Tag Archives: variax

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!

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!

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!