january 2008

How to tweak the EQ to make the most of your recordings.

With the amazing popularity of home studios, many of today’s recording projects are done using software DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Live, or Reason. Of course, there are still plenty of analog studios out there using good old-fashioned tape and a console. Whatever you may run, it’s important to think about your use of equalization during that final mix phase. Too often I see people cranking up the EQ in an effort to get tracks to punch through and be heard. It’s quite easy with a

DAW to just call up a plug-in and start boosting. While that sometimes will work, it often causes a problem called masking—where tracks cannot be clearly heard because other tracks have taken up their frequency

Think of a mix as a finite amount of lows, mids and highs that must fit through a set of speakers, small and large. In a typical rock/pop mix, the lows will consist of your kick and bass. In addition to real kicks and bass, you’ll often find synth/sample versions blended in there as well. I’ve found that getting the lowend correct in a mix is one of the hardest things to do, so that will be the focus of this column.

Aside from making sure your monitors and room are feeding you accurate information, you can do yourself a favor and think about cutting frequencies on other instruments that use up that low-end range. The above-mentioned kick and bass have a large portion of their frequency information sitting from about 40 up to around 180 Hz. That range should be cleaned up, in order to let those bottomheavy tracks be clearly heard. But think about how many other instruments have frequencies down there. One of the worst offenders is acoustic guitars. When recorded with a decent microphone, there will be a large amount of information in that 100 Hz range. Electric guitars are also another offender, as are synth pads, keyboards and even closely mic’ed vocals.

One way to start cleaning up the bottom of your mix is to use subtractive equalization. By soloing up each track, you can get a better idea of which instruments need some reduction. One effective technique that I use is calling up a plug-in on my DAW such as the free Inspector tool from RNDigital. This RTAS, VST and AU analysis tool will display not only frequencies, headroom and levels, but detect clipped samples (for those of you who push your mixes into the red). Other programs such as Logic have analysis tools built in, so take advantage of them if you can.

Once I’ve taken a look (and listen) to the tracks in question, I will call up a good EQ and start cutting the trouble spots out. For example, I will often cut and/or reduce the low-end out of acoustic guitars up to around 150 Hz. The same can be done for those keyboard tracks and synth pads, etc. With vocals, I will always remove anything below 100 Hz and often up to 150 Hz. This reduction has a cumulative effect of creating more space for the kick and bass to live, so they shine through in a mix. If you notice too much low-end coming out of your mix, gradually add some back in until the ‘beef’ returns. Certainly, if it’s a track without kick and bass, you can leave more low-end in the mix than usual.

While there are many different kinds of equalizers, I have found that parametric EQs are the most effective when pruning down a mix. Unlike a graphic EQ, which simply has fixed bands that can be either cut or boosted, parametric EQs feature amplitude (the amount of cut/boost), center frequency (the chosen numeric range) and bandwidth, or Q (the width of cut/boost around the center frequency). So if you need to remove the area around 148 Hz, you can quickly dial it up with a parametric EQ and cut away that exact frequency range.

In addition to parametric EQs, I use quite a bit of high- and low-pass filtering. By engaging a high-pass filter, you can attenuate (cut) frequencies lower than the selected cutoff value. This lets you quickly remove a ‘chunk’ of lowend without dialing in the bands of an EQ. It’s a quick and simple way to start cutting out the excess.

Whatever technique you choose, try cleaning up the bottom of your next mix with some filtering or subtractive EQ. Not only will it provide more clarity to your music, it allows you to make the overall mix louder, since there’s now less muddy low-end clouding up the full frequency spectrum. And of course, as long as that guitar is cranking, it’s all good!

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In both a literal and metaphysical sense, John Suhr is a hard man to pin down. Not only was it difficult for him to find enough time to chat

Suhr GuitarsIn both a literal and metaphysical sense, John Suhr is a hard man to pin down. Not only was it difficult for him to find enough time to chat with us, but it has also been tough to categorize his position within the industry. Is he a master guitar builder or an amp guru? Apparently the two aren’t mutually exclusive because his latest endeavor, Suhr Guitars, has melded both passions successfully enough to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Despite the traditional looking designs from the company he and Steve Smith founded, John rails against the concepts of soul and mojo that tend to permeate guitar making. To John, the “mojo” that a particularly nice ’56 Strat exudes is quantifiable, and therefore repeatable. By embracing modern building methods and a little bit of science, his instruments have that consistent feel, ensuring that each plays and sounds as good as the next. Ironically, this approach gives each guitar with the Suhr logo on the headstock tons of what most players immediately identify as great feel and soul – more commonly referred to as mojo.

