Playing Head Over Heels – Guitar 1 And Guitar 2
Songs: The Go-Go’s
Book: Jeff Whitty / James Magruder
Year 2018 (Broadway)
I recently spent six highly enjoyable weeks playing Guitar 1 for the sold-out Seattle premiere run of “Head Over Heels”, the jukebox musical based around the songs of The Go-Go’s, which had a brief Broadway run in 2018. In the first part of this article, I examine the show’s source material and its origins (the music is not as 80s as you might think), and the contemporary messages that have been woven into the story. I also reflect on my experience performing in Seattle’s premiere production of the show.
In the second half, I look at the show’s orchestration, including opportunities to reduce the number of instruments required. I compare the two Guitar books and consider the differences in tonal characteristics required to keep the two electric guitars distinct in the mix. Finally, I provide a detailed run-down of the equipment I used to play the Guitar 1 book, and equipment suggestions for playing the Guitar 2 book. In a separate article, I provide a detailed review of the Guitar 1 book (Head Over Heels – Detailed Notes on the Guitar 1 Book – coming soon).
NOT YOUR AVERAGE JUKEBOX MUSICAL
I am not a big fan of jukebox musicals and don’t play very many of them, but for several reasons, I made an exception for Head Over Heels. Firstly, I love The Go-Go’s music, and found the choice of their songs as a soundtrack interesting, because while the band did have several hit singles, they are not as widely known as ABBA or Green Day.
Secondly, instead of trying to construct a wispy plot around the songs, the writers based the show loosely on a 16th century comic poem, Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia”, providing a solid and very funny story as a framework for the music. While this approach could have been a gimmick which backfired, it actually works well, because the broad themes of both book and songs are similar (love and sex, loss, jealousy, politics and identity). In turn, the songs’ lyrics are general enough that the meshing of story and songs feels relatively unforced.
Interestingly, the writers retained a pseudo-Elizabethan language style for the dialogue, juxtaposing it with the songs’ modern lyrics. Again, this could have backfired, but it works. Generally, the dialog advances the plot, while the lyrics articulate the emotional states of the characters, an approach similar to that used in Spring Awakening, which juxtaposed a 19th century dialogue style with a rock score.
Thirdly, the 400-year old comedy has been re-contextualized and re-purposed to deliver clear, uplifting and distinctly contemporary messages about the importance and value of inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance, intertwined with the theme that life’s problems are sometimes solved in unexpected but ultimately satisfying ways.
The combination of ancient comedy with modern musical and thematic elements makes for a wildly entertaining show which knowingly revels in its own absurdities, but firmly delivers serious and thoughtful messages, without ever being po-faced.
Sadly, the interesting premise of this most unusual of jukebox musicals was not sufficient to support a long Broadway run, and it lasted only six months on Broadway, closing in January 2019. However, I expect that the show will become very popular over the next few years in regional productions; it certainly played to packed houses in Seattle.
PLAYING THE SHOW
I always liked The Go-Go’s, and am old enough to have seen them play several times. Knowing all of the songs and something of the show, I jumped at the chance of playing the Guitar 1 book for the show’s Seattle premiere, at ArtsWest, in West Seattle.
The six-week run started in mid-November 2019 and ran right through the Holiday season, so audiences were in the mood for a party, and the show delivered the fun they were looking for. The run was almost completely sold out and got great reviews. Everything worked on this production: top-notch cast, great production design, costumes and choreography, and a great band. It was a lot of fun, and I am grateful to ArtsWest and Music Director R.J. Tancioco for the opportunity to have been a part of it.
Head Over Heels is an exhilarating score to perform. The show is fast-paced, and there’s a lot of music. There are only two or three scenes where the music stops for more than a minute, so you have to stay focused throughout.
This was also my first experience of playing a “remote” pit, where the band is neither on stage nor in a traditional pit, but in a remote location, with sound piped directly through the house mixing desk. For Head Over Heels we were in a rehearsal room in the theatre’s basement, with a video feed of the action on stage. Each of us had in-ear monitors and a personal mixer to set a comfortable sound balance.
