Theo Tigno

Composer and Musician

Guitar at Mass, Part 1

Why are people against it?

I have been thinking a lot about the role of instruments in the liturgy. I appreciate sacred music as well as contemporary music. I have sung pieces from Palestrina and other classical composers, and I not only sing "modern" worship pieces but I have also composed them.

As I have read different commentaries on how a guitar shouldn't be played at Mass, it got me thinking about instrumentation in the Liturgy.

Contemplating instruments in general, I can see that a priority should be placed on the instrument that is crafted by the Lord's hands: the human voice. If we were to go beyond genres and instrumentation, there is no greater instrument that can praise God than the human voice. This is probably a given.

If we establish this as the baseline, would it then place less priority on the accompaniment. In other words, regardless if you are doing Gregorian chant, singing along with a string quartet, or singing with a guitar / bass / drums / keyboard ensemble, the priority is the voice.

I thought about what the role of the accompanying instruments are. It can give the tempo. It can give cues when to start singing and when to stop. It can give the pitch. There is a lot that an accompanying instrument can do.

If we are looking as an instrument in purely this view, couldn't we argue that it doesn't matter what instrument is giving the cues / establishing the tempo / giving the pitch. All that matters is that the instrument does it well and supports the main instrument: the human voice.

This is where I think many people have contention with the guitar as an accompanying instrument. I have seen in a few examples where guitar players have a hard time staying out of the way of the primary instrument: the voice.

There are a lot of ways that guitarists can support the primary, God-crafted instrument:

  • Consistency in keeping a prayerful tempo
  • Sensitivity when singers are singing (lighter attack, using less strings, change of technique, etc.)
  • Understanding of chord voicing and basic theory

A trap I see many guitars fall into is limiting themselves to knowing how to play a chord a certain way or not knowing how to modify their technique so as to bring out the dynamics of a song. I have been there as well and may still be there: I have only been playing guitar since 2000. Could this have tarnished the view of guitars in the sacred liturgy.

Contrast this with an organist or a skilled pianist. They have the skills to do these things and often. It is already written in for them on the score. Many have performance degrees.

Knowing this, wouldn't it also make sense as to why many pieces written to be led by the guitar are often found lacking? It is often that a piece would have to work for multiple levels of players. I have at times experienced "contemporary" songs that have chord voicings that seem inappropriate for the melody and where the song is going. There is also a shallower pool of songs to draw from, which would explain the continued inclusion of contemporary Christian music in the sacred Liturgy. Hopefully we can look at this in the next rambling ...

Back to the limitations of the instrumentalist. I played with a piano player once who did not have a sense of timing or musicality. I would argue that this was just as distracting as a guitar player who lacked playing sensitivity. This does not mean that a piano shouldn't be played at Mass. I'm sure the same could be said about an organist who is unskilled.

With this in mind, the accompanying instrument itself is not the culprit but rather that the instrumentalist may lack proficiency, awareness and humility. I bring up humility because it is needed to "stay out of the way" when it is time for the instrument crafted by God's hands to be brought forth. It's takes listening and it takes humility.

Proficiency, awareness and humility are important with any other instrument as well: organ, piano, bass, drums, etc.

That's it for part 1. God bless!

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  • From: theotigno

    Just thought I'd share this link in regards to how an instrument like the guitar can be very versatile -

This website is for showcasing my compositions as well as a musician blog. For more information regarding my professional career, please visit my LinkedIn page.

About Me

I am a Catholic composer and musician. My compositions include music written for the Polk Street Band, a Mass setting (Mass of the Immaculate Conception) and Antiphon settings for the full year that are geared toward contemporary ensembles. As a musician, I am a bassist and guitarist for Catholic recording artists and bluegrass bands.