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Playing The Bridges of Madison County – Guitar 1

Bridges of Madison County Band

The Bridges of Madison County band in rehearsal.
Image courtesy of SHOWTUNES Theatre Company and © 2017 Chris Bennion

Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Book: Marsha Norman
Year: 2014

I was delighted to be offered the Guitar 1 seat for the regional premiere of Bridges in Seattle in the fall of 2017, staged at the ACT Theatre and produced by Showtunes Theatre Company… (who am I kidding? I contacted Showtunes and pleaded with them to offer me a seat in the ensemble the moment I heard about it.  I really wanted this gig!)

The show was staged concert-style, in an amphitheater setting with minimal blocking and props, and no scenery.  Actors were “on book”.  This simple staging worked well, strengthening the focus on the story and the music.  The cast was superb, and the producers decided to hire a full complement of musicians to really bring out the richness of the score.  This was a real treat for everyone involved (not least the musicians themselves), because the score is the beating heart of this show.  I also tip my hat to the sound designer on the production.  It sounded wonderful.

The musicians were staged on the “back” slope of the round, and the guitarists were more or less in the middle of it all.  Every time a wave of beautiful strings washed over me I grinned like a fool.  This was one of the most satisfying experiences of my musical career, and I’m very grateful to Showtunes for my part in this memorable production.

GENERAL NOTES ON THE GUITAR 1 BOOK
Most of the following notes are for the Guitar 1 book.  Normally I would have made a point of studying Guitar 2, but this was a short, busy rehearsal process and I didn’t have time.

Guitar 1 is a detailed and accurate book (one would expect no less from Mr. Brown, who does his own orchestrations).  Mostly, you can just “play the ink”, although there are a few places I had to interpret, as I describe below.  The music is challenging enough to keep it interesting throughout, and in many places is very exposed.  The book is specific about when to use fingers or picks, and I include my own choices below.

GUITARS
The Bridges of Madison County Guitar 1 book requires 5 instruments:

  1. Acoustic #1. I used a 2004 Atkin Small Jumbo, with EQ set to favor a balance between warmth for finger-picking and brightness for strumming.
  2. Acoustic #2, tuned D-A-D-G-B-D with capo at 6th fret for #8 – “Look At Me”, and standard tuning with capo at 7th fret for #17 – “It All Fades Away”. I used a 1987 Takamine Dreadnought, with EQ set bright to favor hard strumming.
  3. Telecaster, tuned C-G-D-G-Bb-D with capo at 4th fret for #3 – “Temporarily Lost”. I used a 1998 Fender 90s Thinline Telecaster.
  4. Electric guitar – I used a Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic “Strat”-style guitar.
  5. Mandolin.

The second acoustic guitar is necessary to accomplish the fast segue from #7 – “Wondering” (standard tuning, no capo) to #8 – “Look At Me” (D-A-D-G-B-D with capo at 6th fret).  You have only 4 measures to make the guitar change; retuning and setting a capo on a single acoustic is not feasible.  It also helps to have the second acoustic for #17 – “It All Fades Away”.  You can retune and set the capo during the intermission.

 OTHER EQUIPMENT

  • .38mm, .46mm and .50mm picks
  • Capos for Acoustic #1, Acoustic #2 & Telecaster.
  • Electric and acoustic amplifiers or DI boxes, depending on the requirements of the production.  In this case I used a Radial JDX Direct Drive DI for the electrics, and an AER Compact 60 acoustic amplifier for the acoustic instruments.  The AER went straight to the sound board via its balanced XLR out, and also served as my personal monitor for the acoustics.
  • Switching for the different guitars (I used a Boss LS-2 to switch the electrics and a GigRig Quartermaster QMX4 for the 4 acoustics).

SIGNAL PROCESSING AND EFFECTS
Bridges doesn’t require much in the effects department, other than for the Telecaster.  Mostly, it’s EQ and preamps to get the tones right for the acoustic instruments.  I used the following:

  • Fishman Aura Spectrum – tone-shaping for Acoustic #1.
  • Radial PZ-Pre Preamp: tone-shaping for Acoustic #2.
  • MXR M108 10-band Graphic EQ: tone-shaping for mandolin.
  • Empress Parametric EQ: tone-shaping for Telecaster.
  • Diamond Tremolo: for Telecaster on #3 – “Temporarily Lost”.
  • TC Electronics Hall of Fame reverb: mostly set to a light “room”, except for a more spacey setting on #3 – “Temporarily Lost”.

