The Pit Guitarist’s Toolbox – Part 1: Instruments
This is the first in a series of posts looking at the equipment needs of a pit guitarist. I should start by acknowledging that equipment choice is very personal – everybody has their own way of making things work and their favorite instruments, amps and pedals. But after several very happy years spent hanging around in pits I have settled on a selection of gear that is flexible, meets the requirements of most theatre venues, and allows me to cover most Guitar books. That’s what these articles will cover. I welcome comments on this and the other forthcoming articles; I am always ready to learn something new.
I have divided this very broad subject into five topics, each of which will be the subject of a planned blog post:
INSTRUMENTS: how many instruments do you need? What characteristics should they have?
UNUSUAL EQUIPMENT REQUIREMENTS: unusual and rarely used instruments called for by specific scores.
AMPLIFICATION: electric and acoustic instrument amplifiers, preamplifiers and DI units for musical theatre work.
EFFECTS: stomp boxes, pedal boards and power supplies, multi-effects processors and modeling amplifiers.
ACCESSORIES: other essential and useful equipment for a pit guitarist.
In each equipment category, I will pinpoint characteristics that will help you get the most out of your gear in a musical theatre setting, and provide some details on modifications I’ve made to my own gear. I will also outline my approach to equipment selection for shows.
It’s important to acknowledge that every production is different, theatres come in all shapes and sizes and they have widely varying sound set-ups. Having access to a broad range of instruments, amplification options and effects is therefore a valuable asset for a pit guitarist; someone who is consistently able to meet a theatre’s needs is more likely to be hired again. My intent in these articles is to illustrate the range of situations you can encounter, and the range of equipment available to help you meet the needs of most productions.
The remainder of this article focuses on the first topic: instruments.
A REPERTOIRE OF INFINITE VARIETY
One of the many enjoyable aspects of musical theatre work is that it offers a guitarist the opportunity to play a broader repertoire than almost any other area in music. One week you’re playing rock for The Who’s Tommy, or RENT; the next it might be the ersatz flamenco of Man of La Mancha or the Americana and blues of Violet. You might find yourself comping on an archtop for a classic Broadway show like Bye Bye Birdie (I never want to play that show again…), or picking bluegrass banjo for Bright Star. The variety is immense, which means that to be a serious pit guitarist you need access to a lot of different instruments.
Additionally, modern scores have a tendency to call for a lot of instruments. For example, Shrek, Legally Blonde, Spring Awakening and The SpongeBob Musical (both Guitar 1 and 2 books) each require six instruments.
With all of this in mind, in this article I first describe a “bare minimum” approach to instrumentation, then move on to what I regard as a full “standard” range of instruments, by which I mean a set of instruments that will allow you to meet the requirements of most scores. Of course there are exceptions; some scores call for more uncommon instruments. The second article in this series will list unusual equipment requirements for specific musicals and will be updated periodically as I discover more of them.
Players starting out in pit work may not have the desire, resources or even the storage space to accommodate a large number of instruments, and will probably want to borrow many of those I describe as “standard”. But if you are serious about being a pit musician and your budget can stretch to it, I recommend acquiring the full set over time. It is a lot of fun to play such a wide variety of instruments and very convenient to have them available when you need them.
THE BARE MINIMUM – TWO INSTRUMENTS
To play guitar in a pit ensemble, you generally have to show up with at least one electric and one acoustic guitar. These two instruments alone will enable you to play a very wide range of shows, especially if you choose your instruments carefully. In most scores, instruments beyond electric and acoustic guitar are typically used more sparingly*, and you can often substitute the electric or acoustic as needed. I successfully used this approach in my early days as a pit guitarist (*A special shout out to The SpongeBob Musical Guitar 1 book in this regard, which calls for precisely 4 measures of nylon string guitar in its opening number, and never uses it again!).
For example, a 6-string acoustic guitar can usually be used in place of a nylon-string acoustic, or a 12-string acoustic. Many scores call for an archtop, which can mean anything from a warm electric jazz tone to a warm, woody acoustic tone. You can usually substitute an electric guitar set to neck pickup for the former, and acoustic guitar for the latter.
This substitution approach won’t always work. There is no getting away from the need for a nylon-string guitar for Man of La Mancha, or any occasion where a score calls for the very distinct sound of a mandolin (The Spitfire Grill, Bright Star, Legally Blonde, or The Bridges of Madison County, for example). There is enough acoustic 12-string guitar in Spring Awakening that it is essential to the sound of the show. More generally, as you get into working at bigger professional theatres, you will be expected to have the exact instruments called for in the score.
