Pro guitar player, super nice guy, great role model, and gear head are the first things that come to mind when I think of Daniel Carson. From an informal audition in Chris’s kitchen (with a full band I might add) to stadium-filling tours, Daniel has been there since the beginning! So, with that out of the way, say hello to Daniel Carson…
BORN AND RAISED UP
[WM] You literally grew up playing guitar in church, which is how you met Chris Tomlin. Can you tell us how the “God dots” got connected?
[Daniel Carson] Growing up my dad was a worship pastor as well as a youth pastor. He also played guitar, really loved music, and he would lead worship at the church. He was kind of an old rock n’ roller kind of guy. He loved Classic Rock and played guitar all the time so I grew up with all kinds of Classic Rock and Country music in my house. He never really forced guitar on me. I think it was one of those things he loved so much that he was scared to push it on his kids for fear of us hating it.
When I was thirteen I asked for some drums – that was my first interest in music. It was really cool, he was always a big investor in our dreams as kids, so as soon as I really showed a passion for drums or for music, he got me a drum kit. Then he told me I had two weeks to practice and then I was playing with him at church (laughs). It was a trial by fire, I got just thrown in it. I think that was 7th grade, and I played drums that Wednesday night. Then I played every Wednesday and Sunday, whenever the doors were open, until I graduated.
I grew up in the church, but I never resented the church. I never had a callous heart toward the church, music or God. I was always proud that my dad was a pastor. I really saw it as a way to marry my passions. I always grew up thinking, “Maybe I’ll be a pastor one day, maybe I’ll be in the ministry in some way…” and when I discovered a passion for music it was like a way for me to do the two things I felt really strongly about and marry them. I was able to play music by being in church and I was able to serve my church by playing music. It just felt like a no brainer to me.
My father and some friends were a part of a youth camp in Dallas that they helped start and attended every year. Youth groups from all over Texas would go to this camp. I’d say there are 1,500 kids there every summer.
When I was finally old enough to go to camp it was the first year they brought Chris in to lead worship, so no one really knew who he was. He was a young kid, probably twenty-one or twenty-two at the time. I think he had been leading at a church called Breakaway at Texas A&M, which was a big college ministry. So, he came in to lead worship and I didn’t really think anything of it, it was just like, “Oh cool there’s a guy leading worship, and I’m at camp.” I was just excited to be at camp. All these years I had been at camp because my dad had to be there as a youth pastor, so I was just excited to be going as a student.
Every year Chris was writing more songs, and his songs were ones we would take home and do at our own church, which is essentially what he still does (laughs). His vision, even early on was very singular in that way. Because he and my dad both led music at the camp, they had a lot of mutual friends and he and Chris had some relationship. They weren’t super close, mainly because my dad was older, so it was kind of like a “changing of the guards” thing at camp, “Here comes the new guy Chris!”
So they knew each other, and I think as a proud dad, a couple summers in a row he would be like, “Hey, so my son’s playing guitar now and he’s sounding pretty good. We’ve got him working with the church and he’s traveling with me some!” I think that maybe what planted the seed was my dad talking to Chris about me like a proud dad would. I don’t think he was ever necessarily pitching me, because I was really young, fourteen or fifteen.
By the time I was seventeen or eighteen I was leading worship at my church. Some of the guys from the band came over to see me lead worship for my church group, which was a smaller group out of the big camp thing they were leading. I think they saw that I had a passion for worship and ministry, and I wasn’t just a guitar player – I was a guitar player with a heart for what they had already been doing. So I think they took me a little more seriously.
At the same time Chris had a guitar player who couldn’t commit full time anymore, so he had a vacancy in the band. That was the summer right before my senior year of high school. I had just turned 18 and had no idea where I was going to go to college. I hadn’t applied to any schools because I didn’t really want to go. All I really wanted to do was travel and worship and play guitar.
