More on Guitars at Liturgy


Publishers do parishes a great disservice by not revising some hymn accompaniments to accommodate accomplished guitarists who play with keyboardists. They recommend keyboardists improvise the guitar edition chords and call it safe. They probably know that good guitarists can work more or less easily from written keyboard parts, but it’s most bothersome for directors. Most often I rewrite the guitar charts but the ideal solution would be to finesse a middle ground with a totally new arrangement, not just a patchwork for one side or the other.A humorous story from the past. When I left Rochester for my first parish ministry position in 1988, a parishioner wished me well. He said I would especially appeal to kids with my abilities on guitar and in ensembles. After a few months, I saw he was totally incorrect. (But I did appreciate the sentiment.)

In 1988, the guitar and organ were equally uncool. It was the era of Guns ‘n Roses and white bread (and sometimes not so white bread) suburban hip hop. Neither style of music adapts well to liturgy. A political singer-guitarist? That will adapt when the music avoids being self-centered. But market-driven music has the huge obstacle of ego. Of course, at its worst, organist-plays-it-all situations are not immune from ego, but that’s another story.

It was clear the Chicago mini-suburbanites were not going to give me a free pass on music. It was good for my young ego that they didn’t. What I did find is that young people appreciate it far more when an adult advocates for them. I could have been an organist (it wouldn’t have been at this parish; the pastor reseeded the organ fund to pay other bills) and I would have had no less success.

Consequent placements showed me the same truth: the guitar is utterly passe in the minds of today’s Catholic youth (except perhaps for rebellious tradi teens). Do they get that from their parents? I wonder.

I’ll make a confession. I’m still nervous around large numbers of kids. Reminds me too much of my own childhood, and I can assure you I was not in the cool crowd then. Kids strike me as pretty much the same as the parish adults. A select few are quite thoughtful and prayerful. Over the summer, I’ve inherited the piano for the Sunday night “youth Mass” and my young friends who talk over repertoire with me an hour before Mass are willing to sing anything they know–which is a lot. Old hymns, LifeTeen or in between, they seem to have a grasp that the people’s prayer is the most important consideration and if something old drives the car to get there, they can ride along.

If there are any guitarists still out there with delusions that their music is cutting edge, you’re still in the 60’s, my friends. And that might not be good.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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