Canadian Musician* contributor Jeff Gunn brings us his latest guitar-focused interview with musical theatre vet Tristan Avakian.*
Musical theatre can offer both a challenging and exhilarating avenue of expression for guitarists. The ability to bring charts to life and support a story is a unique craft that requires guitarists to read and develop a diverse sense of musicality. Perhaps no one knows this better than Tristan Avakian. Since moving to Canada in 2005, he has performed both in the pit and on stage in some of the world’s top musicals, including We Will Rock You, Kinky Boots, Bat Out Of Hell, Rock of Ages, and, currently, Come From Away.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Tristan and ask some questions about the role of the guitar in musical theatre.
JG: What skill set do you need to have in order to play musical theatre gigs?
TA: You need to have had some experience being conducted. Many of the cues can be made with little warning. Develop your peripheral vision, so you can follow the conductor without looking away from the chart. I know that sounds crazy, but it is a facility that develops over time. Some versatility is essential. It all depends on the musical. Understand the idiom you’re in. When I played We Will Rock You, I delivered the iconic, well-known solos like “Bohemian Rhapsody” note for note, as that is what the audience expected. In other places, there was room to add my own interpretation. The chart will often give you some indication of where it’s appropriate (“freely,” for example). I’m a rock player, so that was easy, but for styles I’m inexperienced in, I do my homework. A bonus of versatility is the “double.” If the book demands you play nylon string classical or steel in addition to electric, for example, you get a “double,” which adds a lot more to your cheque.
JG: Describe the preparation process for learning songs for a musical.
TA: If the musical is already being performed on Broadway, I take a trip to NYC to audit – sit in the orchestra the pit with the band. I get a hold of the book in advance, if available. Same with the guitarist’s monitor mix or conductor video. I’ll put it in Logic and play along with it, looping difficult sections over and over. The ink doesn’t give you all the information, so you have to compare it to the recording and find the common ground. In Canada, you have to know your book stone cold, as you only get a few three-hour rehearsals before the first sitzprobe [full company music review]. Within a week of the first tech rehearsal, you are in front of an audience. The band is not the focus of tech, so if you are struggling to a distracting degree, you will hear about it. I don’t like those conversations, so I try to show up on day one ready to play a show.
JG: How does the musical and venue determine what gear you use?
TA: Every show has its own unique demands. You may be required to play an acoustic guitar in one section and a blistering, stunt-heavy electric lead in the next. Frequent, rapid instrument and capo changes are not at all uncommon. I choose instruments based on what the “book” specifies. I also listen to the recording, if available, using my ears to determine what’s being used, and choosing the closest fit from my arsenal, or going out and buying one if necessary. If possible, I sometimes ask the guy who did the gig before me what he used. Tuning stability and general reliability are all important. I like working with Godin, because they are Canadian, affordable, top quality guitars, and with five brands, they have a very wide range of instruments. They make just about anything I could possibly need, which you can’t say about many manufacturers. On We Will Rock You, Brian May’s distinctive sound is realized with his BMG signature model guitars and Greg Fryer modded AC30s and boost pedals. This was all provided and rather necessary, really, although I did the show for so long that eventually I had my own custom Red Special-type guitar hand made for me by Distorted Branch Customs of Mexico City. As far as sounds go, with most shows that have succeeded somewhere else, like Broadway or the West End, a Fractal AxeFx II is usually provided with all the sounds already programmed, and the chart marked up with patch changes, etc. For Come From Away, I was following in the footsteps of a guy with a small but expensive combo amp and a bunch of boutique pedals, so I talked the production into buying two Fractal AX8s and programmed them myself.
There’s one criteria for guitar selection that may be unique to a small area of Toronto. As most guitarists that work the clubs along King Street know, single coil pickups don’t really work in the downtown core. The CN Tower pumps out a ton of RF, which basically turns your single coil-equipped guitars into antennas! I have noise cancelling backplates in my S type guitars, and I still have challenges with 60 cycle hum. During the “seating call” of Come From Away at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, I had to reorient my whole set-up 30 degrees and switch to a humbucker guitar for the bows, when the band joins the cast onstage.