I recommend the following characteristics when choosing basic acoustic and electric guitars for pit work:
A Stratocaster-type guitar with three pickups (single coil) is the most versatile instrument available for pit work. You can get enormous tonal variety from one of these instruments, and the relative brightness of the sound is generally more suited to musicals than the thicker, darker sound of humbucker pickups. For maximum flexibility, I recommend a “fat Strat”, which has single coil pickups in neck and middle positions, with a humbucker at the bridge position. The humbucker in such guitars is usually wired so that it can be coil-tapped, allowing you to switch between single coil and humbucker modes. The pickups shouldn’t be too “hot” (i.e. not high output). Slightly hotter than “vintage” output is a happy medium, and you can always use a clean boost pedal right after the guitar in the signal chain to increase the input level to your amplifier. I use a Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic as my main guitar (there are of course many more affordable options than this!).
Strat-style guitars usually have tremolo bridges, and I recommend having one of these. A standard tremolo is adequate – there is no need for a Floyd Rose.
String gauge and action should be set light and low enough that the guitar is comfortable to play for two hours at a time (this also depends on your personal preferences). If this is your only electric, the action should be just high enough to allow for slide playing on occasions.
Six-string acoustics come in all shapes and sizes and have a wide variety of tones, ranging from warm sounds best suited to finger-picking, to very bright tones ideal for rhythmic strumming. I recommend the following characteristics:
- A solid spruce top, with a “happy medium” tone that will work for all styles of playing (warm, but with some brightness).
- A medium-sized body (not a huge, deep jumbo). Orchestra models or smaller dreadnoughts are ideal. Larger guitars can sound boomy, and space in pits is often very tight. Taylor Guitars’ “Grand Auditorium” shape is also a great choice.
- Cutaway body: a cutaway allows easy access to the 12th to 17th I can think of two shows (Heathers The Musical and The Last Five Years) where the acoustic guitar parts can only be played properly on an acoustic with a cutaway.
- Pickup: the acoustic should have a built-in pickup system, with some basic EQ controls (a built-in tuner is a nice bonus). Easy access to the battery compartment is another very useful characteristic.
A “STANDARD SET” OF INSTRUMENTS (THIS ONE GOES UP TO ELEVEN…)
The following set of instruments provides the flexibility to fully meet the requirements of most guitar scores. These recommendations are based on my own experience and preferences. I’ll list them out first, then look a little more closely at desirable characteristics for each one. As with all things musical, what you can get will depend on your budget for these instruments. In my notes I offer tips on how to get reasonable value for money and maximize flexibility in selecting instruments.
- Acoustic Guitar #1 – Warm
- Acoustic Guitar #2 – Bright (at least one of the acoustics should have a cutaway body).
- 12-String Acoustic Guitar
- Nylon-String Acoustic / Classical Guitar
- Archtop Guitar
- “Fat” Stratocaster-Style Electric Guitar
- Telecaster-Style Electric Guitar
- Gibson-Style Electric Guitar
- Tenor Ukulele
- Acoustic Guitar #1 – Warm: a medium sized body, preferably with a cutaway, with a solid spruce top and a warm tone suited to fingerpicking. The guitar should have a built-in pickup, with at least basic gain and EQ controls, possibly a built-in tuner and easy access to the battery compartment. See my detailed notes on acoustic selection above for more details.
- Acoustic Guitar #2 – Bright: I recommend having a second acoustic because at least three shows I can think of (Spring Awakening, Dear Evan Hansen and The Bridges of Madison County) require fast, extensive changes in tuning which make the use of a single acoustic guitar impractical. If you’re going to have a second acoustic, it is worthwhile having something that sounds a little different from your main guitar. I recommend a medium sized body, preferably with a cutaway (at least one of the acoustics should have a cutaway, for the reasons explained above), a solid spruce top and a bright tone suited to hard strumming. Look for a built-in pickup, with at least basic gain and EQ controls, possibly a built-in tuner and easy access to the battery compartment.
- 12-String Acoustic Guitar: a 12-string acoustic is called for sufficiently frequently in modern scores that it’s worth having one (for example Shrek, Fun Home, Legally Blonde, Wicked, RENT and of course Spring Awakening, for which the 12-string is a necessity). I recommend trying to find one with an action that’s not too heavy; some parts I have played require more than just strumming basic chords. Look for a built-in pickup, with at least basic gain and EQ controls, possibly a built-in tuner and easy access to the battery compartment. I usually play a Takamine P6J12BSB, fitted with an 18-volt pre-amplifier.