 

GENERAL APPROACH TO PLAYING THE BOOK
A few preliminaries before launching into a detailed song-by-song review:

  • The guitar parts are mostly acoustic, and are often driving the rhythms while the percussionist plays mallets or orchestral percussion. It’s important to remember this, play rhythmically and not rush.
  • It’s important to listen to Guitar 2 throughout the show to keep the rhythms tight, particularly when the two guitars have interlocking fingerpicked patterns.
  • I don’t recommend trying to dispense with one guitar for this show. You lose too much complexity, nuance and texture.

SONG-BY-SONG COMMENTARY
Note: I ignore the little scene transitions in the following notes unless I have something particular to say about them.

#1 – To Build A Home
Acoustic #1, fingers: for this number, just play the ink.  The first section (m.17-52) is played in unison with the cello, and is quite tricky and exposed.  Where slash notes are used for chords (no specific voicing) I used low voicings.

#2 – Home Before You Know It
Acoustic #1, 0.5mm pick, switch to fingers after m.65: driving an percussive country pop song.  Being tight with Guitar 2 really matters here.  I copied the third page so that I could have the first three pages all open together, to avoid the impossible page turn.  Guitar 1 plays “palm-muted” (P.M.) at the start of each verse, while Guitar 2 plays open throughout (you can hear this well on the cast recording).  The rhythms are very well transcribed and sound great once you add in some internal 16th note rhythm to fill it out.  In Verse 1 I played P.M. for m.9-14, opened out at m.15-16, P.M. again at m.17-23, then open through the chorus.  For Verse 2, I played slightly P.M. at the start (m.42), opening up fully by m.45.  In the Chaconne section (m.99-115), I didn’t play the 3rd beat staccato as written; the note is short enough anyway and trying to make it sound fully staccato sounded odd.

#3 – Temporarily Lost
Telecaster, tuned C-G-D-G-Bb-D, capo at 4th fret, bridge pickup, 0.5mm pick: the score specifically calls out a Telecaster for this number, but you could get close with a Strat-style guitar.  Guitar 2 and percussion carry the rhythm of the number, while Guitar 1 provides atmosphere with repeating arpeggios and high chord voicings in the choruses.  Getting the sound right is the important part.  I used a 1998 Fender 90s Thinline Telecaster, set to bridge pickup, running through an Empress Para EQ to get the thin, bright tone I wanted.  After that I ran the signal through a Diamond Tremolo to get that lovely pulsing sound you hear on the recording, then a TC Electronics Hall of Fame reverb, set to “Church” to get the “ghostly” feel.  This is straightforward (but fun) to play.  In the verse, it’s again important to keep the rhythm of the arpeggios tight with Guitar 2 and percussion, while in the choruses I lagged behind and rolled the chords slightly.  For the harmonics in the last measure, play E,B,G and D strings at 9th fret (i.e. 5 frets above the capo).

#4 – What Do You Call A Man Like That?
Acoustic #1, fingers: similar in feel to #1.  Play the ink.  Fast fingerpicking m.93-100!

#5 – You’re Never Alone
Acoustic #1, 0.5mm pick.  Another country pop number.  Keep tight with Guitar 2 and drums.  The one thing to watch out for is the transition from 7/8 to 4/4 time at m.17, and again at m.45.  There’s a temptation to shift tempo which needs to be avoided.  For the staccato single note passages at m.1-4, m.33-34 and m.67-70 I palm-muted slightly.

