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!


2 thoughts on “Jesus Christ Superstar

  1. Hi – am a pit guitarist as well, never played JCS but would love to someday. It’s probably my favorite show. Have played mostly community and regional theater shows over the past 10 years (Hairspray, Full Monty, 13, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, etc). Playing Legally Blonde in August and September…but am getting frustrated with the tones I’ve been getting from my gear. I usually play a Strat and an acoustic through a Boss GT-8 effects board into a Roland JC-120 amp. I see you use a Variax…interesting idea, I may want to look into that. Do you also play through any effects boards or stomp boxes or does the Variax handle it all for you? Great to see another pit guitarist online and to read your notes! Not a lot of info out there to draw on. Cheers!

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