As further proof of John’s singular vision, he left a successful gig building the high-profile Pensa-Suhr instruments at Rudy’s Music Stop to design and build preamps and amps with Bob Bradshaw, a move many would be reticent to make. Typical of John’s idiosyncratic take on doing things was the way he came to learn about amps – rather than apprentice with some dusty, old amp guru, John studied electronics and poured over iconic designs until the sounds he wanted to hear were coming out of the speaker.

John’s embrace of technology, combined with his DIY ethos, places him in a league of his own. Throughout this interview we were struck by how often he felt the need to improve upon designs and working situations that most would find more than satisfactory. Luckily, that drive has lead to the design of the Badger amp and his adoption of the SSC noiseless single coil system. That same drive and constant critical thinking also makes his instruments and amps among the finest available, ensuring that Mr. Suhr will continue to be a force to be reckoned with for many decades to come.

John was gracious enough to chat with us about the past, present and future of Suhr Guitars.

Suhr GuitarsWhen you were first starting out 35 years ago in New Jersey, what were your original designs like? Were you a big Leo Fender fan?
Well, this is all kind of a flashback for me; I’ve forgotten about a lot of that period. But I can’t really answer that without a little history. I played in a band that was heavily influenced by bands like Mountain, The Who and early ZZ Top. At that time, I thought Fender guitars were too hard to play and too thin sounding. I did actually own a ‘54 Strat back then, but I only used it for Hendrix and Trower-type tones – I was more of a Les Paul/Les Paul Junior person. I thought notes choked out too easily on Strats and they were too easy to knock out of tune. At that time in 1973, I was just starting to tinker with guitars, rather than build anything. I built later out of the frustration of not being able to find instruments I liked – I could see the flaws everywhere.

I had Bob Benedetto [founder of Benedetto Guitars] make a new neck for one of my Strats – which looked nothing like a Fender – to overcome some of my complaints. In the process we both learned some important things about tremolo systems. Bob also gave me a busted up Les Paul Junior he found in the trash. I turned that Junior into this beast that I gigged with all the time, and ended up modifying all my guitars very heavily from then on out. As much as I wanted to apprentice with Bob, he told me, “If you want to do this for real, just learn it on your own.” I still talk to Bob and credit him with giving me the inspiration to take instruments into my own hands. The basic answer is that the first guitars I made were more in the LP Junior vein.

How did you land the gig at Rudy’s Music Stop? A lot of heavyweights walked through that place.
Playing in bands was not a great way to make a living when I moved to New York City, so I picked up jobs as a cook while still playing in the New Jersey club scene. One of the guys I worked with at a restaurant had heard that I knew a lot about building and repairs – he also knew I was getting tired of slinging omelets. He had moved onto a sales position at Rudy’s Music Stop, and when he saw a need for a repair guy, he convinced Rudy to talk to me.

Suhr Guitars At that time there was no repair shop there, let alone much room for one. My first “shop” was a small bench in the boiler room. Rudy was a Schecter parts dealer, and it didn’t take long for me to start building what became hundreds of instruments and doing so many repairs that we had to expand from the boiler room to over two floors of the building. This is the period when I was able to begin dialing in what I did and didn’t like about Fender guitars.

Did you get to meet Lou Reed and Eric Clapton? Mark Knopfler?
Mark and Lou were customers who I wound up doing a lot of work for, as well as guys like Reb Beach, Steve Stevens, Victor Bailey, Peter Frampton, G.E. Smith and many of the local studio players. I didn’t get to meet Eric until years later when I built amplifiers for him at Fender. The Pensa-Suhr Eric owned was a gift from Knopfler. I wish I could have had a personal interaction with him, but fortunately I was able to spend a lot of time with both Knopfler and Reed.

When you left that gig to design amplifiers with Robert Bradshaw in 1991, which was ultimately very successful, weren’t you worried about walking away from a successful gig – the bird-in-the-hand thing?
Well, yes, I was sort of worried, but Bob had already presold 100 or so of the 3+ preamps before I decided to move. I was always an employee at Rudy’s, and to be honest, the money wasn’t enough to really take care of my plans for a life with my new wife.

I designed all of the circuits and the preamp while I was playing in my band at my bandmate’s studio in NYC. I was constantly searching for tones I didn’t hear in amps I purchased but was hearing in my head. My then wife-to-be was stuck in Columbia for two years sorting out immigration issues, so I needed something to keep myself occupied. Taking what I had learned earlier, working at Time Electronics in Union, New Jersey and pushing myself to get the tones in my head in a three-channel preamp kept me very busy.

Suhr Guitars
“Wood is always an issue. We use old, slow growth maple for our necks. We’ve never had an issue with plain grain maple and have been using the same source since the beginning, but we are constantly looking for sources of body woods. Currently, we bring in a lift of alder and send at least half of it back, mainly for being too heavy.”