#6 – Another Life
Acoustic #1, fingers: this light bossa nova number is a total showstopper.  Beautiful, emotive and evocative, it reduced audience members to tears at every performance.  When the strings come in, it’s utterly wonderful.  There’s a lot of pressure on Guitar 1 in this number.  You play the introduction solo, are very exposed through much of the song, and set the tempo in the early sections, all with a finger-picked pattern.  The main pattern isn’t particularly difficult, but it’s a little counterintuitive, you play it many times, and it absolutely has to be accurate.  I recommend spending enough time on this part to work it well into muscle memory.  I copied the third page so that I could have the first three pages all open together, to avoid the tricky page turn.  I played the lines mostly as written, with a few exceptions:

  • I used a Cmaj7 voicing at m.15-16 (and other places where this chord appears).
  • I used a third fret voicing for Em7 (m.17-18 and other places), with D as the top note.
  • In the chorus (m.41 onwards), I voiced the F#m7, G and D chords with open B and E strings (I believe the guitarist on the cast recording does the same, and apparently some of these voicings are in the Piano Vocal score. Sounds lovely!
  • For the G/A chord at m.127-128 I made the top note an A (5-string voicing: A-G-B-D-A).

#7 – Wondering
Acoustic #1, fingers: to the extent that this number has a rhythm part, Guitar 1 is it.  This is almost all fingerpicked, providing a steady pulse through the number.  The syncopated picking pattern is very tricky and requires a lot of practice.  Simply put, your thumb is on the beat and your fingers off beat for the whole time, and there are some awkward chord changes.  The interminable vamp at the end of the number is particularly fiendish!

#8 – Look At Me
Acoustic #2, tuned D-A-D-G-B-D, cap 6th fret, 0.38mm pick, changing to 0.46mm pick at m.145: you have to have a second acoustic guitar to play this number, because it segues directly from “Wondering”, and you have only 4 measures before you’re in, quite emphatically – you cannot miss this cue!  It’s tricky enough just to change guitars in the time available; your chances of being able to retune and set a capo are zero.  I used a 1987 Takamine dreadnought for this number, with EQ set fairly bright.  I played the number as written, changing emphasis slightly between verse and chorus sections.  For the verse I emphasized the downbeats (as written), and muted slightly the notes in beats 3 and 6 of each measure.  For the choruses I dialed back the downbeat emphasis and let all the notes ring (no muting).  There is a little single note solo run into the second verse at m.114 which is incredibly difficult to play.  Guitar 1, Guitar 2 and Piano all play it in unison and it can sound very messy if you don’t all get it right!  The most important thing is to hit the downbeat of m.115 confidently and decisively.

#9 – The World Inside A Frame
Acoustic #1, fingers, 0.46mm pick from m.76 (if you have time – good luck with that!), thumb from m.87, pick m.95-96.  The first part of this piece is a tricky fingerpicked 6/8 part.  Once again you’re the pulse of the piece.  The chord shapes are a little awkward, and you have to make fast changes.  Guitar 2 is playing exactly in sync with Guitar 1 (but without the last 1/8th note in each measure; it takes a little practice to get synchronized.  At m.70 the piece changes tone instantaneously and dramatically to a fast strummed 7/8. You’re supposed to grab a pick at m.76, but there’s no time and I never managed to do it.  From m.87, it’s all change again to quarter notes played with the thumb in 5/4.  Take care not to rush this section.

#10 – Something From A Dream
Acoustic #1, tuned D-A-D-G-B-E, 0.46mm pick: this song has a laid back, Glen Campbell-ish vibe.  Beautiful strings again – it felt so good to sit in the middle of it all when they swelled in.  I played this exactly as written, except for using higher voicings at m.23-24 and m.50-51.

10B – Big Band
Electric, neck pickup, 0.5mm pick: this is just a little transition swing piece (it’s meant to be music on the radio), but it’s quite difficult to play and I got it wrong more than once.  Practice this one.  You play it together with the percussionist on vibes.

#11 – Get Closer / Falling Into You
Acoustic #1, fingers: Guitar 2 has the electric guitar part for the bluesy “Falling Into You” section; Guitar 1 is tacet.  Guitar 1 comes in in as the dance number fades out and gives way to the Misterioso section in 6/8.  Unusually for this book, no specific chord voicings are provided for most of this number. This is particularly surprising, because there are some unusual chords, and the voicings matter.  In general I used low (1st and 2nd fret) voicings, mostly with a ringing open top E string.  I spent some time getting this right.  Apart from the uncertainty over voicings, this number is played as written.

Intermission
At this point you can retune Acoustic #2 to standard tuning and capo at 7th fret, to be used in #17 – It All Fades Away.  Pay special attention to the tuning of the bass strings (see notes on #17).

