Gospel Music for Guitar: the 16 bar Gospel Form

I’m a guitar player in a piano player’s world. In the context of Black gospel music, the guitar is not considered a lead instrument. Most choirs rely on keys, organ, or synths to lead the band and the guitar plays a support role by playing rhythm parts or maybe lead fills. To make matters worse, I’m a white dude and most white dudes show up to a cross-cultural worship setting with their beautiful Taylor or Martin acoustic and when the set-list strays from Houghton-esque “rockspel” then then they find that their guitar becomes less relevant. Then things get really ugly when the set-list includes a more traditional black gospel song. The guitar becomes downright offensive as the acoustic strum-er starts to make the urban, Chicago-style  Black gospel sound more and more like rural Nashville-style SOUTHERN gospel. There’s a BIG difference.

It’s not the guitar player’s fault. They have not been taught in the traditional of gospel guitar players like the great Sister Rosetta Tharp or the slightly more modern sounds of Pops Staples 

A good place to start is the 16 bar gospel form. My church sings a number of songs that use variations of this form: “Glory Glory Hallelujah”, “Jesus is on the Mainline”,  “I Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell”, “Now Let Us Sing”, and even more moderate tempo “God is A Good God”.

Our children’s choir is working on an old southern gospel tune called “Glory Glory Glory Somebody Touched Me” which is all over youtube being performed by everyone from bluegrass legends to tiny little southern baptist churches. I had to make a demo for the kids to sing along with and I made my best effort to give it a little more “blues” and a little less “bluegrass”.  This represents how I would play a 16 bar gospel song especially in a setting where I was the only instrument. There’s a driving quarters bass sound that implies what a bass player would do and I’m hitting the muted strings on 2 & 4 to simulate a snare drum. The chromatic lead-in to the dominant at the end of each chorus is a cliche that helps define the style. The results also make a play-along demo for bass or drums to practice their gospel chops or for lead instruments to practice improvising.

I’ll admit that it would still fit into a song by Vince Gill or into the honky-tonk groove of a lot of country tunes. It’s certainly “down-home”. For an even more advanced bluesy take on the 16 bar gospel form check out this video of Pops Staples:

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  1. #1 by Mark W. on November 2, 2013 - 3:41 pm

    More posts like this, please.

    I would like to make one comment. There’s nothing wrong or offensive about “playing white” or playing in a country style. Sure, you don’t want to do that in a mass choir setting, but you wouldn’t pull out your Fred Hammond licks in a bluegrass band either. That said, there has always been a lot of crossover between the different styles. I don’t think you were making the negative point, but even at New City I sometimes feel the undertone that Reconciliation means we have to denigrate historically white cultural forms. I actually prefer black gospel to white gospel, but largely because I find it a lot more fun to play on bass.

    Great, informative post, though. I have not heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Apparently she was Johnny Cash’s favorite singer. Thanks for sharing this.

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