In 1995 you landed a gig as Senior Master Builder at Fender’s Custom Shop; did you appreciate the situation while you were there?
I have no regrets about my time at Fender – I learned things the way they were done there, but it really wasn’t what I expected. I was hired as a Senior Master Builder and was there more to contribute rather than learn. I learned how a factory approaches production, but I chose to approach it differently.

What precipitated you leaving Fender?
I left because I wanted more control over the product, so I could hold my head up high. I pushed for new machinery (CNCs) and the red tape was killing me. I was frustrated and felt that my skills would be better utilized in design and engineering – more so than sitting there, leveling frets and building guitars. I enjoy solving problems and being involved in research; I don’t like mojo. To me, there is a reason for everything.

Suhr GuitarsYou and Steve Smith founded JST in 1997. How integral was Steve to starting your own shop? How did you guys meet?
Steve was a software rep and a CNC programmer. He saw my frustration while at Fender and asked me why I didn’t just start my own company. My response was that I hadn’t learned about the programming end of it, and of course the money! I was also feeling a bit reserved since I now had a family to think about, with my wife and young son. Steve had done some programming work with Rickenbacker, but wasn’t a guitar builder; fortunately, all I had to do was get my CAD chops together and Steve could cut whatever I threw his way. We gathered a group of investors – mostly family, some friends and even Peter Frampton. Ten years later things are growing and better than ever. It took six to eight years to realize it, but I definitely made the right decision.

With Steve’s CNC experience and your building skills, you now have complete control of the manufacturing process. What has that been like?
The amount of personal effort, sacrifice and time that one must put into a successful guitar business is not for the faint of heart. I was sanding bodies, fretting necks and painting into the early hours of the morning until just a few years ago. I was the lone paint boy until very recently; now I finally have someone who has been able to free me up a little. My wife and I used to wind all the pickups at home. It has been hard to find just the right crew.

How do you feel the Plek machine [a computer-controlled alternative to manual fret dressing] has changed things from a manufacturer’s standpoint?
You don’t need a Plek to do excellent fret work, but it does take the guess work and theorizing out of the equation. It’s sort of like surgery without X-ray, compared to a full body scan before the operation. Each piece of wood will behave differently, but the Plek makes them all set up with the same consistency.

As production increases, are you able to retain the same control as before?
I have way more control now. I’m still a small builder, but I have a hand-picked, top notch crew who do things my way with my supervision. I’m much more in control now than when I had to be one of the crew. This allows us more resources to make a better product and take advantage of new technologies.

For instance, I now have the ability to actually measure the frequency response of a body and neck before they go together. With that information, I can hear and see the frequency response of the instrument as a whole – I can start putting an end to myth and use science to make sense out of what we hear. You need to have room for R&D in order to come up with new products and explore new ideas.

Have you had any issues sourcing good wood?
Wood is always an issue. We use old, slow growth maple for our necks. We’ve never had an issue with plain grain maple and have been using the same source since the beginning, but we are constantly looking for sources of body woods. Currently, we bring in a lift of alder and send at least half of it back, mainly for being too heavy. We re-dry all of our wood, even though the moisture content is good when we get it.

What prompted the standard bass model in 2003? Did you offer basses on a custom order option before that?
I’ve made many basses before, even back to the Pensa-Suhr days with Victor Bailey, and at Fender I made some custom, oneoff basses for Wayman Tisdale. We didn’t start them at Suhr until 2003 and next year we will expand our bass line beyond our current traditionally shaped models. In fact, we will have some new bass products at NAMM.

Suhr GuitarsCan you walk us through the SSC pickup system and tell us a bit about how it works?
The SSC now has an official patent. I am not the inventor – Ilitch Electronics is the inventor. I was, however, one of the only people to believe that Ilitch was onto something. Together we tweaked the idea to work with Suhr guitars. I later asked them to integrate it into the backplate of a trem-equipped guitar so we could sell it as an aftermarket part.

It creates the same hum as the single coils create, without the negative effects of a simple dummy coil. It works more like an antenna with virtually no inductance or DC resistance to rob your tone. There are no active electronics either. It is the most uncompromised solution for maintaining your single coil tone I’ve seen. When I first saw it, I kicked myself in the head and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It really works and 99 percent of the pro players I have installed it for hear no difference or such a little difference it takes them half a day to hear it. All the glory and air of the single coil pickup is still there – only the hum is missing.

It seems that you’ve come full circle with the release of the Badger amp last year. How does it feel to be back in the amp game?
Amazing, but I never really left. The great thing is that we are still a small company. I make decisions and have the control. If I need to spend some money on great test gear and tools to make better product, I just do it. I don’t have red tape – I am the red tape.

I’m so excited about the new amps that we are working on. I have some new guys in our electronics crew who will enable our amps to achieve a whole new level of features. In 2008, we will be developing some amps that have me truly excited about making amps again. Some builders feel it’s all been done before – what’s left? What’s left is that the builders need to listen to musicians’ needs and put things into an uncompromising package that works in every situation. So, with that in mind, it hasn’t all been done before.