#12 – State Road / The Real World / Who We Are
Acoustic #1, 0.5mm pick, fingers from m.97 (the “Who We Are” section): Act 2 opens with a rowdy hoedown, led off by a great violin solo.  It’s just straightforward, energetic strumming.  I had the first three pages open together to reduce the number of page turns.  Even so, I ended up with an impossible page turn at m.A148.  Fortunately Guitar 2 turns 2 measures later so between the two parts the guitar keeps going.  At m.97 there’s a sudden change in tone from barn dance to a James Taylor-style fingerpicked acoustic ballad (the action shifts from the State Fair to the lovers Francesca and Robert).  This is the “Who We Are…” section of the song; it’s very moving.  Guitar 1 plays solo with the singer for the first verse and is very exposed throughout.  The lovely part on the cast recording is not transcribed in detail in the book, which gives mostly chords and slash marks (this is one of the few places in the book which I think needs improving).  I transcribed the part from the cast recording note for note and played that.  There’s another tricky page turn at m.132.  It sounds better if Guitar 2 covers the “Easy fill” in m.118 while Guitar 1 lets an A7sus chord ring.

#13 – Almost Real
Acoustic #1, fingers / Mandolin m.79-170: another Italian-style song for Francesca, and a spot of Neapolitan-style mandolin for Guitar 1.  The first section (m.9-46) is played in unison with the cello, and is quite tricky and exposed.  The mandolin part is pretty with lots of tremolo (prior to this show I had been completely faking it with the mandolin, but I worked hard to get these parts right, and have progressed from faking it to merely bluffing…).  This number is played as written.

#14 – Before And After You / A Million Miles
Acoustic #1, fingers to m.26, 0.46mm pick m.47-129alt, fingers m.130-131: a rousing, almost 11 o’clock number (10:30pm number?).  Guitar 2 has a tricky finger picked part in m.1-20 which sets the pulse of the piece.  It’s important to be listening to Guitar 2 for tempo synchronizations as you play the rolled chords.  In the louder strummed sections from m.47 onwards I kept the emphasis in the rhythms very close to what’s written; it works very well.

#15 – Rewind
Acoustic #1, 0.46mm pick / Mandolin m.20-28: no chord voicings are given for the chords in m.11-16.  I used high voicings (8th fret mostly), on the D-G-B and E strings.

#16 – When I’m Gone
Acoustic #1, fingers to m.30B, 0.5mm pick m.30E-84, fingers m.85-93: a blues number.  Guitar 2 has the rhythm, while Guitar 1 comps and solos over the top for much of the song, picking up the rhythm on the louder passages.  There are a few long dialog vamps – watch for cues!  The written part is mostly slash marks, which is fine because this is one place in the book where you can jam it out to some extent.

#17 – It All Fades Away
Acoustic #2, capo 7th fret, 0.46mm pick / Mandolin m.23-53: the real 11 o’clock number!  A big folk number with a lovely mandolin part.  Note: the song is in D major throughout, even though the guitar parts appear to be in G major (you play and read as if the capo weren’t there.  It’s a bit confusing and perhaps this ought to be fixed by putting the actual chord names and key signature in, with the apparent chord shapes in italics above).  For the acoustic guitar part, I comped strummed chords on the E-A-D-and G strings, barely brushing the B and high E.  I used a particularly nice A7sus4 voicing (C#-G-A-D-A-D) – (it’s written in the book as D7sus4 – see it’s confusing!).  The mandolin part is mainly melodic comping on the A and D strings, with solos at m.23-26 and m.38-41 and strummed chords from m.46-53.  After the last chorus, play more lightly for the “outro” at m.70-74.

#18 – Always Better
Acoustic #1, fingers m.C-I, Electric m.49-66: this number is really all about the strings. The guitars are just adding padding and texture to the sound.  I used the neck pickup (Position 1) on my Anderson, with low voicings throughout.

#19 – Bows/Exit
Acoustic #1, fingers: this opens with a reprise of #18, then moves into a reprise of #1.  I played mostly low voicings for the #18 reprise (m.1-13).  See notes on #1 for details of m.14-83.

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