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Playing The Spitfire Grill – Guitar & Mandolin

Showtunes Theatre Spitfire Grill Poster

Music/Book: James Valcq
Lyrics/Book: Fred Alley
Year: 2001 (off-Broadway)

The beautiful chamber musical “The Spitfire Grill” is based on Lee David Zlotoff’s film of the same name, which won the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, but failed to find a wider audience on general release. The musical adaptation is widely praised by critics and adored by musical theatre aficionados, yet (like the film) relatively few people have heard of it. Nevertheless, it is always a hit with audiences when they do have a chance to see it, and always seems to be in production somewhere. As I write this article, 17 productions are licensed for the next 12 months across the USA.

I write in more detail about the show, its history and what makes it so compelling in my companion article, The Spitfire Grill – A Perspective. In this article I focus on my experience playing the show, provide an overview of the guitar parts and describe in detail the equipment I used to play the show. In a third article I take a detailed look at the guitar/mandolin parts and how I approached playing them (The Spitfire Grill – Detailed Notes on the Guitar/Mandolin Book).

I had wanted to play The Spitfire Grill since early 2017, when a music director I was working with shared MP3s of the Original Cast Recording with me, as an introduction to a possible future production. Without knowing anything about the story or the show’s history, I warmed at first listen to the direct, emotive feel of the music, the unusual orchestration and the interesting, very prominent guitar parts. The dominant folk idiom of the music is unlike most Broadway scores, and reminded me of the kind of music I used to play when I first started playing the guitar.

Eventually, in May 2019, I got my chance to play the show. Seattle’s Showtunes Theatre mounted a short, concert-style run and asked me to play in the ensemble. Showtunes’ productions are always exciting to work on. They involve a short, intensive rehearsal process (typically one band rehearsal, a sitzprobe and one dress rehearsal for the band, 29 hours of rehearsal for the cast), leading into a short performance run, using minimal scenery and props, with actors in costume and on-book. It’s a kind of half-way house between a concert and a staged production. To be able to work this quickly, Showtunes hires A-list talent, and you can always feel the creative sparks flying.

Shelby, Hannah and Percy – The Spitfire Grill. Image courtesy of SHOWTUNES Theatre Company and © Chris Bennion 2019

Shelby, Hannah and Percy – The Spitfire Grill.
Image courtesy of SHOWTUNES Theatre Company and © Chris Bennion 2019

Since the run was so short, I spent enough time preparing for it to be close to performance standard from the first rehearsal, to really get the most out of the experience. The effort was worthwhile. The beautiful score and the outstanding cast and musical ensemble made it a truly memorable, satisfying experience.  I am very grateful to Showtunes for giving me an opportunity to perform this beautiful, unique score.

The Spitfire Grill isn’t a sung-through musical, but neither is it a traditional “scene-song-scene” show. Instead, much of the show comprises musical “sequences”, where several similar musical numbers run end-to-end, conveying emotion while concurrently advancing the story. There are a few brief scenes of dialog without music, but mostly, there is music and the ensemble is kept busy. This approach also helps the show maintain momentum.

The Spitfire Grill Ensemble, May 2019. Image courtesy of SHOWTUNES Theatre Company and © Maggie Stenson Pherson 2019

The Spitfire Grill Ensemble, May 2019.
Image courtesy of SHOWTUNES Theatre Company and © Maggie Stenson Pherson 2019

The show’s five-piece orchestration is also unusual, consisting of keyboard (mainly piano), accordion, violin, cello and acoustic guitar/mandolin. Bass is provided by the keyboard on the few occasions it is needed. This “chamber” ensemble manages to produce a surprisingly rich, full sound, with a variety of textures. In the absence of a percussionist, the rhythm of the piece is provided by the acoustic guitar, while quieter, more pastoral passages are underpinned by the cello and violin. The mandolin provides another distinctive voice, its thinner, brighter sound giving more space for the string section to play out in the temporary absence of the acoustic guitar

The overall result is a unique, interesting blend of folk dances and ballads, chamber music, touched with hints of Broadway and pop music. This score has a distinctive sonic signature. It evokes the woods of Gilead very effectively and is so interwoven into the story that it often feels like an eighth member of the cast. The music is also highly emotive, and the absence of a percussionist helps here too, allowing the ensemble to use a very wide dynamic range to maximize the music’s expressiveness. It is an absolute joy to perform, and I hope to have a second chance to do so in the near future.

