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

The Last Five Years

In many ways, “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown is the complete opposite to the previous show I wrote about here (“Jesus Christ Superstar“). Where the latter is huge in scope, cast and sound, L5Y is possibly the closest I’ve ever come to “chamber” musical theatre. Not that it’s any less powerful: this two-hander following a relationship from beginning to end (and, indeed, from end to beginning – Kathy’s songs run in reverse-chronological order) is full of passages that are beautiful, touching, tearful and (once in a while) funny.

The instrumentation is quite unusual: violin, two cellos, piano, (electric) bass and (acoustic) guitar. As an electric guitarist for the past 25 years, and usually using the acoustic patches on my trusty Variax 300 when an acoustic sound is called for, this pushed me way outside my comfort zone… in a good way, I think. I played the show on my Takamine EG523SC jumbo, running the onboard pre-amp directly into a small powered monitor. We were in a small, 60-seat theatre so only a little filling out of the sound was necessary. A bit of EQ on the pre-amp, riding the volume control slightly between numbers, but mostly providing the dynamics entirely with my playing technique.

I played 80% of the show fingerstyle (having grown the nails on my right hand specially), which made it easier to play the spread chord voicings cleanly. Several of the strummier numbers (eg, Shiksa Goddess, See I’m Smiling etc.) I strummed with the top of my index finger nail, while for the harder-toned numbers (eg, A Miracle Would Happen, Climbing Uphill and the louder bits of Goodbye Til Tomorrow) I used a plectrum. Matching the dynamics of the rest of the band was sometimes tricky (I didn’t realise quite how much sound two cellos can make, but sometimes over-compensated with my volume control!) not least because of the small space we were working in.

The score states the (usually) unwritten law of musical theatre guitar parts: where chords are written in full voicings they are to be played precisely as written, while other sections are written with chord symbols and the player can put them wherever on the fingerboard they find easiest. I was mostly able to comply with this, but it’s well worth playing through some of the more exposed fingerstyle sections ahead of time, to be sure of getting the voicings right.

This is a show where you really need to listen and play with the other musicians. Some passages are in unison with other instruments, some are very exposed (eg, Summer in Ohio, the opening of If I Didn’t Believe in You) and some start off one way and then go the other (eg, I’m a Part of That and The Schmuel Song) where the guitar continues the “rhythm” part while the strings put in more harmonically complex bits. There were several sections where I really felt like I was acting as the “drummer”, keeping the metronomic pulse around which everyone else added the gilding… which of course made it essential that I hit the tempo required by the Musical Director (I usually did, but not always!) This was particularly true on “The Next Ten Minutes”, which mostly consisted of playing the same single note a quaver ahead of the beat in 12/8.

Is it a tough show to play? I found it difficult to get started, mainly because it’s so far out of my technical “comfort zone”. The string players also commented on how technically tricky their parts were, with plenty of complicated passages right at the top of the instrument’s range. If I’d played more fingerstyle/solo acoustic guitar over the years, I would have found the guitar part much easier. But it was very definitely worth the effort; the overall sound is beautiful, and pair that with the talented performers/production team that are attracted to JRB and we had a run of performances that I was very proud to have been involved with.

Would I do it again? Definitely… which is a good thing, because we’re looking to repeat the same production in a different town in a few months time! After that, it will probably remain on my list of shows I’d love to do again… possibly the one similarity it does have with Jesus Christ Superstar!

Jesus Christ Superstar

I haven’t written anything here for a while, so I thought I should write up the most recent show I’ve played guitar for: Jesus Christ Superstar! What’s more, it was done in a new Arts Centre that was previously a church, so many, many resonances there… not to mention issues with the acoustics…

There are two guitar parts for JCS, but I was the only guitarist in an 8-piece band (2x keys, 1x reeds playing flute/piccolo/clarinet/tenor sax, trumpet, french horn, bass & drums). I basically played the Guitar 1 part, but filled in acoustic/rhythm parts from the Guitar 2 part on Everything’s Alright, I Don’t Know How to Love Him and Can We Start Again Please. Otherwise, the Guitar 1 part on its own is fine.

