Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Endangered Electric Guitarist

Today over lunch, I had a conversation with a fellow worship leader that has become recurring. If I've had it once over the last year, I've had it at least ten times: why is it so hard to find good electric guitar players?

As a worship and arts ministry leader, this is an issue I've pondered at length. I became even more glaringly aware of its significance when I became an adjunct college instructor and started to notice an increasing scarcity in actual electric guitar players. Even more alarming, I've experienced an astonishing lack of interest to learn.


Not surprisingly, I do have an opinion.

At the 2012 Willow Creek Association Leadership Summit, Craig Groeshel skillfully identified some growing trends that identify the generational differences in our world today. He spoke respectfully and pointedly while challenging us all to remain committed to the intentionality it will require for generations to work together. During that talk, he specifically addressed those in the younger generation with some realities about which they should be aware:

When a national survey asked business leaders what one word best describes the emerging generation, the number one response was "entitled." And because of this entitlement mentality, members of the emerging generation overestimate what they can do in the short run but underestimate what they can do through a lifetime of faithfulness. They desire respect (which can only be earned) but often forget to give honor to those who've gone before and paved the way (and incidentally, can invest in them through mentoring).

So what does any of this have to do with the endangered electric guitarist?

It's my developing belief that most aspiring young musicians today would rather pick up an acoustic guitar, load a YouTube video (or 10), and learn how to play enough chords to join or form a band. But what does it take to play electric guitar skillfully? Work. HARD work. Playing the electric guitar requires diligence in learning about the intricacies of lead lines, riffs, and licks. And the best electric guitar players I know spend an almost obsessive amount of time (over weeks, months, and years) researching equipment and dialing in the perfect tone. It's a process that requires commitment and dedication. Because of the aforementioned mindset of entitlement and desire only to focus on what they can do in the short run, I don't think that most of the emerging generation is willing to devote themselves to the work it will require to become an accomplished electric guitar player.

So how do we fix it? I honestly have no idea. But I think there are a few good places to start:

Honest and Healthy Mentoring Relationships - I've shared these thoughts with several of the young people with whom I have relationships and it has resonates positively with them. Though they have to combat a mentality that's overtly prevalent in their cultural context, most don't want to be boxed into a stereotype and be labeled as "entitled." Once they become aware, they want to change and that happens through honest, healthy mentoring relationships.

Identifying Potential - I work with a student who is a good acoustic guitar player and shows the potential to take his talent to the next level. So I encouraged him to consider learning to play electric guitar and he responded positively. It's challenging though. A commitment to learning electric is more than just learning - it's an investment. Gear costs money and good gear costs more. But if the emerging generation sees that more doors of opportunity can open to them if they expand their abilities, it's motivating for them. This particular student has been working, saving, buying, learning, and I'm excited to share in his progress.

Intentionality and Opportunity - Groeschel concluded his session at the Leadership Summit by encouraging intentionality as we seek to unite generations. Per his suggestion, I'm committed to creating ongoing feedback loops. And the operative word there is "loop" - it's not just me giving feedback TO them. It's being intentional about getting feedback FROM them as well. It also requires me as a mentor to create specific mentoring moments from which we all learn. It also requires opportunity. You can't ask a basketball team to practice without ever playing a game and I can't require an aspiring electric guitarist to invest and rehearse without ever giving them the opportunity to play. It's a delicate balance which will require significant intentionality and investment, combined with the clear communication of expectations and willingness to show grace, but it'll be worth it.

Let's see if we can get electric guitarists off the endangered species list.


  1. Keyboard players are a rare breed as well. Not people who can play a few chords, but people who spend hours learning music theory, relevant styles, the differences in playing each of the common instruments, and the technology that is becoming increasingly crucial to the keyboardist's skill set. Keyboard players are arrangers as well as players, so they need a lifetime of dedication to the craft.

    Where are they all?

  2. "Anonymous" that is exactly my position on our WT. And there's a crucial lack of respect for the amount of time I have invested in learning my instrument and in theory and arranging. And due to my skill the sets come together easier for the others who know little to nothing about even basic theory -- even to knowing what key signatures are and how flow is disrupted by selecting music to follow that is in non harmonious keys, not to mention time signatures! Our WL doesn't appreciate that I can direct the musicians...and that I know and have some experience playing all the instruments - even percussion -- sufficiently to tell them how to play the chords and what type of effect is obtained by certain strum patterns (we have no electric guitarist) and by certain strikes and effects that can be obtained on the various drums and cymbals in the drum kit. So then my suggestions are smacked down by her she has actually said "you're not a drummer." But I know more about drumming and rhythmic patterns than our drummer does! Because of this we're stuck in a rut and our music is not nearly as good as it could be.