The Guitar/Mandolin book is well-written and (mostly) includes enough detail to play the show without having to sweat over working out the details of what you are meant to play. In particular, since the acoustic guitar is the rhythmic foundation of the ensemble, most of the rhythms are spelt out in detail, and it’s important to follow them reasonably closely.  The mandolin parts are both rhythm and melody, with some tremolo playing. They should mostly be played exactly as written.

The absence of a bass/percussion rhythm section means that the guitar and mandolin are often very exposed, so it’s important to really learn the book properly before performing it, as a lack of accuracy will quickly become obvious to listeners. Maintaining even tempos is also more difficult without a rhythm section, and this is something the ensemble needs to work at during rehearsals. For individual practice, it is worth playing along with the cast recording and/or a metronome, just to help establish that evenness of tempo in your performance.

I provide detailed notes on the Guitar/Mandolin book and how I approached performing it in a separate article.


The score calls for the use of two instruments – acoustic guitar and mandolin. The mandolin is used for about 15% of the show. I used a Michael Kelly mandolin with a built-in Fishman System 1 pickup system.

The choice of acoustic guitar is more important. The material ranges from gentle, warm fingerpicking to bright, rhythmic and percussive playing. The latter style dominates the score, so I decided to use a guitar with a crisp, bright tone that would best suit the rhythm playing. I used a Taylor 214ce-QM DLX model, adjusting the onboard and amplifier EQ to really bring out a bright but full-bodied tone, but with enough warmth to also suit the fingerstyle pieces. It’s a good idea to play with the EQ while trying a range of numbers from the show in different styles until you’re satisfied. Once you get into playing with the full ensemble, it’s worth revisiting the EQ profile for the guitar, and tweaking it so that it fits in properly into the overall sound.

I considered using two guitars with different tonal characteristics, but decided it was too complicated. I also had a parametric EQ (the Empress Para EQ) on my pedalboard, and experimented with using two different tones for the show. The idea was that the default setting would suit the rhythmic playing (bright, percussive), while turning on the Para EQ would add some warmth to the sound for fingerstyle. In the end it wasn’t necessary; I was able to get the range of tones I needed with a single EQ setting, and used different types of picks and my fingers to obtain the required variety of sounds.

Guitar/Mandolin Setup for The Spitfire Grill - May 2019

Guitar/Mandolin Setup for The Spitfire Grill – May 2019

I used an AER Compact 60 Mk.3 acoustic instrument amplifier, with both instruments routed through a switching system on my pedalboard (see below), so that I only had to send one feed to the house. The EQ was set to suit the acoustic guitar. I used an EQ on the pedalboard to get the mandolin tone right, and to balance the levels of the two instruments. I also added a little reverb using the amplifier’s onboard reverb. The signal was fed to the house sound board using the amplifier’s balanced XLR output.

The Compact 60 served as my personal on-stage monitor. I also had a house monitor which fed through vocals and all the other ensemble instruments, plus a little guitar/mandolin.

As you can imagine, The Spitfire Grill doesn’t require much in the way of effects. In fact, only one effect is required. In the mandolin passage in the opening number (“A Ring Around The Moon”), a “ghostly” reverb is used on the cast recording, and I replicated that. Otherwise, everything on the pedalboard is about switching, EQ, level balancing and volume control.

Spitfire Grill Pedalboard – May 2019

Spitfire Grill Pedalboard – May 2019

For this show I mounted my pedals on a Pedaltrain JR board. I love the flexibility of the Pedaltrain system. I have several different sizes of board and use the smallest one possible for any given show (space is often at a premium in orchestra pits). Each board has a Cioks power supply permanently mounted on the underside (a Cioks DC10 for this board), and a GigRig Cinco Cinco patch bay fixed to the right underside, so that all incoming and outgoing cables come to and from the same place.