- Nylon-String Acoustic / Classical Guitar: a nylon-string guitar is called for in many scores, although it is rarely used in more than a handful of numbers. Two notable exceptions are Man of La Mancha (all nylon-string guitar), and The Light In The Piazza (mostly nylon-string). There are several varieties of this type of guitar, from Spanish-style guitars to classical guitars, to more modern nylon-strings with cutaway bodies and brighter tones. Any type should meet the needs of a pit guitarist, although if you are asked to play the “On-Stage Guitar” part for Man of La Mancha you will need something that doesn’t look too modern! I recommend a guitar with a built-in pickup, with at least basic gain and EQ controls, possibly a built-in tuner and easy access to the battery compartment. I usually play a Takamine P3FCN with a cutaway and built-in electronics (I have added an 18-volt preamp in place of the stock 9-volt unit), but also have a Spanish-made classical guitar, fitted with a K&K Pure Classic. It has volume and tone controls hidden inside the sound hole, and I have actually used it for the aforementioned Man of La Mancha on-stage guitar part.
- Archtop Guitar: an archtop is called for in more scores than you might think and is particularly useful for older “classic Broadway” shows, like Bye Bye Birdie. In modern scores, it’s mostly called out for a big showtune-style number (for example “Blood In The Water” in Legally Blonde, although an acoustic archtop is featured throughout A Year With Frog & Toad. The tone of an archtop can mean anything from the warm, electric jazz sound produced by a floating neck position humbucker, to the distinctive, woody, thick acoustic tone characteristic of these guitars. To give myself as much versatility as possible within this tonal range, here’s what I did:
Guitar: I use a Loar LH-650 all solid wood archtop (no longer in production), with a cutaway body design. Loar guitars are far from being the finest archtops available, but they are well made, sound reasonably good and offer exceptionally good value for money.
Magnetic Pickup: I replaced the stock pickup with a Kent Armstrong Handwound Johnny Smith 12-pole floating humbucker at the neck.
Piezo Pickup: I had a K&K Definity pickup fitted beneath the bass side of the bridge, with no onboard preamplifier.
Wiring: I had the cable jack socket replaced with a stereo version, with one pickup wired to ring and the other to the tip connection. I had a toggle switch added to the scratch plate, allowing me to switch the polarity of the jack, so that when using a mono cable, I can send either pickup signal to the amplifier. The onboard volume knob controls only the magnetic pickup.
Outboard preamplifier: I bought a Radial PZ-Pre 2-channel preamplifier. This amazing unit allows me to run a stereo cable from the archtop into one of its two inputs and can handle the impedance differences between magnetic and piezo pickups. You can switch between the two channels (i.e., between the two pickups) or blend the tone of the two pickups to produce just about any archtop tone you want.
This kind of customization might not be for everyone, in which case you can use the neck pickup of a Gibson-style electric (see below) to get close to an electric archtop sound and focus your archtop just on its acoustic sound.
- “Fat” Stratocaster-Style Electric Guitar: this will be the basic go-to electric guitar for most needs, with single coil pickups at the neck and middle positions, a coil-tappable humbucker at the bridge, and a standard tremolo bridge. See my detailed recommendations for configuration above.
- Telecaster-Style Electric Guitar: the Telecaster has a distinct bright tone (excellent for country and rock’n’roll twang) that is quite different from the Stratocaster, but is also close enough to be used as a back-up instrument. Moreover, several scores either specifically call for a Telecaster (9 To 5 and The Bridges of Madison County for example) or very clearly use one (e.g. Violet). A Telecaster should have the standard bar magnet at neck, single coil at bridge pickup configuration to get that classic Telecaster twang. If you have a Tele, this should be the one electric guitar that is set up with an action high enough for slide work.
- Gibson-Style Electric Guitar: a Les Paul or ES-335-style guitar with twin PAF-style humbucker pickups, completing the trinity of classic electric guitar sounds. Gibsons are very pricy (overpriced for the quality of instrument build, frankly), but you can get more affordable, equally well-built substitutes such as Epiphones to do the same job. A Les Paul is basically a plank with strings and pickups, and the sound is mostly down to the pickups. So, if you do go for a cheaper guitar, you also have the option of swapping out the stock pickups for something fancy like Lollar, Seymour Duncan, or Lindy Fralin PAF-style pickups. This type of guitar is more useful in musical theatre than you might think. They can be used in place of an archtop (neck pickup position) for jazzy electric sounds. They can also be used for rock ’n’ roll musicals such as Grease and Hairspray. Most significantly, there are at least three modern musicals which specifically require the dark PAF humbucker tone, namely American Idiot, Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. Even the bridge humbucker on a Fat Strat doesn’t quite give you that thick PAF tone.
