Spamalot

Here’s another short video from the musical theatre pit, this time from a production of Spamalot at South Hill Park in Bracknell (UK)

The show is surprisingly “legit”, with much of the guitar pad being written for archtop and banjo, plus a couple of pastiche “power ballads” (including a couple of opportunities for melodic soloing) and a disco-tastic number for a solid-bodied guitar. Of course, I covered all of these using my Variax, with the guitar models hard-wired into patches on the Helix. There were also a few bits of nylon-string, which went on my Godin Multiac Dual Ambience. Plus literally 2 bars of ukulele, which I tried to cover with a capo on the nylon-string, but almost never made the transition in time!

It’s a fun show to play, particularly for anyone who enjoys the Monty Python style of humour. And because of the arrangement, there are quite a few times when the guitar is tacet while the rest of the band plays (if I hadn’t been stuck in the corner, I could have been first into the bar for the interval, for example!) Nothing that struck me as terribly difficult, but a few tight changes of style that mean you can’t really switch off. And there were no real issues with the parts – the novelty here is that they are provided to the group as PDFs, to be printed on demand. So we could write notes on the parts without having to worry about rubbing them out at the end.

I’m booked to play this show again in a few months’ time, with the added complication of covering as much of the Reed 2 part as I can when the guitar isn’t busy. Having seen how many instruments are required for Reed 2, that could be interesting from a space logistics point of view, quite apart from actually playing the stuff!

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9 to 5

Here’s a quick video from the pit for a Dolly-tastic production of 9 to 5.

My rig was based around the Line 6 Helix, running direct into Front of House, with a small powered cab for monitoring. The main sound was based on the Mesa Lonestar model, with boost and drive, a bit of chorus and delay. I added a wah-wah for the 335 version (see below).

My main guitar was my Variax (JTV-59P), mostly using a Telecaster model, with a couple of things on a 335 (“Heart to Hart”, and with some top rolled off for “One of the Boys”). I set a new patch for acoustics, using snapshots on the Helix to switch Variax models between 6- and 12-strings, and also the Dobro for slide on Hart’s sleazy number (forgot the name, oops!).

This show was also the debut for my gorgeous new Godin Multiac nylon-string. Again, I built a separate patch on the Helix, which muted the Variax input (all the Variax patches muted the guitar input).

The part was suitably “country” with lovely faux pedal steel licks under the vocal on “Backwoods Barbie” and a hot picking solo for the bows.

There’s one important error to flag in the part. While I played Guitar 1 for most of the show (there was no Guitar 2), I played the Guitar 2 part for “Change It” – the acoustic strumming that drives the song. In the part, it says to use a capo on the 1st fret, but in fact you need to start with the capo on the 2nd fret for the first 20 bars or so and then move it down. That said, the notation for the capo was pretty good, making it clear what chords to play and what key they’re meant to sound.

I really enjoyed playing this show, and was surrounded by excellent musicians – particularly, a horn section who were spot on! It seems pretty fashionable right now: some friends of mine did it last year, and I’ve seen at least 3 other productions in the London area in the past few weeks!

Romeo and Juliet

Here’s a short piece from me, playing incidental music (composed by George Jennings) for a production of Romeo and Juliet, at South Hill Park in Bracknell, UK.

As you’ll see, I’m new to all this video presenting/production stuff… I’ll try to do this more frequently, and sort out camera positioning etc.

I managed to leave out the most useful technical part of this – I’m using several different picking techniques for different cues:

  • Fingers – nails on some bits, fleshy bits for others
  • Picks – a medium pick for most of the strummy bits, and a light pick for one particular theme, which is even more strummy

“Just So” by Stiles & Drewe

After another hiatus in posting stuff here, I wanted to write a short piece about the show I finished last night: “Just So” by Stiles and Drewe. These are the guys who wrote Honk!, which I know really well, but I hadn’t heard Just So until last week, let alone played it. As a musical, it’s quite similar to Honk – adapting a well-known story with many actors playing animals. Several of the characters have parallels in Honk, and it’s not surprising that they started work on Just So, then wrote Honk and eventually finished Just So around 20 years after starting it! Honk gets done more frequently, and I think that’s justified, but if your group has already enjoyed doing Honk, then Just So would be a good piece to look at a couple of years later. There are also a few sections that reminded me of Into The Woods, which was fairly fresh in the 1980s when work on Just So started.

In terms of gear, I used my regular Pod HD500 DI’d into the house desk and also fed into a small wedge monitor, and my Hohner G3T “Steinberger-lite”. This was a deliberate effort NOT to use my Variax, to make sure my other guitars get used! The Hohner also has an unusual pull-pot as stock that does “something” to the sound (it’s not a coil-tap or phase thing, but I’m not sure what it is – maybe a fixed EQ?) that makes it sound glassy and good for faking steel-string acoustic sounds. There are a couple of places where “dive-bombs” are called for, so a bar is essential. On the Pod, I used four basic sounds:

  • Clean “acoustic” sound – no amp modelling, with a bit of EQ and reverb
  • Clean “Andy Summers” sound – Fender Twin with compression and chorus, plus short and long delay options
  • Stock sound – actually the HiWatt model, with options for clean boost, overdrive, delay, chorus and wahwah
  • Creamy lead sound – Marshall with options for stackable distortions, plus phaser and octaver (called for in a couple of numbers)

Then came the toys… a couple of numbers need a capo (and one of them even thoughtfully writes chord names as they should be played, not just how they sound) and a slide is also very handy, Pretty much the first cue calls for an eBow (which I don’t have) so I made do with slide, overdrive and delay, using my volume pedal to fade in so the pick noise didn’t get caught by the delay. There is also a cue for uke or Hawaiian guitar(!), which I handled with slide and compressed clean boost. As the show is set in various bits of Indian and African jungle, I also got to channel my “inner Adrian Belew”, using slide, distortion and delay to create “monkey”, “bird” and “elephant” sounds… always great fun!

