Is the Acoustic Guitar God’s Favorite Instrument?
How the acoustic guitar has shaped the modern music of the Judeo-Christian liturgy.
For an instrument that’s been so vital to the evolution of popular music over the past century, the guitar has traveled a long road in finding its place in religious culture. In the United States, this mostly pertains to Christian and Jewish contexts—Islamic services, even today, typically feature just unaccompanied singing—for reasons that range from traditional law, cultural trends, and popular opinion. But over time, the acoustic guitar has been far more widely accepted as a viable musical voice in church and synagogue settings.
Part of what kept the guitar’s voice in worship was not just culture but logistics. The acoustic guitar didn’t receive its modern form until the mid-19th century, and for a long time it was too quiet to be heard before a large crowd—such as a congregation—due to the animal gut that was used for strings, not to mention a lack of electric amplification. When steel strings were first commercially introduced in the 1920s by C. F. Martin & Company, the guitar became more capable of standing on its own against other acoustic instruments. But it wasn’t until the advent of the electric guitar in the 1930s that guitarists were fully capable of being heard in the mix of choirs and ensembles.
The acoustic guitar’s first gateway into church services was through the emergence of gospel music in the African-American evangelical and Baptist churches of the South. In the early 1930s, the blues pianist Thomas A. Dorsey, who recorded with Tampa Red as Georgia Tom, transformed church music by introducing jazz and blues styles to the genre for the first time, opening the doors for gospel blues guitarists to enter just a handful of years later. Outside of church, guitarists including Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson furthered the early gospel blues style, but singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the first to bring it inside.
A child prodigy, Tharpe (born Rosetta Nubin) began playing guitar at the age of four, and at six joined her mother on an evangelical tour in which “concerts” were equal parts music and sermon. Entering the mainstream in the late 1930s with a variety of crossover gospel hits (including some of Dorsey’s compositions), Tharpe is largely credited for pioneering the pop-gospel genre, and even providing a prototype for rock ’n’ roll to come. Her music made a lasting impact on Southern church music, and she has been cited as a major influence on Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among other popular musicians.
Roebuck “Pops” Staples was another gospel guitarist who brought the style both into the church and the mainstream in the early half of the 20th century. Playing with blues guitarists Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House as a young man, Staples later joined church groups as a vocalist before forming the revolutionary Staples Singers with his wife and three children in 1948. The group quickly became a sensation both in church services and commercially, bringing gospel music to a broader audience, as well as adding their voices to the civil rights movement, with hits such as “Let’s Do It Again,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “Respect Yourself.”
The Folk Era
A slightly harder-won step in the guitar’s role in church was in another, more dominant sect of Christianity—Catholicism. In the early half of the 20th century, Catholic mass was, in all respects, steeped in tradition. Mass was said in Latin—which was taught in Catholic grade schools—and the music revolved around the organ and church choir, which performed only traditional hymns. “In the late ’60s, there were four hymns,” says Joe DeSanctis, a former seminarian and musical director at Holy Innocents Parish, in Pleasantville, New York. “‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name,’ ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ ‘Faith of Our Father,’ and ‘Whatsoever You Do.’ These were the songs you played, over and over.”
In 1959, less than three months after taking office, Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of Catholic religious leaders set to address matters of spiritual renewal within the church. Held from 1962–1965, one of the council’s first big moves was to change the language of the church to English. (Already, this introduced problems in church music, as there were few hymns written in the English language.) Then, in 1967, the Holy See (also known as the Vatican, or the official jurisdiction of the Catholic Church) published the Musicam sacram, which decreed that vernacular musical styles and instrumentation were to be allowed in church. The instruction also foresaw “a period of experimentation in order [to] attain a sufficient maturity and perfection.”
The enormous changes in what was becoming acceptable in the Catholic Church around this time gave way to two new musical trends: First, the contemporary Christian genre, and shortly after, what became known as the Catholic folk mass. As a young seminarian in the early 1960s, Ray Repp was discovering his penchant for writing folk music right around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Inspired by songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” Repp began writing liturgical folk songs that quickly spread among his peers. In 1965, Repp published his Mass for Young Americans, one of the first mass settings arranged for purely guitar accompaniment, under the first established publisher of contemporary liturgical music, F. E. L. Publications. Though at first banned by dozens of dioceses in the States, his music created a momentum that soon evolved into an entire genre.
