The Worship Guitarist Videos, Part 2: Contrast Through Volume and Palm Muting

Photo (c) 2013 Mike Case

As musicians in a worship context, I hope you’re getting the picture that reflecting emotion through our playing is really important. We are playing songs that speak to the heart and soul.

Reading through Psalms takes us emotionally from one end of the spectrum to the other.

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.   (Ps 28:7)

Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed. (Ps 119:136)

The Bible is full of examples like these, encouragement to engage with the emotion of the writer. And as worship musicians, it’s our job to lead people in and through those intense emotional moments.

And of course, I have more ideas on how to do just that. Here are two more techniques that will help you inject just the right feel into your playing.

Controlling Your Volume

The first one is probably obvious. Changing your volume at certain moments can take a song from small and intimate to grand and majestic. Control the volume with the strength of your grip on the pick, then add emphasis with your wrist.

The verse of a song is typically softer, smaller, more intimate than the chorus. Play the verse with less force for a softer volume. On a scale of 1 to 10, think 2.

When you approach the chorus, start adding energy. On the downbeat of the chorus, start using a full strum to get your volume level to a 5 or 6.  Leave some room for a repeated chorus near the end of the song to be even louder, maybe an 8. On the next verse, bring it down again to maybe a 3.

 Watch the video here


Palm Muting

The next technique, the palm mute, is great for changing the timbre, or texture, of the sound. But as you use it, the palm mute can feel even more like a rhythm tool, helping you control the volume as well as the groove.

When you want to draw the music down in to an intimate, rhythmic moment, try a palm mute.

Watch the video here


How much do you think about intentionally using contrast on your instrument? Let me know how these techniques are working for you! You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected]

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The Worship Guitarist Videos, Part 1

Steve in studio

Last week, we talked about using contrast in order to convey emotion, to give our songs depth and musicality. This week, we’ll put a little more flesh on the bones.

If you are the guitarist in your worship band (or any band, really), you will probably spend a great deal of time as the rhythm player, producing the mid-range chord progression that gives foundational shape to the music. It’s REALLY IMPORTANT for you to play using contrast in many ways. If you don’t, you will undermine the efforts of the rest of the team to convey the appropriate emotion for the song. But if you do, you will lead the team in crafting some incredible moments, each an invitation for the congregation to enter into musical worship with you. Not a task to be taken lightly.

Strumming Comes First, But You Can’t Stay There

When a guitarist first picks up the instrument, often the first thing he (or she) will do is figure out where the fingers of the left hand should go for a chord, then the strumming begins. Before long, a little off-beat emphasis (called syncopation) is added, and hey, he’s playing a folk-style strum! And that is a very exciting step.

But as valuable as a folk strum may be, you can’t use it on everything. Sometimes it just doesn’t fit. And if you don’t vary your right hand technique, you just settle into same worn-out routines you’ve heard your 2nd cousins play at the last family reunion. Sweet Home Alabama sounds just like Puff The Magic Dragon, and neither one is far from Kum Ba Yah. Know what I mean?

Strumming vs. Picking

In this first video, I’ll demonstrate a chord progression first with a full strum, then I’ll play it by picking individual strings. The cool thing about this technique is that it’s really easy to make it sound like you are playing some complex pattern of notes, like you are a guitar master. The truth is, if you are fingering the chord (any chord) correctly, you can’t play a wrong note. You’re just moving the pick around. Make sure you don’t over-strum the chord – don’t play more strings than are supposed to be involved with the chord – but experiment with different picking patterns.

Picking individual strings will help you keep the music moving, yet it will sound softer and more intricate.


Assignment #1: Choose a slow to moderate tempo song that you are used to strumming. On the verse of the song, try picking individual strings in some repeated pattern. You can sweep up the strings from lowest-sounding to highest-sounding, or sweep down the strings from highest-sounding to lowest-sounding. Jump around as much as you’d like. If you can repeat the pattern, it will be easier for the listener to follow. Now on the chorus of the song, go back to the full strum, and listen to how much contrast you’ve created. It’s sounding more and more like the pros!

Bouncing Your Pick

A second way to subdivide your strumming is to think in terms of low strings (L), middle strings (M) and high strings (H). Now you are picking 2 or 3 strings at once. Your bottom boundary will usually be the lowest-sounding root, the letter name of the chord. A typical pattern for general use might be L – M – H – M – L – M – H – M using eighth notes. It feels kind of like you’re bouncing your pick on the strings, and instead of following through with your wrist, you’re stopping each stroke short and pulling your hand away slightly. You’ll see what I mean as you try it.

Now when you use this technique in combination with a full strum, the contrast will make the depth and richness of your song really shine!

For a useful variation on this, try L – M – H – L – M – H – L – H. You song will start to take on a bit of a Latin feel.

