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Going Vamping by Steve Gregory

There are a number of musical devices that can be used to build deep, meaningful worship experiences.  One such device that is often used in both live and recorded worship music is the vamp. A vamp is defined as a short musical progression that is repeated, often as an introduction to another section.  In vamps within the worship setting, the worship leader often speaks, prays, or ad-libs vocally while the worship team repeats a single chord progression a number of times.  During this section, the worship team is responsible for keeping the music alive and responding to the worship leader.  In a very common implementation of this technique, the dynamic level of the song is lowered at the beginning of the vamp section and then slowly built to a point to where the song “tips over” to the final chorus or two.  Time spent watching live performances of worship teams will inevitably result in seeing this done.

What I find to be most interesting about vamping in worship is the enormous disparity between the possible effects. When done well, the swell of emotional worship can be overwhelming and amazing.  When done without thought, the vamp section ends up sounding awkward and clumsy.  On one hand you have an eruption of worship; on the other hand you have worship dropped to the ground.

Since this technique is so common and can have dramatic results (both good and bad), it is important for us as worship bassists to think about what can be done to make a vamp section successful.  To begin, it is very important to realize that one possible pitfall is the vamp structure itself:  usually consisting of 1-4 repeating chords, there is not a big song structure to hide behind.  In addition, the consistent, repeating nature of the vamp is used to heighten worship and increase congregational involvement and therefore takes away drastic reharmonization as an option.  Since so little is given in chord variance, it is important to look for other areas with which to work.  Here are a few suggestions of techniques to improve the vamp experience:

Dynamics

I will admit that this is an area to which I give a lot of attention both as a bassist and as a teacher, but I do so for good reason.  Dynamics give the worship bassist dramatic “shaping” abilities that apply perfectly to vamp sections.  When playing a vamp, think about the shape that the section should take on:  does it start soft and rise steadily to loud?  Are there “hills” or “valleys” that a particular vamp demands?  Will this change, depending on the worship leader?

Do not be afraid to implement effective dynamics and use the whole range of sound to your advantage.  If the vamp goes for a longer time than you expected, it is very easy to run out of headroom too early.  This is a quick way to reach the aforementioned “awkward and clumsy” stage!

Rhythm

Rhythm is a great tool for the worship bassist when building a vamp.  In some cases, rhythm can provide the ability to shape the vamp section much like that which can be done with dynamics: longer, held notes at the beginning of the vamp lead and build to a busier rhythmic line toward the end of the section.

In other cases, the bass rhythm figure may be important to maintain, but accents on certain notes can propel the line forward. This is particularly true when working with a drummer who listens and carries on a musical conversation with the bassist.  A single accent, played on the same rhythmic pattern, can change the effect entirely.

Arpeggiation

As I mentioned above, the vamp offers a static progression from which to work.  In many cases, the melodic and rhythmic interest of a bass line can be increased by playing patterns derived from the arpeggios of the chords.  It is important to regularly practice arpeggios and put on big ears when using them in worship, as it is very easy to lean into a note that does not sit with the group or walk yourself far away from comfortable transitions within the progression.  Once again, the line between “awesome” and “awkward” can become very thin!

This is a very small list of possible techniques worship bassists can employ during a vamp, but it is important to remember that they are just techniques. Musical approaches such as these are simply tools to be used thoughtfully, not parts to put together in a formula. Every vamp will be different and will require the worship bassist to listen to the worship leader and the other instrumentalists. The bassist has the ability to lead with their choices (you will be amazed at how many musicians look to the bass for dynamic, rhythmic, and melodic cues!), but must also be willing to be led.  Vamping can be tricky, but can ultimately create worship beyond compare.

Since I have listed only a few ideas about vamping, I would love to hear your thoughts!  Let me know what you have found to be effective in your worship vamps by leaving a comment below.

Until next time, I hope that your bass playing is blessed and that you can bless others through your bass playing!

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. James

    July 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Thank for the article and your column. They are an excellent read and help me prepare. Often times during service a vamp will happen during Communion, and it would be just an idea in the congregationmind often playing the chords to the last song while everyone takes part in Communion. Often times without drums or bass, but I feel rather as a rhythm instrument combining with the drums, the bass I think identifies more with the melody chording instruments. ( Guitar, keyboard,). While everyones worship leader is different, I think the goal of the bassist is to be a musical servant to God.

  2. Steve Gregory

    Steve Gregory

    July 21, 2011 at 10:43 am

    James,

    Thanks for your kind words, I very much appreciate them! The vamp during Communion is an excellent example of how different situations may call for different vamp techniques. In the Communion vamp you are being asked to create and maintain a specific environment, often with very limited change options. I think the difficulty here is maintaining a clear focus, so that the vamp provides a meaningful worship space that neither intrudes nor becomes monotonous. Also, it is important to follow the worship leader in these vamps and above all, being a servant is job #1!

    Steve

  3. Russell Hall

    July 26, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Interesting topic. We don’t have a lot of opportunity for vamping as such in our services, but a similar situation occurs when some of the congregation will come to the front of the stage for prayer needs. The worship team plays while that is taking place, and we have to be very watchful of the stage volume and make sure the “pray-ers” and the “pray-ees” can hear each other. That’s where the dynamics issue really comes into play! You have to support the song and be heard, but not be too loud.

    I find that in that situation and with standard vamps, less is always more. I’ll often play one note (and let it drift off) when I would usually be playing many more notes.

  4. Steve Gregory

    Steve Gregory

    August 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Russell,

    Your time of prayer is a very similar situation that demands a lot of attention to everything and everyone around you. Worship musicians often face situations in which they must decide how to best support the worship environment in creative ways – it sounds like you have definitely had many chances to do this!

    Steve

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