Lincoln Brewster has transformed the world of modern worship music with the help of a Strat and some solid songwriting chops. We talk with the player who has made
And no matter your thoughts on religion, spirituality or the place of rock n’ roll within houses of worship, the honest truth is that the guy can play. Consistently referenced by others within the field as one of the best guitarists in Christian music today (“He’s a musician’s musician,” says Doug McAlexander of Christian band, CrossTalk), Lincoln has managed to incorporate fresh riffs and a soaring guitar tone into a traditionally staid musical form – songs like “Everyone Praise the Lord” crackle with distorted energy and irresistible hooks. And while other contemporary Christian bands spend their time chasing the sounds and textures of mainstream rock, Lincoln constantly finds himself innovating, whether in the studio, on stage or while writing songs.
Of course, none of this would come as a surprise to those closest to Lincoln; his biography suggests such great talents were there from the beginning. When Lincoln was growing up in Homer, Alaska, his mother Cheryl, a musician herself, noticed his inherent rhythmic sensibilities at the age of one, after his grandfather had purchased him a drum set. At age seven, Lincoln was already plucking on the mandolin, and music provided a muchneeded bond between Lincoln and his mother, amidst various family trials. By the age of 12, Lincoln had displayed a growing mastery of the guitar – a love developed from a young introduction to ‘70s rock – and Cheryl was escorting her son to local bars to develop his performance skills. As his teenage years progressed, the family moved from the Northern climes to sunny California, where Lincoln’s technique continued its upward progression and his connections in the industry matured. By the age of 19, he had an offer that many teenage rockers dream of: a recording contract.
Unfortunately, even with a lucrative offer on the table, Lincoln says his life felt empty. Lincoln’s high school girlfriend, Laura – now his wife of 14 years – invited him to church, in an attempt to fill that unmistakable void. Following a drama ministry performance, in which Lincoln says he felt God’s presence, his future changed. Accepting God into his life, Lincoln passed on the record deal and, perhaps unknowingly, changed the trajectory of his life forever.
In 1994, a year that found grunge firmly in command of mainstream audiences, Lincoln received an invitation from Steve Perry, former lead singer for Journey, to audition as lead guitarist for his upcoming solo project, 1994’s For the Love of Strange Medicine. Lincoln accepted, and quickly moved into songwriting and rehearsals for the album and the following yearlong tour. While the shows were, “great and entertaining, but not life-changing,” according to Lincoln, they failed to provide the spiritual satisfaction he was looking for. Soon after the tour ended, Lincoln married Laura and settled down in Modesto, California, where Senior Pastor Glenn Berteau offered him a position as associate music director and youth worship leader. At the same time, secular offers continued to flood his life – he was becoming an in-demand session player with a reputation for knowing his way around a studio. However, Lincoln found the session life less than inspiring, and eventually turned his musical focus to music ministry and songwriting.
Since his devotion to ministry in the mid- ‘90s, Lincoln has established himself on the forefront of Christian music, participating in several nationwide tours and releasing four solo albums – all chock full of riffs and rhythmic vamps. He remains an in-demand collaborator and producer, and is currently in production on his fifth solo album, due out in late spring of 2008. We were able to talk with Lincoln about his music, his gear and the place of the guitar within modern music.
Like many musicians, music started for you at an early age. How were you introduced to it?
My mom sat my brother, my sister and I down when we were five, six and seven and handed us each a mandolin. I think I was the only one of the three that said, “Hey, I’d like to try that again.” I can actually remember that day and the first time she put it in my hands. She taught me how to make a chord, and when I strummed it, I heard a sound that wasn’t complete rubbish. The feeling that gave me was incredible; I was really hooked from day one, and music became a big part of my life from that day forward. I’ve just always had a love and a passion for music, for both the way it makes you feel and the way it makes other people feel.
When did you get that first guitar in your hands?
I was nine, and I got a Gibson SG.
And did you take to it quickly?
I think I did – I had been playing mandolin for a few years at that point, so the stringed instrument thing kind of made sense to me. But I remember what hooked me on the electric guitar was that my mom brought home a guitar amp. I plugged my electric mandolin into the amp and strummed one chord – there was only chord I could strum that sounded like a guitar. At the time, I had some older stepbrothers who were into KISS, and I remember thinking, “I gotta do this.” The guitar was the only thing that was going to give me the sound I was looking for. As soon as I hit the guitar, that was it.