What do you enjoy about the business? What gets you up in the morning?
My enjoyment comes from building a great playing, great sounding guitar – a tool where a musician can find comfort. The biggest compliment I get is when someone like Steve Stevens says, “I took the guitar straight from the shop to the studio – no need to tweak or change anything.” The only reason I drifted into building guitars and amplifiers was because I was a frustrated player who spent more time tweaking my instruments and amps than I did on my playing. I found a niche of course, but I don’t feel musicians should have to worry about all of the complaints I had when I was making a living playing music. I don’t regret it at all, but the obsession with making better instruments didn’t leave enough room for playing.

To this day, I still eat, sleep and breathe with the desire to make better instruments and amplifiers. An artist can make an art guitar, but a real, working instrument is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Suhr Guitar

It’s a little past 5:30 on a brisk Tuesday night in Eastern Iowa, and the sun has already set past the horizon. Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan, First Lutheran Church’s minister of

Joyful Noise

It’s a little past 5:30 on a brisk Tuesday night in Eastern Iowa, and the sun has already set past the horizon. Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan, First Lutheran Church’s minister of worship life, stands with an oval plate of cookies at the front of the sanctuary, waiting patiently for the rest of the musicians to arrive. I ask him if they’re homemade, and he casts a sly grin before answering, “They’re from Subway. But who doesn’t like cookies?” Richard is dressed in a yellow sweatshirt, with a purple-ish bandana wrapped around his head, and looks more like a blue collar worker just off his shift instead of a veteran songwriter and guitarist.

Joyful Noise Although rehearsal for the church’s weekly praise band is supposed to begin at 5:30, Richard tells me it’s not uncommon for members to trickle in until close to six, arriving straight from their day jobs to practice music for the next Sunday’s 11:00 contemporary service. While these musicians are all volunteering their time to First Lutheran, most have played for years, if not decades. Bassist Brad Hines, an unassuming presence in his faded t-shirt, is the first to arrive, politely passing on Richard’s cookie and setting up his equipment directly under a giant stained glass window and several hanging signs representing significant moments in the church’s year-long lectionary.

The band exists in a unique setting, creating rock-tinged, joyful noises amongst an old pipe organ and wooden pews. The Lutheran tradition is a quiet one, and perhaps appropriately, guitarist John Shaw walks silently down the carpeted aisle towards the front of the sanctuary with two guitar cases in hand – one holding his glossy black Fender Fat Strat and the other a Guild D-46 – and a variety of other zippered bags hanging from his arms, packed with cables and various electronics. He’s a big guy, and as he pulls his Strat from the case, I notice it looks like a ¾ size instrument. He plugs in his POD 2.0 and its accompanying foot controller, sets up his Rolls PM50S Personal Monitor Amp, and has a short dialog with Matt Draeger, the 22- year-old staff member manning the soundboard from the choir loft.

The singers trickle in – a talkative bunch, flipping excitedly through charts – and drummer George Hannah saunters down the aisle, announcing that things need to wrap quickly, as he has tickets to the Iowa basketball game later that night. On that note, Richard kicks the rehearsal into gear, strapping on his Taylor acoustic and leading the compact band – two guitars, a bass, drums and several singers – through vibrant, deep renditions of songs with titles like, “You Are My King” and “My God is an Awesome God.”

While the band plays, and John’s deliberate, unfolding lead lines cut through the mix, I join Matt above in the loft, watching as he tweaks knobs on the antiquated mixing board, just a few feet away from giant pipes that still pulsate at early morning services.

He tells me about the church’s budget for new equipment (small, but growing), about the church’s next needed purchase (a better monitoring system) and discusses some modest acoustical treatments around the area in front of the sanctuary to help it sound better (maybe). The rehearsal runs until a little after seven, with Richard giving out some final instructions before a quick dispersal by the band.

Scenes like this – churches, both conservative and modern, embracing instruments and sounds that would have been previously rejected as unacceptable – are rapidly becoming the norm in modern worship. Enter any house of worship today and the odds are high that you’ll hear a full band leading the congregation through fast-paced, contemporary tunes. Led by artists like Chris Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster, sounds that might have previously been heard in pyrotechnic-laden arena concerts or smoky bars are now being used to teach the word of God. Blues and rock motifs are being reworked with inspirational lyrics and played on high-end, boutique equipment in worship services all across the nation.

And while a small group of hardcore traditionalists continue to cry foul, most people have welcomed the musical shift, bringing with it a new attitude to an institution once considered staid and traditional.