Assignment #2: Again, choose a slow to moderate tempo song. Figure out how many strings you should be hitting for any given chord. For example, G, E and Em are all 6-string chords, C, A and Am are 5-string chords, D and Dm are only 4-string chords. Wherever the lowest root of the chord is, that’s your bottom limit, becoming your “Low” strum. The 1st and 2nd strings, maybe the 3rd, are your “High” strings. And the strings between are your “Middle” strings, the ones above the low root and not as high as the 1st string.

Let your hand bounce between these string areas. Remember, a repeated pattern is easier for the listener to follow.  Try L – M – H – M,  L – M – H – M to start with.


Assignment #3: Using the two patterns Ijust described, play all the way through a song. When you’re comfortable with your pattern, play part of the song with a full strum, then go to this Low-Middle-High kind of picking pattern in another part. This is a great way to take some of the volume and fullness out of the sound and yet keep forward motion going throughout the song.

Picking individual strings or aiming for areas of the strings with a Low – Middle – High approach are just two ways of introducing contrast into your music via your right hand. (I don’t mean to discriminate, but you lefties will have to substitute right and left hand terms for yourselves!)

I’ll be posting more techniques soon as we continue to look at the developing guitarist.

Have you tried each of these techniques in your own playing? How have they helped you shape your own music?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about music, worship, theory or musicianship to [email protected].

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© 2014 Steve Case

The Worship Guitarist: How To Inject Contrast Into Your Playing

The Worship GuitaristWhen you watch other guitarists play, it’s easy to focus on the player’s left hand. The guitarist will often be staring at his own left hand, so it kind of looks like that’s where the action is.

But it’s the right hand that actually plays the guitar, giving it voice and expression. (Yes, I know of several techniques where the left hand does this as well. But generally speaking, it’s the job of the right hand, unless you’re Don Ross or Andy McKee, both really inspiring musicians, by the way.)

How you control your right hand is, I believe, even more important than getting the right notes with your left. I’m not advocating sloppy playing at all. But if you hit a wrong note, the listener’s ear will forgive and forget it quickly. If your right hand doesn’t keep a steady beat and dependable rhythm however, they’ve got you. There is no way out, your mistake will be heard as a mistake.

Contrast Is Key

In every piece of music you play, contrast is critical. You’ve heard me say this before. It’s only by playing slowly that I really hear fast; by playing softly, I can understand how loud sounds.

I will go so far as to say music without contrast is not music, it is simply a tone or a noise. Contrast in pitch, volume, rhythm and timbre give the music its life.

For the past two weeks, I’ve written about music and emotion. Contrast in what we play is how we transmit the emotion, contrast in what we hear is how we realize the emotion.

How To Put Contrast Into Your Playing

So how do we go about injecting contrast into our songs? Here are some techniques to keep in mind that will help:

1) If you are used to strumming patterns, try picking individual strings. Your left hand is already setting you up with the right notes to play. Move your pick around – you can’t hit a wrong note.

2) Change the strength of your thumb on the pick. A tight grip will afford control while you strum with force, playing loud sections. But now, try holding the pick lightly. Don’t let any white show under your thumbnail. Holding it gently may feel odd, like the pick may slip out of your fingers, but try it. See how softly you can play.

3) Another way to give dynamic contrast (loud/soft) is to change how many strings you hit at a time. It’s not just all or one, try hitting a couple of strings at a time. Aim for areas of the strings in any repeated pattern, and you’ll add lots of dimension and depth to your music.

4) Changing the direction of your picking can allow more comfortable emphasis on certain parts of the beat. For instance, picking down-down-up down-down-up down-up can give your chords a latin sort of feeling, or all downstrokes on the lower strings can give you a rock feel.

5) And speaking of the lower strings, one easy way to take your playing up a notch is to focus on playing the bass notes in each chord. Typically that will be the root (letter name) of the chord. Playing the full spectrum of strings for each chord, from the chord’s lowest sounding root and higher, will give a great sound. Not doing so will make the chords sound thin and your songs amateurish.

6) And finally, learn to control your tempo (overall speed). Songs are not just fast, slow or medium speeds. Practice with a metronome, speeding up or slowing down the tempo by small increments. Play through entire songs at different tempos, and you find the not only sound different, they feel different.

Next week, I’ll be covering each of these techniques in more detail. I’ll demonstrate for you and show you how I approach each one.

Every player can tweak their performance, and these suggestions can give you a good start. Next-step musicianship is all about taking your music to the next level. What is your next step?  And if you play the guitar, how do you use contrast in your own playing style?

Please leave your comment below. And as always, if you have any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship, email me at [email protected]. I’ll do my best to provide clear, usable answers to help you.

And now, you can be sure you won’t miss another post! Go to the box in the upper right corner of this page and join the growing number of subscribers on our email list. You’ll receive at least one post every week, topics ranging from practical theory to musical philosophies and beyond! And you have my word that I will never share your email with anyone else.

© 2014 Steve Case

The Mechanics Of Music And Emotion

photo (c) 2014 Steve Case

Last week, I mentioned movie soundtracks as great examples of music leading a person emotionally through the movie. Every emotional change in the film will most likely be telegraphed by the musical underscore.