So what kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I was into KISS because of my stepbrothers’ influence. They also listened to a lot of Ted Nugent and the Scorpions, while my mom was way into the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Kenny Loggins, Elton John and stuff like that. So I listened to a lot of music, and had a mix of metal and pop. In some respects, there was some blues-rooted pop in there too.
It seems like a lot of the guitarists playing in worship settings these days grew up cutting their teeth on those kinds of bands. Have you encountered a lot of that when you’re out playing in worship settings or at festivals?
Oh, definitely. It’s really pretty cool. As we get out and play on the road, it’s really cool for me to be an encouragement to these guys who grew up on music that had really legit guitar playing, but they don’t feel like it has a place in the church. It’s funny – there are just not many guys playing in Christian music right now who are diehard guitar players.
Why is that?
I don’t know. I’ll speculate, even though it’s dangerous. I think Christian music follows mainstream music, at least stylistically, but it’s usually a few years on the backside of it. And if you really look at the resurgence of the guitar in mainstream music, it’s really been in the last three or four years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the guitar starts showing up prominently in Christian music really soon.
Have you seen the guitar as being marginalized in music, at least recently?
You know, there was an era in the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s when you had amazing musicianship from every player in the band. Bands like the Police, Yes, Journey, Van Halen – just go down the list. Those bands were not only some of the biggest bands in the world, but when you looked at each player individually, they were some of the top in their field. Look at the Police, for instance; you’ve got Sting, Stewart Copland and Andy Summers. They were all phenomenal musicians.
And then there were a bunch of bands that began to mimic that, and you got into the glam metal scene, where the songwriting quality and the musicianship basically went down. So now you had songs with lyrics that made you think, “Come on. Are you serious?” Because the musicianship suffered, people stopped going to concerts to see the best guitarists in the world, because they didn’t have that in the band. And then there was the entire grunge shift, where the lyrics got way better, the drummers got way better, the songs got way better, and the guitarists got worse.
So before guys like John Mayer came around, playing guitar solos was kind of taboo. I released my first album with a ton of guitar in 1999 and no one cared. And then I released my second album, which was way more pop-worship driven, with very few guitar solos, and it did way better. For a while there, it was like, “No one cares. We want to hear songs.” And then with guys like John Mayer – who was probably one of the primary guys who brought guitar back – you see him live and think, “Holy smokes, this guy is for real!” He’s made it okay to play the guitar again.
Have you found that the guitar has a greater place in modern worship these days?
No question. I mean, worship is guitar-driven now, period. Granted, a lot of it is acoustic driven, but I think more and more of it is moving into the electric vein, and I really feel like it’s only going to continue. Guitar is becoming more and more a part of music again, and not just electric guitar.
What’s driving that movement, in your opinion?
I think styles change and people get bored with stuff. For a while there, if you wanted to lead worship you needed to know how to play keyboards – now most worship settings can take it or leave it when it comes to the keyboard. Now, if you want to lead, you’ve got to have guitar and drums. And I think styles have a lot to do with that; it all depends on what people are into at the moment.
Worship music is certainly influenced by the current styles of the day – you hear a lot of worship bands that sound like U2. And U2 is basically a worship band in disguise. If you go see them live, if you listen to their music, if you read the lyrics on songs like “Yahweh,” three of them are Christian guys who are making an impact with the gifts they’ve been given. And there are a lot of people who mimic that – U2 is a great model for worship bands. That whole four-on-thefloor drumbeat really works. Go into any concert setting or church service and have the drummer start hitting that kick drum – you’ve got instant crowd participation. It’s fun and it gets people involved.
Now you’re starting to hear worship bands that sound like Coldplay, so there are different styles that can work. The Bible says, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” and I think part of “a new song” can be a new sound. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, it essentially says, “Hey, there’s nothing new under the sun.” So it’s all about trying to find a different way to say the same thing.
For me, there are two parts of that: the words we use and the way we present it. So part of what I ask myself is, “How do I make the electric guitar a really big part of that?” And I don’t want to make it about me, because it’s not necessarily a big part of who I am – it’s a big part of who God has made me. It’s what he’s put in my heart. And so I want to express that and not hide it. And I felt like in the past I’ve had to hide it. On my upcoming record, I’m going to play as much guitar as I can possibly fit on there.
So what exactly is the place of the guitar solo within Christian music?