So Chris called my dad. We were in the car on my way to play an event with my dad in Dallas, and of course I didn’t hear that phone call. This was back when teenagers didn’t have cell phones (laughs). So he ran everything by my Dad. Chris is funny, he’s kind of a, “Let’s just move forward!” So he was like, “I want to see if your son can come do some dates for me. Can Daniel come travel with us?” My dad was like, “Well, you’ve never actually played with him, you want me to drive down so you can practice together or audition or something? Are you sure you want to commit, what if you don’t really love what it feels like?” So my dad gets off the phone and goes, “Oh yeah, that was Chris Tomlin. He wanted to see if you could do some dates with him playing guitar.” I was totally excited of course. I had no idea it would become a full-time thing really, I was just excited!
A couple weeks later we drove down to Houston where Chris was living, and set up in his kitchen. We had the drum kit set up in there, the bass player had his bass rig, and I set up my amps, pedals, and guitar. Chris had a little JBL Eon speaker for his acoustic and vocal. We basically set up like a little four-piece band in his kitchen. I remember the first song that we played was “Open the Eyes of My Heart”, that was one they we’re leading a lot and thought that was a good place to start to just see how it felt. I was very excited to be playing with guys who had been playing together a bunch, and they were obviously really good. It felt like an instant fit.
We sat on the couch afterwards and Chris goes, “Well, here’s one big thing I’m concerned about. I know as his parents you are probably interested in his education. What are you thinking about college? If we’re touring, Daniel won’t be able to do both.” Chris’s favorite joke is that my dad was like, “Ahhhh, Daniel doesn’t want to go to college!”
[WM] What did your mom do (laughs)?
[Daniel] My mom wasn’t there, but she was excited. They both played music my whole life and they both sang. My mom grew up mostly in Nashville. Her dad was a music minister and my grandmother taught piano lessons. Several generations of musicians, so I think they were excited that I was getting an opportunity to travel and play. I don’t know if they thought then that I would still be doing it almost twenty years later.
That was the initial start, from the, “Hey I want my first drum kit!” to Chris having a spot that was open in the band. It was just one of those weird things, to answer the question about the “God dots” as you call them. I really felt like all I did was I served faithfully with whatever I was given. So when Chris came around naturally I said yes, and it just kind of fell on my lap. Other than saying yes, and working really hard at my craft, I don’t really feel like I did much to earn my spot, it was a gift.
TRIAL BY HIRE
[WM] Demonstrated by how long you’ve been an integral part of his band, Chris saw something in you that was more than just a guitar player. In the same way that guitar players have God-given talent and also work on their chops, what are some of the things in your character that you had to work to shoulder this kind of ministry opportunity?
[Daniel] I was traveling with guys who were a little older and more mature than me, so really early on I felt like I had to grow up. Our bass player had a family and had a mortgage to pay. Chris had a career that was taking off, and even though I was young I realized that I had to put my ‘big boy pants’ on and make sure that if I was asked to be somewhere I was on time. If I had a song to learn, I had to learn it – that it was a real job.
We also played and toured with a lot of bands, and the guitar players were all way better than me. So even if there was ever any temptation to get any big-headedness or anything, we would go on tour and I’d be like, “Well I can’t do what that guy is doing on guitar.” So, I would go right back to the drawing board, working on my tones and my playing. I sort of looked at the early years of touring as a student. We were touring with some of my heroes, so I was always picking their brains and taking note of what pedals and what amps they used. What was better or why they chose this or that.
We did a tour with Delirious? and I got to be around Stu G for a month. At 18 years old that was really life changing. Then we did a tour with Lincoln Brewster, and he was kind enough to sit down with me and show me a few things – I had a lot of questions. I really loved the student aspect of it, the touring and traveling. If we were at a festival I would go out and watch as many bands as I could to try and hear what the other guys were doing. I was just so curious about how guys were getting their sounds. A lot of very kind and generous players in the worship community were very patient and kind to show me the ropes, so to speak.
In turn, anytime someone asks me, “How are you getting this sound?” I love sharing that information because I remember what it was like to be the kid who wanted know that same information. So any time that I can take a few minutes, even if its five minutes – there were times that a guitar hero of mine told me something in five minutes and I’d go home and work on what they told me for the next year. I think guitar players are kind of like a sponge, we just soak up what we’re around. I’ve always tried to be really open handed about that. With the church worship team, or anyone who I can pass along some knowledge to. I love doing that. Even if you share all your stuff with someone, they’re going to take it and use it in their own way, find their own voice. No one ever sounds like someone else anyway.
