How to Adapt a Song for Your Band

The worship music world is full of highly produced and densely layered recordings.  How does one listen to a song and adapt that song for their band without using loops and backing tracks?

Electric Guitar

Our worship band is presently without a regular guitarist, something I have not experienced in quite a few years.  Since most of the modern worship songs are guitar driven, we are adapting songs every week.

Here are two steps to guide you when you find yourself in a similar situation.

  1. Find the shape of the song.  By shape I mean the emotional and lyrical direction of the piece.  Does the song follow an arc pattern, building to the middle and relaxing from there to the end?  Does the song grow from beginning to the very end?  Or is the song one feel without much variation?
  2. Mimic the shape.  If the song starts soft and builds, begin with just one instrument and a solo voice.  At each verse add another instrument or voice.  Have the drums start with just cymbals and hi-hat, then let the drummer build to a full groove.  Play a pad on the keyboard and switch to piano or organ at a higher emotional point.  Have the vocals begin in unison and add harmony at the chorus or a later verse.

Your band is not an on/off switch.

Your band consists of a certain number of instruments and voices.  Please do not begin every song with everyone singing harmony and every instrument hammering away.  Thoughtfully choose which instruments and which voices start and what voices and instruments enter in what particular order.

You are the leader and you are orchestrating the music as you go.

Imagine John Williams writing the music for Star Wars.  Instead of arranging the instruments and sounds the way he did, what if he had walked in, plopped down a bunch of music in front of everyone, and told them to play whenever and as loud as they want?  Would we want to listen to the music?

Probably not.

Any person can lead music like that, but it takes an artist to carefully construct the sound their band or orchestra or choir makes.

This week take one song and play it a completely different way.  Be creative.  Make a plan for everyone to come in differently than they have in the past and see how it sounds.

Be an artist, not someone flipping a switch.

How do you adapt songs for your musicians?

Internet Charts: a Review

Maybe you’re like me.  I get very busy at church and suddenly find I am up against a rehearsal and I have no chart for a particular song.  Where do I get a chart quickly that I can trust?

Some charts are easy to read and some are harder.  Some charts are completely focused on the guitarist and having bother for the vocalist.  Some charts look like they came right out of a jazz fake book.

The whole process can be very frustrating.

Here are the things I look for in a chart:

  • accuracy in notating a recording I like – stylistically as well as the right chords and notes.  The recordings are huge for non-readers, so teaching music reading is completely dependent on having a chart identical to a source recording.
  • readability – lots of white space, professional print style, clear formatting (repeats, etc.).  If you want professionals to play with you, have music that looks like it was written by a professional.  Even small churches will occasionally have a highly talented musician drop in; you want them to stay.
  • versatility – chords for rhythm with notated hits, lyrics and melody for singers, parts for orchestra written idiomatically.  Don’t make a cellist make up a part from a chord with lyrics chart; that cellist, unless they are really servant minded, will not want to play with you.  Imagine notating on a staff the exact chords you want the guitarists to play.  Not successful.
  • Ease of access – downloadable from anywhere with a minimum of hassle.

I don’t know all of the sources, but here are a few I have tested over the past 10 years, with varying levels of success.

wordmusicnow (Praise Band, SAT and SATB vocal, Core Rhythm, and Orchestral parts; Lyrics/Chords and varying styles of notation) – I am not a fan.  I quit using this after a few years except in a jam.

  • The charts are generally “blended.”  They stick the style in a blender and come out with something barely distinguishable from the original.  This is my biggest pet peeve.  Write a chart that sticks to the original feel or label your website as a place for blended style arrangements. Period.  The fact that they use the term “Praise Band” says it all.  (How do I really feel?)
  • I believe they have improved access to the charts once you purchase them, but they add a lot of hassle.
  • The print style is not easy on the eyes.
  • The formatting is usually ok.
  • The pricing is reasonable and they offer monthly free charts.

Song Select (Lead Sheets and Vocal Sheets; Chords/Lyrics and notated melodies) – I am not really a fan of these either, but there are more positives than with wordmusicnow.

  • Since these charts come with a subscription to CCLI, the price is a different issue.  Every church should be registered with CCLI, so spending a little more money to have access to the charts is a wise thing.
  • The formatting and print style are so-so.  I like the amount of white space, but the charts look like an amateur wrote them.  Their approach to repeats is not always intuitive.
  • I do not always agree with the chord choices, but their melodies, especially with performance tunes such as Sara Groves’ Conversations, can be very accurate.
  • A big advantage of these charts is that you can change the key before you print them out.  VERY helpful.
  • Song Select does not offer anything beyond lyrics, chords, melodies, and vocal harmonies.  Look elsewhere for orchestral, horn and full rhythm parts.

praisecharts (Charts of every kind from vocal to orchestral, loops and click tracks) – I like these guys.  They continually improve their offerings and up their game.

  • Prices are very reasonable and good subscriptions are available.
  • They offer a free chart.
  • The formatting looks very professional.  The downside of the formatting is that it can look a bit busy and be distracting for the eyes.  I also am not a fan of how they collapse the strings into Violin 1 & 2, Viola, and Cello-Bass.  Their collapse of the Flutes/Clarinets/Oboes is meant to be helpful, but I spend a ton of time trying to figure out who I want to play what.
  • They sell their Finale files, which makes it possible to change keys, etc.  Very cool!
  • Their vocal harmonies are pretty good but not always what I would pick.  In general they stick pretty close to the original, which is very good.
  • The horn parts in the Praise Band style are very authentic.
  • The orchestral parts leave something to be desired.  I mentioned the formatting above, but the content is not very challenging in some places and extremely in others.  Usually the primary interest is in the violin parts.  If you have a professional player who shows up and wants to play, make certain they are playing more than footballs.

leadworship (Chords/Lyric charts, Lead Sheets, Rhythm charts, Piano-Vocal charts, How-To videos) – This is Paul Baloche’s personal site and he does a great job. 

  • He offers lots of free charts.
  • The How-To videos are great.
  • He offers occasional parts for cello, etc.
  • Because it is Baloche’s own site, only his music is offered.
  • His formatting is generally good and professional.  The rhythm charts are a little garish with the different colors, but it is easy to track what you are looking for because of the colors.  The repeats and so forth generally make sense, and he has good cues (strings in, etc.).
  • He also offers Live Videos of songs, the stories behind some of the songs, and trax for some of the more popular songs.
  • A cool feature you do not find on the other big sites is charts translated into seven languages other than English.

What sources do you use, and why?