How does that happen? What are the principles involved in making your music sound happy, or anxious, or excited, or angry?

It starts, I believe, with a pretty mechanical approach.

Lyrics can communicate any sort of message from facts to feelings. As long as your audience speaks the same language, your message will (hopefully) get across.

But musically, we are communicating on the level of emotion. Not something we often think about, we simply accept it as we experience it.

Music and emotions are both states of tension. By “tension”, I don’t mean “tense”. You can think of musical and emotion tension as energy or as conflict, both are appropriate. You may enjoy the tension, you may not. The tension will propel you forward through a piece of music. It causes you to want to hear the next musical thing. Or the lack of tension may cause you to want to stay where you are and soak in it.

The more we define music and emotions in this way, the greater control we’ll have over the responses we get to our own songs, and the more clearly we’ll understand our own responses to music we love and hate.

Common Ground

Let’s unpack some characteristics of tension we’ll use as the common ground between music and emotion.

We can, in my simplistic, armchair psychologist view, apply three sets of criteria to any emotion. These are all entirely subjective, but I do think there are normative assumptions we can make, some well-worn paths that most of us would agree on.

1) We each have a general sense if an emotion is positive or negative. We base this on whether we like feeling that way or not. Feeling happy, for instance, most people would say is a positive emotion, while feeling sad is negative.

This is not any sort of judgment as to whether an emotion is good or bad. Emotions just are. How we handle them may be beneficial or not, but the emotion itself is simply to be recognized as a fact, not a behavior.

2) If emotions are states of tension, we should be able to determine its level of tension on a spectrum from low to high.  Anxious might be considered a very tense emotion, while bored is very low.

3) Each emotion can be identified as to its relative complexity. Feeling content is a pretty simple emotion, feeling frustrated is a bit more complex, and feeling depressed might be even farther out on the complexity spectrum.

And if you tweak this diagnostic system further, you may decide that some complex emotions are combinations of simpler ones. For example, nostalgic might be considered a compound emotion, its components being melancholy, happiness, frustration, etc.

How Do We Do It?

How do we take each of these categories and musically reflect them?

Here are the mechanisms. They will seem oversimplified at first, and they indeed are. But this is where we start.

     Positive/Negative = Major/Minor

When we hear major structures, we typically have a positive emotional response, while minor structures elicit a negative response. Simply put, major = happy, minor = sad.

     Level of Tension = use of Pitch, Volume, Duration, Timbre

As pitch rises, tension increases; as volume increases, tension increases; as durations shorten, tension increases; as timbres brighten or become more harsh, tension increases. The reverse is also true for each.

Compare these two scenarios:
How you would speak when trying to put an infant to sleep – low pitch in your voice, soft volume, long syllables, soothing texture.
How would you speak when trying to get your obnoxious little brother out of your room, or you find an unwelcome guest rifling through your belongings? Now your voice significantly rises in pitch, you are shouting, your words are one syllable, and you have as much edge in your voice as you can muster.

     Simple/Complex = number of tonal relationships

Simple emotions require simple sounding structures (triads, pentatonic modes), while complex emotions require more (embellished chords and diatonic or chromatic scales)

An Experiment

Make a chart with 4 columns to reflect a dozen emotions you can think of, listing them down the left-most column. In the second column, determine whether you consider that emotion to be positive or negative, 3rd column for level of tension (low, moderate or high for now), 4th column for simple or complex.

Here is my example, feel free to use whatever emotions come to your mind. Again, this is entirely subjective, and your choices do not have to agree with mine. Yet the principle remains valid. I’ve gotten you started with a few examples, add as many of your own as you would like. You might try anxious, bored, content, depressed, frustrated, anticipating, nostalgic, despondent, etc.

Emotion chart


The next step is to put your analysis into practice. Being careful to stay within the parameters listed above, try to play some familiar songs in new ways that reflect these emotions. Take, for example, a song like Mary Had A Little Lamb or Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and make it sound happy, then sad. What would you change to make it sound anxious, or bored? Some will seem easier than others due to your familiarity with the way the song has always been done. See how much you can change the emotion, identifying how your changes make you feel about it.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can listen critically to as many songs as possible, identifying the emotion(s) behind each. Be careful not to confuse how you feel about the lyrics with the musical content. And listening across genres can give you many clues as to how other musicians handle (or don’t) the emotional flow in their songs.

And if you are a composer, this is a great place to start as you conceptualize your song. How do you want the listener to feel when they hear your music?

happy Mike

Next week, I’ll let you see how I fill the chart in. Try it for yourself, and see if you agree with my process. To get really good at this will take time and lots of deliberate work with it. But the more I analyze and compose, the more solid these principles become to me.

Have you been successful in crafting your music to communicate the emotion you want to? Let me know how these ideas work for you! You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

Don’t miss another post! We will do all the heavy lifting for you and deliver them right to your email inbox. Just go to the top right corner of this page and fill in your email address. You have my promise that I will never share your email address with anyone.

© 2014 Steve Case