The Prodigal Altar Boy

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Prodigal Altar Boy Blog: Mommy, where do chord charts come from?

Mommy, where do chord charts come from?

As the pressure of the Christmas season bears down on us, I want to give a special shout out to all the Worship Leaders out there.  Here’s a familiar scenario:  someone from our worship team comes up to you and says, “There’s this song we absolutely have to do.  I’ll send you the YouTube link.”  On the outside, you keep a straight face, but for me, on the inside, I’m panicking.  

The panic is induced by the mistaken assumption that a video is all worship leaders need to crank out that song on stage.  I might be the exception, but even with a suite of tools to help, requests like this trigger my fight or flight response.  

Variation of the scenario:  Someone, either from church leadership or worship team leadership takes on such a request and tells you, “I’ll find you a chart on the web.”  One of the triumvirate I serve with was a little miffed when I said, “All charts on the internet are wrong.”  I stand by my statement.
The underlying problem is 99% (no, wait, 105%) of people making song requests can’t imagine what it takes to produce accurate chord charts.  It’s like sausage, everybody loves it, but no one wants to know how it’s made.  Here’s a peek behind the curtain in the process of turning a request into a performance.

YouTube links are a great starting point for figuring out a song, as well as a reference for the singers.  The problem is the videos are somewhat unwieldy for practicing with.  When someone sends me a video link for a song, the first thing I do is use a tool called Song Surgeon to strip the audio off the video and convert it to an mp3.  The mp3 is more compact (smaller file size) and is usable across a variety of playback platforms.
Getting the most out of mp3’s for practice requires a platform that allows

  • ·         The ability to set start and end points to start and stop the song

  • ·         The ability to set start and end points to loop certain parts of the song

  • ·         The ability to slow the song down without changing pitch (instrumentalists)

  • ·         The ability to shift the pitch of the song (singers) without slowing down the music

There is software that does all of this (Song Surgeon) as well as hardware (TASCAM GT-R1) that also does those tasks.  I own both because Song Surgeon is great for stripping audio from videos, but the GT-R1 has the added ability to record using onboard microphones, line in or ¼” guitar/bass jack.  I use it to record rehearsals and then send the recordings to the team so they can practice.  In a pinch, I can run an 1/8” cable from my phone to the TASCAM and record audio from a video right into the unit.

Every chart on the internet is wrong.  Still sticking to that.  The overarching problem with using charts from the internet is usually when you’re searching for a chart, you’re usually in a hurry and wading through all the ads and clickbait adds to your impatience and usually forces you to go with the first (free) chart you can find.  Your problem is compounded by the fact that while there are many sites with chord charts, many of the charts for a particular song will all be the same, with the same inaccuracies.  

Logic would dictate that if you pay for a chart, the odds are it would be more accurate.  Logic is wrong.  I currently subscribe to a service I won’t name.  That said, when that subscription runs out, I won’t renew.  I found a song on the site and after downloading and printing out the chart, I noticed the person who produced the chart caveated the chart with a note stating, “I know this chart is wrong, but this is what I use.”  I contacted the service and pointed out the note.  Their solution was to remove the note, but not change the chart.  I PAID for that. 

So, suffice it to say that any chart from the internet will need some work before it’s ready for prime time.  Among the common tasks needed:

  • ·         Adjusting font size so it is readable from the music stand.  You can have the most accurate chart in the world, but if it looks more like the fine print from your last car loan, it’s useless.

  • ·         Capo markings.  As a guitar player, I don’t use a capo at all.  I usually have to consult a capo user to tell me what key a capoed song is in, and then transpose accordingly.  For bass players, the capo notation is useless. 

  • ·         Key.  Is the key in the same key the recording you’re using to practice?  Is it in a key the singers can sing in?  More importantly, is it in a key the congregation can sing in?

  • ·         Musical sense.  Does the chart make sense musically?  Unless there’s a weird modulation, you’re not going to see F# in a song in the key of C.  (yes, I know, inverted chords might have notes outside the key if the bass note is a passing tone)

  • ·         Is it accurate?  When playing the chart along with the recording, does it sound like recording? 

Music Academy ( has a chord chart format they call “Super Chord Charts” that is well laid out and sets the standard for chard charts that are accurate, easy to read and follow.  A quick look at those charts give you an idea what a good chord chart should look like.

So, after converting the video to an mp3, figuring out the key of the mp3, finding (or altering) a chord chart to match the key and then making sure that chart is accurate, it’s time to get that chart out to the team.  Before uploading a chart, or when sharing charts via email, I always convert the chart to a PDF.  Word documents are nice, but the PDF is bulletproof for sharing.

The proof of any chord chart is whether the team can play it.  Sometimes it’s only when we get to rehearsal and recognize musical speed bumps in a chart.  Sometimes is as simple as deleting a chord that isn’t played in the mp3, or simplifying the introduction to the verse or chorus progression.  Regardless, the work isn’t done.  However the worship team decides to alter a chart, it’s a good idea to document that change for the next time you play the song.  Everyone always thinks they’ll remember, but that rarely happens.  Fortunately for our team, there’s usually someone who brings their old chart and has to remind everyone else.

We always want to do new songs, and it really helps if people requesting new songs help their worship team out by making it easy for us to do the songs you want to hear.  If anything, appreciate the time and effort that goes into the process.