After last month’s extended conversation with Daniel, we reached back out to see if he’d be interested in being part of the magazine on a regular basis, and thankfully he said yes.
The topic for this month’s conversation with Daniel is ‘Doing Less with More’, and before we dig in I have to say that I was able to apply some of the great stuff covered below with my team this past Sunday. Since I’m almost always the only electric player, a big part of my job is to fill space. With the exception of single-note lines and little dyads, most of the time that translates to keeping at least four strings ringing at the same time. Thanks to Daniel, I was reminded just how powerful droning away on one string while fretting one or two others can be. This totally transformed my worship experience on Sunday, as well as that of my team.
So, once again, it is my pleasure to introduce the guy who rocks the guitar for Chris Tomlin, Mr. Daniel Carson!
[Daniel] Doing more with less, that is basically the motto of my life on guitar. I’m always looking for ways to make the most out of the least amount of notes. Or the least amount of gear, or the least amount of skill even (laughs). To make the most effective guitar part by doing more with less essentially.
[WM] It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? As we’re developing skills, running scales, buying a bigger/better pedal board, and so on. How as a guitar player do we learn to put on the brakes?
[Daniel] Playing simply or “pumping the brakes” so to speak, kind of came out of my limitations as a guitar player. When I first started playing guitar a lot of my interests led me down roads that weren’t just blazing licks. My interests were in chord voicings, pedals, amps, and gear. Finding out how to use a delay pedal or an overdrive pedal. A lot of my influences were in the context of music that didn’t necessarily use a lot of fast playing, so I didn’t really develop a lot of fast impressive guitar acrobatics.
It was more of the simple stuff that I gravitated towards. Now it doesn’t mean that I didn’t try it! I tried to learn some of that stuff and I would get frustrated trying to get my fingers to play some Eric Johnson lick or something. I definitely went down that road some. But, it was in my limitations as a guitar player that I really found my voice. The things that people responded to, whether it was a producer, worship leader, Chris’ band, or whatever.
I constantly found that it was more about attitude, melody, a memorable part, or a signature thing that you would recognize at the top of the song. At an early age, I was fortunate enough to be in the studio with really advanced players and producers that were a lot smarter than me, who just steered me in the right direction. They’d say, “Listen for the holes between the vocals, don’t just play on top of the vocal!”
I’d say that my limitations and direction from people older and smarter than me kept me from over playing, helped me to keep it simple. I think a lot of guitar players find their voice by our limitations. Even when you’re trying to sound like someone else you end up sounding kind of like yourself.
[WM] I want to back up to one of the things you mentioned, chord voicings. That’s one of the most powerful vehicles for supporting the arrangement and the vocal part. What advice do you have for people on learning how to use chord voices and understanding the theory behind them, without becoming a total theory geek?
[Daniel] A lot of my chord voicings came out of necessity because I was the only electric guitar player. It was less about what notes were in the chord, and more about how I could make the guitar sound. For example, we would play a lot in G or A, or even E. The band leader was an acoustic guitar player and we never had a keyboard. As the only electric guitarist a lot of my voicings came out of figuring out how I could get my D string and my G string to keep ringing so it sounds like there is a rhythm guitar player, while I play a two note back and forth melody with the chorus on the B string. So, it ends up being, like a lot of things in life, something that you learn because you have to. No one ever really sat me down and said, “Hey here’s how you can sound like a rhythm guitar player and a lead guitar player at the same time.” It was me needing to learn how to play a melody that’s part of the song while also making sure the whole bottom end doesn’t drop out. We didn’t have any computers, a keyboard player, or another guitarist. The only real melody instrument for a long time, was coming from my world, from electric guitar. It was by necessity that I learned a lot of those voicings.
[WM] Do you and Chris capo?
[Daniel] Oh yeah, we all capo. I feel like among guitar players the capo kind of gets a bad reputation sometimes. I’ve heard guys say, “Oh a real guitar player doesn’t need a capo because they’ll figure out how to play it without one!” There is something to learning how to play without it, because sometimes it’s necessary and it’ll open up other things.
I feel like the capo is more of a guitar part writer. I don’t use the capo as a crutch because I don’t know how to play in a key. I use it because I want to write a guitar part that feels a certain way, or has a certain ring. A lot of times with melody I’ll play two strings. I like the way that it sits up against a ringing string that I’m not fretting.
In certain keys, it just affords you the ability to play two strings together that you might not otherwise have as an option. If a song is in F#, I might capo on two and all of a sudden that opens up the high B and E string for open chord voicings where I can leave them ringing. I can play all my melodies on the G string, or up on the B string against the E string that rings out, and suddenly you’ve got this whole world that opens up. You can get really cool voicings with just a few hand movements, and without having to do a bunch of guitar acrobatics.
[WM] Is there an open string you have a tendency to play the root on most?
[Daniel] Mostly it’s the G string in the key of G. Then, if you capo up the same rule applies. In Ab you ‘capo one’ and for A you ‘capo two’ so you can let your root note on that G-string ring out. If you’re playing G chord shapes wherever you capo you can play lots of interesting melodies on the B string or even play melodies on the D string up against the open G. That’s a tool I’ve used. Anyone who’s had to learn guitar parts for Chris’ songs is probably familiar with that trick. It’s something that became really useful for me playing live to be able to be a lead guitar player and the rhythm guitar player. That’s a concept that if you have two guitar players you don’t have to worry about.
For the longest time I was trying to marry the lead guitar player and rhythm guitar player role by having simple parts, going back to the idea of doing more with less. At the very beginning of “Your Grace is Enough” I’m playing the whole melody on the B string, which is fine. But if you put it up against the ringing root note suddenly it sounds more aggressive with more attitude. Again, that goes back to the producers and the people I was hanging around when I first started playing guitar. It was so much more about attitude than it ever was how you played technically. It’s about the feel and the attitude of the song.
