All posts by Andrew Smith

“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

Guitar on “Our House: The Madness Musical”

This is another show that’s been great fun to play, and actually not that complicated, particularly if, like me, you grew up in the 80s with all these classic Madness songs soaking into your psyche! I’m playing it in Maidenhead, UK, with Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead Theatre Company (SWMTC), and we’ve got the two final shows of the run starting in a couple of hours time…

Guitar-wise, it’s mostly pretty simple, with 80% of the show on a reggae/ska clean sound (maybe slightly breaking up). I’ve ended up using the Les Paul Junior model on my Variax (or sometimes the Tele, for a bit more bite) with a bit of tremolo or slap-back delay from time to time. The rest is steel-string acoustic arpeggios…

I really should write a full post about this show, but that will have to wait for another day. But, the main thing to note is that there is a huge mistake in the guitar pad for #17b (“NW5 reprise”) where the first page has been copied from the previous “NW5” in Db, whereas the rest of the band plays the reprise down a semitone in C. Once you get into the next section (over the page) the pad is back in the same key as the rest of the band… It took me one or two runs to work out what was wrong…

So, two more performances tonight, finishing with a wonderfully high-energy dance routine to Baggy Trousers: how they manage that at the end of a 2 hour performance always amazes me – well done guys!


There’s quite a bit I could write about the Guitar 1 part Rent… so this is a quick taster…

Several points in the score call for a capo: the ‘support group’ motif that crops up a few times, “On the Street” and “What You Own”. In fact, these can all be played pretty easily without the capo, and as the parts are still written at ‘capo-less’ pitch, trying to play them with a capo is pretty confusing!

Children of Eden

In Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Children of Eden” there is a song near the end of the second act called “The Hardest Part of Love”. This lovely song is built around an acoustic guitar playing “rhythmic lead”, with pedal tones at the top over a moving bass line. However, the score puts the song in the key of Gb, which makes this approach difficult if not impossible…

My first strategy was to put a capo on the 2nd fret and play the song effectively in the key of E. This sort of worked, but didn’t quite feel right, and got more difficult in the latter part of the verse. Really, the song wanted to be played in G; my guess is that it was originally written in G, but somewhere along the line was transposed down a semitone to better fit the performer’s vocal range in one of the early professional productions. But you can’t use a capo to DROP the guitar by a semitone…

You COULD bring a separate acoustic pre-tuned down, or if you only had one acoustic, you could play it tuned down but with a capo on the first fret for the rest of the show…

Because I was already doing the show on my Line 6 Variax 300, my solution was to use the Workbench software to set up a custom patch based on the Gibson jumbo acoustic but tuned down by a semitone.

There is another song in the score (I forget which one) which is in F# and could be played with a conventional capo on the 2nd fret. As I’d already built the patch for the previous song, I used this to tune everything up by a tone.

Blogging for musical theatre guitarists everywhere

Welcome to my new blog, specifically to do with the guitar in musical theatre.

I’ve been playing guitar for nearly 25 years, and in the past 5 years I’ve been working a lot in (amateur) musical theatre as a guitarist and as a reeds player (I also play clarinet, various saxophones and a bit of flute). I’ve noticed that the guitar parts often need some thinking and creativity to play them succesfully. I also noticed that no-one around the blogosphere (or in the guitar magazine community) really discuss the guitar in musical theatre or often in the context of reading sessions of any kind (the exception to this was the wonderful long-running column by LA film/TV session legend Tommy Tedesco that ran in the US Guitar Player magazine for many years… a stroke ended his musical career in 1992 and he died in 1997).

So, this blog will be a place to put some of these things right, spread the word about the particular disciplines of playing guitar in musical theatre, and share some of my insights into how to actually perform some of the guitar parts I’ve come acros…

Enjoy, and please send any feedback, comments, tips or suggestions…