The Power of Three (or more)

I’ve written before here of my admiration, appreciation and all out love for John Mayer. While we all wait for him to release something new (it can’t be long now, can it?), here’s a clip from 2010 of The John Mayer Trio performing Try in New York:

…also featuring the talents of Steve Jordan on drums and Pino Palladino on bass, for a band of three, they make an amazing sound and show.

One of the enviable roles of being a worship leader is the rotas…and I get the privilege of doing this every term. Some may rather be playing songs, practicing their instruments, listening to new songs (or old songs) and customising their pedal boards/drum kits/music folders…but not me. No, there’s nothing I like more than sitting with a calendar and a list of people and their availability, and then working out how to fit them together… OK, so some of this paragraph may be a lie…

We put the rota together, we aim for a balanced band with the hope that come Sunday they will lead the congregation in musical worship, make a joyful and balanced sound to the Lord and through the service help the congregation encounter the Holy Spirit. And some weeks it goes really well, some weeks it goes OK, and I’m pleased to say we very rarely we have a problem.

But what does happen from time to time is we get the balance off a bit…whether it’s because we’re missing piano one week, or we only have female singers, or there are two guitarists and no drummer… We all have to work with who we’ve got, and although we are fortunate to have a good mix of musicians, we still have weeks where we can’t have drums, bass, guitars, keys and singers. And some weeks we sigh, and some weeks it feels a bit sparse, and some weeks it just works.

The point is, as illustrated by the clip; you don’t need a huge band of musicians to make a joyful noise. The John Mayer Trio is a trio (the name is a giveaway….), and we can trace the lineage back through the years…only having three people in the band didn’t hurt The Police, or Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Nirvana got on fine as a three piece as did ELP, Green Day and Muse. And taking this set up even further (or should that be diminishing?), The Black Keys, The White Stripes and Royal Blood have not struggled with being a duo…nor The Pet Shop Boys, Daft Punk and The Civil Wars.

They work (very well!) with what they have, and they make it a feature…The White Stripes and The Black Keys would sound odd if they added a bass player, just as Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana lose nothing from not having a keyboard player or female harmony. So how can we apply this to a Sunday worship team?

  1. The Fraction Principle: which we have talked about before, but in a nutshell, everyone plays to a fraction of their ability/level according to how many are in the band. So if there are five of you, a fifth, if three, then a third. You don’t overplay, but similarly, you don’t underplay. Strumming barre chords won’t cut it if there are only three of you.
  2. Listen: Three pieces (and two pieces) work because they make sure their sound fills the entire spectrum. So the bass player fills the bottom end, the guitar or keys fills the middle and adds colour, and the vocals go on top. If you’re leading on guitar or keys, don’t stay too high or too low…you need to fill the middle ground.
  3. Arrange: Every song benefits from being arranged…if you all start at the beginning and hopefully get to the end together, you’ve played the song, but everyone (including you!) will be worn out. So stops and starts, dynamics, changing sounds for different parts of the song and harmony will add texture and colour, even if the song only has three chords.
  4. Flexibility: It is much easier to work as a smaller group, if there’s only three of you then you can be really dynamic, if you’ve been playing long enough you can make changes on the fly and stop and start and communicate instantly. It’s the difference between driving a well tuned and balanced sports car (small band) as opposed to trying to steer an oil tanker through jelly (big band not really paying attention….)

I have been as guilty as the next person for bemoaning not having a drummer/missing keys on Sunday/only having girl singers, but if we approach it as a power trio and Try with what we have…I think we’d all be surprised by the results!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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