  3. Who knows, maybe the next generation will get back to worshipping Jesus again instead of music. It's highly possible that the electric guitar just isn't a priority for younger people like it was for the boomer generation. Popular secular music sure seems to be vocally driven today with digital accompaniment of all sorts. Could it be that rock and roll is dead.

  4. Agree with previous comments! Thought: If the church is designed to work by bringing together the gifts of the body (1 Corinthians 14) to minister to one another, then it follows that if God has no longer given an electric guitar player to the church, the church doesn't need one! (But then that begs the question whether the Lord has given the church a gifted organist, and we probably don't want to go there.) Back to the original article, thanks so much for your thoughts. The prophets in the Bible were primarily artists - drama, music, poetry, oratory. Prophets, like artists, are developed through intense devotion to a craft, interweaving creativity with inviolable rules of the craft (theory), and experience (gigs). That's the skill part - the message comes from God.

  5. It might help if we bring musicality back into worship. So many worship leaders now are those kids that learn 4 chords and 10 songs off of youtube and have no clue how to play music. They only (and BARELY at that) strum their guitar. More and more music in the worship set is everybody playing their instrument without regrads for anything else going on. There is no room for any halfway intelligent lead guitar player to play anything in most Sunday services. Part of this is work, but notice that expecting music and quality use of talents is needed, let alone required by a worship leader.

  6. Music can be such a divisive thing. A previous pastor said that when satan fell, he landed in the choir loft!

    At out church we have three bands. The old guys who enjoy rippin and tearin, the young girls who like minimalistic sad music, and the standard acoustic/Tomlin band. Each has its place. Each ministers to someone.

    Music should create the atmosphere for worship and the opportunity for growth -- personal spiritual growth (its not about me and my voice/knowledge/skill), corporate (what is God doing right now in our congregation and how can I foster that) and technical (how can I make this sound less like a joyful noise?) It's also an opportunity to mentor younger players on a technical level as well as attitudinal.

  7. Great post! Very well written. One of the issues I see in this is that the quality musicians, who are truly excellent in their craft, are drawn to use their music to make a living. For some reason in the church, we have invalidated that, expecting them to donate their time, every time. Yet the truth is, we don't expect the Sr. Pastor to donate his time, nor the youth pastor, and often, not even the janitor, because they function at a professional level. The musicians who have put in hours, weeks, months of hard, focused, detailed, intentional practice...seeking to be masters, are not honored for their work.

    In our church, we transitioned from a volunteer band to professionals, a very difficult transition to say the least, and the musical, professional, and quality difference was vastly different. This is not to say that the volunteers didn't have their heart in the right place, they did, they just didn't have the music skills because most of them had full time jobs and families and rarely practiced to the degree necessary for excellence. On the other hand, paid musicians weren't a bunch of heathens just working for a check either. They were believers, who like me, didn't join the church until they were hired. I think we need to re-think our presuppositions about volunteer and paid musicians, and see both the evangelistic opportunities, as well as the quality opportunities, and the musical model for younger aspiring musicians.

  8. I've played electric guitar for over 40 years, now. I get zero respect at church for my skill or my knowledge (I attended college and studied music and sound recording). Joy? Most of our songs are "cry in the corner" stuff. Play a solo? The singers never shut up long enough to allow it. There's no proper planning by the worship leader to provide the structure and discipline needed to get a balanced mix of instruments and singing. Get a beat going? Never get it out of first gear. Get paid?? Oh man! THAT would make me faint! I love the Lord, but, I feel stifled by the young and arrogant people in charge of the worship at my church. Pray for me, because it makes me feel I've wasted my life trying to bring church music into THIS century.
    If you want to hear my music ministry online, I have a Facebook Musician page called, "Only One Way."

  9. As a teacher of guitar lessons for nearly 40 years, I can say that the lack of interest in pursuing musical excellence is epidemic. It's not limited to guitarists, though. My friends who teach other instruments tell me the same thing -- kids today don't seem to have that burning desire to master their instruments the way kids did 30-40 years ago. Over the past couple of years I had a run of new students who got the Guitar Hero video game. All of those students quit within a few weeks. They didn't know that playing music FOR REAL TAKES WORK!!! I'm really at a loss to explain this trend, and at more of a loss on what to do about it. The number of truly serious music students seems to be dwindling away.

  10. At present, electric guitar is most popular for any house for eventing. It gives us more pleasures. I have liked. Keep it up.