Posted by: worshipguitarguy | December 8, 2006

Q & A: Playing With no Time to Prepare

Call me crazy, (You wouldn’t be the first…)

But alot of times now, I play live with little or no practice ahead of time.  Back as a younger musician, I’d hear stories of guys and girls who would do this and be blown away.  After all, it felt like I needed about three weeks of practice before I’d even attempt to play in front of an audience.  I remember one time where an early band I played with decided to try to do a song we hadn’t practiced.  And I have one word for that experience…


But now I’m used to doing it quite alot.  And on top of just playing, I do alot of “freelance” guitar work… I’ll go and play wherever anyone needs an electric player.  This complicates things because I often have to do songs in different keys, (or arrangements) than I’m used to, or learn a new song on the fly. 

 It’s not always easy to do, and though I’m still more comfortable with having a solid practice before we play, I’ve grown more accustomed to doing things this way.  If you can’t yet as a guitarist, don’t worry.  It’s a skill you can develop.  But the following are principles I’ve learned that help along the way.

1.  Be CAGED:  A few weeks ago, I posted this chart in the music theory 2 lesson. 


Truthfully, I can’t stress how important it is to memorize these chords and their relationship with each other.  Once you memorize this chart, you can easily transpose songs from one key to another.  So if you have someone come to you wanting to do a song in D instead of E, you’ll be able immediately know what chords to play.

2.  Create Your Tone Toolbox:  When you have time to practice, it’s much easier to create specific sounds with effects for certain songs.  But when you’re thrust on stage with little preparation, it’s probably not a good idea to go experimental with your tones.  So pick a few sounds out that you know and you’re accustomed to and stick with them in the course of the set.  For example, my tone toolbox when playing looks like this:

1.  Voodoo Labs Overdrive, less gain, but stronger sustain
2.  Fulltone FD2, Grittier OD, and Boost.
3.  Basic Tremolo
4.  Light Chorus
5.  Two delay settings, a Space Echo based Analog delay model, and a digital delay model.
6.  Wah
7. Reverb.

These tones are ones I know extremely well and I’m familiar with them enough so I can call on them when the time is right. 

3.  Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity:  If you go to a concert of a popular band, or listen to a popular CD, it’s easy to become wrapped around complex guitar parts the band is playing.  But as you do, realize one thing.  When a band is on tour, they’re going from city to city, playing the same songs night after night.  Church musicians have it more difficult, because most of us wouldn’t think of playing the exact same setlist four to six weeks in a row. 

So if you’re learning a song for the first time, or playing something new on the fly, don’t worry about keeping it simple.  Even the best do it.  If you know anything about the Passion Live CD’s, you may know some of the artists write the songs on the discs right before the event, so they and their bands have a limited amount of time to work on them before they play live.  But listen to the same songs when they’re placed on an artist’s studio recording months (or years…) later.  You’ll notice the evolution in the riffs, lines, and complexity of the guitar parts over that time.  It often takes time to develop creative new sounds and riff possibilities for a song, so don’t feel like you have to write the world’s most memorable riff 30 minutes before a worship set.

4.  Listen to and Learn the Artists and Songs Popular in Churches:   Often the easiest way to pick up a new song is to be very familiar with it before playing live.  I’m constantly listening to new music, and even if I don’t necessarily like it, I may learn how it goes in case I’m called on to play it later.  If you haven’t been in a habit of listening to worship artists, the following ones have recordings and songs that are popular in many churches today:

  • Chris Tomlin
  • David Crowder Band
  • Michael W. Smith
  • Casting Crowns
  • Third Day
  • Charlie Hall
  • Brenton Brown
  • Hillsong/Hillsong United
  • Matt Redman
  • Tim Hughes
  • Lincoln Brewster
  • Delirious
  • Starfield
  • Todd Agnew


  1. Great article. It can be intimidating playing “on the fly”, but knowing some basic theory is invaluable. Great suggestion on listening to some of the more popular artists. Intentional listening is a great way to develop your ear, and help guitarists emulate some of the intricate lead parts on those recordings.

    If you haven’t heard of it, I recommend Fretboard Logic I, II, and III for every guitar player. It will give any player a solid understanding of the CAGED theory, and how to connect corresponding scale patterns together, plus more.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Great stuff again… some thots…

    Re: Playing unrehearsed… this was something that was easy for me when I was touring and playing everyday. Be aware, though; that this ability is NOT like riding a bike – it went away when I stopped playing every day.

    Re: CAGED – Oh yeah. Great, great stuff. The ability to transpose on the fly will greatly increase your ability to get (and keep) solid gigs.

    Re: Simplicity… volumes could be written about this. Especially in worship music, where the goal is for the congregation to sing along. Funny how the song gets BIGGER when we play less.

    Keep it up…

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