My initial concerns that being “remote” would detract from the experience were unfounded. We lowered the lighting a little to give more of a “night” feel to the room, and once I had the right mix dialed in, it felt just like any other show. You have to focus, immerse yourself in the show, and it’s all about you, your instrument, the book and the conductor.
NOT QUITE AS 80s AS YOU THINK…
Although The Go-Go’s heyday was the early 1980s, the band’s history (and the music for Head Over Heels) is not as 80s-centric as you might think. The band split in 1985 after three albums (booze, drugs, creative differences, mutual antipathy – the usual stuff), but reformed to tour in 1994. A compilation released at that time, “Return To The Valley of the Go-Go’s”, included three new tracks, two of which appear in Head Over Heels. The band has been sporadically active ever since, and a fourth studio album, “God Bless The Go-Go’s” appeared in 2001. Three songs from that album appear in the musical. Finally, after the Go-Go’s 1985 split, singer Belinda Carlisle built a very successful solo career, and two songs in the show are lifted from her first two solo albums, “Belinda” (1986) and “Heaven On Earth” (1987).
As the table below shows, only eight of the fifteen songs in the show are from the early 1980s Go-Go’s albums. The other half post-date that period, but all are either Go-Go’s songs, or “Go-Go’s adjacent”. Arranger Tom Kitt has also modernized the arrangements somewhat, making tempos faster and the sound a little grittier for the up-tempo numbers. Overall, the score doesn’t have as distinct an 80s feel as, say, The Wedding Singer. It feels more like a post-punk pop rock piece, and (apart from a few retro keyboard flourishes) sounds a little more timeless.
The Original Broadway Cast Recording includes most of the numbers in the show, omitting only “This Town” (of which only a fragment is used, for scene transitions) and “Lust To Love” (also only partially used). The “Skidmarks On My Heart” tag appears several times in the show and is included as a hidden track. The show’s “Exit Music” is also included. Apart from a few minor changes (mostly the omission of underscore sections), the cast recording follows the score very closely.
The show’s orchestration emulates The Go-Go’s line up: two guitars, bass, drums and occasional keyboards. The keyboard has a few featured moments (for example, in “Head Over Heels”), but primarily adds texture and sound effects to what is fundamentally a guitar-bass-drums sound, with the guitars front and center for most of the show.
Since the band is already small I do not recommend attempting to either cut one of the two guitars or play a “combined” Guitar book. There is too much interplay between the two parts, and omitting one instrument would leave the music sounding very thin.
The bulk of both books is electric guitar, and neither is particularly difficult to play. However, there are some differences between the books which are worth considering when selecting musicians and planning the show:
- 90% electric guitar, with one featured number each for mandolin and acoustic guitar.
- A wider variety of sounds than Guitar 2, requiring more effects pedals, or a programmable effects system such as the Line 6 Helix (sounds include overdrive, distortion, wah, phaser, chorus, delay, reverbs and chorus). I provide more detail on this below.
- More featured/exposed parts and solos than Guitar 2, which have to be played accurately and as written.
- About 70% electric guitar, and 30% acoustic and nylon-string guitars.
- More frequent instrument changes than Guitar 1.
- Fewer different electric guitar sounds and effects pedals than Guitar 1.
- More simple rhythm playing than Guitar 1, and fewer featured/exposed parts and solos.
For any production expecting to use sub guitarists during a run, it is more straightforward and less risky to have a sub player for Guitar 2 than for Guitar 1.
The two guitar books call for the following instruments.
Guitar 1: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin.
Guitar 2: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, nylon-string guitar, banjo.
Oddly, the Guitar 1 book also calls for ukulele in #19: “Mad About You (Reprise)”, but the ukulele part appears to have been cut from the number, so there is no ukulele in the Guitar 1 book.
Some instruments could be omitted, but again, I don’t recommend doing this, except perhaps for the banjo.