Outside of the original liturgical folk music being composed by people like Repp, Catholic services around the country were soon overtaken by what became known as the folk mass. In place of traditional hymns, churches were filled with the folk guitar sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary; the Beatles; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Pete Seeger; and Simon & Garfunkel, with songs such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Teach Your Children,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
“The early onset of guitar use was really a way to engage young people in a language that they could understand,” says DeSanctis. “The whole folk experience really comes out of youth trying to rediscover itself. I think the Catholic Church was listening. What we were doing as musicians in the ’60s and ’70s kind of came out in church music—and the church wisely said, ‘Let’s use this to engage, it could be lifting our spirits up as well.’”
Eventually, the popular folk songs of the day fell by the wayside and were replaced by new compositions in the contemporary Christian genre. Composer/guitarists that have followed in Repp’s footsteps include Dan Schutte and Bob Hurd, whose compositions “Here I Am, O Lord,” “Table of Plenty,” and “Taste and See” have become mainstays in modern Catholic and Christian services.
As culture was changing within the walls of churches around the country, so it was beyond them. In the late 1960s, the Living Room, a small missionary storefront located in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, led the way in what became known as the Jesus Movement. An independent Christian community, the Living Room drew a following of hippie-to-born-again-Christian converts, building a momentum that quickly spread to communes, college campuses, and organizations around the Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, and elsewhere.
“By 1971, the movement had become the religious story of the year,” says Larry Eskridge, history instructor at Wheaton College in Illinois, and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The Jesus Movement drew heavily on a demographic of 17- to 25-year-olds, who took the popular music of the day and created a new genre: Jesus music.
A subgenre of contemporary Christian music, “Jesus music” used traditional folk, folk rock, soft rock, and country formats as vehicles for Christian messages and was often used to draw a greater following within the Jesus Movement. While its sound was not far off from the acoustic guitar-led strains emanating from the Catholic folk masses, Jesus music was distinguished in part by its evangelical zeal, heard in songs like Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which refers to the second coming of Christ—a common theme within evangelical circles. Popular artists in the genre included Children of the Day, Chuck Girard, Bethlehem, and Resurrection Band. The movement eventually spread to the UK, where it earned the title gospel beat.
Similar to Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues around the United States took some time to warm up to the use of the guitar—or any musical instruments—in religious services (see Psalm 150). However, this wasn’t always the case. In ancient Judaism, instruments were a significant part of synagogue, which often featured full orchestras of drums, cymbals, horns, and lyres. But after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple (the Jewish holy temple in Jerusalem), in 70 A.D., it swiftly became law that musical instruments were not allowed in synagogue during the Sabbath (from just before sundown each Friday through nightfall on Saturday) and on holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
‘I always say the acoustic guitar is God’s favorite instrument.’
Several justifications are offered for this law, one being that Jews were to be in perpetual mourning over the loss of the Second Temple. “In Orthodox movements, the guitar is still not used, and there are a couple of different reasons why,” says Ben Rosner, cantor and musical director at Mosaic Law Congregation, in Sacramento, California. “They consider it to be prohibited on the Sabbath because it’s a form of work. Even if that would be debated, what happens if you break a string? Then you change it—that act of replacing the string is considered work.” Because of that reason and the loss of the Temple, Rosner says, the Orthodox movement “prohibits it.” (Even if those reasons weren’t in place, Orthodox Jews are also restricted from using electricity on the Sabbath, precluding the use of microphones or amplified guitars.)
