Could we start again?

I was excited when I landed the guitar part for Superstar and immediately started planning the perfect guitar rig to cover the varied sounds in the show. Little did I know that my multi-guitar / multi-amp dream rig would be downsized to what could fit into a 2’ x 3’ space, including the guitar player!

Read on to see where I started and what I did to squeeze into our smaller than expected on-stage home…

Heaven On His Mind

Superstar requires a variety of guitar sounds including funky cleans, distorted leads and an acoustic guitar — and I had it all planned out.

First, there are some very quick electric / acoustic changes and I wanted these to be as smooth as possible. I solved this with a “walk up” guitar stand to allow me to switch to my acoustic without having to take off my electric.

Walk-up Acoustic Guitar Stand
Walk-up Acoustic Guitar Stand

I used dedicated amps for my clean and distorted sounds with a Radial Switchbone to move between them without dropouts, popping or clicking (unlike my channel switching Mesa Boogie Mark V which turned out to be too noisy when changing channels).

Double Trouble - Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III for clean tones and Laney Lionheart L5T-112 for jangly classic rock sounds.
Double Trouble – Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III for clean tones and Laney Lionheart L5T-112 for jangly classic-rock sounds.

This setup sounded great and was working well for the initial rhythm section rehearsals. However, when we got our first good look at the on-stage “pit”, it was clear there was virtually no room for the musicians, let alone such an ambitious guitar rig.

JCS PIt
It’s cozy under the bridge!

Could We Start Again, Please?

I had been experimenting with my 80’s-era ADA MP-1 rack-mount tube preamp and cabinet simulator to provide a line-level signal to the house PA and simplify my setup. This would also solve the space problem but, unfortunately, the MP-1 was living up to its reputation of sounding like a “jar of angry bees” and was producing dropouts, pops and clicks (oh my!) when switching patches.

My plan to re-live the 80's was thwarted!
My plan to re-live the 80’s was thwarted! And, no, that’s not me 😉

A lot had changed in the 20 years since I purchased my MP-1 and I was hearing good things about Fractal Audio’s Axe-FX II processor. Guitar enthusiasts will be familiar with the dilemma of choosing a tube amp versus a digital modeling system, but the rave reviews and flexibility of the Fractal system had me sold. Apparently I wasn’t alone as the system had been on backorder for months. Luckily, the folks at Fractal Audio were sympathetic to my plight and overnighted me an Axe-FX II + MFC-101 combo. Thank you Fractal Audio!

Fractal Audio Axe-FX II
Fractal Audio Axe-FX II

I’ll be covering all the details of my Axe-FX II patches in a separate post, but it took just one day with the system to dial up fat Fender clean and jangly AC-30 crunch tones, program the changes I needed and set up the MFC-101 controller to replace my entire pedalboard. The Fractal system sounds great, switches quickly and quietly and, best of all, I’ve received positive comments from our cast, crew, orchestra and the sound engineers mixing everything together.

This Acoustic Must Die

With no room for the walk-up acoustic stand, and no time to switch guitars during songs, I had to find another solution for the acoustic sound. I ran across an article about Rush’s Alex Lifeson replacing his on-stage acoustic guitars with a piezo-electric pickup on his electric guitar.

I called the amazing Gary Brawer and he knew exactly what I was talking about, instantly had a few options for me to consider and agreed to rush the project to have a guitar ready before the show opened. With a few candidate guitars in tow, I headed up to San Francisco to meet with Gary.

One candidate was my newly acquired Ibanez PGM 401. I had been using it in rehearsals and thought it would look and sound great on stage. However, we settled on modifying an Ibanez RGA 121 since it had a bit more room inside for the new electronics for the GraphTech Ghost Bridge. As always, Gary did amazing work, which is why all of my guitars make the trip to 15 Lafayette and come back playing their best.  Thanks again to Gary and all the helpful folks at Brawer Guitar Repair!

Acoustiphonic
Ibanez RGA 121 with Gary Brawer custom installed GraphTech Ghost Bridge.

Everything’s Alright

My guitar rig ended a long way from where it began but I’m very happy with the results. The Fractal system sounds great, switches quickly and cleanly and has minimized the amount of tap-dancing I have to do. My Brawer customized Ibanez RGA 121 with the GraphTech Ghost bridge delivers convincing acoustic sounds that can fool even the most discerning ear.  And, best of all, everything fits into the tight confines of my on-stage location:

Lots of sound packed into a small space!
Big sound packed into a small space!

See the Show!

Jesus Christ Superstar runs through April 5th at the Saratoga Civic Theater so, as of this writing, you still have a couple weeks to catch the show.

Questions, comments? Post them below or send me a note via the Contact form.

2 thoughts on “Could we start again?

  1. It continues to amaze me how much sound we have shoehorned into such a small space. Between your rig, my MalletKAT (timps/xylo/chimes/vibes), and the keyboards (piano/strings/etc), we have reduced the pit size enormously.

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