We recently had the enormous privilege of connecting with Michael Pope. Michael is one of the lead guitarists for Bethel Music in Redding, CA. Beyond being a phenomenal guitarist and mover and shaker in the worship guitar world Michael has a great heart for worship. We asked him a number of questions ranging from his roots as a guitarist to what gear he is currently playing. Enjoy.
Aaron: How long have you been playing guitar?
Michael: About 23 years now. I asked my parents for a guitar when I was 3 and just can’t seem to put it down.
Aaron: Tell us a bit of your story? Did you grow up in Bethel Church?
Michael: Well, I’ve only been in Redding for the past 6-7 years. I was born in Houston, lived in Florida for a few years, and after living in Oklahoma City for awhile my family moved to a really small prison town in OK called McAlester. I started playing in churches about that time. I was probably 12-13 years old. Growing up in a small town you end up having friends that go to a bunch of different small churches so I’d play music all over town with friends as often as I could.
In 2009 I went to Bethel’s worship school (now called WorshipU) and then came back the following year to do their ministry school. I was about halfway through my first year of ministry school when I started playing at the church and that summer I got an email from Joel Taylor (CEO of Bethel Music) asking me to play on For The Sake of The World. I’ve been working with BM ever since.
Aaron: What guitarists have been huge influences on your playing?
Michael: Growing up I was only allowed to listen to christian music so my main influences were StuG (Delirious?) and Chris Greely (Rock and Roll Worship Circus). Nowadays, I’d have to say guys like JD Simo, Butch Walker, Zane Carney, Ryan Adams, Blake Mills, and Craig Ross are who I’m inspired by the most. Though I guess I don’t often get to pull from those influences much for Bethel stuff. Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons are a big deal for me too. Keith Richards is my favorite guitar player of all time.
Aaron: What Bethel song is your current favorite to play?
Michael: Idk, if I have just one. It changes often. We’ve been playing Amanda Cook’s song Bitter/Sweet lately and that one is a lot of fun. We’ve also been doing “You Make Me Brave” but we play the version from our instrumental record Synesthesia. That has a really fast/ hard guitar line at the end of the bridge so I enjoy the challenge of playing that live… and Paul McClure’s song “Jesus We Love You” is probably the best corporate worship song ever written in my opinion. I get to play slide on that so double points for that song.
Aaron: The latest Bethel Album “Have it All” has been one of our favorites this year. Give us some insight into your role as a writer in terms of guitar parts and music. Do you have any tips for guitarists who are aspiring to write parts for their original songs?
Michael: For Have It All i wrote most of the guitar parts/ riffs. Bobby took more of a keys/ arrangements focus initially so I kinda just went at it on guitar for awhile before he joined in. We set up in our studio and just jammed out a song or two everyday. Eventually someone would land on something we all thought was good so we’d write parts around that vibe. The artists, producers, and label would get involved at that point and tell us what they want changed so then it’s just a matter of trying to serve that vision while keeping a good vibe musically. As a player I look to the producer first for direction and try to capture what they’re looking for. That’s usually a great starting place. But more often I find I’m hired by producers who want me to just go for it and then they can refine it if necessary.
For aspiring writers I think the best advice is to just write as often as you can and don’t let the fear hold you back. It’s easy to be discouraged at the beginning because you’re going to write a bunch of stupid sounding parts. But, the more you do it, the better you get. You also realize that you never really stop writing bad parts, you just write better ones a lot more often. Also, it helps to be open to honest feedback and criticism from people who are better than you. Be un-offended as much as possible.
Aaron: Being in and out of the studio and on the road is it ever hard to stay focused on worship rather than just the day to day? How do you stay centered on Christ in the midst of the logistics and chaos?
Michael: I really try not to look at work and worship as two separate things. Worship to me is a way of living my life as a whole. It’s a heart posture of always wanting to bring glory and honor to the Father with whatever I’m doing. That said, I’m lucky enough to make music for a living and I do my best to interact and work with people in a way that points them to the Lord. That goes for whatever project or client I’m working with, Christian or not. That focus and heart posture of looking for what He is wanting to do through my life keeps me feeling “centered” as you call it.
Aaron: Worship at Bethel has a lot of spontaneity. How do you approach rehearsals and practice to prepare yourself for those spontaneous times?
Michael: We rehearse as much as reasonably possible and I really try to make sure the band guys know the songs in and out. I need them to really know their parts AND the arrangements for all of our songs. Usually we’re just vamping on a certain section of the song we were just playing so being familiar with the song helps us keep our heads on straight when we go into a spontaneous moment.
Knowing your instrument and practicing regularly is a huge deal too. I work a lot these days so playing live and writing in the studio is usually my “practice” time. However, I’ve recently felt a little confined as a player doing so much of one thing… so I’ve been trying to play more at home focusing on things that are not so commonly played in church music. That’s been helpful in spontaneous moments as well because it gives me a bigger bag of tricks to pull from in those moments. Knowing the Nashville number system is helpful as well.
Aaron: We have seen snapshots of your guitar rig over the years, what are you currently using as far as guitars, pedals and amps go?
Michael: Man, gear stuff gets crazier everyday. I like AC30’s a lot. I almost always play one of those in stereo with a Fender style amp. That kind of setup is pretty consistent for me live. Veritas guitars are a staple for me too. I’ve been playing them awhile now and it’s great to see someone like Casey finally get their brand established. They make incredible instruments and even though I love playing lots of different guitars, I’ll always play the Veritas stuff. Strymon, JHS, and Walrus Audio make great pedals that I use everyday and thoroughly love. And I know that’s maybe cliche because everyone uses those pedals but I promise I’m not biased.
Then there’s studio gear (which is a whole different topic that I don’t need to get into here.) I have an big love for vintage effects. Vintage anything really. I collect all sorts of old fuzz pedals. I have an old EP3 Echoplex tape delay which is the only delay i like more than a memory man. I recently got an original Fender tube reverb unit from 1962 that RULES… So yeah, I have a problem just like the rest of you out there.
Aaron: If you were able to give one piece of advice to the new upcoming guitarists in worship teams, what would that piece of advice be?
Michael: Be ok with what you do and appreciate what you have now.
Aaron: Are you able to share anything about what’s next for you and the team at Bethel? Any new album plans or projects in the works for 2017?
Michael: I’m in the process of building a recording studio with my good friends Daniel Mackenzie and James Nichols. Lot’s of good things are sure to come of that. As for Bethel Music, we have a very full schedule of touring and recording and the like so that always exciting. It’s crazy to see how the Lord is using Bethel Music right now and I’m really grateful to be part of it.
We have been blessed with the opportunity to connect with Michael and are excited to see what God is going to do with and through him and Bethel Music.