The Myth of the Primary Instrument

A Very Brief History of Modern Church Music

When many of us started playing at church, there was only a piano or perhaps a guitar. Over time, we added some shakers, maybe a violin, then a bass guitar. And then, somehow, we ended up with a “full rock band.” Sort of. But the original thinking stuck with us. It was one instrument with some added helpers. The piano is carrying it, but there are all these friends playing along. Or the guitar is the primary (or lead) instrument, and everyone else supplements.

But that’s not how modern worship music works.

Oh sure, there are moments in songs where the piano or guitar is front and center, but as a philosophy, having a “primary instrument” sets us up for some problems.

The piano/guitar overplays

If you think you’re the primary instrument, you’ll overplay. (just let that one simmer) You’ll feel you carry more of the music than you need to. It will lead to the next problem:

The band won’t play their roles

In most modern worship music, it would be more appropriate to think of the drums and bass as the primary instruments. (Don’t look at me that way.) We talk about the rhythm section (bass and drums) as being railroad tracks for the rest of the band to ride on. It feels effortless to play or sing when the rhythm section is carrying the band.

There’ll be a lack of groove

Because the rhythm section should be giving the song its sense of feel, piano or guitar-driven songs may just not feel right. You can build a house on the sand, but it’s much better to build it on rock. (groan) Seriously, the music’s foundation is the rhythm; anything you build without that will be shaky.

The band will sound too loud, yet lack energy

The reality is that you have a lack of headroom. In other words, you’re limited as to how loud you can mix the band. The piano and guitar often take too much of that precious space, and you’re left with an uninspiringly loud sound. Note to the audio tech: Mix the drums as the primary rhythm instrument, not the guitar or piano. Mix the bass as the primary harmonic instrument, not the piano or guitar. (I didn’t say bury the vocals or make it a rock show)

The remedy?

Think as a band. Play your role. Listen to each other. One of my favorite things to say to a piano or guitar player is, “You could stop playing for a few measures, and the song will work because the rhythm section is carrying this song. So listen first, and whatever you choose to add is just a wonderful extra.”


“But,” you say, “I don’t have a bass player or drummer.” So you need to think like one. If you’re leading by yourself on piano, don’t just play chords or your default rhythm. Figure out what the root accent patterns are and how you can either play them or imply them. I know what you’re thinking…and I’ll write about it in another Fertilizer!