If you want to have a solid, contemporary worship band, you’ll need the right combination of instruments from different categories.
1. Lead Instrument: acoustic guitar or piano. A lead instrument is a stand alone instrument that can be used to lead worship with or without the presence of other instruments. Acoustic guitar is most common and much easier to play and so most bands will be built around it. You can lead contemporary worship songs with just a guitar or a piano; I’ve done it many times. You can lead worship with an electric guitar, but not without other instruments present.
2. Rhythm Section: it is best to have both percussion and bass guitar or none at all. The kick drum and the bass need to synchronize timing for a tight sound. Essentially, the bass guitar and drums are married.
The rhythm and cadence of a song is critical because it tells people when to sing and when not to sing. In my opinion, I would not have a bass player in a band without percussion, nor would I have percussion without bass. They need to be together. They can even hold hands during the sermon. The rhythm section is the skeleton that you hang the flesh of guitars and vocals on. Master this and you will solve 80% of your musical issues in worship leading.
3. Variety Instruments: depending on what style you’re after, you can add electric guitar(s), keys, an auxiliary percussionist, and so on.
The most basic setup for most songs you know: Drums, bass, and acoustic guitar. If you have electric guitar and/or keyboard available to add to this, even better. Since most contemporary worship songs sound like radio singles, this is the combination of instruments to get you there.
Pitfalls to avoid
1. Having too many instruments. I have been to Campus Crusade’s bi-annual staff conference three times, and the same band leads the worship every time. The last time I was there, the worship band consisted of 21 people! I am not making this up. There is simply no possible way to have every instrument in the mix without being muddy.
My advice: one or two acoustic guitars maximum, but playing complementary parts. Never have more than three guitars (not counting bass). For example, two acoustics and one electric; or two electrics and one acoustic. Never three electrics or acoustics.
2. Having too many vocalists. This is a pet peeve. Many good sounding worship bands ruin their sound by having 3 part harmonies that sound like the Gaithers. One male lead is just fine. Your best bet is to find instrumentalists who can sing harmonies when necessary. Never have more than one dedicated vocalist unless for special occasions. It simply isn’t necessary.
3. Trying to sound like the CD. Face it: your band isn’t as good as the CD. Don’t try to be. Find a way to make the song your own and play it with your band’s own style.
4. Solos and musical breaks. This is rarely appropriate in a congregational setting. Everybody stops singing so they can watch the guitar guy play a flashy lead. This doesn’t contribute to worship. If a song calls for a musical break, then find a selection of scripture that fits the theme of the song and display that scripture during the break. This way no one is being spotlighted in the band and people’s focus is still on the Lord.
5. Allowing musicians to become entrenched. I have been in many situations where the best musicians in the church were not the ones playing in the band because someone else already had dibs on the spot and nobody was willing to ask that person to yield to the more gifted musician. This self-imposed mediocrity doesn’t benefit anyone. I have 4 month terms for band members and we reevaluate at the end of each term. If someone isn’t a good fit or if someone else wants to give it a shot, this is the ideal time to make adjustments without hurting feelings needlessly.
6. The American Idol Syndrome. Some people just can’t sing but somehow they have convinced themselves that they belong on the stage in Hollywood’s Kodak Theater. If you have musicians that are consistently not pulling their weight, perhaps its time for you to have a Simon Cowell conversation with them.
7. Hijacking your style. Once you have determined what the style of music is that you will use in your congregation, make sure you recruit instruments that fit that style. You may have a great mandolin player, but that instrument works better with a folk style. Harmonica doesn’t really work for worship at all. And so on.