Well, for me, it’s an expression of worship. I’m not that great of a singer, and I feel like I’m probably 50 percent worship leader, 40 percent guitar player and 10 percent singer. Singing is something I need to do to accomplish the goal – and I’m surprised it works; I can’t believe anyone likes it [laughs]. But guitar playing comes naturally for me, and I definitely enjoy it more than singing.
What kind of gear are you playing with these days?
Well, I’m one of those guys who the tube snobs like to shoot at, but I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a weird blend of things. I’m actually a studio engineer in addition to a guitar player. In my life, I’ve always had to do a lot with a little – I just never had the money to get the gear that a lot of people had, so I had to find other ways to make stuff sound good. So when all of the modeling stuff started coming out, I was really intrigued by it.
I started studying how the guys at Line 6 modeled things. And my mom’s boyfriend, Dave Belzer, one of the Burst Brothers [from the Hollywood Vintage Room], was telling me that he actually loaned them amps to model. He told me, “Yeah, the AC30 they modeled was the best-sounding AC30 I’ve ever heard in my life. Same with the Marshall Plexi they modeled.” So he knows the exact amps that they’re using there, and having met some of the guys over at Line 6, I can say they are all genuine tone guys – they really understand amps and pickups. So I just started doing real life, proof-is-in-the-pudding comparisons, and I’ve been using Line 6 stuff since the first version of Amp Farm for ProTools.
For my third album, Dave loaned me his own 50-watt Plexi, which sounded absolutely incredible, and I ended up recording most of the album with that. Well, I flew to Nashville after we were done tracking most of the guitars and ended up having to change some sections of the songs, but we didn’t have that amp. And I was thinking, “What are we going to do?” And, no joke, I came up with using the Plexi Marshall model in Amp Farm. We just matched that sound – you could not tell the difference. All I had to do was run it through an Avalon 737 mic pre, and just tweak the EQ on the front end a tiny bit. The guy who was co-producing with me couldn’t believe it. It nailed that sound.
So that was when I realized they were onto something cool. I kept diving further into it. I would take some of my vintage amps and modern amps into the studio and do my best to get a killer sound and record it. Then I would take the POD and do my best to match it.
So you’re playing models live most of the time?
Yeah. It started originally with the POD, and then it was the POD 2.0, and then it was the POD xt Live, and now they’ve just released the POD X3, so I’m using that. They say the X3 is, sonically, a bit better, but to my ears I can’t tell much of a difference. They didn’t change any of the models themselves, just some of the internal converters and components like that. And when you get into A/D and D/A converters, you’re probably splitting that top two percent of hairs, sonically speaking. But from the original POD to the XT series, their models just became stellar.
Are you also using the onboard effects or do you go with pedals?
I do use some pedals in front of it – a lot of people don’t know that it responds like an amp when you put pedals in front of it. So I don’t use the POD as an effects box; I use it as a mic’ed up amp simulation. There are times during the night when I’m not using anything on it. I’ll usually put a hair of a delay on it, but that’s all.
What kind of guitars are you playing?
Live, I primarily use Fender Strats. Right now I’m using an Eric Johnson model, because both of my ’57 reissues got stolen. I actually bought the Eric Johnson Strat off the shelf on my way to a gig, and it turned out to be a totally cool God thing. I showed up at the show, and there was a guy named Gary Brawer there – he’s a guitar tech in the Bay Area who has worked for Carlos Santana and Satriani. He was at soundcheck and asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said, “Dude, I actually just bought this guitar. Would you mind giving it the once over?” He set it up and the guitar played like a dream.
I think in terms of off-the-shelf, non-custom shop guitars, the Eric Johnson model is probably the best thing Fender’s putting out these days, at least since the originals. Eric Johnson made some modifications to the original design that are great for a lot of players; it has a 5-way switch right out of the gate, which is great, and the back tone pot is wired to the bridge pickup only, which is perfect for a Strat. I’ll roll the tone back to a 5 or 6 and still get that spanky sound when you hit the guitar real hard, but when you roll off the top end, you get the perception that you’ve got a lot more lows and midrange. It gets a very fat, chunky, almost humbucker-esque thing when you want it to, but when you dig in and pick hard, you can still get the Straty thing.
So you essentially play with a really stripped down rig when you’re playing live.