While the incorporation of classic rock riffs might initially seem incongruous with the church’s mission, a key ingredient to this surge of interest lies within the changing demographics of the church. When the Baby Boomer generation first picked up instruments, they cut their teeth on tunes from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin; as they age and find themselves back in the church, there’s a strong desire to hear the sounds that inspired them years ago – and to re-experience the feelings associated with those sounds. Bruce Adolph, publisher and editor of Christian Musician magazine views it as a move to get back to collective roots. “In the past ten years there’s been a dramatic shift – there’s been a big movement back to the morals [the Baby Boomer generation] came from. They’re finding themselves spiritually and getting involved in the music of the church.”

Joyful Noise
A recent worship concert at North Point Community Church. From left to right, Steve Tomason plays a PRS 513, Reid Greven handles the keys, Steve Fee plays a Fender Jaguar, Matt Adkins strums an American Deluxe Telecaster, Todd Fields plays a Gibson J-45, Askley Appling is on drums and Pat Malone plays the Fender Jazz Bass.

There are also subtle financial forces at work here; as Baby Boomers send the kids off to college and finally pay off their mortgages, they’re finding more disposable income in their pockets. The opportunity to finally buy that Custom Shop Strat or a Marshall full-stack from their youth is there, but in a new, gentle irony, they have no place to play it. Housing development bylaws and city ordinances mean the volume level in the garage needs to be kept down, and the idea of sitting in a crowded, smokefilled bar no longer has the allure it once did. That leaves the church as a venue for expression, and droves of middle-aged guitarists are bringing their passion into God’s house.

But it would be a mistake to simply assume the arrival of experienced, tone-seeking guitarists on the church scene is solely for a place to show off their new purchases. Musicians are discovering the church as a place to serve the community and to share the good news. When I asked Brad Hines, who grew up on Bob Dylan and Neil Young, why he chooses to play at the church instead of secular gigs, he primarily referenced the sense of joy he receives from it. “It’s a service; you’re getting involved. Church has become a daily part of my life.”

Richard agrees. “I’m interested in other musicians knowing that they are not just musicians – they are worship leaders. They have influence in their service, and they have a role of welcoming people to worship and introducing people to the spirit of God.”

Joyful Noise
Boutique gear has not been excluded from the church. Here, Matt Adkins plays his American Deluxe Tele with noiseless pickups through a Bad Cat Black Cat 30.
The Guitar and North Point
North Point Community Church, based 20 minutes north of downtown Atlanta, is a textbook example of how the integration of contemporary musical sounds has worked to change the way congregations worship. Beginning 12 years ago with only a keyboard and a semi-circle of singers in a converted warehouse, the church has blossomed into a weekly concert experience for attendees. The Alpharetta, Georgia church accommodates approximately 6,000 worshipers each week across two auditoriums, both featuring live bands and sharing a backstage area – and that’s only at North Point’s “main” campus, with more live music at two other satellite locations.

According to Reid Greven, a music associate at North Point charged with hiring all of the church’s bands and writing arrangements, one of the most essential components of modern worship is the guitar. “We couldn’t do a Sunday without them, and they are, by far, the most important part of what we’re doing musically.”

North Point has worked hard to create a welcoming environment for their guitarists. As a matter of fact, North Point’s technologically advanced setup would put some large performing venues to shame. Professional staff members manage an automated front-ofhouse digital console. Rehearsals are recorded on Pro Tools and given to each musician afterwards to aid practicing. Players perform with wireless setups and use custom-molded in-ears systems for monitoring. Amps are isolated and mic’ed in a back room, allowing the guitarists to operate their rigs at full, tubesaturating volume without ruining the overall mix. The players are free to dial in their own tones for each song, and have an impressive level of autonomy, considering the church’s meticulous production.

Steve Tomason, a professional guitarist at North Point who has been playing for over 20 years, performs weekly through his Marshall JCM2000 head and a Bogner 2x12 cab, and is quick to emphasize how supportive North Point has been. “The church has just been great; they really understand what we’ve been talking about in emphasizing quality. They don’t mind spending money to do things right,” he says. “I’ve played in so many places and I’ve never played around as many pros as this. We are a community.”

In fact, the integration of guitar into worship services has been so successful for North Point that two years ago the music department held open auditions for guitarists. Although they weren’t looking for any musicians at the time, Reid says they were trying to deal with the constant deluge of calls from area guitarists, inquiring about open positions with the band. “We just wanted to know who was out there, if there was anybody we should be using,” Reid recalls. “It was a real eye-opening experience for us.” Over the course of two nights, over 150 players auditioned – with over 80 percent of them being primarily electric players – and North Point brought four aboard. Only one is still actively playing with the church.

Joyful NoiseAn Industry Looking Up
It may be an extreme understatement to say that Christian music has become big business. According to the Gospel Music Association, the unifying organization for modern Christian music, Christian/gospel (a distinction that is subtle and shifting at best) music sales have increased from $188 million in 1990 to almost $700 million annually. Over 54.2 million units of Christian CDs, digital albums and digital tracks were sold in 2006, and accounted for 6.75 percent of all album sales in 2006 – a higher percentage than Latin, classical or jazz. Over 20 million fans listen to Christian radio every week – a number rapidly approaching National Public Radio’s 26.5 million weekly draw, according to Arbitron, an international media and marketing research firm.

