Hello guitar fanatics and welcome to this month’s installment of Worship Guitar Talk with Daniel Carson. This month we caught up with Daniel in the midst of a Chris Tomlin’s latest Canadian tour…

[WM] Hey Daniel, how is it going and where are you coming to us from today?

[Daniel Carson] I’m doing great man. We’re out on tour and spending a couple weeks up here in Canada.

[WM] Awesome! So for today I was thinking it would be cool to talk about acoustic playing, you good with that?

[Daniel] Sure.

[WM] Cool! So when you’re traveling with guitars, especially when changing climates like, what do you do to protect your acoustic guitars in particular?

[Daniel] The crew that we have out with us takes pretty good care of things. The guitars live in like a big giant vault, as we call it on the road. It’s basically like a big guitar case that’s got some hangers, so there’s a way for everything to ride safely down the highway. It goes in the back of the trailer, or sometimes a semitruck depending on the tour we’re doing, and they just ride standing up in a nice cushioned environment that keeps it from getting to hot or too cold. They do well in there.

[WM] Given the nature of a number of songs you play, acoustic guitar is very important. What are some of the most important things that an acoustic guitar player should be thinking about?

[Daniel] I first started playing acoustic, which was my first love. Before I ever started getting into electric guitars and amps and tones and pedals, it was acoustic guitar. That’s what my Dad played around the house, and that’s what I first learned on. I think it really helped me learn to get tones with my fingers and pick and just hearing the strings resonate. Without a cable, electronics, or any sort of effects or even a tube amp, the acoustic to me was the first way I learned to really get a guitar to resonate. To get a note to sing, or get any emotion out of the instrument, it was all done first with the acoustic.

So over the years I’ve come back to it time and time again because I love playing on acoustic. You have to play it differently. It’s a different instrument that an electric guitar in a lot of ways, so you’re getting your tone based on how you hold your pick or use your fingers and strum, and where you’re sitting on the neck. It’s a really inspiring instrument, something I come back to a lot on tour.

This might be an answer to a different question, but we have these big nights on tour where we’ll have lots of big songs and things we’ve worked really hard on, and inevitably after the concert the people that we talk to a lot of times say, “Man, I loved when you guys did the acoustic set!” you know? Those three or four songs that we did just on acoustic were really powerful. I think people resonate with it because you’re stripping back all of the mystery behind the lights, sound and big noise. It’s such an honest instrument in that way, and as an artist, you kind of can’t hide behind it because it’s just a guitar (laughs).

[WM] When working with another acoustic guitar player what are some of the strategies used as far as where you capo, the voicings you commonly use, and where you place your right hand?

[Daniel] My whole life as a guitarist has always been kind of the accompanying or secondary guitar role. Accompanying Chris is what I’m getting at, so I let him decide where he’s comfortable playing the song on guitar first. If he’s playing G position, then yeah, I capo a lot, especially on acoustic. So there’s a lot of capo, or sometimes even alternate tunings to try and find a different voicing. If he and I are both playing exactly the same thing, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t feel as deep, there is not as much depth to that.

When I learned to add some different chord voicings and play in a different position, that really was a secret for me unlocking the fret board. It was a big game changer when I realized that if he’s playing in G, and I capo at the 3rd fret and I’m playing an E then, oh, that’s the G barre chord. Then if I play ‘capo 5’ (capo at the 5th fret) and I play in D then that gives me a whole new position to play G in. So, if I imagine my guitar without the capo, I can play that D chord even without a capo and it’s the same chord. The capo thing really became a language I had to learn to speak playing with Chris, because he likes to play in a couple of keys he’s comfortable playing in because he’s carrying a lot with leading, and singing, and lyrics.

I’m constantly trying to let him be as comfortable as he can be and then I follow by being like, “Okay, I’m going to capo a little higher up.” Or maybe on another song he capos up high, so I go down low and play a half step down. That’s a secret that we use a lot too, one of us will play a half step down to open up some different chord voicings or maybe a different tuning occasionally, but it’s a lot of capo.

[WM] When you say a half step down you mean tuned to Eb?

