All posts by Andrew Smith

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!

Lead guitar in Chess, the musical

After a week of twang, double-stops and slapback echo for “All Shook Up” in Marlow at the start of the month, I’m now back in the 80s for a production of Chess in Rickmansworth. We’ve got a great band (15-piece, including bassoon, oboe/cor anglais, french horn etc. for a lovely rich sound) and spent yesterday negotiating the parts…

Ah, the parts… what a nightmare! Not so much the individual parts, which are mostly quite clear, but there are plenty of places where bar numbers in the band parts don’t match up with the conductor’s score, the a, b, c, d etc. bars in between consecutively numbered bars, the bars that are numbered but omitted (eg, 124 followed by 126…), sections being repeated in some parts but written out in full in others, and some bars being missing from all but the conductor’s score (eg, the last 3 bars of Diplomats). These evidently came from the various revisions of the score over the past 25 years, but it still makes the first band call very interesting…

Then there are the vamps… Some sections are marked to be repeated a specific number of times (but are often vamped in practice); others go straight into another vamp. This means that it can take a few run throughs with a particular cast (even with a very good conductor, which I’ve had all three times I’ve played the show) to get used to the timings between sections.

So that’s enough about the logistics of playing together; what about the guitar part? Well, I’m using a few more sounds than last time: clean and compressed, with or without huge 80s chorus, and a stock dirty sound with added flanger (for #3) and extra boost/drive (and some delay) for the big guitar solos (in the extended version of #7 Arbiter – NOT included in the original recording, I’ve only found it in the 2002 Danish cast recording, Nobody’s Side (as per the original recording) and Pity the Child (starting off as per the original, then taking my own route).

Nobody’s Side needs a special mention for the amount of tap dancing required: switching between clean, clean + chorus and dirty on an almost bar-by-bar basis, plus extra gain for the 80s-style tapped arpeggio solo. There’s also plenty of tap-dancing in One Night in Bangkok, which is based around wah-wah single-note funk rhythm, wah-wah on the written chord fills, but sustain-y distortion for the counter melody in the chorus. It’s all too quick to switch the wah-wah off and kick in the distortion, so I’m just holding the wah-pedal in one place for that phrase.

Guitar-wise, I’m using my Hohner (don’t laugh!) Revelation RTX, an early 90s shred machine from one of Hohner’s ventures beyond beginners’ instruments. I love it dearly!. The humbucker + simgle coil combination plus some unusual passive tone circuitry gives me the tonal variation this score needs. It’s also got an early Wilkinson 2-point floating vibrato system, which is great for divebombs (eg, end of the chorus in Where I Want to Be). It’s also pretty light for a full-bodied instrument, and I’m wondering whether this is why it seems to feed back so musically, with the body resonating more readily when near the speaker… it’s making me hope there’s space to have an amp in the pit instead of (or even as well as?) going through a DI box…

And the part itself… lots of long rests in the “classical” bits, so it’s useful to know how things are meant to sound. The rock-y bits are generally more straightforward to play, although there is the “American” motif in #3, which is a long string of quavers (or eighth notes…) based on the D harmonic minor scale (although first time round it’s B harmonic minor) which is written with lots of different time signatures. The pulse is consistent, though, so once you’ve got it under your fingers you can stop counting… It’s worth taking the time to work out fingerings for this: in the B minor version, I start in IVth position and finish in IInd, but there’s a slightly tricky bit in the middle where I need to slide my little finger from 5th fret of the B string to the 6th and then 7th fret to get the #4 into the Bm arpeggio. This motif comes back several times throughout the show, so it’s useful to be able to rip it out anytime. [If I have time, I might even post a video of this passage, so you can see the fingering/slides…]

In my own performance, I’m finding lots of 80s “classical metal” influence: very heavy vibrato on the low strings, pinched harmonics and those dive-bombs! It’s even got a bit of dropped-D goodness (albeit by mistake); a passage appears in the first few numbers of Act I which must have been transposed down, because it’s got a low D as a pedal tone. When the same passage appears near the end of Act II, it’s written in E and feels much more natural to play!

The “Arbiter” solo is still a bit hit-and-miss, but I’m going for a fusion-y Allan Holdsworth kind of thing. The solo in “Nobody’s Side” can only be the tapped arpeggios (Bm -> F#, C#m -> G#), Van Halen-style. For the solo in “Pity the Child”, we’re playing the 4-bar accompaniment four times; I start as per the recording, then go for some more arpeggio stuff (not tapped, though) then finish off a bit more bluesy, with pentatonics and over-stretched bends, before ending with the requisite slow A->B bend over the last chord.

Looking forward to the dress rehearsal tonight (and seeing how we can all cram into the pit!), followed by 6 performances. Lovely!

All Shook Up

I’m playing guitar on a show this week, for the first time in a while, and thought I’d write a little about it…

All Shook Up is (as the name suggests) based on those classic Elvis songs, so it’s all excellent rock’n’roll and country-type stuff. I’m playing Guitar 1, with Laura Moretto playing Guitar 2. In addition to bass, drums and keys, there’s also a 6-piece horn section (3 reeds, 2 trumpets and a trombone).

The Guitar 2 part switches between electric and acoustic, but Guitar 1 is all electric. I’m taking the opportunity to leave my Variax at home (well… beside me as my emergency spare…) and play the gig on my Yamaha Pacifica 311MS hot tele. On the amp/fx side things are pretty simple too: I’m using a single patch (“clean tube” amp into “American 2×12” cab) on my GNX3 with slapback delay always on, tube screamer for solos, tremolo for a couple of melodic bits and wah-wah (not period at all, but marked in the score at a few points… wonder if I’ll end up ignoring that by the end of the run…)

As far as the part is concerned, it’s mostly in nice enough keys, with familiar riffs (almost always in swung quavers!) There are a couple of solos to get my teeth into (think snappy double-stops, faux pedal-steel bends etc.).

A couple of weird things about the parts… they’re the first band parts I’ve ever seen that explicitly say it’s okay to highlight, make notes in pen etc. because they don’t expect them back! Wouldn’t it be great if other publishers did this… or even just incorporated our corrections into future hirings of the parts! The other comment is a bit less positive: they seem to have deliberately put the page turns on double bars, which means changes in style, tempo, key, solos etc. come as a bit of a surprise!

So, we’ve got the dress rehearsal tonight, and we open to an audience tomorrow… more thoughts on this during the week…