[WM] It’s interesting you keep coming back to attitude. Can you give us a breakdown of some of the different attitudes that are in your tool kit that you frequently utilize?
[Daniel] You want to match the temperament of the song. If it’s a really passionate, exciting song, you really want to dig in and have a tone and feel that matches that. And I think that’s really what it means to have an attitude. If there’s a passion to the vocals and a passion to the song, you want the guitars to mimic that if you can, especially live. In the studio, you can kind of get energy out of a lot of different things. But live, if you’ve only got a couple of people on stage, you have to find ways to bring the energy.
[WM] As you’re playing around the G string, that also gives you a whole other octave between where the bass player is usually playing. Is that part of the consciousness about hanging out on the G string or the D string – getting more separation between what’s happening on the bottom, so you’re creating separate layers in the arrangement?
[Daniel] Yeah that would probably be a part of where that came from – trying to separate things in an in-ear mix or even just where the guitar felt like it wanted to sit in certain parts. If you’re the only guitar player and you’re playing really low, sometimes that can feel like it’s dragging or sound a little heavy. The middle of the neck and the higher frequencies just seem to ring out and feel a little more joyful and exciting. I just always gravitated to that part of the neck, as far as lead lines. I don’t know where it really came from, it just became something that worked really well.
[WM] You have a lesson series with Rooted music. Can you tell us about that?
[Daniel] I felt like I put everything I learned in the last 18 years all down in the videos. I think one thing that just jumps out is being familiar with your guitar neck and not being locked into one space – learning to move around and find different melodies and chord voicings on different strings. The guitar can sound so different depending on where you play it.
I really loved sharing what I’ve learned that’s helped me in my role in the band or on a worship team. Let’s use the example of a worship leader with an acoustic guitar. He’s playing an open G, so maybe I should be playing a different version of G so we’re not just playing the exact same chord, especially if I’m playing acoustic also. Maybe that’s using a capo, or maybe that’s sliding my hand up around the neck.
With this video series, I go through a lot of my ideas on how I stumbled through all of that. When I was first learning guitar there was a lot of time spent in my bedroom just searching out another way I could play a G chord, and another way after that. I would just move up and down the neck and try to create different voicings, and you can do that with every chord. Then suddenly the guitar neck because a lot less scary, not just frets and dots. Suddenly I looked at it like, “Oh, I know that note!” before I even get up there. I think it just opens up a whole world for you when you start breaking that down. That was one thing that I spent a lot of time on in the videos that I think will really help people grow in their fretboard knowledge.
[WM] I am fanatic about effects, pedalboards, and gear, but sometimes these things can get in the way of thinking about the song and the arrangement or vocal part.
[Daniel] Sometimes limiting your gear can bring out the most creativity because you’re forced to try the things you don’t normally try. I noticed this playing acoustic guitar on the road with Chris. He and I get to do some acoustic stuff, and we really like it because we’ve played together for so long that he has the freedom to go wherever he wants to go. There’s an ease and chemistry there.
I noticed that when I play acoustic I feel really free, because on electric guitar I’m constantly hearing the tone of the amps, the pedals, the guitars. It’s hard not to constantly think about how I can make those sound better. With the acoustic guitar, it’s like I’m looking down at my Boss tuner and that’s it. It takes the tone sculpting piece out of it and suddenly I’m forced to think, “What can I use to make this guitar sound different than just a plain old G chord?” – my fingers, my pick, and my capo! I found I was getting a lot of different tones just by how I was holding my pick or how I would scrape the strings. I thought, “What if I played my electric more like this?” Instead of having five different overdrive options I’ve just got the one that I have to have, and the rest is just about, “Well, how can I hold my pick differently? How can I put my capo differently?”
I think limiting yourself, even on purpose, can force you to come up with different parts or to write something different than you would normally write. Sometimes it’s just about going for the thing that you have in the moment. Normally on tour I would switch guitars, but if we have a really fast transition I’m forced to use the same guitar, and suddenly I realize that I like using this guitar on that song. I didn’t realize it would do that. I think the limitations can be a gateway to a lot of creativity if you allow it.
[WM] Any funny stories you care to share?
[Daniel] I have a funny story, and I don’t want this to sound like bashing players who can play fast or do a lot of guitar work like that. There are a lot of players like that who I love to listen to. Like I talked about earlier, my limitations in guitar led me to where I am, and I work at that stuff and am constantly trying to get better at what I do. Just as a disclaimer I felt like I had to say that, but this story is kind of about that.
I used to live in Austin Texas, and I was at Austin Vintage Guitars, which was my favorite place to go. They have an amp room, which is behind glass where you can kind of crank your amp up. I wasn’t in the amp room, I was in the main part of the store by the acoustic guitars, and there was this elderly gentleman next to me. He had an old Gibson and he was thumbing through cowboy chords, like C, G, F. And ten feet behind us some guy was just cutting loose and shredding, playing as fast as he can, and his amp is so loud and he’s just going crazy playing a hundred million notes. The older guy looks at me, kind of shakes his head, and he says, “This is where you make all your money – down here”, and he points to an open C chord at the bottom of the neck! I just loved that. It was just a simple chord, but man that really stuck with me. I thought that was hilarious. Not that it’s about money, but it’s about what’s effective. You can play a million notes and that’s fine, but in my life, there have been a lot more times that I’ve needed a C chord than the other thing (laughs).
[WM] Well, that’s a wrap for this installment. I’ll add that Daniel reached out to double-check that he hadn’t ‘shred-shamed’ anyone, and I assured him he hadn’t. If you want to make a living playing the guitar, much of what you’ll get hired to do will fall below the twelfth fret!