[Daniel] Correct, yeah. For instance, if we were playing a song in F sharp or something he might tune down a half step and just play in open G shapes, or open C shapes or something. It just depends on the song. But that might open up something as opposed to trying to figure out how to play in F#.

[WM] That’s pretty crafty! I have a very interesting question, because when the rest of the world plays your parts, when they capo at the third fret, they think about playing an E. Are you thinking that you’re playing a G or are you thinking that you’re playing an E?

[Daniel] Well, I think my brain thinks I’m playing an E but I’ve gotten so accustomed to shifting the notes in my mind that I’m constantly transposing. As a band, we use the number system, so I’m probably thinking like, “1, 5, 6, 4…” more than I’m thinking, “E, B, C#-, A…” or something. It’s funny, maybe when I’m down closer to the capo my brain looks at it and perceives it as the key of E, but when I go up high to play anything past the twelfth fret or near it then my brain thinks of the guitar as playing in G.

[WM] One of the things I stole from our last conversation was droning away playing an open D or G string while fretting notes on the next highest string to create mini chord melodies. Do you do that with acoustic as well or is that something you tend to lean towards when you’re playing electric?

[Daniel] I do it on acoustic, in fact the E position is a great example of how I would use this. So, if someone is playing in G and I’m playing capo 3, then I know that my open B and open E strings play well with pretty much every chord in the progression. What I’ll do is kind of play all of my melodies on the G string up and down the frets and I’ll let the B string and E string ring out, whether I’m finger picking and those become the arpeggio rolling pattern, or if I’m just droning a lead line. Or sometimes to even get it to speak even clearer I’ll use the melody on the B string and let that high E ring the whole way through so I’m playing all of my melodies on the B string. It’s kind of like the octave up version of the other trick. The other trick is if you’re in the key of G, you don’t need the capo to ring the G string. So let’s say you have no capo, you’re letting the G string ring, and you’re playing your melodies on the B string. The capo version of that would be capo 3, you let the high E sting ring out, which is the G note. It’s the octave up version of what I just talked about. I use that all the time, I’ve worn that out (laughs).

[WM] What brand and gauge strings do you use, and do you use different gauges for different instruments? If so, how do you choose what you put where?

[Daniel] I use D’Addario strings for all of my guitars, electrics, acoustics, anything. They’ve been good to me over the years. For acoustics, I like a lighter gauge string, so I’ll use a light or a light medium blend. I like the coated strings when I can get them, so I use their coated strings. I can’t remember all the details of the exact model but I basically like anything that’s coated just to make it a little smoother on your fingers. But it’s not a necessity for me, the traditional style is fine too. The main thing is I just don’t like them too heavy on the acoustic because it starts to feel a little stiff.

[WM] A lot of people use coated because they have corrosive sweat and acids in their fingertips, you use them because you like the feel. How did you discover that?

[Daniel] For all of us guitar players, the first time we ever played a coated string, I think it would have been Elixir, right? You know, a long time ago that was more about string cost. You would save a lot of money by having a string that would last so long. Then I just kind of got used to the feel of it, so when D’Addario had that option I chose that. On the tour, it’s more about how it sounds than trying to save money. It’s worth the investment to go ahead and change the strings if I feel like the guitar comes alive again. You know, it’s a real job that we’re doing out here and I don’t want the strings to sound dead! If they start to sound dead then I like to change them out.

[WM] Do you like the sound of the string when it’s brand new, or do you like it to be broken-in a little bit so it’s not so bright?

[Daniel] Good question. With the electrics, I love them brand new and I change strings pretty much every day out on the road on the guitars that I use. But on acoustics, a couple days in best. Right when you put them on it feels a little too bright, and if they’ve been on too long it’s a little dead.

[WM] Do you use a different pick for acoustic than electric, and if so what picks are you using and where?

