Merriam-Webster’s defines the word iconic as “widely known and acknowledged especially for distinctive excellence”, and I cannot think of a better way to describe Michael’s guitar playing. His signature lines on songs like “Spirit Move” and “Ever Be” are all that, and more. One year ago, we kicked off this column by interviewing Michael, and this time around, we wanted to focus on the ‘more’ side of things. Michael is more than just a guitar player in a number of key ways. He’s an MD (musical director), producer, and most importantly a worshipper. Millions of people have been moved by Michael’s playing in ways that transcend words. In the below interview Michael mentions that there is more to sounding like John Mayer than just playing the right notes. The same is true for Michael’s playing, but for very different reasons. As much as we’ll be talking about Benson Amps, and Michael’s signature Pioneer Pickups set, the goal here is to also talk about the heart of worship that is behind everything Michael puts his hands to.
[WM] In many ways you are the ‘face of guitar’ for Bethel Music, but you are also an MD there. We reach a number of smaller churches who don’t have an official MD, or might not be familiar with the term itself. Can you give us some background on what an MD does, how you started doing it, and what you do in that role with Bethel Music?
[Michael Pope] Sure. MD means Musical Director, and basically, it’s just a key person within the band that can communicate to the band members during a set and keep them on track. I make sure they’re doing the right things and let them know of things coming up. In a lot of churches, where you’re doing a very structured set and your worship time is 20 minutes long with 3 songs in a set arrangement, an MD might just be calling out sections of a song, like “Intro, 2, 3, 4,” or cueing a person to fire a click track, or the tracks. Having an MD can be really useful, especially if you have a couple of newer worship team members and a few who are more experienced.
My role at Bethel is a little bit different because we do a lot of spontaneous moments. That moment is really up to the leader to sense what the room is doing and what the Lord is doing in the room, and then take us into that moment. My role is less about telling everyone what to do, and more to help the leader set up that moment and make sure that the band is responding to that moment appropriately. I take a ‘hands-off’ approach to it. Personally, I don’t like to call every section of the song, like “Intro, Verse, Chorus, etc.”, but all of that kind of stuff depends on your band. First of all, for churches that are looking to find someone to take a MD role, you want someone who knows what they’re doing musically. You want someone who knows music theory and can communicate with a guitar player, for example, and explain the chord changes that are happening, but also be able to communicate to a bass player or a drummer and explain how the groove goes, or to tell the bass player to play eighth notes and to lock in with the kick pattern. The more your band leader knows, musically, the easier it’s going to be for them to communicate to the band as a whole, which is their primary role. The amount of communication varies from team to team. With our teams at Bethel, I try to do the least amount of communication possible and put some responsibility on the band members to actually learn the songs, arrangements, and parts. Then I follow up to make sure that they’re actually doing that. If a leader decides in the moment that they’re skipping a song, they know they can just turn around to me and I’m going to tell the band the information. That way the leader isn’t trying to get everyone’s attention.
[WM] You mentioned the bass player knowing the kick drum pattern, which alludes to the level of musical understanding, which of course varies from team to team. Some teams can read music and others might not be able to describe the music they play in terms of the rhythmic subdivisions. Speaking as an MD, what are some of the things that worship musicians need to know, and what are some strategies for getting everyone on the same page?
[Michael] There’s no other answer other than ‘practice’! For me, it starts with my own practice. I don’t just play guitar, I also arrange and produce music. Having the role of a MD means that I have to be aware of the big picture. Most musicians these days don’t just want to play guitar, or do just one thing. We live in a day and age where you can do anything on a laptop. There are a lot of musicians, even ones that are just starting out, who have more of the big picture in mind.
I just try and do my best to teach those people to focus on what’s going on in the big picture. In that specific situation with a bass player and a drummer who may not be aware of groove patterns, it’s about communicating to them their role, that they are the rhythm section and they need to be aware of what the other player is doing. As a bass player, it’s very important to know the grooves in a song and the parts that your drummer is playing. It’s kind of a next level thing. Maybe not every bass player is ready for that, which can be okay. But when you’re evaluating your team, if you’re the person that’s supposed to be elevating them to a higher level, those are the kinds of things to be aware of as you try to pull them into that new awareness.