Daniel is also sharing his knowledge through a series of insightful lessons via Rooted Music (more info).
[WM] It sounds like your curiosity to learn what your guitar heroes were doing has driven your passion to help raise up other guitar players. Tell us about that.
[Daniel] I taught lessons in high school to help pay for gear, which turned out to be a great investment going back to us being in Chris’ kitchen. I had a really nice guitar, a boutique amp, and some good pedals. Not that you need all that, but I worked really hard teaching guitar lessons to pay for that stuff. I think it was really a joy I discovered when I was teaching. It was really fun to help people and see progress in students. I enjoyed passing along what I had learned, and helping the light bulb come on for young guitar players. That’s something that’s always stuck with me. I don’t have the bandwidth at this moment in my life to do lessons out of my house, but it does sound fun. But teaching online, or a video course, or teaching through YouTube is something that’s really piques my curiosity because I do that – I’m still a student. I get on YouTube and there are a lot of great guitar players and great teachers out there. That’s something that was always on my heart – to share what I’ve learned in some way. I’d never done that until recently where I tried to put most everything I know into a course in one package.
[WM] Noting the rigors of your touring life, is this content that you come up with while you’re on the road, something you’ve been inspired to do while you’re at home, or a combination of the two?
[Daniel] Some of both. A lot of it happens when I’m on the road, we’ll come off stage sometimes and I’ll quickly send myself an email, or voice memo. Some sort of note for something I’ve thought of in a moment of prayer, on the road, or on tour. Some sort of spontaneous thing I will play that’s instinctive to me. Some little solution I’ve come up with over the last eighteen years of touring. I’ll jot those down so I have a collection of ideas and thoughts. Occasionally, I’ll teach a guitar clinic at a church conference or something, and those notes also become a part of the course.
An example would be a trick I learned for when my guitar is a little bit out of tune but I needed to keep playing. I’ll keep my tuner on in my volume pedal loop. So if I’m doing something like a single note line I can pluck the string up at the 12th fret and look and see if it’s in tune. I’m kind of tuning and playing at the same time as opposed to having to hit your tuner and you kill your signal, ruin all the ambiance and atmosphere, and any kind of flow you had. It just helps to keep everything glued together. That’s a huge part of what I do in the band. When Chris is doing a fingerpicking thing, I might be filling up space with some sounds or a couple little melodies. That’s when I go, “OK, I need to be tuned up for the next song, but I can’t stop playing.” So with an idea like that, I’ll come off stage and think that could really help people. I jot it down in my phone and keep a log going so I have a little library of ideas.
[WM] The last time we spoke you mentioned that you’re a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of player. If one were to reduce shred guitar to being described as technique, speed, and flash, what are some of the words you would use to describe the essence of worship guitar?
[Daniel] I would say feel would be a big one. I mean F E E L. I am from Texas so not to be confused with F I L L (laughs). So much of what you’re doing is about playing what is important for the moment.
Serving the song is another one, finding what’s appropriate to play. You want to match the moment, find the guitar part that fits the song. If it’s a big song and everyone is going crazy, or maybe people are dancing, if it’s a moment like that, then maybe stretching out and doing more runs or licks is appropriate.
But if it’s a gentle song that is more of a prayer or more tender, that’s when I back off of the notes and do more atmosphere. So atmosphere would be another word.
Tone! So much of what I do when I get to the venue and I first get my guitar out is to figure out how I get the sound I want out of these amp and pedals.
Transitions is another big one in worship bands. In Rock bands you end the song, people clap, and sometimes there’s ten or fifteen seconds of nothing. They go wipe their face, grab a drink of water, or whatever. I’ve been to shows for bands I love and they’re got zero transitions. The song ends, lights out, then the next song comes on.
This might not be true for every worship band, but Chris spends a lot of time working through transitions, so I think transitions is a big word. I’m constantly looking at our keyboard player or at Chris, trying to figure out how I can help them move into the next song or chord progression seamlessly.