[Daniel] It’s funny you should say that. I use a Dunlop Max-Grip 1.0mm pick for electrics, and for acoustics, I use the .73mm Max-Grip pick most of the time. I like it because the grip, if it’s sweaty or cold or whatever, kind of helps me hold onto it. I think the trick I’ve learned, especially for strumming, the lighter pick helps the guitar not become to bass heavy in my mix. The .73mm seems to play a little sweeter on the guitar, and sometimes I’ll use the 1.0mm on acoustic if I’m really trying to dig in and get a certain picked line to speak out. For the most part, the .73mm works really great for strumming and I’ve noticed that it gets a nice clean feather strum without too much of a bulky overtone.

[WM] So you guys we’re playing Collings acoustic guitars for a long time, and now you’re using Taylors. What caused the move and what are you loving most about playing the Taylors?

[Daniel] When I first started playing with Chris and the band, he always played Collings acoustics and I just fell in love with the way they sounded. They’re from Austin and we lived in Austin for a long time, so that always felt like a cool thing for us because they were local. They were aware of Chris and were kind to us, and I think people probably started calling in interested in their guitars because of Chris. He was one of the guys playing their guitars when Collings was relatively unknown. I love that company and love those guitars, we’ve got a handful of them and they’re fantastic.

Taylor was something Chris and I had both played before we had ever played Collings. And it was kind of one of those first love kind of things. I basically had the Taylor guitar manual memorized when I was in High School. I studied it more than I studied my textbooks. I was obsessed with it! I got a Taylor in High School, fell in love with it and had that for a decade or more, maybe fifteen years.

Chris had been dreaming up this plan, the idea that someday it would be fun to be out on tour and give away a guitar every night. That was just something he’d always wanted to do, but he was like, “Man, I can’t give away a Collings every night, they’re too expensive and they probably wouldn’t want to give away 28 guitars for every tour stop.” Nothing against Collings, but most companies aren’t big enough to give away thirty guitars for a tour like this. We spoke with Taylor and they were really kind. We were out on the West Coast so we got to go and tour their shop. A lot of the guys who work in the shop were like, “Hey, we play your songs in our Church!” It was really cool to hear that there was a definite heart for ministry and worship. A lot of the guys were church players, so we immediately connected with them and had a great time. They agreed to send out a whole bunch of new guitars with us on the road.

So in the spring last year, Chris would start asking some questions from stage, like, “Hey does anyone out there lead worship, maybe in a youth group, or a high school or college student…” And he would just keep asking questions until there was eventually some youth group jumping up and down, waving and pointing at the kid in their youth group that played guitar. Then he’d be like, “Hey why don’t you come up on stage with us!” and of course they’d lose their minds. So the typically younger boy or girl would jump on stage with us and they’d play a song with us, of course not knowing that the guitar that Chris hands them to play on that song is something that they’re going to get to go home with!

So they play the song with us, and everyone’s cheering at the end and it’s really fun, and he says, “Hey when I was your age I had someone who believed in me and prayed over me and really encouraged me, so as a way to encourage you and do the same and pray a blessing over your life and really believe in you as a worship leader, I want you to take that guitar home.” And the place would just go nuts. I mean, to watch their faces when Chris hands them a guitar and says, “You can take this home…” it was really cool. And, it was a legitimate Taylor guitar with onboard electronics and everything. It was a really cool thing. Hats off to Taylor Guitars, they really came through to invest in all these worship leaders.

[WM] What pedals or preamps do you use on stage, or do you just go direct? And if so, what DI boxes do you use?

[Daniel] We use the Radial DI boxes that we’ve had for years. Chris, somehow discovered an LR Baggs pickup that he fell in love with for acoustics, so we put those in his acoustics. I think I put the same one in mine. Taylor makes great stuff as well. We’ve just become accustomed after years on tour to hearing a certain sound in our ears so we swapped out some electronics. I believe the LR Baggs pickups are what is in there now. We just use the Radial DI boxes and a couple tuners, we don’t use an EQ from our end. I think Chris likes to keep it simple and we have a great crew that we can trust, so we don’t have to worry too much. We leave the EQ up to the professionals (laughs).

OK, so that gets us to the end of this month’s installment. If you’re wanting to learn more about Daniel’s ‘less is more’ approach to worship guitar, we invite you to check his lesson series with Rooted Music.

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