- Banjo: the banjo plays only a simple rhythm part for 13 measures in #7A: “Lion (No Bear)”. It isn’t an exposed part and could easily be played on the acoustic guitar.
- Nylon-string guitar: Guitar 2’s nylon-string parts could be played on the acoustic guitar without losing any content from the orchestration, but the distinctive texture of the instrument would be lost. The instrument is not heavily featured in any number.
- Mandolin: the mandolin could be covered by playing the parts on acoustic guitar an octave higher than written, but I advise against this, because the mandolin is a featured instrument in #6: “Good Girl”, and its unique sound would be missed.
Tone Considerations for Electric Guitars
Selection of electric guitar sounds is an important consideration. If the sounds are too similar, the result will be mushy distortion. If you listen to the Broadway Cast Recording, Guitars 1 and 2 are panned left and right respectively, and their sounds are quite different, making it easier to discern the individual parts. Guitar 1 is a Strat-style guitar, with crisp, bright single-coil clean sounds, and generally heavy, thick overdrives and distortions. Guitar 2 sounds like a Gibson-style guitar set on bridge (treble) pickup, played through a Fender-style amplifier, or possibly a Telecaster. The Guitar 2 overdrives are generally less heavy than those for Guitar 1.
You have plenty of latitude in selecting electric guitar types and sounds, but the important thing is to pick tones that suit the parts, and make sure they are sufficiently different from each other. It’s worth getting the two guitarists together to work it out before getting into rehearsals. If the band is being mixed through the house, additional EQ adjustments can be made at the house desk to refine the sounds, and the guitars can be panned left and right to separate them more. I also recommend studying the cast recording when preparing to play the show, to get ideas for the sounds required, especially for Guitar 1, which makes greater use of effects.
EQUIPMENT – GUITAR 1
I used the following instruments:
- Electric Guitar: I used my 2013 Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic, a Strat-style guitar, with a coil-tappable Humbucker in the bridge position.
- Acoustic Guitar: I used a Taylor 214ce-QM DLX model, with the EQ adjusted to favor a percussive sound suitable for rhythm playing.
- Mandolin: I used a Michael Kelly model, fitted with a Fishman System 1 pickup and preamplifier. I ran the mandolin through an MXR M108 10-Band Graphic EQ to tweak the tone.
All of my electric guitar sounds were modeled using the Line 6 Helix, and fed directly to the house mix, then back to my in-ear monitors via a personal mixer. For this reason I didn’t need an electric guitar amplifier for this production, although I kept my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe (a Mk.3 model) at the theatre on standby, just in case. If you’re not going the DI route, any good tube amplifier will do the trick (unusually for a musical theatre score, I would even consider a Marshall for the Guitar 1 book).
Similarly, my mandolin and acoustic guitar were fed directly to the house and back to my personal mix, so I didn’t need an amplifier. For convenience, I did run both instruments into my AER Compact 60 amplifier (with the speaker muted), so that I could use its XLR output to feed both instruments to a single channel of the house mix. I provide more details on the signal paths and switching below.
Electric Guitar Sounds & Effects
Despite my preference for stomp boxes and tube amps, I decided to go for a Line 6 Helix-based rig for Head Over Heels, because although the number of sounds required isn’t beyond a simple pedalboard, there are some quick and dramatic changes in sound which made the Helix more practical. For example, in “Turn To You”, you rapidly change from Clean, to Distortion + Wah, to Distortion only, to Distortion + Boost. In other places you change from a Distortion to a “Clean + Effects” tone instantly. It’s a lot of tap dancing for stomp boxes; the Helix is a cleaner solution for this show. The Helix also made sense from a sound design perspective, since the band was remote and everything was direct-to-desk.
In structuring the Helix patches, I adopted my usual convention of having one patch for each major song in the show, with “snapshots” for each sound within the song (in the Helix, “snapshots” are like sub-patches). This allows you to march through the patches as the show progresses, and jump around between the sounds stored in each snapshot as the needs of the song dictate. I saved each patch so that when it was called up it was automatically set at the first snapshot required for the song.
