“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.


4 thoughts on ““Just So” by Stiles & Drewe

  1. So good to find your blog! This was a helpful post, as I am using a POD HD500 direct to house as well for a community college production. I don’t have room for a wedge in the pit, so wondering if you’ve tried monitoring with the headphone output (thinking about using earbuds, with one in and one out).

    1. Glad to have you along 🙂 Yes, I’ve done shows with one headphone on… and also with different headphones on each ear – a “pit mix” from the desk in one ear and my own monitor in the other! Always try to retain some control over your own monitoring – I’ve done a couple of shows where the mix from the desk has been unreliable, and I’ve had to watch my fingers to know what I’m playing!

  2. Glad to have found your blog. I haven’t played quite as many as you, but I have played guitar for over forty professional, university, or community productions. I too found “West Side” the most challenging. In fact, some of the written voicings are literally impossible, which I find surprising for one of the greatest musicals in history. You’d think someone in the past fifty years would’ve pointed out the problems. As much as I love playing the classics, it’s always a relief to play a contemporary musical with a guitar book obviously arranged by guitarist — idiomatic voicings and arpeggios, and explicit suggestions for effects and techniques. “Heathers” is one example.

  3. Glad to have found your blog. It’s nice to hear from someone else who has experienced the joys and agony of playing guitar in pits. I certainly haven’t played as many shows as you, although I have played over 40 professional, semi-professional, university, and community productions.

    As I’m sure you’ve discovered, some musicals have guitar books obviously arranged by a guitarist, with idiomatic voicings and relevant notes on guitar-specific effects and technique, while others have parts that seem to have been arranged by a pianist. The reason “West Side Story” is so difficult is because it’s an example of the latter: some of the voicings and arpeggios are literally unplayable.

    I have a composer/arranger friend who does a lot of work for professional theatre, and he’s asked for my help in making sure his guitar charts are guitar-friendly. I once found a page of the web that was explicitly for this purpose, but I’ve since lost it. Do you know of any resources? Thanks.

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