If three electric guitars is a non-starter, you can always look at options with fancier wiring configurations (such as a Strat-style guitar with humbuckers at bridge and neck, and single coil middle pickup, and coil taps on both humbuckers). However, some shows require two electric guitars for fast changes to alternate tunings, so I recommend having at least two electrics.
- Mandolin: there is no getting away from the highly distinctive sound of a mandolin; it’s hard to use a guitar as a substitute and any attempt to do so always sounds horrible. The mandolin is increasingly popular in modern scores (Wicked, Shrek, Violet, Legally Blonde, The Spitfire Grill, The Light In The Piazza, The Bridges of Madison County…there are more). Mandolins can get very pricy. Unless you are a mandolin aficionado (or rich…or a rich mandolin aficionado) I recommend getting something towards the more modest end of the price range (around $1,000). I chose a now-discontinued Michael Kelly model, with a built in Fishman pickup system which has served me very well, especially after I had it properly set up. Alternatively, if you have an instrument without a pickup, you can either retrofit a pickup (I recommend K&K pickups for this), or use a condenser microphone. I discuss amplification options in a separate article. I typically use an MXR M108 10-Band Graphic EQ with my mandolin to dial in the exact tone and level I want.
- Banjo: the banjo is used even more widely than the mandolin in musical theatre. It crops up everywhere: Wicked, Violet, Company, Big Fish, The SpongeBob Musical, and 9 utterly gratuitous measures in the overture of Bye Bye Birdie. There are some lovely tenor banjo parts in A Year With Frog & Toad, and of course the ultimate Banjo book is Steve Martin’s Bright Star.
Scores usually call simply for “Banjo”, with no other information provided. This can be problematic, because there are many different types of banjo (Tenor and 5-String being the most common) and many different tunings. For example, there are at least 3 common tunings for the tenor banjo: standard (C,G,D,A – mainly used for jazz and similar to viola), Irish (G,D,A,E – mainly used for folk and similar to violin) and Chicago (D,G,B,E – like the top 4 strings of a guitar and great for guitarists!). Here are some guidelines:
- Almost all musical theatre parts are best suited to a tenor banjo, unless the parts call for specific bluegrass picking styles (Clawhammer or Three-Finger).
- For a Tenor Banjo, the Chicago tuning is the most practical, because it is the same as the top four strings of a guitar.
- For Bluegrass work (e.g., Bright Star), a 5-string banjo is needed. Tunings vary, but G and Double-C tunings are the most common. For this kind of work the score should call out the tuning (but doesn’t always do so!).
So, what kind of banjo should you buy? If you’re not going to be playing bluegrass, a 19- or 22-fret tenor banjo is the best option. One way to have the best of both worlds is to have a 5-string and remove the drone string to convert it to a tenor if needed. It’s not quite the same, but it does the job. For the ultimate in banjo flexibility, you can opt for a Long-Neck Banjo, but these are expensive, large and heavy. I have used an inexpensive Deering Goodtime Two 5-string for several years, although it is due for an upgrade as my playing has improved over time. It is fitted with a K&K Banjo Twin pickup. I also own a long-neck banjo and a Deering Boston Tenor Banjo.
Amplification options for a banjo include various pickups (under-bridge, microphone) fitted to the banjo, or the use of a condenser microphone in front of the banjo (I use a Myers Feather). If you prefer pickups the K&K Banjo Twin is a good option.
- Tenor Ukulele: I have played ukulele in four shows to date, namely Shrek, Godspell (2012 version), Shaina Taub’s As You Like It, and The SpongeBob Musical. A ukulele isn’t called for particularly often, but when it does appear it is usually featured prominently in one or more numbers, so it’s useful to have one. I include this in my list of “standard” instruments because of its unmistakable sound, and because it is a fairly inexpensive investment. Ukuleles come in several shapes and sizes, with soprano being the most common. However, I recommend a tenor ukulele for musical theatre work, as it has slightly larger frets, a longer fretboard and is easier to play accurately. It’s also worth noting that while the standard “re-entrant” tuning for ukulele is the most commonly used (G C E A with the G higher than the C in pitch), it can also have the G an octave lower (As You Like It uses the Low G tuning). String sets are available for both tunings, and I keep spares for both in my ukulele case. My own ukulele is a $200 Kala KA-TE, with a built-in pickup and tuner. The pickup uses a pair of small CR 2032 lithium batteries.
Acquiring the 11 instruments I’ve described for this “basic set” represents a significant investment, but this can be spread over several years, and if you are serious about being a pit guitarist it’s well worth doing. As is said at the beginning of this article, I welcome comments and opinions on my approach to instrumentation to pit work – it’s always good to learn how different players approach the same problem.
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Kent Armstrong Handwound Pickups
Tom Anderson Guitarworks