As the photo above shows, I had patches on the bottom row of footswitches, and snapshots on the top row. After using the first four patches, you use the “Bank ^” switch on the left of the unit to go up to the next set of four, and so on. Every time you call up a new patch, the snapshot names on the top row change to whatever is stored in the patch. For the various scene changes, playoffs and tags between the main songs, I added snapshots (if needed) to the patch for the preceding song, so that each patch covered one song, plus all of the following incidental music before the next song. It’s all pretty logical and easy to follow, allowing you to focus more on the music.
I decided to keep the signal chain fairly simple. I worked out all of the sounds I would need for the show, then built a single signal chain, shown in the screenshot below, that would work for every song, just by turning different “blocks” on and off, and adjusting parameters within the blocks. It’s slightly more complex than a physical pedalboard, but not by much. The real benefit is the ability to completely change your sound with a single button push.
Signal Chain: the basic signal chain is
Guitar → Effects → Preamp → Volume Pedal → More Effects → Reverb → Gain (Output Level Adjustment) → Output
Outputs: the output is split into two paths. One goes to the ¼” output and can be used with a “real” amplifier. I used this during early rehearsals The other path (used for performances) goes through a virtual speaker cab, then to the XLR Output, which was connected to the house desk.
Basic Sounds: I used three basic sounds – Clean, Overdrive (Lite Distortion) and Distortion. I used Amplifier blocks to get the Clean and Overdrive sounds, adding a Distortion block to the Overdrive sound for the Distortion sound.
Effects Blocks: here’s a brief run down of the various effects blocks in the chain.
- Wah: used for wah effects.
- Compressor: used occasionally for evening out level and sustain.
- Low Cut EQ: used to remove flabby bottom end and tighten up the tone – always on.
- Phaser: used in “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “This Old Feeling”.
- Distortion: used in conjunction with the “Dirty” Amp for the basic Distortion sound.
- 10-Band Graphic EQ: used for EQ tweaks in front of the amplifier blocks, depending on which effects were being used, and also as a clean boost.
- Tremolo & Chorus: used as you might expect.
- Digital Delay: used with various settings at different points in the show.
- 10-Band Graphic EQ: more EQ tweaking as needed, post-effects, and also used as a clean boost.
- Cave Reverb: used as a big “spacey” reverb effect, in various parts of the show.
- Room Reverb: a subtle “always on” reverb.
- Gain: simple level adjustment at the end of the signal chain, used as needed.
Acoustic Instruments – EQ, Switching & Signal Paths
As usual, I used acoustic instruments with onboard pickups, and routed the signals for both acoustic guitar and mandolin through a small pedalboard, shown in the photo below (the Radial PZ Pre wasn’t used in this show – it just happened to be on the board from a previous production).
Each instrument had its own “tone-shaping”/level control unit, and the signals were routed through a switching device, a volume pedal, and a reverb. The typical signal chain was as follows:
Instrument (x2) → tone shaping unit (x2) → switching unit → volume pedal → reverb → amplifier
Switching: I used a GigRig Quartermaster QMX-4 unit to switch between the two instruments. As I have said in other articles, I like the optical footswitches in these GigRig units, which in combination with the high quality circuitry produces absolutely noiseless switching (without even any clicks as you press the footswitches).
Volume pedal: I used an Ernie Ball VP Jr 25k (the version of the pedal for active signals). The “Jr” versions of their pedals are slightly smaller than the standard versions – always a consideration for small pedal boards.
Reverb: I used a Strymon Blue Sky reverb pedal, which is the best reverb I have ever used.
All of the equipment was mounted on a Pedaltrain JR pedalboard, with a Cioks DC10 power supply mounted beneath to power everything. The pedalboard also had a GigRig Cinco Cinco patch bay mounted beneath on the right side, through which all incoming and outgoing connections to the board were routed (this helped keep cabling neat). So, an example of the complete signal chain for one instrument (let’s use the acoustic guitar) would be:
Acoustic guitar → Cinco Cinco patch bay → Fishman Aura Spectrum Preamp → QMX-4 switcher → Ernie Ball volume pedal → Strymon Blue Sky reverb → Cinco Cinco patch bay → AER Compact 60 amplifier → house sound board.
