Playing RENT – Guitar 1 And Guitar 2
Music, Lyrics & Book: Jonathan Larson
RENT should be high on the list of “must play” books for any musical theatre guitarist. One of the most famous and successful musicals in recent history, it’s also very much a “rock” score, scored for a small ensemble (actually a rock band) and with a very prominent role for the guitar.
In this article I reflect on my experience of playing RENT, and describe the challenges and rewards the Guitar 1 book offers a guitarist. I review the various versions of the score, and describe a “Combined Guitar” part allowing the show to be played without a second guitarist. I also provide details of the equipment I use to play the show.
For a deep dive into the details of the score, see my Detailed Notes on the Guitar 1 Book, and Detailed Notes on the Guitar 2 Book. I also provide a perspective on RENT, its history, legacy and enduring popularity here.
I have played RENT several times and find that it never gets dull for a guitarist. Although it’s emphatically a rock score, there’s plenty of variety in the material. In addition to a lot of riffing, there’s a tango, some soulful pop, a few picked acoustic numbers and one of the most famous songs in the entire musical theatre repertoire, namely “Seasons of Love”, for which Guitar 1 plays tambourine. Guitar 1 (or a combined Guitar 1 & 2 book) has all the interesting material for a guitarist, and the parts are interesting without being excessively difficult to play.
RENT is “sung through”, which means that there are no scenes between numbers. The band is always busy, because everything in the show happens to a musical accompaniment. It’s a long show, and Act 1 is a full 90 minutes, so the show is physically demanding to play.
The guitar books lack detail (more on this below), which gives you some latitude to interpret the material, within the confines of the style of the show. This adds to the interest of playing the book, but requires some effort in terms of preparation. You also have some flexibility in choosing electric and acoustic guitar sounds for the show. I describe my choices below.
ORCHESTRATION: OVERVIEW AND OPTIONS
RENT is scored for a 5-piece band: Keyboard 1, Bass, Drums, Guitar 1 and Guitar 2/Keyboard 2. The Guitar 2/Keyboard 2 book leans heavily towards the keyboards; Guitar 2 plays on only 14 of the 43 numbers in in the score and most of the parts are simple rhythms to fill out the sound. Although Guitar 2 takes more of a lead on #38: “What You Own”, Guitar 1 does most of the heavy lifting, and Guitar 2 is the first thing to go if a production is looking to cut instruments for economy. It is also often the case that the Keyboard 2 player can’t play the guitar. If there is no Guitar 2, Guitar 1 will have to cover some of the Guitar 2 book, particularly on #3: “Rent”, and #38: “What You Own”.
The absence of Guitar 2 can be covered by having Guitar 1 play a “combined book”, but Keyboard 2 is not so easily dispensed with, because it forms an important part of the sound and texture of the ensemble, and carries a lot of exposed parts. The full band is only 5 people, so the absence of Keyboard 2 makes a real, detrimental difference to the sound of the show.
COMBINED GUITAR BOOK
I have played both original and School versions of RENT, and have played both the Guitar 1 book and a combined book. I have to say that I enjoyed the challenge of playing the combined book very much, and prefer it to the Guitar 1 book! I prepared a Combined Guitar book which gave complete coverage of the parts and maintained the feel and fullness of sound provided by two guitars as far as possible. Full, measure-by-measure details of how I combined the parts are provided here. In general terms, combining the electric guitar parts is quite straightforward and just gives Guitar 1 more to do. Combining some of the acoustic guitar parts is more difficult, in particular for #11: “You’ll See”, and #36: “Halloween”.
RENT VS. RENT – SCHOOL EDITION
The School Edition of RENT was introduced in 2009, to give younger actors a chance to perform the work. The School Edition tones down the adult content of the show (drugs, language, sexual references), presumably to spare the blushes of watching parents, because kids who are old enough to perform this material know every word of RENT.
Most of the changes in the School Edition are tweaks to the lyrics. Musically there are very few changes. A few numbers have a verse omitted, or are truncated slightly. #34: “Contact” – the big and pointless orgy scene – is cut, and I think the show is better for it. #7: “One Song Glory” is lowered in pitch from Gb to F, because teenage boys don’t all have pipes like Adam Pascal! I provide a complete list of all the differences I am aware of between RENT and RENT – School Edition here.
GENERAL NOTES ON THE GUITAR BOOKS
The RENT guitar books are interesting and fun to play, without being overly difficult. The newer typeset versions are well laid out and easy to read. Page turns are good: there are a few quick turns but none are impossible. There are also a few quick guitar changes for Guitar 1. The number of quick changes and page turns increases if you are playing a “combined” book.