There were no major cuts in the score, just a few “spacer” bars removed because the production was a promenade: attention could shift immediately, without people needing time to get on/off stage. This also made it an even more intense play than otherwise: once you start playing either act, you don’t stop until the end!

Gear-wise, I always turn up for a pit gig with my Variax for versatility. This time I mostly used the Les Paul model, along with the 6- and 12-string acoustic sounds for the quieter numbers. By the end of the run, though, I was using the Gretsch Duo-Jet for a slightly more crunchy clean sound on a couple of numbers. I ran my Digitech GNX3 into a DI box for the house PA, and also into a powered cab for monitoring… and feedback at a couple of points… The main amp model I used was the HotRod (ie, Mesa Boogie MkIIC) set up with a heavy flanger and 500ms delay to switch in at various points. The acoustic sounds from the Variax went through my usual acoustic model of direct blended with a clean tube preamp. A couple of the funkier passages (eg, What’s the Buzz) needed a clean wah-wah sound, so I used my regular Blackface fender sound for that.

Because we were a) playing an a church and b) performing as a promenade where the both the audience and the cast moved throughout the space, the sound got very boomy, and it was difficult to get a good mix. The result was that the band had to play as quietly as possible, to give the sound man as much control as possible. This led to a bit less rock’n’roll volume that there might have been in a different space… but I put my monitor on a chair for my own little “metal bubble” and to pull feedback at the appropriate moments…

The pad itself is pretty much ideal for an old prog-rocker like myself to play – a few key passages written out, but plenty of scope for rhythm comping and improvisation. It opens with a moody guitar solo (oodles of delay on the Boogie) before going into a 5/8 section of heavy stabs, before a 7/8 bit (guitar is tacet, but great to “be inside”). To be honest, the whole overture reminded me of Dream Theater! The opening song (“Heaven on their Mind”) runs on a bass-driven riff that could be Rage Against the Machine. This definitely put me in a space where the power chords had an extra 5th on the bottom, fake NuMetal 7-string style…

It’s not all NuMetal, though, and settles down into some good songs, some of which take you back to the early 1970s, while others could be entirely contemporary.

There are two improvised solos marked (“Heaven on their Mind” and “Pilate and Christ”). The first is a bluesy/wah thing where I used lots of D harmonic minor, while the second is in C minor but in 5/4… “Pilate’s Dream” also opens with a free-time section, which is more or less D minor blues; it’s written out, but I gradually played it less as written as more as I felt it…

Then there are the vamps…

We switched the end of Act I to finish on a D minor drone/vamp, so I tuned down my E string, switched to the high-gain Boogie channel, turned on the delay and the flanger and rumbled away in the background. Better still, the “Judas’ Death” scene ends with a long G drone of indeterminate length (while Judas hangs himself). I bent up the low G to an Ab and down again against the delay, to create loads of dissonance. I also used wah-wah, flanger and delay to trigger nasty squealy feedback for dramatic effect (riding the volume control on the guitar so it didn’t take over completely). To be honest, this section was probably the most fun I had during the show! Watch out for the very tight finish, though… Finally, the “39 Lashes” section is also a long D harmonic minor “vamp” while Jesus is whipped. I started off around the middle D, trilling around C#, D, Eb, F#, G but gradually got more “insanely atonal” as it progressed, also doing a pick-tap trill on A, Bb, C#.

The end is biblically dramatic, and the guitar is tacet so you can appreciate the full force of the crucifixion (doubly so in this case, where the altar had been in this converted church) before joining in with some wonderfully subtle acoustic guitar for the closing “John 19:41”.

Our production ended in silence, in darkness, in comtemplation. It really was one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I’ve been involved with – great stuff, and if you’re a guitarist don’t pass up any opportunity to play this great pad!