I think communication is another one, because it’s not always rehearsed. With a band that is carefully thought out and rehearsed ahead of time, you almost don’t have to communicate on stage at all. You know your parts and everything is the same every night. With church music and worship music, we’ll take a left turn sometimes and you really have to communicate. You’re looking at the drummer, looking at the keyboard player. We have a tightly knit band, so we communicate pretty well, but I’m constantly looking over at Chris thinking, “Is he playing something differently than he normally is? Are we about to go somewhere else?” I’m trying to really keep an eye out. So communication would be a big one too.
[WM] What are some of the things that define your approach when it comes to supporting what Chris is doing.
[Daniel] Chris, as long as I’ve known him has always wanted the same thing. Kind of what I said earlier about him being very singular and focused, “I want to write songs that give people a voice to worship God.” That’s always been his heart. Another common theme has always been simplicity. It doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down, but Chris has never been someone who gets caught up in, “Let’s try to make the song more complicated musically.” If the band starts to go down that road he always pulls us back to center. My playing has evolved to complement that.
Chris wants a really simple, powerful chorus that everyone can sing, and I want that too. If I can come up with a guitar part that is simple, powerful, and fits the chorus, then we are all on the same page. Early going I wasn’t thinking about that so much. But once we were touring and Chris’ songs started to have a big reach in churches, we realized other bands and worship leaders were playing these songs. Then I started thinking about the worship bands playing these songs in their church. There was an element of knowing that when we were writing, people would want to take these songs and implement them in their church. So let’s find a way to approach the song that doesn’t pull them out of it, one that doesn’t take the worship team days and days to learn. Chris has always had a heart for “I want worship teams and leaders to be able to do these.”
Even if we record a version of a song with big production or that’s more complicated, where we really go for it with strings or guitar parts, we will often go back and record an acoustic version to show, “Hey, if all you’ve got is an acoustic guitar, a Cajon and a keyboard, you can still play this song and here’s how we do it!” We often do that, break the songs down, because not every church is going to have an electric guitarist. They may just have acoustic, keyboard, bass, and drums. We try really hard to find ways to communicate with every church worship team, because that really is the heart of what we do.
[WM] What specific advice do you have for youth worship teams, for people where you were when Chris Tomlin came into your life? Whether they are aspirational about doing what you’re doing, or if they just want to serve with the instrument in their hands or the microphone in front of them…
[Daniel] If you have any interest in creating your own music its helpful to learn other peoples’ songs and to lead them at your church. Chances are that your church is going to want to hear those songs. If it’s a popular song – learn it, play it, and learn from the musicians that played that on the studio record. Pick those things up.
If you have a way to make it your own and create your own stuff, it’s really good as a guitar player to learn the art of creating something, hearing something in your head and experimenting to find that on your guitar. That was something that I was almost forced into on the road. Chris would write these songs and there would be no music to it. It would just be him on acoustic and he’d go, “Let’s go lead this at youth camp. Let’s go lead this at the church conference. Let’s go record this on a live record” with no preproduction, no demo, nothing.
There were times we’d go into a live recording of a song and we had never even rehearsed it. So I’d have to just come up with something. Kind of by default I would write guitar parts that made it on records and became part of the songs. They were really just the first things that I thought of that just had to come out of me because we had to have something. I think if you’re a young musician or guitarist trying to find a way to cover the song, find a way to make the song your own so you’re forced to come up with some other guitar part, melody, or interlude. Something that forces you to be creative. That helps you grow in such a huge way.
[WM] As a ‘meat and potatoes’ player, what is your go-to gear, and what advice do you have for other ‘meat and potatoes’ players for assembling a rig?
[Daniel] Years ago I had a friend tell me, “I keep buying guitars and amps and every time I do I realize that I’m trying to pull the same sound out of all of them” which was his way of saying there’s a certain tone that my hands and my ears have and no matter what amp or guitar I pick up – I kind of sound like me. That really stuck with me. He was a great player, and I thought that really made sense. Every time I plug into an amp somewhere, I’m trying to dial the same sound out of it. At the end of the day I could have ten different friends come and play my guitar through my amp and it just doesn’t sound the same as when I play through it. And, I don’t sound like them when I play through their stuff!
