How to Lead with Only a Guitar

Watch the demonstration video here.

I’ve been at a concert when a solo artist played guitar and sang, yet it felt like there was so much energy because of the way the guitar was played.

I’ve also been led in worship where there’s just a guitar, and it feels flat and unenergetic. Like it really lacked a band.

I once wrote about the “Myth of the Primary Instrument,” but this is what to do if you ARE the primary instrument because you’re the ONLY instrument!

How can we play in such a way that the people we’re leading don’t even miss having a band?

First of all, being in the spotlight intensifies what you do. So if you’re used to just strumming along through every song, the spotlight will magnify the lack of dynamics. Instead, you’ll want to take risks. Big ones. Here are some practical ideas.

The full range of what you have to play with, goes from not playing to strumming with all your bluegrass might and speed. You want to have a wide range - go really big and really small, even if just for a moment. Sometimes I’ll strum lightly on the neck or close to the bridge, but I’ll intentionally avoid strumming over the soundhole to make the guitar sound thinner. Then I have somewhere to go when I want to appear fuller later in the song.

Fingerpick, single strum, muted strum, full strum
If you can manage to fingerpick, you can go with or without a pick. But you can also vary how many notes you play. Sometimes I’ll pluck three or four strings simultaneously, but then let it ring for a few beats.

The concept many leaders miss is letting the singing carry the song at the beginning. We’re too nervous about playing so little, that instead of giving the song space and creating a sense of build, we…strum. Be gutsy and let the words and melody have a prominent role at first.

Using a muted strum, where you’re digging into the strings, but not letting them ring because you’re partially muting them with the palm of your hand gives a sense of groove and that something is…coming! Then when you break into a full strum with everything ringing, it’ll feel like the band just came in.

Use capos for effect, not just changing keys
It’s certainly good to be deliberate with choosing lower keys since you don’t have the energy of a band. It’ll take the pressure off your voice if the songs are more easily singable.

But beyond using capos to shift the keys, you might want to capo up high, at say between five and nine, to have a gentle, almost lullaby feel if you’re picking, or a mandolin sound if you’re strumming.
Using a cut capo can be great when playing solo since it allows for many of the strings to be ringing without holding them down. This is especially helpful when it’s the low E that is ringing. I also use two capos at once, with the cut capo either two frets above the capo (playing in D shapes) or four frets above (playing in C shapes).

Thinking like a Drummer
In a full band setting, the acoustic guitar often mimics what the hi-hat is playing. When you’re alone, you can simulate the whole set (with a boom-chic, chic-a boom-chic feel). Sometimes I’ll thump the front of the guitar to pretend I’m playing a kick drum. But give it some feeling, some energy, some rhythm.

Whether it’s a hard stop (where you mute the strings) or a soft stop (where you let the strings ring after a final strum), these allow the song to breathe. The effect is even more pronounced than with a whole band because all the accompaniment stops in an instant. And you can do it multiple times without feeling like the band is trying to be Tower of Power for worship.

Vary the Chord Voicings
I get bored quickly, so I do this all the time, even when I’m playing with a band. I have several go-to’s. I substitute this chord for a Bm: start with an Asus chord and move your index finger up a string, from the D string to the A string in the same fret. Or I play a D by sliding up a C/G up two frets. Or sometimes I’ll slide a G up to the 8th fret for a C, the 10th fret for a D, and then for an Em, on the 10th fret, I’ll take my top two fingers and drop them a string (from the E and A strings to the A and D strings.) I also play the progression A - E - F#m - D by playing…well, that’s too complicated to write out (LOL). You can watch me demonstrate it at

Break the Rules
Look, just because the chords are written as G - C - D - Em, doesn’t mean you have to play the full chord. For one time through a chorus, only play the bass note, slightly muted. Or play an Em9 up the neck the whole progression, pretending you’re a funk player.

Embrace the Vulnerability
And I’ll level with you. Until you’re really comfortable with your instrument, being the only instrument can make you feel vulnerable, exposed. I love this quote from Brené Brown. She says,
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

Imitate Others
Watch “acoustic covers” or “New Song Cafe’s” on YouTube to notice what the guitar players do when they don’t have the full band. Phil Wickham’s Singalong series will give you some fantastic ideas: You can like the Ad Lib Music Facebook page to see more videos. Click here to watch the one for this Fertilizer.

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