GigRig Cinco Cinco Patch Bay mounted beneath Pedaltrain JR pedalbord

GigRig Cinco Cinco Patch Bay mounted beneath Pedaltrain JR pedalbord

I used a GigRig Quatermaster QMX-4 for switching between guitar and mandolin, and for switching the reverb effect in and out. The Quartermaster series has silent optical footswitches (no clicking when you press them!) and each loop has both standard and “flip/flop” modes. Activating any loop in flip/flop mode will cause all other loops in the same mode to switch off. The reverb pedal was on a standard on/off loop, while the mandolin and guitar were on flip/flop loops. Selecting the mandolin would cut off the guitar and vice versa.

The guitar signal was routed via a Fishman Aura Spectrum Preamplifier, which uses “acoustic imaging” blended with the direct signal from the guitar to produce a more natural amplified acoustic guitar tone. It also includes compression, EQ, a notch filter for feedback control and a built-in tuner. I had an Empress Para EQ in the chain, but ended up not needing to use it for this production.

The mandolin signal was routed through an MXR M108 10-band graphic EQ. I always use this pedal with the mandolin. It’s great for tone-shaping, and the input gain and output volume controls can be used to balance the mandolin level against the acoustic guitar.

For the reverb, I used a TC Electronics Hall of Fame, set to a “Church” reverb, with a long pre-delay and a fairly high effects mix level, to get the impression of space and distance.

The output of the QMX-4 was routed via an Ernie Ball VP Jr. volume pedal, back through the patch bay and out to the amplifer.

In summary, the signal chains were as follows:

Guitar → Cinco Cinco Patch Bay input → Fishman Aura Spectrum Preamp → Empress Para EQ (not used) → QMX-4 Switcher Loop 1 Return → QMX-4 Output → Ernie Ball VP Jr. Volume Pedal → Cinco Cinco Patch Bay output → AER Compact 60 amplifier.

Mandolin → Cinco Cinco Patch Bay input → MXR M108 10-band Graphic EQ → QMX-4 Switcher Loop 2 Return → TC Elctronics Hall Of Fame Reverb (on QMX-4 Loop 4 – switchable) → QMX-4 Output → Ernie Ball VP Jr. Volume Pedal → Cinco Cinco Patch Bay output → AER Compact 60 amplifier.

Pick selection ended up being an important factor in getting the sounds I wanted for this show. I used two different types of pick plus my fingernails to get the required range of guitar tones I wanted. For most of the rhythm playing I settled on a Dunlop 0.46mm Nylon pick, switching to a Herdim 0.63mm yellow pick where I wanted a thicker, warmer tone (notably in #14: “Shoot The Moon” and #16: “Come Alive Again”). I nylon-coated my fingernails using Sally Hansen Advanced Hard As Nails, partly to protect to avoid breaking them during the run, but also to stiffen the nails and get a crisper fingerstyle tone. I provide full details of my pick selection for each number in my detailed notes on the Guitar/Mandolin book.

For the mandolin, I used a Blue Chip CT55 pick (which is actually brown, not blue!). These are the picks famous for being used by Chris Thile, and although they are very expensive, I prefer them to any other mandolin pick I have tried.

Other Equipment
I used the following additional equipment:

  • Shubb Guitar Capo for #16: “Come Alive Again”,
  • Ingles Adjustable Violin Stand for the mandolin.
  • On-Stage GS7462B A-Frame guitar stand.
  • D’Addario NS Micro headstock tuners for both instruments (I prefer headstock tuners to pedals for pit work).
  • Big Dog Drum Stool: I always sit on one of these. It’s very comfortable and gives you more space to work with than a chair. I’m not sure if these are still made.
  • Planet Waves cables: I have a bunch of these, cut to 6ft, 8ft and 10ft lengths. I use the shortest length possible in any given situation, to minimize clutter in my area. I try and route the cables so that they don’t come anywhere near my feet!

The Spitfire Grill – A Perspective
The Spitfire Grill – Detailed Notes on the Guitar/Mandolin Book

Wikipedia page (film)
Wikipedia page (musical)
Official site for the musical
Off-Broadway Cast recording (purchase CD)
YouTube Playlist of cast recording
Concord Theatricals (licensing)
Showtunes Theatre website and Facebook page
Broadway World review of Showtunes production
Showtunes sitzprobe video

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