So, the music itself… the part isn’t a total roast, but isn’t as easy as, say, Grease. It’s mostly notated, but there are a couple of chunks written as chord/rhythm. There are some lead lines, particularly in Act 2, but quite a few of them are doubling woodwind or keys, so they might work better if one of you agrees to omit them. Some of the “big” leads are in tricky keys (4 or 5 flats) so take a look in advance. There are also a couple of lovely jazz fills in #9 that would be worth getting under your fingers ahead of time.

The real challenge in this show is getting your head around the sounds/styles marked in the pad and working out how to change sounds smoothly – in a single number, you switch from “Metallica/Kings X”, “Wes Montgomery”, “dirty blues slide” and “wahwah funk”! Another number calls for “tempting, semi-dirty Beatles sound”… although the music at that point actually feels much more traditional musical theatre. From that point of view, the band call was a bit of a roast – playing the right notes with the wrong sound can come out worse than playing the wrong notes.

From a purely personal viewpoint, this production was pretty much the most fun I’ve had playing for a show – a combination of long-time friends, cool new people, a very welcoming group of performers and a separate band room (for space reasons). Although this did raise some initial monitoring issues, it also enabled shenannigans and much (silent) joking between numbers – everyone was professional enough to do a good job while still having fun – very important!

Overall, this wasn’t the hardest show I’ve ever played (probably West Side Story or Bat Boy), the easiest (Grease) or the most musically enjoyable (I have a soft spot for Chess and Rent), but certainly worth the effort.

Grease is the word

Grease is a fun, short and relatively easy show to play. If you’re an inexperienced guitarist looking to “get your feet wet” in musical theatre, this is one for you to try.

There are two guitar parts, both printed in a single pad. In the two recent productions I’ve played for, I covered Guitar 1 in one show and combined both parts in the other (playing with just keys, bass and drums).

[Note to prospective MDs: The standard orchestration for amateur theatre is for two guitars and two saxes, in a 7-piece band. If your budget won’t stretch that far, I’d recommend cutting one of the saxes ahead of one of the guitars, as the saxes don’t play in some numbers, and do quite a bit in unison when they are in. If you need a 5-piece band, then go with one of each; having at least one sax really adds to the authenticity of the sound.]

Gearwise, I used my Strat and a single patch on my multi-fx pedalboard. The amp model was set to a clean Fender-type sound (Twin or Bassman) with clean boost, overdrive, slapback (around 100ms) delay and tremolo available on the footswitches. I ran through a DI into the front-of-house sound-desk and into a small powered wedge for monitoring around the band.

Most of the music is pretty simple, being based on 50s forms (ie, blues, I-vi-IV-V7 progressions etc.) Many of the songs are driven by the guitar part, so it’s important to play with confidence even if it’s not precisely what’s on the page. A few sections are notated, but most is simply playing authentic rhythm parts/arpeggios through the chords. Quite a few numbers start on Guitar 1 with Guitar 2 joining in for the chorus, second verse etc. Standard two-guitar etiquette applies: if one of you is playing high on the neck, the other should stay low on the neck and use different voicings.

There are a couple of brief solos: Guitar 1 solos through the scene change at the end of the opening, while Guitar 2 trades solos with Sax 1 in “Born to Hand Jive”, and everyone gets a turn soloing over the exit music. Again, think simple rock’n’roll – no shredding, please!

There are a couple of numbers that need a bit more concentration:

  • “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” has a more jazzy/torch song progression, so you’ll need to think about voicings for your X7b5s and descending basslines.
  • “Hopelessly Devoted To You” again has a more interesting chord sequence, and some faux-pedal steel licks go well if you can fit them in.
  • “You’re The One That I Want” was written specially for the film, so it wasn’t in the original score (and, thus, isn’t in the pad) but you can’t expect audiences to come to see Grease and not hear one of the numbers everyone knows! For one production, the MD arranged it, while in the other we just busked it (verse in Gm, chorus in Eb). Because it’s more disco than rock’n’roll in style, I did hit the wah-wah a little…

So, if you’re just starting out as a musical theatre guitarist and someone asks if you’ll play for their production of Grease, say yes! It’s great fun to do, and will give you a chance to stretch your reading/playing skills before you take on a harder show.

Back to life…

First of all, an apology: I’ve neglected this blog and played for loads of shows without writing them up here! I will try to remember the most important bits and post them here over the next few weeks.

Highlights should include:

  • How to play “Charity’s theme” at the beginning of Sweet Charity
  • How to play the tricky dropped-D acoustic section in Tommy
  • Why “that” riff in Footloose is in horrible keys until the end of the show
  • The hardest 8 bars in the whole of Fame, plus why writing out specific fills is a pain