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I have had engagements with my church to play my violin for worship. In the past, I've just played the root notes of the chords listed on the chord sheet, which has filled the sound in nicely, and added a little softness to the normal sound of rhythm guitars and drums, but I would like to do a little more.

What are some patterns that I can use with the violin when accompanying a standard worship band (think guitars, electric guitar, drum kit, bass guitar, vocals, keys, the like) to make things more interesting? Maybe fills, decorations, whatever... To make it clear, I have access to the key of the song before hand, and the chord sheet the day of, and not really anything else unless I were to look for it myself.

We're leading worship on Christmas Eve, and I think it would be nice to have a more interesting violin accompaniment.

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Chord tones are a great place to start. There's all the usual suspects, but do try adding ninths into major chords. You could also try and find one note to sustain over multiple chord changes. It might not be a note that's actually in the chord (ninths, and suspended fourths can be good here).

An improvisational technique that I've used is a guide tone line. Get some sheet music, and write the chord symbols over the bars. Then, pick a note in the first chord, and write it down. Then, go to the next chord, and pick another note. Try and keep the jump relatively small. You might even be able to use the same note. Then fill out a note for every chord. You can use this sequence of note as a guide to assist your improvisation. Eventually, you'll be able to do this automatically, without having to write anything down.

Once you've picked some notes, you need to think about rhythm. Strings are great at playing all sorts of pseudo-percussive lines. Taking it to the extreme, you've got Casting Crown's Joyful Joyful and Chris Tomlin's Our God. I feel I should also mention Coldplay's Viva la Vida. This may be hard to pull off without multiple string players, although a decent keyboard + a violin can sound pretty convincing.

Here's a transcription of Our God that I did a few years ago. It's probably not entirely accurate, but it illustrates some of the rhythmic ideas. Click the pictures for readable versions.

Our God page 1 Our God page 2

Another example is Newsboys' cover of Hallelujah for the Cross. The line is featured as an instrumental, but can be played over the final chorus quite effectively. Here's some sheet music (possibly in a different key):

String Bridge - Hallelujah for the Cross

Note the simple rhythmic ideas, and the use of the ninth over the D chord. It might not be musical brilliance, but it suits the song well.

There's many more examples I could list of the use of strings in contemporary Christian styles, which are often akin to modern pop. Think either soaring melodic lines, or rhythmic patterns, often in quavers or crotchets. Alternating 4-1 or 5-1 in marcato quavers is pretty boring, but it can be really effective.

On a non-string-specific note, remember that you don't have to play all the time. I tend to think that every note that you don't play makes the ones that you do play more meaningful. It may sound strange, but playing less is a crucial musical skill that can be overlooked.

  • Amazing answer. Here's a general question -- why say "9th" instead of "2nd?" – General Nuisance Dec 18 '16 at 22:22
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    @GeneralNuisance It's somewhat academic. I tend to think of them as ninths when they are added on as an extension. I'm also under the impression that Cadd9 is a more correct term that C2 or Cadd2. At the end of the day, pick the one that makes the most sense to you (or the person you're talking with). – endorph Dec 18 '16 at 23:20
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You can very effectively play the melody. And, as endorph says, you can probably play less. Everyone in a church band can probably play less. And quieter. If you find yourself playing at the beginning of a song and not stopping until the end, you are definitely playing too much!

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    I think this is the best answer to help people sing along. So everyone gets to sing "the violin part". – luser droog Dec 19 '16 at 1:29
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    I forgot the obvious solution :-). However, I do think this is dependent on the style of the song, and the band that is playing it. Sometimes multiple instruments/vocalists playing the melody can make it muddy and hard to follow, particularly if there is any disagreement on rhythm. – endorph Dec 19 '16 at 11:59
  • Well, the band must prepare and rehearse so that there AREN'T any disagreements on rhythm! But I say again, very often the best thing to play will be - nothing. – Laurence Payne Dec 22 '16 at 10:55
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I think you can do a lot of interesting things by playing chord tones. Not just the root, but 3rds and 5ths and 7ths.

One thing that I think works well over a Plagal cadence (IV -> I, like F -> C), is to play the root of second chord over both chords (C over the F, and sustain the same C through the C chord).

(I realize this answer is very short. I will try to think of more.)

  • I like it so far! – General Nuisance Dec 18 '16 at 6:20
  • I think @endorph's answer covers very well what I was trying to get at. – luser droog Dec 19 '16 at 20:00

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