It’s one of the weirdest mysteries of life to me, the way that your hands can sound so different from someone else’s. I do try to keep it very simple. Over the years, especially with worship, I’ve learned that the more stuff I have at my disposal the more distracted I get. I’ll go, “Oh, maybe I’ll try that other overdrive pedal on the next song to see if it sounds better.” If I have five overdrive pedals on my board I might be tempted to do that. The times I’ve felt the most inspired are times when I have limited my options pedal wise. Then I’m forced to play more melodically or with the band.
So my advice to young guitarists? I have spent way too much money buying a hundred different overdrive pedals that all are basically doing just a couple different things. One of my favorite guitar players might plug into a little simple Boss pedal or something and get a great sound because he’s learned that he doesn’t need a $500 hand-wired overdrive to make a good sound. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a great sound.
I’ll see young guys and I’ll see their rig and I’ll go, “Oh my gosh your rig costs like $5,000, how on earth are you paying for this?!” And that’s fine, musicians get into gear and I’m guilty as much as the next guy. And it’s not bad to invest in good gear. But, if you’re young and you see other musicians and think you can’t sound like them because you don’t have an original Klon, an old’ 60s AC30, or whatever, you don’t need all that.
I’d honestly be really happy with what I have for the rest of my life. I’ve been playing the same amp for seventeen years, which is an AC30 reissue with Celestion Blue speakers, the English-made one. That’s kind of my favorite style of amp, the British AC-30. I also play a Matchless, which is voiced very similarly.
I always come back to Les Paul and Tele, kind of my first loves. So for a simple setup it’s basically a Les Paul or Tele into a ‘TS-style’ (Tube Screamer) pedal. For most of my life that’s been a Fulltone Full-Drive, which I love. It has boost and you have a couple different options in the pedal as well. It’s just been one of those pedals that I could tour with all year and have that as my only gain option. I like to turn the amps up, hit them with that pedal, and I’ve got everything I need. There are a lot of pedals that do that same thing well, that’s just the one that I use. You can get them used for a hundred bucks or something. It’s a killer pedal – you could tour your whole life with just that one pedal.
After that I always have a digital delay of some kind that I can tap the tempo in. For years that was a Boss DD-5 that I couldn’t have lived without for the last eighteen years of touring. It’s basically always on my pedal board. I’ve tried many other delay pedals. Now that you can program the beats per minute into the pedal, whenever that came along, ’04 or ’05, the Boss Giga Delay was the first one I had, and obviously the Strymon does it well. That’s always on my board because we’ve got so many songs and set lists I don’t want to tap them all out so I have a lot of program setting.
So overdrive pedal, into delay with BPM, then my next go-to is some sort of warm soupy analog delay. Even if it’s digital, just as long as it sounds like analog. The Echo Pro is a really great one that Line 6 made. They don’t make it anymore but you can get one for a hundred dollars and it sounds amazing, I love that pedal and used it for years and years on the road. So if you have that and a DD-5 you’re only into it maybe 200 bucks and you’ve got great sounds.
I use a Boss reverb pedal, called the RV-5, which you can also get for super cheap. I don’t think they make the RV-5 anymore but that’s the one I really like. There’s a setting I use called Modulate that sounds like a really nice big airy sound, and I can set the trails really long with long repeats on the delays to get some really good atmospheric tones. So really just a basic overdrive, a couple of delay options, reverb, a couple classically voiced Rock guitars – a Les Paul or Tele, into a chimey British EL-84 kind of amp.
Then another big one for me is a volume pedal, I love that. I never learned the trick of using your pinky to back your volume off, it always felt unnatural to me. So I use the Les Paul almost as a gain stage, so if the Full-Drive is on and I don’t want a totally clean sound, I’ll use the Full-Drive for a little bit of compression and dirt, but I’ll back the volume off a touch. Then if I roll the volume pedal back it basically does the same thing as rolling the volume back with your pinky on the guitar so essentially it cleans up for a picking part or something.
I had so many years of getting every sound I possibly could out of those five pedals. I’m not looking at my board thinking, “I wonder what else I can do right here?” I know every ounce of what each pedal will do so it has become like an extension of my body. Really getting to know my gear frees me up to play anything I want to play and I’m not overly concerned with what’s down at my feet!
[WM] I came across a photo of the SC30 and your British AC-30, are those both amps that are in your stable and sometimes you use two or were they back lined?