The Guitar 1 book lacks adequate detail in some places (most notably #38: “ What You Own”). Addressing this problem requires spending some time listening to the Broadway Cast recording to work out what’s really needed. The Guitar 2 book is less affected by a lack of detail, because it’s mostly simple rhythm parts, so pages of slash marks are more appropriate.
The lack of detail in the Guitar 1 book can be regarded as a hinderance (you have to do more work to prepare for the show) or an opportunity (you have more latitude to interpret the material). However you look at it, be prepared to spend some time working out your parts before rehearsals start to make the most of the show.
I provide more detail on all these matters in my Detailed Review of the Guitar 1 Book.
My rig for RENT has evolved over the years. For this article, I describe my most recent setup.
Both Guitar 1 and Guitar 2 books call for electric and acoustic 6-string guitars.
Electric: this should be a Strat-style guitar, with single coil pickups, as humbuckers would be too dark for much of the material in RENT. For Guitar 1 the guitar should have a tremolo arm. A standard tremolo arm is sufficient; a Floyd-Rose style locking tremolo is not necessary. I use a 2013 Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic, with a humbucker in the bridge position that can be coil-tapped to provide a single-coil sound. The humbucker on my Anderson is brighter-sounding than a Gibson-style PAF pickup, so I’m able to use it for some of the heavier rock numbers. I use the following pickup settings at various times during the show (see my detailed reviews of the Guitar 1 and Guitar 2 books for complete details):
- Bridge pickup (Position 5) – humbucker
- Bridge pickup (Position 5) – single coil
- Bridge and middle pickups (Position 4) – bridge pickup in single coil configuration
Acoustic: I use my 2004 Atkin Small Jumbo, with EQ set a little bright to suit the material, but still with enough warmth so that fingerpicked sections (for example, #41: “Your Eyes”) don’t sound thin and weedy.
Additional Guitars: for more recent productions I have added two additional guitars:
- 12-String Acoustic: used for #16: “Will I”. I use a Takamine Pro Series 6 P6JC-12 BSB. The guitar has a naturally bright tone, so I set the EQ to remove a little of the sharpness.
- Nylon-String Acoustic: used for #32: “Without You”. I use a Takamine P3FCN.
The score doesn’t explicitly call for these instruments, but I find that they suit their respective numbers very well, adding new textures to the sound of the show.
I have used different amplification set-ups for RENT, depending on the size of theatre and the sound design for each production. Typically I use a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III for the electric guitar, making use of both Clean and Overdrive channels, with the overdrive set to “More Overdrive”. I set the Presence to increase brightness, and cut the mid-range slightly. To send the electric sound to the house I use either a Shure SM57 microphone, or a Radial JDX Direct Drive DI. In the latter configuration I also take a line through the Radial to the Effects Return of the Hot Rod, which then acts as my monitor.
I use what is known as the “4-cable method” for my signal chain, where some of the effects pedals come before the amplifier input, and some are in its effects loop. I describe this in more detail below.
For the three acoustic guitars, I use an AER Compact 60 amplifier. I set the EQ to be almost neutral, and add a little reverb. I run the Atkin 6-string acoustic through a Fishman Aura Spectrum pre-amp, then run all three guitars into one channel of the amplifier via a GigRig QMX4 switching system. I adjust EQ for the guitars using the on-board pre-amps of the Takamines, and the Fishman preamp for the 6-string. I send the signal to the house using the balanced XLR output of the AER Compact 60.
Given a choice I usually opt for a stomp box-based pedalboard over a digital board; I just prefer the sounds I get from stomp boxes. RENT calls for variety of guitar sounds, but these can easily be managed using stomp boxes, without the need to add a switching system, and without too much tap-dancing. My most recent pedalboard for RENT is shown below.
I use a 4-cable method setup for RENT, with the following signal chain:
Guitar → Compressor → Overdrive → Distortion → Amplifier input → Amplifier Effects SEND → Harmonizer → Tremolo → Chorus → Volume Pedal → Delay → Clean Boost → Reverb → DI Box “Through” output (if present) → Amplifier Effects RETURN
When using a DI (the Radial Direct Drive is shown in the picture), I also run its XLR output to the house PA, so my amplifier effectively becomes my personal monitor.
I provide full details of which effects are used for which number in my detailed review of the Guitar 1 book, but here’s a summary:
- Compressor: used to add punch and sustain to clean tones (e.g. #30: “Take Me Or Leave Me”).
- Overdrive: used for warm overdrive tones, where something less than full, hard rock distortion is needed (e.g. #38: “What You Own”). I use an old Ibanez TS-9 Turbo Tube Screamer modified by Analogman, in “+” mode.