Yeah, it’s really basic. It’s funny – I’m using new school technology with an old school philosophy. The model I use with the POD is a Plexi Variac Marshall with Greenback 25s, mic’ed with a SM57. And I worked very, very hard in a studio environment to hone that sound.
You’re pretty familiar with life in the studio. You actually used to be a sought-after session guy, right?
Well, it was starting to go that direction, but I’ve always been kind of a worship guy. And the session thing sounded good on paper, but I honestly think I would rather work at Home Depot than do sessions.
That’s a big statement. Why’s that?
Well, the guitar is kind of my outlet – it’s one of those things that’s just so wonderful to play, I feel like I’m nine years old when I play guitar. And I would go spend all day in the studio, playing guitar, and get home and think, “I don’t even want to touch that thing.” And 90% of the time, you’re playing music that you could very much do without.
I’m much more of a hands-on relational guy. I like using the gifts that God has given me to have an impact that I can see, that’s quantifiable. In the studio you play on stuff and you don’t even remember what you played on. Records come out and you don’t even know when they are released. You don’t get to know the impact of your work. But now, I’ll make a record and I get to go out and minister to people live. I get to hear, “Man, this song meant this to me,” or “Hey, your guitar playing really inspired me,” or “I put on your CD and it helps me get through the day.” It really keeps fuel on the fire.
So what’s your approach to playing, stylistically?
It’s definitely rooted in the blues, with some variations. It’s funny, you can play basic pentatonic scales and add a flat 5, and suddenly you’ve got your basic blues mix. Throw in a 2 and a 3, and you’ve got a whole other kind of bag, where you’ve got more of a melodic sensibility there.
How do you approach songwriting?
I feel like it’s the old 10 pecent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration approach. I’ll get inspired by a sermon or a thought, and I keep a little closet of guitar riffs handy. I tend to look at songs as tools. I say, “This song, if it’s doing its job, should inspire people to connect with God.”
When I write, the idea is that if I’m Joe Whoever, anywhere in the world, I should be able to pull it off in its basic form. When a worship leader at another church – who may not have a real skilled band – approaches it, I don’t want him to not be able to play that song, so there’s a kind of skeleton format. It’s almost like drawing dot-to-dot; its got a basic shape, but then we’ll fill it in and kind of “Lincolnize” it.
I’ll also redo other people’s songs and put my own twist on it. It’s like doing a cover song, but making it your own. And I’ll even do it with my own songs, because I feel like when I write them, they’re not for me – they’re for the church.
Is touring any different for you, in comparison to a secular band?
When we do a straight-up tour, it’s probably pretty similar. City to city, day to day on a big bus. These days, Christian artists are using the same stuff as mainstream artists. There’s no difference between the quality – the budgets are bigger for mainstream artists, but that just means you may not be able to get Tom Lord-Alge to mix. Ten grand a song in the studio is a little steep.
Do you see any contradiction with that kind of outlay and Christian ideals?
No, but that’s a very individual thing. I don’t think there’s an inherent contradiction in the system, but if you let your life get out of balance – you don’t go to church, you’re disconnected, there’s a lack of accountability and you let the lack of connectivity affect your spiritual life in an adverse way – then yes, there’s a problem. But that’s not inherently because of the system; it’s because of an abuse of the system. Too much of anything isn’t good; anything in excess can be bad.
I know guys that will go out and play a spring tour – 20 or 30 dates – and then go home and stay home for quite some time. There’s a band called Delirious, a really influential worship band from the UK, and they are never away from home for more than ten days at a time, even if it means flying home from California to London for a couple days to see their families.
So what’s in your CD player right now? In your opinion, who’s making good music?
There are actually a lot of bands doing cool things, and I’ve got quite the eclectic mix of music. Like I said earlier, I think John Mayer is doing amazing things. I’m a big Keith Urban fan, and a huge Norah Jones fan. Her voice is like a modern-day classic. There’s also a new band called Paramore who are really good songwriters and musicians. They’re playing great pop music, and the lead singer has a real Pat Benatar vibe. When you look at her, she’s got that ‘80s new wave haircut, and she’s a straight-up rock n’ roll gal. One foot on the monitor wedge, two hands on the microphone and just belting it. I’m a big Radiohead and Coldplay fan, but I still love old Van Halen, too.
Despite a stripped down live rig, Lincoln’s got quite the selection of gear. Here’s a sampling:
|Exclusive: A Sample of Lincoln Brewster''s Songs
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