas.