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!

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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…

Rent

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…