- Distortion: used for the really heavy numbers (e.g. #14: “Out Tonight” and #15: “Another Day”). I use a Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion, for its 80s-style tones.
- Amplifier Dirty Channel: for the grey area between warm overdrive and heavy distortion (let’s call it “Heavy Overdrive”) I switch to the More Overdrive channel of the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III. This gives a thick, heavy but still warm tone for numbers such as #3: “Rent”.
- Harmonizer: I only use this pedal if I’m playing the Combined book. It allows you to play both guitars’ solo parts for m.111-114 of #3: ‘Rent” simultaneously (the parts are an octave apart). I use a Boss PS-6 Harmonist.
- Tremolo: used for #12a: “Tango Maureen” and #38: “What You Own”. The settings are different and have to be changed at the intermission. I use a Boss TR-2.
- Chorus: used in #8: “Light My Candle” and elsewhere. I use a fairly subtle sound, just to give a bit of slow warble to the tone. I use an Analogman Bi-Chorus.
- Volume Pedal: I use an Ernie Ball VP Jr.
- Delay: used mostly for lead tones, with about 500ms single repeat delay (e.g. the big solo in #42: “Finale B”. #7: “One Song Glory” requires 1/8 note repeats. I use about 3 or 4 repeats. The settings have to be changed manually when you have time! I use the MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analog Delay.
- Clean Boost: used to boost volume for solos. I use the BMF Fat Bastard, a very simple but truly wonderful-sounding pedal.
- Reverb: I use this as a substitute for the amplifier’s spring reverb if I’m sending signal directly to the house. Otherwise it’s not needed. I use a TC Electronics Hall of Fame, with a light Spring or Room reverb. If using a reverb pedal, the amplifier reverb should be set to zero.
ELECTRIC GUITAR TONES
As can be seen from the effects details above, I have settled on four distinct tones for RENT: clean, overdrive, heavy overdrive and distortion. I decided to use multiple tones partly to serve the material in the score, and also to add more sonic variety to the ensemble. The tones are:
- Clean: usually pickup position 4 (bridge and middle pickups). Crisp and bright.
- Overdrive: bridge pickup, single coil mode. Warm, slightly compressed, fairly bright, with just a bit of breakup in the sound.
- Heavy Overdrive: bridge pickup, humbucker mode. A thick, warm, distorted heavy tube overdrive.
- Distortion: bridge pickup, humbucker mode. Heavily distorted, slightly harsh, with an edge (but not full metal).
I describe where each tone is used in my detailed review of the Guitar 1 book.
ACOUSTIC GUITAR EFFECTS
The Guitar 1 book also calls for the use of a Chorus pedal for the acoustic guitar (e.g. for #11: “You’ll See”). I use an old Arion SCH-1 on my acoustic pedalboard, but always end up deciding not to use it by the end of rehearsals. It’s really not needed.
I use the following additional equipment items to play RENT:
- Capos for electric, acoustic and nylon-string guitars.
- Herdim .63mm (yellow) picks for electric guitar.
- Dunlop .38mm and .46mm picks for acoustic guitars.
- Tambourine: for #24: “Seasons of Love” and #31: “Seasons of Love B”.
RENT is one of the great Broadway musicals, and its Guitar 1 book is a classic “must play” score for any guitarist with a serious interest in pit work. It is a template for many subsequent rock musicals. It’s interesting and challenging without being excessively difficult to play, although it is long and physically demanding. The book is flexible (i.e. lacking in detail!) enough to allow you some latitude in interpreting the material, but to make the most of it you should be prepared to do the necessary study and preparation to fill out the parts. The Original Broadway Cast recording is a good reference point. It’s a lot of fun to play, and a great to show to have in your repertoire.
LINKS – ON THIS SITE
RENT Combined Guitar Book details – measure-by-measure details of how to prepare a combined book
List of differences between RENT and RENT – School Edition (focuses on Guitar books)
RENT – A Perspective On An Iconic Musical
RENT – Detailed Notes On The Guitar 1 Book
RENT – Detailed Notes On The Guitar 2 / Keyboard Book
LINKS – EXTERNAL
RENT – Wikipedia page
RENT – Original Broadway Cast Recording
RENT Licensing Information (MTI)
RENT – School Edition Licensing Information (MTI)
Seattle Children’s Theatre
Good suggstions here for sure. Possibly my favorite show. I combined the parts. I had acoustic and electric amps with built in DI so I went straight to the board. This was before I went digital with a page turner so I made a special 3 page version of 32 (Without You) so I never had to stop playing.