It takes experience to do it, and it’s hard because not every church has someone with that kind of experience. You just have to do the best that you can. Thankfully, we all have access to recordings, and now there are things like MultiTracks.com. There are a million different ways to find out what you’re supposed to be doing in a song. I think the key with that, and something that I’ve adopted as a guitar player, is that I don’t want to just learn the notes. If it’s a John Mayer song, for example, when I play that song I want it to sound like John Mayer makes it sound. That’s the point of learning the song, right? But I can’t just learn the notes; I need to learn the way he plays the notes, and the thought process behind it, and the slight vibrato that he puts on a note, or the way he bends a note. All of those little idiosyncratic things that make up those parts. That’s what we should be training our people to listen for. Yes, learn the notes, but don’t just settle there. Go for the ideology behind it. As long as we’re steering our people in that way, it sets them up to learn even more. Obviously, it takes time, years for some people. It’s something you never master, you just get better and better at it. So, it really is all about practice.
[Michael] Yes, we do. It’s actually a requirement if you want to be on a worship team at Bethel. We need you to know and understand the Nashville Number system, just because it’s so much easier to call out numbers as opposed to chords. Especially in our world where we’ll play a song in any given key, at any given moment, depending on the singer.
[WM] In her interview, Steffany Gretzinger said that the reason the parts you play are so iconic is that you are ‘speaking prophetically’ with your instrument, just as the worship leaders do with their voices. As much as that comment really floored me, there really is something very special that comes through in the signature lines you play in songs like “Ever Be” and “Spirit Move”. Like you were saying about John Mayer, it’s not just the notes. Tell us about the connection between you, God, and your instrument.
[Michael] I think that anyone’s connection with the Lord is not just a thing that’s on stage, it’s a constant connection your whole life. Bill, our Senior Pastor, has a message where he says, “If you had a bird sitting on your shoulder, you would be conscious of it and aware of the movements you made with your body. You wouldn’t walk too fast because it would scare the bird and it would fly away.” When I first heard that message, it really struck me. It’s about going after a constant awareness of what the Lord is doing, just in my life in general, not even thinking about being on stage or about playing music. I want to constantly ask, “Lord, what are You doing right now? I’m standing in line getting coffee, going about my day. Is there something You want me to do? Is there a person You want me to say hello to?”
Musically, the way that translates on stage is to just have open ears. There’s a great musician, his name is Leonard Jones, from North Carolina. The dude has been a monster guitar player, and I heard this story about him that sums up this question perfectly. He was staying the night as his friend’s house, and his friend woke up at four o’clock in the morning to hear Leonard practicing away and just shredding on his guitar. So the friend went downstairs to ask Leonard, “Dude! What are you doing?” Leonard said, “I’m practicing,” and the friend said, “Leonard, you’re a phenomenal guitar player. You don’t need to practice, let alone at four in the morning. Why are you practicing?” And Leonard said, “I never want to run into a moment where I can’t play something that I feel the Lord wants me to play.”
When I heard that, it really hit me. But that’s all that it really is on stage. Maybe we’re in a spontaneous moment and I begin to hear a little melody in my head. It’s about being able to play out that inspiration through your instrument. That’s should be a pretty normal practice for any musician, Christian or not. But I believe that inspiration comes from the Lord, and comes because of a heart posture within myself of wanting to know what He’s doing in the room, or seeing what He’s doing in the room and wanting to contribute to that with my instrument. Some might call it improvisation, but it’s just listening for that little melody in my head that feels moving, and then doing my best to play that sound in my head out through my guitar. Sometimes it’s right and amazing, and sometimes maybe it’s not the right thing in the moment. But I think that all of it is okay. It’s more about just going for it and following that inspiration.
[WM] Before we shift gears back to guitar, let’s talk about shouldering an anointing. What does that mean to you and how do you get to and stay in that place so that you’re ready to respond to what God asks in a given moment?
[Michael] I don’t know if it’s something that I feel like I step in and out of. I think that heart posture is something that I’m working on and actively pursuing to stay in that place. I don’t want to be driving in my car and have that be less spiritual than when I’m on stage. Maybe it’s more simple than spiritual answers sometimes beg to be. My job, on that stage, is to serve the worship leader and to serve the congregation. Sometimes that means playing the exact parts that are on an album, and other times it might mean improvising, playing spontaneously, and following my own heart and head with what I feel the Lord is inspiring in me or doing in the room. Honestly and practically, that’s all it is. There isn’t an exact way to measure or say, “This is what the Lord was doing, and you met about eighty-seven percent of that.” There’s no scale to measure that by. It’s just about having a heart posture to serve the Lord in anything that you’re doing. When you’re on stage, playing music, it could be a number of different things. It’s an effort, on our part, to be sensitive to what the Lord is doing, and when we feel like He wants us to do something, to be faithful to it and to respond how you feel and believe He wants us to. I think the Lord honors that and He shows up, whether we did everything the right way or not. He’s really faithful to show up. I’ve seen it countless times. It happens through a heart posture of wanting to see Him move, change people, and change us. When your heart is in that posture, then everything else is just an overflow of that. It kind of feels like playing guitar, in a sense, but you just know and trust the Lord to meet people and make it more than that.