In a music industry dealing with unstoppable piracy, sizeable downturns in album sales and a user-driven move toward digital formats, these numbers, generated by a genre once considered fringe, have been causing record executives in Los Angeles and New York to take notice. John W. Styll, President of the GMA, says, “There may be many reasons why [sales are up], but I think among them is that people seem to be drawn to the inspiring and compassionate message of gospel music amid uncertain times.”

And while Christian rock sales may have something to do with a looming sense of anxiety in post-9/11 America, a significant part of the upward trend can be attributed to a musical maturation within the church. While Christian rock rose out of the ‘60s and ‘70s and their related excesses – beginning with the introduction of acoustic guitars and folk-rock sounds to church services – it long remained on the margins of Christian consciousness. Early Christian rock had the particular stigma of simply aping the popular sounds of the day; creativity wasn’t as important as setting religious messages to modern genres. Bruce Adolph recalls, “It was ridiculous – early Christian rock was a good five years behind mainstream sounds. But now, bands have caught up or have even gotten ahead.” Beginning in the early ‘90s, with the advent of bands like P.O.D., heavy textures and electric guitars have been gaining popularity, and are now being welcomed into the church.

The fact that this change has manifested itself so quickly, and has been accepted so seamlessly in the last ten years is somewhat surprising to Lance Winkler, director of contemporary worship at Church of the Resurrection, a large community serving approximately 2,000 people each Sunday in Leawood, Kansas. “People need to realize that this is a huge change, worship-wise, within the church. The last time church music has changed this much was in the 16th century, when Martin Luther moved church music from Latin into the vernacular.” For an institution that has sworn by the same musical forms for 400-500 years, such a radical change in worship styles is remarkable.

It’s an intriguing evolution, considering the church and rock n’ roll have not traditionally had the coziest of relationships. From the very beginning, as Elvis’ hips gyrated and the Beatles sent adolescent girls into fits of hysteria, religious traditionalists looked on with raised eyebrows. The new “race” music, full of fuzz-tinged electric guitars and driving drum patterns, flirted with sexuality and dissent. It was anti-establishment, and the church was the original establishment, resulting in a cultural war between zealous clergy members and rock n’ roll’s biggest icons – not to mention stacks upon stacks of charred vinyl.

Joyful Noise
Matt Draeger works the sound amidst First Lutheran’s original pipe organs. In churches making the move from traditional forms of worship to more contemporary styles, this scene is not uncommon.
By 1966, with John Lennon’s famous declaration in an interview with The Evening Standard that the Beatles were, “more popular than Jesus now,” the battle lines were clearly drawn – even if the quote was taken out of context by American audiences. In Cleveland, the Reverend Thurman H. Babbs threatened to excommunicate any member of his congregation caught listening to Beatles albums, while Bob Larson, one of Christianity’s original converted rockers, put the finishing touches on his first book, 1967’s Rock and Roll: The Devil’s Diversion. In the book, Larson claimed, “Rock and roll is a part of this plan (Satan’s) to achieve a world-wide moral decay,” spending countless pages warning parents of the seductive powers of The Beat.

And while Larson’s words may now seem like pure scaremongering, rock n’ roll’s early image as a tool of the devil succeeded in keeping contemporary sounds out of the church for decades. Only after years of uninspiring music did congregations begin clamoring for harder-edged sounds on Sunday morning. According to Lance Winkler, “In the beginning, the term rock n’ roll didn’t really represent good things, but that stigma is pretty much gone today. As a result, the church feels like it can now bring in some of that music.”

The Economics of Worship
Ironically, it may now be the church that will save live music. As the numbers of paying gigs continues to drop – eroded by lessened community support and increased entertainment options for consumers – and the price of everything from guitar strings to gasoline continues to rise, professional musicians are finding themselves in an increasing painful pinch. Meanwhile, as ticket prices for concerts and festivals continue to skyrocket, people are staying home, giving record companies less incentive to find pioneering acts. Thomas F. Lee, President of the American Federation of Musicians, recently testified at a Senate Hearing on public performance rights, “People don’t realize that 99 percent of the people who make money from music are not household names. They are club acts, mid-tier and emerging artists, background musicians, orchestras, studio musicians and others who struggle to make ends meet.”