Touring with a show can present your tube amps with varying voltages in different venues, which can be a problem. In We Will Rock You, we used British Vox AC30s, which were run super hot and stepped down from U.K. 240 V to U.S. 120 V with transformers. That made them real sensitive. They worked okay until we got to Seattle, where they just didn’t like the power at the theatre. I struggled with weak, anemic tone for the entire stay! That’s only one reason why I agitate for Fractal whenever I can.
JG: How does Cirque du Soleil prepare guitarists for musical theatre?
TA: In my case, I toured with Cirque for two years. That gig is based on acrobatic acts. You take cues but you also have to know how to adapt. If the performer takes longer to initiate and conclude a section, you have to loop the parts until they are done. Like theatre, you have to be comfortable vamping and keeping an eye on the conductor for cues, which can come any time. Be focused and always ready for the next section.
JG: Describe your big break in terms of getting into the musical theatre circuit.
TA: I was in already a theatre guitarist in my native NYC before I moved to Toronto. My family were already here. I was visiting them on a break and fully expected to return to Cirque for another run, but while here, I had a chance to audition for We Will Rock You. I had been looking to get off the road and reunite with my family, so I over-prepared like a son of a bitch – looking at YouTube videos of Queen live and scouring the Internet for any info on his gear I could find, right down to pickup settings.
We auditioned in pairs. I was honored to be even considered. I remember at one point I looked Brian May straight in the eyes and reeled off a lick I lifted from Live At Wembley. He stared, then smiled and nodded at me. That was it.
There were guys that were more technically proficient, but Brian is all about what he calls “passion” or “vibe.” Fortunately, I brought it. Getting We Will Rock You was an incredible, life changing experience. It started my life in Canada.
JG: Who are some of your biggest influences in terms of musical theatre guitarists?
TA: Two of my favorite musical theatre musicians are Tony Zorzi and Jim Tate – both phenomenal musicians that I have had the pleasure of working with over the years. Joel Hoekstra is an old friend of mine. His eight-finger tapping technique is ridiculous. In Rock of Ages, he had a terrifying intro, which I had to reinterpret with tapped/string skipped three-octave arpeggios.
JG: How important is it to have a musical outlet besides eight gigs a week in musical theatre?
TA: Because you are playing the same show an average of eight times a week, you need to have a creative outlet. I am a singer-songwriter. As Waters is my artist name and title of my album. It goes to a lot of places: Celtic, bossa nova, orchestral pop, even a Civil War-type ballad. Just about everything but guitar rock. It is primarily acoustic, song and story driven – probably the last thing you’d expect from me. I wrote it on tour, workshopping at open mics around North America. The songs that got the best response survived, and I recorded them during tour stops in Nashville and L.A. So, writing is good. I also recommend working on improvisation. If you don’t keep it up, you can actually lose the ability to improvise. It’s like a muscle; it can atrophy from underuse. Sub out to do other paying gigs, even if they pay less money. No show lasts forever. If you give up all your other gigs, you’ll get caught flat-footed when it ends. Not pretty.
JG: Describe the experience of playing in Come From Away.
TA: It was unique, because I was able to participate in cast rehearsals. A very different experience from the two rehearsals I am used to doing. In this show, the guitar is the driving force, so I was required every day, eight hours a day, for a month. It was amazing to be part of the process from day one. I got to watch the creatives build the show with this incredible cast right in front of me.
JG: What advice do you have guitarists who are interested in musical theatre gigs?
TA: Get a gig that is conducted. Anything – a cruise ship, local orchestra, a week doing regional theatre, summer stock, even a school play. You need at least one conducted gig on your resume.
Learn how to read charts in a variety of styles. You need to “get” the approach that is required by the musical. Start by subbing in. Approach music directors and contractors and drop your info, but don’t over do it – if you pressure someone, it is almost guaranteed that they will never hire you. Sit in and audit shows if you know someone who is in the pit. This may lead to you subbing in. If you are on stage, you need be capable of hitting marks and working with a choreographer.
Jeff Gunn is a contributor with Canadian Musician, a Juno-nominated songwriter/producer, author of the Hidden Sounds Guitar Series, and musical director/guitarist for Emmanuel Jal. Visit him on Instagram @jeffgunn1 and Twitter @jeffgunn1 or at www.jeffgunn.ca.
Photo by Samantha Katz.