[WM] You mentioned Leonard Jones being up at 4am practicing so he could be ready to go where God leads him. What are some of the things you practice so that you’re ready when the moment comes?
[Michael] I probably practice a little less than I used to when I was growing up, but I do it for a living now so I still end up playing all day, most days. There are so many different ways that you can practice. Obviously, you can use scales, cover theory principles, and all of the ‘by the book’ stuff. That’s phenomenal stuff to work on. The more I actually work in the music industry, the more I find out that what ends up working is not an exact scale, so I think it’s really good to know where to go, but you should learn the music that inspires you. When you’re out driving, or sitting at home, and you hear an artist that just inspires you and makes you want to play that kind of music, then practice that kind of stuff, no matter what it is! Staying inspired with your instrument is one of the most important things for me. Maybe that’s just because I’ve been playing for a really long time and have gone through periods of boredom, and had to figure out how to pull myself out of that.
Really, it’s just about following your inspiration and using what you have to figure out all of the different things your guitar can do, and what each of your pedals can do, and what your different amps can do, and the different sounds you can create with your pick and finger technique. There’s so many different ways to practice. I think they’re all viable, and at the heart of it is inspiration. That’s why we all play guitar – because it’s fun and we love it! It’s not all about just learning stuff that can bore you to death, even though that stuff is important.
[Michael] Oh man. I’m pretty vocal about being into pretty much everything! Right now, I super love the new Kacey Musgraves record. It’s just really, really great. It’s country, but it’s got some pop influence with some really great indie music influences. The newer Bahamas record is wonderful, and I’m always listening to bands like The National and Beach House. I love the way they take the most simple, clean guitar tone, with maybe a little bit of reverb on it, and they write a part that’s seemingly so basic, but just works really well in a song. Obviously, I love guys like John Mayer. His Search For Everything record has a lot of really great moments on it, both on guitar and off. I love Anderson Paak’s record, Malibu. It’s a phenomenal hip-hop record. I really love everything – and don’t even get me started on ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin!
[WM] Tell us about your experience as a listener. How does that vary in terms of critically listening as a guitar player or producer?
[Michael] If I’m just sitting down to listen to music in my house while, for example, my wife and I are cooking dinner, I’m not really thinking about it from a guitar player perspective or a production perspective. There was a long period of time where I did. I’d sit down to listen to music and would really dissect it and be very much in my head about it. But I got really tired of that. I started just paying attention to stuff that moves me. Now, I listen to music as a fan and a listener, first of all. And this musical library has been built in my head that’s made up of the stuff that moves me and inspires me. So, when I’m working in the studio and I think, “Oh man! I need this certain sound for a track!” I’ll pull up Spotify or something so I can reference a track. But if I’m sitting down and just listening to music nowadays, it’s always just about the joy of listening to it. I try to not dissect it too much. There are moments, as a guitar player, that you hear a John Mayer part and think, “Man! I have to learn this!” Then, yeah, you sit down and dissect it. But most of the time I just listen to enjoy and to build that musical library in my head. Subconsciously, that will spill over into my playing and production.
[WM] What are your ‘always on’ pedals?
[Michael] Less and less these days. For Bethel Music, I almost always have a compressor on. I really like the Keeley GC-2 right now, which is a limiting amplifier. I like it because it’s not your typical compressor, which does the squeeze thing. It kind of feels like a studio piece, where it’s not making things smaller or louder, as much as it’s pulling harmonics forward from a tone.
I’ll usually have a reverb, and a delay as well. This newer record that we’re working on right now is mostly just clean guitars and reverb. I’m trying to do things a little differently and not use as many pedals. But this record is also very different. Not the Moments album, but a new one we’re working on right now. I’m trying to let my hands speak a little more than the gear these days. Not that the gear is a bad thing!
When playing live, my reverb pedal is a Big Sky. When I’m in the studio I have several different reverbs I use. I have an old ’62 Fender Reverb tank, which is where most of my reverb comes from, or from a slew of new reverb pedals. The new Walrus Audio Fathom is a really fantastic reverb pedal. It’s a mono reverb, and I’m mega into that pedal. Also, the Meris pedals. They have some really phenomenal, ambient pedals, if you want to get a little bit crazy or dramatic with things.
