Few experiences of Mass can be worse than one ruined by bad guitar playing accompanying a bad song. Sadly, the versatility of guitar voicings that can create a sacred sound has been lost upon most of a generation due to the incompetence of the average Joe playing one in a typical Sunday Mass. I intend to demonstrate in this post how the guitar can be played liturgically and what guidance the church documents on the liturgy give about this matter.
I'm dissapointed that conversations on this topic often start with blanket statements such as "guitars are irreverent" or "the guitar has no place in mass." These statements occur nowhere in church documents on the liturgy and represent subjective opinions. Attempts could be made to argue to such positions starting from the documents, however, I will attempt to demonstrate that a better reading of Musicam Sacram supports the use of the guitar when played in a liturgical voicing.
Musicam Sacram defines sacred music as "that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form" and states that "The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious" [paragraph 4.(b)]. Note that the Church considers some "popular music" to be sacred and that "other approved instruments" may be used in addition to the organ. While this information is sadly lacking anywhere I can find on the internet, I did find this note while reading a reference book: "In the same year , the U.S. Bishop's Liturgy Committee approved the use of contemporary music, as well as guitars and other suitable instruments, in the liturgy." [Dr. Matthew Bunson, Catholic Almanac, 2011, pg. 187].
Contra the idea that liturgical music should be exclusively traditional, Musicam Sacram in paragraph 61 states "Adapting sacred music for those regions which possess a musical tradition of their own, especially mission areas, will require a very specialized preparation by the experts. It will be a question in fact of how to harmonize the sense of the sacred with the spirit, traditions and characteristic expressions proper to each of these peoples. Those who work in this field should have a sufficient knowledge both of the liturgy and musical tradition of the Church, and of the language, popular songs and other characteristic expressions of the people for whose benefit they are working." Note that this paragraph does not state that only mission areas may use local musical genres. I must address an argument that claims this paragraph refers exclusively to music that was already considered sacred for its use in pagan worship prior to cultures converting to Christianity. I point out that such an interpretation is inconsistent with reference to "popular songs" and further that such an interpretation subjugates the actual text of the document to a "Spirit of Vatican II."
Paragraph 63 continues: "In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions." What are the culture and traditions of the American people? I note the the guitar is common to nearly every style of folk music in the United States, from African Spirituals, to Appalachian folk, to Gospel. The use of guitar in music is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our culture and as such we should be seeking to harmonize its use with the liturgy. But what if the guitar is "by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only"? I answer that it is not. The traditionalist seeking to eliminate the guitar has a lot of ground to cover in establishing that the general population of Catholics in our country considers the guitar "suitable for secular music only" in light of its widespread usage in Catholic parishes. Note that "it's obvious to me personally that it doesn't belong" reflects your personal subjective opinions and says nothing about the general population. Further, such an argument flies in the face of the existence of Gospel music which has been using the guitar for a sacred purpose for over 100 years. I suggest rather that this paragraph is referring to harmonicas, kazoos, and accordions (joke instruments in our culture, by and large) and the sort of techno/computer synthesized instrumentation that accompanies pop music and is in fact considered by everyone to be suitable for entertainment purposes only. As a final note, the judgement of which instruments are "suitable for secular music only" is to be made by the local bishops' conference, which in our country has judged in their favor.
All that considered, the following are some practices that can allow the guitar to have a sacred sound. Bad experiences of guitar music in mass often are the result of entire songs being aggressively strummed without consideration for the appropriateness of this technique to the song. The result is a characterless monotone that distracts from the human voice. Strumming is an easy technique for beginners and such guitar playing reflects an "anything goes" culture where guitarists are allowed to play for mass before they are qualified.
Good liturgical guitar players know how to play their instrument in a manner that supports the human voice as the primary liturgical instrument and help to give structure and form to the song. One way to do this is to finger pick and carry the melody on the guitar. I consider the following to be a virtuoso example of how to do this. I specifically picked Silent Night for an example because this is an old hymn originally written for the guitar.
Tasteful strumming can also help to give structure to a song while maintaining the human voice as the primary instrument. I consider 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman a great example of a contemporary song with a hymn-like structure and theological depth. This video shows strumming done right:
I've heard some people say that they consider the acoustic guitar appropriate for mass but not the electric guitar. If anything, this is backwards. The electric guitar is among the most versatile instruments known to mankind and its incredible range of voicings allow it to support the human voice better and in a more worshipful feel than the acoustic can easily achieve. Certainly, we should avoid the motifs of hard rock, metal, and the like. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the electric guitar has some abilities that make it particularly suited to worship. The Catholic Church gives the organ pride of place in worship in part because of its ability to produce a sustained sound, like the human voice does, rather than a discrete sound that starts to die as soon as the note is struck. Sustain on an electric guitar produces such a continuous sound! Furthermore, while the acoustic guitar can have a harsh pop to it, clean (distortion free) amplification channels can produce a much gentler sound. Here are some examples of this:
-Church documents allow for the use of guitar in the liturgy
-Finger picking can help support the human voice by following the melody
-Strumming should be subtle and not overpowering the singer
-Sustain and clean channel amplification can create a sacred sound on the electric guitar
My hope is that this gives you a broader perspective on how the guitar can be used in the liturgy!
I am a Catholic liturgical musician seeking to understand the role of the laity in worship and particularly the role of lay musicians in worship.
Discussion of Liturgy:
Music Gift of God
Musica Sacra Forum
Parish Book of Psalms
Simple English Propers
Public Domain Hymns