War Stories from the Life of a Working Guitarist

VENUE: Community orchestra in an unnamed Midwestern city
MATERIAL: Music from "Threepenny Opera" by Kurt Weill
INSTRUMENTS: Buscarino Monarch artchtop, generic banjo (guitar tuning), Polytone MegaBrute amp

I received the call for this gig a few days before the first rehearsal. Usually symphony gigs call you farther ahead of time, but last minute things always pop up. Since the music was influenced by early Jazz, I figured the steel string archtop would be a better choice than a classical. I also had my trusty banjo ($50 at the local pawn shop).

My contact faxed me the music two days before I was to be at the first rehearsal. It's a good thing, too, because there were some surprises. One, the part was 90% banjo voicings (written out), and the guitar part was in BASS CLEF. Yikes! Well, I had barely any time to look at the part before driving the 3 hours to the rehearsal. I was more than a little apprehensive because it had been a few years since I had done an orchestra gig and I had gotten a little "loose". You have to be on your toes as the piece may sound very different from what you see on the page. You also have to learn to read each conductor. They all have their own way to feel the beat, do pickups, tempo changes, meters, etc. Tommy Tedesco once said that it's a good idea to go to a pops concert once in a while just to see the conductor. I agree.

Example of guitar part

Well, the first rehearsal was a nightmare. I missed downbeats, played too loud, too soft, and don't even ask me about my bass clef sightreading. Turns out that little guitar thing was intended for classical. Neither my contact nor the conductor understood the significance of this, as apparently "classical" guitar is the only kind of guitar they know about. The conductor kept giving me funny looks as I played the unamplified Buscarino, complaining that it didn't have decent tone. "This is a very cheap guitar, yes?" he said in his thick Russian accent. I wasn't about to tell him the truth! I suggested that perhaps I could use an amplification device that would enhance the bass notes and give a richer, fuller sound. He was worried that such a thing couldn't be done. I assured him it could. He asked me if I had such a device. I assured him I did.

The next rehearsal, I brought in my Polytone and set it up a few feet away. Things went better. I had a little time that day to go over the guitar part, which had become the very bane of my existence by then. The conductor must have thought it was better, since he didn't complain as much.

Example of banjo part

I should speak a little about the banjo part. Apparently this was a 1920s German composer writing music based on the Berlin cabaret scene of that time, also using American jazz influences. There were some rather bizarre and strangely beautiful moments in this music, but frankly, this music sounded like the soundtrack to a mental ward. The part was written out in 3, 4 and 5 note voicings. since it assumed standard banjo tuning and I tuned mine like a guitar, some of the inversions were impossible to play. I compromised by playing only the top 2 or 3 notes of the chords. This is a good thing to do, and no one will ever tell. My banjo had a pickup so I could plug it into the amp too, which seemed to please the conductor.

There were two performances, both of which went off without a hitch. By the end of the gig, I think the conductor even liked me! Nevertheless, I wasted no time in getting out of Dodge after the last curtain. I learned a lot on this gig, but I wouldn't want to repeat the experience.

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