music, technology & life in pasadena, california

It's Wicked!

A few months ago, before I started preparing for my January concerts with the LA Phil, I was asked to play guitar for the hit musical, Wicked, which landed at the Pantages Theatre two weeks ago for a rare (for Los Angeles) extended open-ended run. As soon as the Philharmonic concerts were over, I started looking at the music to see what was required. What I saw was a score of incredible complexity and color, music that would be both a challenge and fun to play every night. Not your father’s Broadway show…

On Broadway, the music is scored for two guitarists, but as soon as the show started touring, it was cut down to one player. (Wicked is still playing on Broadway, is still playing in Chicago after two years, still playing on a nationwide tour and our production makes this the fourth company performing in the country.) This is pretty standard for touring Broadway shows, as micro-economics play a big factor in keeping a large tour profitable, so usually the orchestra gets cut down by at least 5 or 6 players. Sometimes the missing parts are doled out to keyboard players who imitate the missing instruments on synthesizers as the scores are reorchestrated for the tour from the original Broadway version.

In this case, the collapsing of the guitar books into one chair created one very busy book which has me playing electric, steel string acoustic, classical and 12-string guitars, as well as banjo and mandolin. That’s 42 strings to tune every night…twice a night if you include the intermission touchup.

In addition, there is the eBow. Ah yes…my friend, the eBow. An eBow is a small handheld electromagnetic device invented in the 1970s that vibrates a guitar’s strings when it comes near them, creating a sound halfway between a violin and a theremin. It’s a touchy little thing, difficult, at first, to find the sweet spot and get it to speak properly. In addition, most of the parts require playing a melodic line on one string and sliding up and down that string to the correct notes using a portamento effect. Jumps of an octave or more are not uncommon and you must land precisely on the correct notes. It took a while to get the hang of it and to learn how to get the eBow under my control. It likes to veer off in its own direction if not tended to…like I said, it’s a touchy little thing.

The other unusual effect I needed to find is called a Seek Wah. I’ve been playing guitar for my entire life, but this was a new one to me. With a little research, I found that the Seek Wah is a typically small effects pedal with 8 or 9 wah-like envelope filters that play in sequence along with a speed control. Think guitar. Think underwater. Then combine the two…that’s pretty much what it sounds like. They’re built by a company called ZVex, which I have reason to believe is a one-person operation in some guy’s basement somewhere in the Midwest, somewhere like, say, Kansas? Anyway, the Seek Wah (which I found on eBay) is hand-painted with psychedelic designs and lettering straight from an old Fillmore poster from the 60s. Mine has a ladybug and a space satellite on it and is covered with…now, get this…glitter. Needless to say, these new toys are a lot of fun to play with.

As of tonight, we now have 17 shows under our belts and our band of 17 players is starting to gel as a well-oiled unit. I’m lucky to have bassist Trey Henry (currently with Linda Rondstadt and many others), keyboardist Dave Witham (George Benson’s musical director) and a young transplanted Brit named Chris Jago on drums as my band mates in the rhythm section. Wade Culbreath, who I’ve mentioned here before, is our percussionist, but his setup is so huge that they had to build a special room for him backstage. We have a great conductor in Dominick Amendum and we’re digging in for the long run.

If you come down to the show, make sure you stop by the orchestra pit and say hi. Oh…and watch out for the flying monkeys.

February 24, 2007 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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