This approach allowed me to produce exactly the tone I wanted for each instrument, balance their relative levels, then feed a single signal from the pedal board to my amplifier and on to the house.
For the benefit of committed gearheads, here’s a summary of all the additional equipment in my rig for Head Over Heels:
- Capo: I used a G7th Newport model for the electric guitar.
- Picks: I used Herdim 1.10mm (blue) picks for the electric guitar, Dunlop 0.46mm nylon picks for the acoustic, and Blue Chip CT55 mandolin picks.
- Tuners: I used D’Addario headstock tuners for all instruments (mostly the Micro tuner, which fits nicely behind the headstock of my Anderson electric).
- Stands: I used an Ingles Violin Stand for the mandolin, and an On-Stage GS7462DB Double A-frame stand for the electric and acoustic guitars.
- Music Stand: I used the good old Manhasset Model 48, fitted with a Model 1100 Plastic Accessory Shelf, and a Model 1000 lamp (the old fluorescent type).
- Stool: as usual, I sat on my old Big Dog Drum Stool. This is no longer made, but I love this stool.
- Mixer: I used a Behringer Powerplay P16-M personal mixer, with Etymotic Research ER-4 in-ear monitors.
- Water Bottle: just kidding, I’m not going there…
EQUIPMENT – GUITAR 2
I haven’t played the Guitar 2 book, so these brief note are based on my observations of the setup used by the player in the ArtsWest 2019 production, my study of the Guitar 2 book and what I hear on the Broadway Cast Recording.
Instruments: as noted above, the book requires Electric, Acoustic and Nylon-String guitars. Our player used a Gibson Les Paul, mostly on the bridge pickup. A Telecaster would also be a great choice for this book.
Amplification: you have plenty of options, but the important thing is to have a sound that’s different from Guitar 1. Our player used a Fender tube amp, mic-ed directly into the house mix.
Effects: Guitar 2 requires a lot less in the way of effects than Guitar 1. Our player used only distortion, tremolo and chorus pedals, with a SansAmp GT2 as a clean boost. The score calls for clean, “lite distortion”, distortion, tremolo, chorus and (for literally a handful of measures) delay.
I listened to the Broadway Cast Recording and built a Guitar 2 pedalboard of my own. I chose an Ibanez TS-9 DX, modified by AnalogMan for “lite distortion” (i.e. overdrive), and a Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion, for a nice 80s-sounding distortion.
The signal chain is as follows:
Guitar → Ibanez TS-9 DX → Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion → Boss TR-2 Tremolo → TC Electronics Corona Chorus → Ernie Ball VP JR Volume Pedal → MXR Carbon Copy Delay → BMF Fat Bastard Boost → Strymon Blue Sky Reverb → Amplifier input.
The reverb is optional; you could just use your amplifier’s on-board reverb.
Other Equipment: a capo is required for the Electric guitar.
Head Over Heels is a fun, exhilarating show to play, with prominent roles for both Guitar 1 and Guitar 2. Tom Kitt’s excellent arrangements are busy enough to be interesting to play, without being overly difficult. The tunes are great, and the script is very funny. Musicians, actors and audiences are going to have a lot of fun as this show starts to be more widely produced.
LINKS – OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE
Head Over Heels – Detailed Notes on the Guitar 1 Book (coming soon)
LINKS – EXTERNAL
Head Over Heels Wikipedia entry
The Go-Go’s: homepage and discography
The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia Wikipedia entry
Hollywood Reporter article on closure of Head Over Heels on Broadway
Head Over Heels Broadway Cast Recording: CD and YouTube playlist
Review of ArtsWest production of Head Over Heels
Line 6 Helix