Meanwhile, as churches find themselves ministering to growing audiences – audiences who are now expecting presentations on par with popular mainstream productions – they are spending money to retain talented, professional musicians. According to Reid Greven, all of North Point’s band members could be considered at least semiprofessional, with almost all of them earning a significant amount of their income through music. Rehearsals run for three hours on Wednesdays and all of the musicians are paid for their services at the church – in addition to being well fed before practice and performances. “When you use professionals, you can anticipate a professional result, and you can demand more of them,” Reid says. “They can execute the music better, and what it really does is decrease the learning curve. They don’t have to go home and woodshed and reinvent the wheel. It’s already under their fingers.”

Joyful Noise
A packed worship service at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The church initially spent $400,000 on its sound system, but is now looking to upgrade.
For churches that have the wherewithal to hire and retain a full cadre of professional musicians, the benefits are obvious at each service. But even for churches that don’t have the means, the knowledge or even the desire to hire a band, professional musicians have turned into an indispensable part of the modern worship experience. A prime example of this can be found in the CrossTalk Praise Team, a group of pro-level players offering their services in the Atlanta area.

CrossTalk provides a variety of turn-key services to churches looking to incorporate contemporary sounds into their worship, from consulting with church leaders about the incorporation of music into services, all the way to leading weekly worship. When asked how churches request their services, bassist Doug McAlexander, a 28 year pro, explains, “Sometimes they just need supplemental musicians, including sound equipment. Sometimes they just want a worship leader. We’re just trying to meet the needs of the church, whatever they may be.”

Talking with Doug, you begin to understand how important the services of professionals are to modern religion. “People should not walk into a church and feel like they’re going back in time, stylistically or technically. People will not be drawn to sub par musicianship,” he says. It’s a mindset that is important to CrossTalk; Doug frequently discusses the need for “musical excellence” within the church, and it shows in the band’s composition. CrossTalk guitarist Britt Stein has been playing professionally since 1984; guitarist Russ Cooper is working well into his third decade of musicianship. All of CrossTalk’s members have worked in both studio and songwriting capacities.

When you’ve got professional musicians participating, you’re bound to encounter prolevel gear. Although many people might still picture church musicians playing on substandard, outdated equipment, that image has become inaccurate. Guitarists in the church are overwhelmingly gearheads – boutique is the new name of the game. Doug plays custom- made basses, in both the fretted and fretless variety, and claims 13 in his arsenal. He plays through a Thunder Funk bass head – “made by a guy named Dave Funk who worked on the space shuttle,” he excitedly tells me – and Euphonic Audio cabinets. You won’t find a low-end piece of equipment anywhere near his rig.

Likewise, Britt Stein plays through a Genz Benz Black Pearl head, run into an Avatar speaker cabinet filled with Celestions. His pedalboard is filled with a variety of pedals from names like Keeley, AnalogMan and Barber. “If I get something that I don’t like, it literally drives me crazy,” Britt confesses. “I think my ear changes from time to time, because I’ve been through a lot of drive pedals.” When asked if he encounters gearheads in his musical worklife, Steve Tomason of North Point says, “Absolutely. Even after playing clubs for years, I’ve never run into more gearheads than I have in the past eight years, playing in churches around the country.”

And while many of these musicians are buying high-end equipment, they are not the only segment of the market driving the expansion of technology within church. With more people coming to worship services for the show – the New York Times recently reported that, “large, modern, nondenominational churches now provide one of the major ways that Americans hear live music” – there has been an explosion of church spending to help spread the Word. Churches are refitting sanctuaries previously designed for the massive bellow of pipe organs, or even building all new centers, to accommodate modern sound systems and high-tech video delivery. So-called “megachurches” like the First Church of Christ in Burlington, Kentucky – an 85,000 square foot worship center housing a bookstore, child care center and basketball courts, among other amenities – are redefining the experience of worship through the use of multimedia presentations.

Logically, musical retailers have taken notice of houses of worship and Christian musicians. As retailers and manufacturers face soft markets, increased costs and more competition, houses of worship with budgets like that of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas – featuring over $800,000 of electronic equipment in the control room alone – represent a major opportunity.

For example, Yamaha Corporation of America launched its Institutional and Commercial Services department back in 2004, providing information and resources for worship leaders interested in incorporating new technologies into their services. The company stages events around the country, in partnership with Shure and Aviom, aimed at parishioners charged with equipment decisions, featuring classes with titles like, “Mixing for Worship.” The savvy move by major players like Yamaha seems to create a win-win for both churches and commerce. “A new survey has shown that if people detect a sub par presentation, they’ll automatically reject the message as sub par,” says Christian Musician’s Bruce Adolph. “But if they go to a church that’s high-tech, with good sound and lighting, they’ll feel comfortable and be more open to the message.”

Joyful Noise
At the end of the day, we want to be grounded in the church’s traditions, because they’re tried and true. But we also want to be reaching forward to the most innovative symbols – music, dance, sights and so forth – to stretch our imaginations. If we’re not doing either of those things, we’re probably not doing a service to faith,” says First Lutheran’s Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan.

