Guitarists Can’t Play Hymns

electric_guitar_closeup Guitars and hymns don’t often mix well. Hymns are for pianos and organs, right? A guitarist will look at a hymnal and go cross-eyed. Why? Because most guitarists play by ear and typically don’t have sufficient sight-reading skills. The chords are there on the page, but in the form of notes on a staff. A guitarist is used to reading tab or chord chart you might find online or in a guitar magazine. There’s a massive disconnect here. Why can’t guitarists just play hymns? The core issue is simply a matter formatting. If you take the time to utilize a little music theory knowledge, you can translate the traditional hymn format into a guitar-friendly chord chart. Sounds easy. Why aren’t more worship leaders doing this? Simple- it takes a significant time investment and some knowledge of music theory. In John 17:14-19, he talks about being “in the world, and not of it.” If you’ve spent time in Christian circles, you’re probably familiar with the phrase. I’d like to propose that we say “not of, but sent into.Matthew 5:14 says we are a “light of the world.” We have been sent into the world to be a light for Christ. What better way to be that light than to beef up our worship with hymns that are slammed with great theology? I believe we need to bring the hymns to today’s church. Let’s talk through what you can do in today’s churches to make them guitar and band-friendly- no matter your skill level or available time.


Over the past twenty years (more or less), guitarists have become common in church worship music. They are so common, that some churches rarely use a piano, let alone a pipe organ. In my article, Why Hymns Still Matter, I talk a little about the three main styles of church worship- traditional, blended, and contemporary. The traditional style is where you’re going to find pianos and organs happily playing dominantly hymns. Blended has some hymns and some worship songs. Contemporary is mostly worship songs and hymns rarely make an appearance. Most worship leaders tend to be bi-vocational- and volunteers. How can you find the time to simplify the chord progression in a hymnal into a guitar-friendly chord chart? Most of the time, you don’t. So, you’re left with sticking to popular hymn arrangements that Chris Tomlin or Hillsong might do. There are a few other resources (paid and free) on the web that provide chord charts for hymns, but in my experience, they still tend to be too complicated and too difficult for a guitarist to easily follow along- too many chord changes. Why? Pianos and organs are perfectly content to changes chord every beat. Not so for guitarists. They can easily play only one, maybe two, chords per measure. Let a guitarist play a few measures on a chord and they’ll be happy as a clam. Let’s look at why. The nature of strumming a guitar lends itself to grooving on a single chord. For a pianist to hang out on a single chord, it can sometimes feel a little stiff. So, guitars rock out on the same chord and pianos play lots of transitionary chords. This greatly over-simplified explanation is just to give you an idea of what worship leaders are facing week-in week-out.



If you do have the time and skills, it can be hugely rewarding to craft your own hymn arrangements. You can mold and shape them in a way that will reach the culture and feel of your church worship style and community. There are a few tips that you may want to keep in mind as you journey down this road. The most important thing you can do is to keep it simple. Try to do no more than one chord per bar- only occasionally using two when absolutely necessary. Keep the key in a singable range and lean towards guitar-friendly keys like D, G, and E (guitarists can use a capo to change key though, so don’t worry too much about it). The feel of a modern hymn arrangement is a big deal- adding drums, bass and synthesizer pads will go a long way. Developing a great feel can take time. Let your arrangements evolve as you use them in your worship services. Take notes and make improvements. If you have the basic equipment to record song demos for your band to rehearse with- even better!


There are some fantastic resources available online if you have some budget to work with. I’ve taken my arrangements from leading worship the past 15 years and created to be a resource for blended and contemporary churches. These arrangements are built with worship bands in mind. Catchy drum grooves, hooky guitar riffs, and contemporary vocals- all while staying true to the core melodies of each hymn. Every arrangement has a band-friendly chord chart in every key. There’s also sheet music for pianos and synth pads, and lead sheets for vocalists (also in every key). Even beyond that, there are MP3 demos of every arrangement- bands love to play by ear and these are easy to upload to online planning sites like Planning Center Online. I’d like you to take one of my arrangements for a spin this weekend in your church. Check out my free download page for everything you need to get started. I realize that my style of doing hymns may not appeal to every worship leader. That said, there are also other hymn resources for worship bands at PraiseCharts, LifeWay Worship, HymnCharts, and Worship Together. Some are free and some are paid. Use your best judgement on what’s right for you.


Keep it simple and utilize the resources in this article to make it easy. Let’s take our worship and witness to the dark corners of the earth and be a light for Christ!


Adam Layne Fisher

Adam is a worship leader, producer, and songwriter with a passion for bringing hymns to today’s church. He serves full-time as the Non-Traditional Worship Leader at Buncombe Street United Methodist Church. You can support his ministry by purchasing his full-length worship album on iTunesSpotifyAmazon and other online retailers.

If you’d like to learn more about Adam, check out his personal blog:

Adam Layne Fisher