[Michael] I met Chris Benson years ago through Casey Marvin, of Veritas Guitars. They’re both up in the Portland, OR area. Chris had this little, 15-watt amp, his Monarch model. That was the only amp he had at the time. I played it, and at the time, if it didn’t have 30 watts or more, I knew I wasn’t going to be into it. That was just the time of life I was in, and my tastes at the time. But I was blown away and really impressed with this 15-watt amp. We left that hang-out experience with the intention of doing an amp together. Something that would fit into Chris’ line and expand on what he was doing, as well as something that would fit into my rig. I told him the feature set that I wanted. I wanted 30 watts, and I wanted it to do everything that an AC30 doesn’t, as far as tone. I was thinking more of an American thing at that point. It would have no master volume, and instead of a single tone knob, have bass and treble. So, it would just have an ‘on’ switch, with volume, bass, and treble. Mine is a little different, not in terms of circuitry, but I have a “dark” switch, which I don’t really use live. It was more of a studio thing. We both thought it would be cool, if you have a Humbucker guitar and then switch to a Single Coil guitar and things are way too bright and thin, to just flip a switch and have a darker tone. That switch didn’t make it on the final production model, just to keep things simple. And if you notice, my amp says “Cardinal,” because that was our original name for it, but I think he had a friend who was coming out with another product using the Cardinal name, so he changed it to Chimera.
We worked on that amp together, but the circuit is completely his design. I just suggested some of the feature set in it, and he made the most incredible amp. I love it! I wish I could tour with this one, because it sounds so good, but it’s never left the studio. I’m always recording with it. It’s such a great sounding amp.
Chris is the kindest, nicest dude. It makes me super happy to see his company take off the way it has for him. He has some really awesome guitar players, that I’m a huge fan of, playing his amps. And some of them even play the Chimera amp, which is cool to see. He’s just ‘the man’! He builds the best stuff. I almost don’t believe that it’s not a vintage amp. I don’t want to be that ‘vintage snob’ guy, and in a lot of ways, I’m not. But when it came to amps, I had a hard time finding anything that I connected with, other than old AC30’s and old 60’s Fenders. Everything that I found inspiring was all old stuff. It really wasn’t until I played his amp that I felt like I finally found something that had the mojo and the vibe of the vintage amps I loved, but it was a little more Hi-Fi. It just has that sound that I hear in my head. Chris comes out with new stuff that just sounds so good. That guy really knows how to build inspiring pieces of gear.
[WM] You may be the first worship guitarist with signature guitar pickups. How did that come together?
[Michael] It just kind of happened. Casey, from Veritas Guitars, started a pickup company (Pioneer Pickups) to make pickups for his guitars, which is a pretty normal thing for builders these days. He approached me about doing a signature pickup. We had talked about maybe doing a signature guitar, or something along those lines. But honestly, I just don’t feel like I need a signature guitar. I feel a little hesitant to put my name on one. But when he talked about pickups I thought, “Hey, that might be kind of cool.” Not that it even needed to have my name on it. At the end of the day I just thought it be cool to collaborate and make a pickup that we would both be super into. That’s all it really was, so we started talking about it.
There have been two different versions of humbuckers that I have ended up liking over the years. The PAF style that every pickup company does, and then there are these new, lower output humbuckers that some companies are doing. They’re kind of for people who like single-coils and hate humbuckers. I wanted to marry those two ideas. I think a lot of PAF’s can get a little muddy and woofy, and a lot of those low output humbuckers don’t have much punch, or the harmonic content that a great PAF has. I didn’t want to copy either one of those pickups, but really wanted to kind of meet in the middle as much as we could. I wanted the clarity and articulation behind some of the low output humbuckers, but with a little more output and a little more punch and harmonic content, like from a PAF.
Casey was like, “Alright! I think I’ve got an idea on how to make that.” He did, and honestly this kind of freaked me out, but the first set of pickups he sent me sounded unbelievable! I thought, “We can’t have gotten it right on the first version, could we?” I mean, you hear about guys like Steve Vai coming out with a pickup, and they worked on it for three years or something. I couldn’t believe that the first pickups Casey sent me were really that good, but they were!
At Bethel, our Front of House guy, Chris, who is a guitar player and has the most incredible ear for tone, was like, “What is that? That sounds unreal!” I told Casey, “These are unbelievable. Let me sit on them for six months, just to make sure.” I was so scared about just using the first version, but honestly, that was it. I toured with those pickups and played them everywhere for about six months, and then called Casey and said, “I love these things! For what I do, they sound awesome!”
So, Casey started offering them in his guitars. You can also buy them as a set from Pioneer Pickups, which is the company he started. They sound great in all of my guitars. I try to warn people that they’re not going to make everyone else sound like Bethel Music, and I can’t promise you’re going to like them better than another brand of pickup. Everything is so opinion based nowadays. But I love the way they sound, and they work for me. I’ve connected with a few guys who are using them now and have expressed their love for them as well. It’s been really cool.