The Challenges of Church
For an instrument long associated with the music of rebellion, the integration of the electric guitar into modern worship has been impressively smooth. But that’s not to say the instrument hasn’t introduced a number of previously unheard of challenges into the church – one of the most obvious problems being that the electric guitar is loud.

It could be argued that pipe organs are even louder, possessing the power to fill a large room with sound; however, older churches were not acoustically designed for the unique sounds and frequencies of the electric guitar. Once you add drums and bass to the mix, the potential for sound levels inside the worship hall to rise to unacceptable levels is significantly heightened. Some churches, such as North Point, have developed extensive setups for guitarists, going as far to acoustically isolate their cabinets, but most churches lack the resources or expertise to develop such systems.

Thus, as a solution, most church soundmen – at the advice of companies like Yamaha – abide by a “quiet stage” philosophy, bringing in digital drums, keyboards and guitar processors. “These days, there are a new breed of soundman that are looking for low stage volumes, and they want to run everything through the PA,” says CrossTalk’s Britt Stein. “There are all age groups in the church, and they don’t want to seem too loud for anyone.”

For guitarists, approaches to conquering the volume problem typically fall into one of two camps, split primarily along age lines. Older guitarists, players who have been relying on the same equipment for years, tend to find an amp they are comfortable operating at lower volumes. Options like isolating amps in a back room are also available. When asked how he ensures his volume is not overpowering, Russ Cooper says, “We just turn the amps around and mic them. That way you can get the tubes hot, but your sound doesn’t bleed. It’s not as loud as I want, but it’s not as quiet as it used to be.”

For more technologically-inclined guitarists, digital modeling and guitar processors may offer the best solution for achieving good tone while keeping the volume down. Perhaps one of the most visible proponents of digital modeling is Lincoln Brewster, who uses Line 6’s POD in both the studio and on stage. Whether in a strictly preamp capacity, or as a complete guitar solution, digital guitar modeling looks to play a larger part in the church environment, as churches work to bring as many aspects of worship – including volume levels – under control.

However, the sheer volume of the electric guitar isn’t the only obstacle worship leaders are grappling with. With the electric guitar comes distorted signals and a different level of showmanship than the church has been accustomed to. Images of Pete Townshend strumming in wild windmills and Jimi Hendrix kneeling above a flaming guitar have become societal touchstones, and when the guitar enters the church, two distinct cultures – those of rock n’ roll and Christian tradition – must coexist. As the electric guitar continues to enter worship services, the question of what is appropriate, in terms of everything from solos to gain levels, is a popular one. The publishing of a book of sermons in 2003, entitled Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog recently highlighted the growing collusion of mainstream secular music and the church.

The fine line between worshiping with instruments and coming off as a rockstar is a delicate one for many musicians to walk. “There’s a lot of different opinions on the topic – is the guitarist just showing off, or is it for God? We’ve been in situations where people have accused us of being more concerned with the technical instead of the spiritual,” says Britt Stein. “But essentially it’s the same as in secular music; if a solo or a riff adds something to the song, then it should be there. As long as it doesn’t take away from the worship, there’s no problem.”

Perhaps Lance Winkler of Church of the Resurrection best sums up both the questions facing guitarists in a modern worship setting, as well as the place of the instrument within the church: “I know when Kevin Rogers, a local worship leader, plays a solo, he’s playing to the glory of God. I hear the guitar as a clarion call, an emotive sound. It’s a heroic sound that can really move people.”

Crossing Over

Christian music has a history of musicians “crossing over” to and from other genres. Here are five names worth mentioning.

Mark Farner – Grand Funk Railroad’s lead singer and guitarist enjoyed success on the Christian charts between Grand Funk reunions during the early ‘90s. Farner even recut “Some Kind of Wonderful” with a Jesus-bent – much to the dismay of many die-hard Grand Funk fans.

Rick Cua – The former Outlaws bassist (“Green Grass and High Tides Forever”) has had a prolific career in Christian music. Without a doubt, his best album to date is 1986’s Wear Your Colors, a guitar- driven collection of upbeat rockers.

Gordon Kennedy – The former axe man for White Heart, a popular Christian rock band that reached its creative peak when Kennedy and a handful of other eventual crossover musicians powered the lineup in the late ‘80s, went on to become an A-list session player, writer and producer. Kennedy co-wrote Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” which won the 1996 Grammy for Song of the Year.

Rick Derringer – The talented guitarist who gave us tunes like “Hang on Sloopy” and “Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo” was born again in 1997. He has since released two Christian rock albums, titled Aiming 4 Heaven and Still Alive and Well.

Dann Huff – One of many Huff family members who made a mark in Christian music, Dann played lead guitar for White Heart before Gordon Kennedy. Dann is better known for his session work on hundreds of albums and for producing acts like Megadeth, Wynonna, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood among others.