Percussion in the Small/Quasi-Acoustic/No Drum Set Worship Team: Part 1

When thinking about the modern praise band, many of us get the mental image of a pop/rock instrumentation with electric guitars and bass, drum set, and keyboards.

There are times when a much smaller “less electric” instrumentation is desirable. Events such as memorial services, ministry training classes, gender-specific sessions, and prayer meetings often call for a small, quasi-acoustic worship team for reasons of limited space, budget constraints, or simply wanting a more intimate vibe.

Usually absent from these settings is a drum set. Although a small kit (played at an appropriate volume) can be suitable, a hand-percussion instrumentation seems to better capture the desired sonic (and optic) ambience.

I frequently play percussion for worship events as part of a scaled-down quasi-acoustic ensemble. The instrumentation is usually acoustic guitar and/or electronic keyboard, along with a small hand percussion set-up.

Playing percussion in these settings presents certain challenges and requires different preparation than when working within a larger rhythm section that includes drum set. I usually invest more time planning for the small ensemble than when prepping for weekend services with a large group of musicians.

In part one of this series, let us examine a few salient aspects of playing percussion in the small quasi-acoustic worship ensemble.

Ancillary Duties

In a praise band, there are certain responsibilities that are generally assigned to the drum set player. With the absence of Mr. Kit, the hand-percussionist will probably pick up a few extra duties in the small group:

  • Triggering the in-ear click
  • Knowing the beats per minute/metronome marking for each song and tempo change
  • Starting songs upon cue from the leader
  • Supplying the appropriate style-defining groove
  • Playing set-ups and fills normally played by the drum set player

You might be handling all of those tasks while providing steady time and tossing in some tasty ethereal coloring.  (Consider growing an extra arm.)

The Right Gear

Musical needs and personal taste (along with requests from the leader) will influence your choices of instruments. My preference is to center my playing on an instrument with a wide frequency range. The djembe and cajon are my top candidates; either can produce a thumping bass sound along with a crackling slap tone. Of the two, my go-to is a cajon equipped with snares. This “drum set in a box” works great for laying down the kick/snare part of the timekeeping groove. In addition to this versatile carton, I expand my timbral palette with an assortment of percussion such as tambourine, shaker, bar chimes, and suspended cymbal. With fewer musicians in the ensemble, it is easier to make use of subtle instruments and tones–and actually be heard in the mix.

An upcoming article will go into depth about selecting gear for your set-up.

Check Your Chops

With less musicians and a thinner texture, your skills (or lack thereof) may be on display more than in a larger ensemble. Coaxing the distinctive tones from congas, djembe, or cajon requires study and practice. Make sure that you have the know-how before diving into this rather revealing environment.

Even though it’s called hand percussion, you are probably going to need some “stick chops” to roll a crescendo on a suspended cymbal with soft mallets, play brushes on a cajon, and color a moment with a few delicate notes on the triangle.

Extra Measures of Creativity

When playing hand percussion in the small group setting, you will likely need to call up some creative juices to compose your part. When a recording is available, I use the drum set part to give me some basic groove ideas, but I still have to get creative and re-orchestrate that rhythmic material for the hand percussion instrumentation.

If the worship leader wants a fresh “not-like-the-record” version of a song, be equipped with a batch of precooked grooves in your hippocampus–along with your improv skills.

Look forward to a future article in this series that will focus on constructing percussion parts for a cajon-based set-up within a small group setting.

As this article concludes, I leave you with notation for a four-part cajon-based groove that you can practice and perhaps use in a worship setting. Learn it and store it in your hippocampus.


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