In the 19th century, the emergence of Reform Judaism helped lay the foundation for the presence of the acoustic guitar in modern Jewish services. Unrestricted by the law of the Orthodox movement, the Reform movement was free from its inception to include musical instruments in synagogue, and often featured organ and piano, while Orthodox worship was restricted to just vocal accompaniment. Like in Catholicism, the shift to guitar in the Reform movement began around the ’70s, with artists such as Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, and Jeff Klepper composing highly influential original music for Jewish liturgy. Carlebach, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote liturgical music that was not intended for worship, but that ended up being adopted into worship services in many Reform and Conservative synagogues. Friedman, who was known for leading her congregation with her liturgical songs written in ’60s folk style, sold over 200,000 records, had her music performed on Barney and Friends, and in 1995, performed a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall celebrating the 25th anniversary of her career.
“The style of music by Carlebach in concert and the style of music with Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper were in the style of the time,” says Rosner. “You can listen to that music alongside something from the ’70s and ’80s and think, ‘I can imagine hearing this in cafes, too,’ so it paralleled what people were listening to. American culture was becoming more guitar-centric.”
Today, guitars are prevalent in the Reform movement, while the Conservative movement, which developed in the late 19th century as a middle ground to Reform and Orthodox Judaism, has been slower to adopt instruments. “They’re trying to find a way within the Jewish religious legal system to be able to justify it,” says Rosner.
Putting It Into Practice
Early adopters of the guitar in worship might have used the instrument in a prescribed manner, but they paved the way for current practices of a variety of worship leaders from different denominations. These leaders play familiar liturgical fare—and new music as well—in a wide range of styles and settings, often using setups that are much more sophisticated than the unamplified folk guitars that their predecessors played in churches and synagogues.
At Mosaic Law Congregation, Rosner presides over various ensembles made up of a wide variety of instrumentalists and singers (instruments at Mosaic Law Congregation are used for prayer only on Friday nights). For music services and concerts, he typically leads on guitar. “Sometimes I plug in and sometimes I don’t, depending on the room that I’m leading the service in. And in a room that’s really big, I’ll either plug in to a Yamaha TF1 [digital mixer], or I’ll use an Audio-Technica wireless mic, or my Fishman preamp.
‘The early onset of guitar use was really a way to engage young people in a language that they could understand.’
“My go-to nylon-string for synagogue service nowadays is a Córdoba Gipsy Kings model,” he adds, commenting on its versatility in the synagogue. “It allows me to strum and use some flamenco technique. It’s great for being able to bridge the gap of classical and strumming styles, and to be able to play bossa-nova style accompaniment, as well.” He also uses a Taylor 212ce, a “good midrange” guitar that’s useful for folk styles; his father’s Guild 12-string with a K&K pickup; a custom-made Alan Chapman guitar; a D’Angelico hollowbody; and sometimes even his SoloEtte travel guitar.
Jack Kessler, director of the Aleph Cantorial Program in Philadelphia, typically leads his Conservative congregation in a more traditional, classical guitar style. “[I use] the guitar for light fingerpicking to help support the singing community. And when it comes to the kind of chants that I do in my synagogue where we need to set up some sort of drone, I will frequently detune the guitar, so that there are several open strings at an octave and a fifth.” Kessler performs on a Manuel Contreras classical guitar using an Art Tube MP Studio preamp, a Boss digital reverb pedal, and a Trace Elliott amp.
Saint Peter’s Church, a Lutheran congregation located in midtown Manhattan, is one example of how church music has evolved in the past century. While offering traditional services, Saint Peter’s also has a jazz ministry, specifically designed to incorporate professional jazz musicians into church services, such as the Sunday evening Jazz Vespers. Over the years, Jazz Vespers has featured a variety of acoustic guitarists, with groups such as the Emilio Teubal Quartet (with guitarist Ivan Barenboim) and the Gene Bertoncini Trio. In his 50-year career, Bertoncini has played alongside legends like Benny Goodman, Wayne Shorter, Lena Horne, and Tony Bennett.
Psalm 31 | May 14, 2017 Jazz Vespers from Saint Peter’s Church on Vimeo.
“The warmth of the instrument certainly lends itself to spirituality—and as far as jazz is concerned, it comes spontaneously, driven by the creativity and the love that naturally comes with improvising,” says Bertoncini, who performs on a nylon-string made by the luthier John Buscarino. “I always say,” he adds, jokingly, “the acoustic guitar is God’s favorite instrument.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.