More than once, I’ve had to show up on a Sunday and, through no fault of my own, ‘wing it.’ I’m sure this has never happened to any of you, my dear readers! If it has, you can relate to the sweaty palms and nervous laughter that ensue internally as phrases like, “This is going to be fun!” sarcastically dance across your brain. The reality exists for some of us that we walk into the worship rehearsal with absolutely everything in place, but when we don’t, we need a plan of action to help navigate those treacherous waters.

On those rare occasions, here are some of my go-to strategies to still play with skill and be an addition to the worship experience.

Pads
A nice delay-and-reverb-soaked tone can be a great addition to nearly any song, especially if there is ample additional instrumentation to carry the song forward. As an electric player, this is a remarkably useful tool when I don’t know a song particularly well. A root and fifth in the key of the song can lend itself to the overall feel without needing to know the chord changes perfectly.

Single-note melodies
Paired with a dark reverb, a single-note melody can add some color to the song as well. Remember “Our God” from Chris Tomlin? That’s the idea. Take a note that’s in the chord and move with the changes. If you repeat notes it will sound more purposeful, so if you need to use this tool, be prepared to repeat yourself.

Second Position
I’ve mentioned this particular approach in previous articles, but it works so well for the unrehearsed scenario that it bears repeating! As a matter of fact, the last time I played on a Sunday, I used this very technique to make it through a setlist filled with unfamiliar tunes.

Example: in the key of G, place your first finger on the fifth fret of the D string, your 3rd finger on the 7th fret of the G string and your pinky on the 8th fret of the B string. Muting the other strings, strum these three notes together. That’s your root chord, G (no 3rd). From there, you can lift your 3rd finger and barre with the index finger across the 5th fret, and those three notes make your IV chord. Back in the first position, slide the pinky finger down a fret to the 7th fret, and that becomes your V chord.

With these 3 positions, and more importantly, without moving your hand, you can add to the sonic landscape of the song without having to know each chord. Because the chords are not spelled out in full detail, you can cover any of the conventional variants along the way. It can be especially useful for an upbeat song, as you can strum downbeats with power without having to be precise with the chord changes. Try this at home to get the hang of it, but even spending only a few minutes playing along with a song you know, you’ll be able to catch the idea with no problem.

Of course, when you have the time to rehearse well, DO IT. We owe the Lord our best offering when we come to worship, and that includes being prepared as fully as possible. Don’t shrug your responsibility to come ready. But when you need to be flexible, I hope you can add these tools to your toolbox and be more able to take on the challenge of any unrehearsed moments that come your way!

A note to worship leaders: I’ve always been taught that the Spirit can move a week in advance just as easily as He can in the moment, and if you really want to give your team the opportunity to worship fully, you need to allow them the time it takes to prepare adequately. This article is built on the reality that we don’t always get adequate prep time, but wouldn’t it be amazing to see what could happen if we did? Why not try it next week and see what happens in your team and in your congregation?

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Jeffrey lives in Nashville with his wife and 3 kids (and 1 dog child) and plays guitar for American Idol winner David Cook.

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