[Daniel] Those are my amps and that’s my go-to setup. I come stereo out of my reverb pedal and run both amps all the time. Sometimes in the past I’ve come stereo out of a delay into the reverb, but lately I’ve really liked using a mono delay signal in, and then splitting things at the reverb to go wide. It’s not like the stereo reverb is doing a ton, but it does feel a little wider. Since we use in ear monitors I’ll pan one amp to my left and one to my right and it sounds great. I love the way that sounds.
The amps are set where they’re breaking up but they’re kind of in their sweet spot. They’re not so saturated that I can’t reign them back in – I like to be able to manipulate them with pedals at least a little bit. Sometimes if we’re playing somewhere that’s using backline they’ll have an AC-30 and a Matchless SC-30 or DC-30. But if you gave me the English ‘90s/2000s era Korg British AC30, I know those so well I can literally just go flip all the settings to where I want them without ever plugging in. It’s just such an easy amp, I love that. The SC30 is similar, it’s Volume, Tone, Cut. Pretty easy.
[WM] Can you cite your go-to AC30 settings off the top of your head?
[Daniel] Well it’s a little funny. When you stand there looking at them from the front they’re upside down. So if you’re standing behind it, I use the brilliant channel on its loudest output – the 6th output AC-30 so I plug into the loudest full-volume input. If all the way off is 7:00, I run it at 10:00. Then with the controls, I turn the Treble all the way off. I’ll turn the Cut and Bass all the way up to 4:00 or 5:00 so that its completely dark. Then I’ll just start rolling them back one at a time until the amp opens up and sounds really good, usually at 2:00 or 3:00.
But to be honest, on those amps you could put Treble at 11:00, and put the Bass and Cut at noon and it would sound great. I like to keep it dark because I play Teles a lot. It’s an open-back cab that’s not got a lot of bass to it, so I always keep an eye on the really shrill top end. I try to taper that off so it’s not making my ears bleed.
With the Matchless I run into the EF86 channel, so you’re plugging into the middle of the amp, on full volume. I disengage the Master (via the push-pull function on the Master Volume control), and then I’ll run it at 9 or 10 o’clock and I do the same thing with the cut. I roll it all the way off so it’s completely dark, hit a couple chords and then roll it back up, opening up the amp until it starts to speak. I try do it with my ears more than with my eyes. Once the amp opens up and starts to sound how it’s supposed to I leave it alone. But once again I keep the cut really dark, because the Matchless can be bright too.
[WM] Which speaker do you have in the Matchless?
[Daniel] It’s the Matchless Celestion, which I think is original to the amp. I think it’s a G12H, but it’s the Matchless version. I love that amp so much, I’ve just become dependent on it. Funny thing, we were on tour this spring and the speaker blew out. It was getting really papery-sounding and the sound guy said, “We’ve got to do something about this, this sounds terrible.” One of our techs, thank God, knew how to work on amps. I had an old AC15 that was one of my backup amps. It had a Celestion Alnico Blue and he took that out and put it in my Matchless and we were good. I think I’ll eventually get the other speaker repaired since it’s the original, but I really like the way the Blue sounds.
[WM] What are your thoughts and preferences between a 1×12 and 2×12 amp, noting that you’re using both of them?
[Daniel] I don’t know scientifically what’s going on, if it really is less output. It’s one less speaker, so makes sense to me that it would be a little quieter. Obviously, you’re just going to turn the amp up until it’s loud enough for what makes sense for the room. It’s got to be a little bit lighter. I keep a lot of my gear at home in an upstairs room, so I am going up and down stairs and I’ve kind of enjoyed having the single speaker.
It almost doesn’t matter what the amps sound like when I’m standing in front of them, because I never play that way anymore. I’m never tuning my amp so that it sounds good when I’m standing in front of or above it. I’m tuning my amp based on what the SM57 is going to be receiving from the amp. I’m always tuning for our in-ears, front of house, and for how it’s going to mix in with the house. I’m self-mixing all the time. If I have two speakers I’m only going to mic one of them, so I may as well have only one speaker. One SM57 goes on one of my AC-30 speakers and one SM57 goes on the speaker of my SC30. That’s all I ever need!