Playing All Shook Up: My Experience as a Blues Guitarist for a Month

Since this site is new, I’ll be working my way backwards in shows for a little bit. Just before (and slightly overlapping) Shrek the Musical this summer, I did a three-week run playing All Shook Up. Man, that show was a blast! First, a little background on the show:

All Shook Up is set in a small Midwestern town in the mid to late ‘50s. Roustabout Chad gets out of jail and lands in this small town, inadvertantly plays Cupid, and causes all kinds of trouble with the mayor for showing everybody that it’s good to live your life and have fun. Natalie, the town mechanic whose father owns the gas station, falls in love with Chad and pretends to be a dude named Ed to hang out with him more. It’s all very silly … kind of mixture of Footloose, Grease, and maybe a little Hairspray … but it’s super fun. All of the music is music that Elvis recorded at some point in his career, and that’s where the most fun comes from (at least for the musicians).

I did this show with the San Diego Junior Theatre — a place where I’ve played over a dozen shows since 2009 — and had a great time. Junior Theatre is home to some of the most talented, kind, and well-rounded kids I’ve ever seen, let alone worked with. Playing All Shook Up, a bit of an “older kids” show featuring students ages 13-18, has been one of my favorite experiences at JT so far.

For being a show based on all Elvis music and, therefore, being about 99% blues, the Guitar 1 book was actually somewhat difficult for me. I think most of the other musicians just kind of sat back and rocked out, but the Guitar 1 book really carried the show.

I wasn't Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I did feel like a real blues guitarist playing All Shook Up.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

You see, I’m not one of those guys who locked himself in his room growing up and tried to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. I always spent more time focusing on interesting chords and accompanying than I did improvising and soloing. That being said, I obviously get around — I know enough jazz that if I get into trouble, I can always wiggle my way back and resolve it. When it comes to blues and rock, however, improvising isn’t my strongest suit. Weirdly, rock and blues should be easier, but I (personally) find it harder to stay inside that box while still keeping it interesting. In Jazz, you can get as out as you want as long as you resolve it (or don’t, I guess it depends on the style of Jazz you’re playing. Ha!).

I’ve always been a very practical musician — a musical guitarist, not a guitarist-guitarist. I don’t mean “musical” as in musical theatre, but musical as in using the guitar as a well-rounded, versatile instrument, not just a guitar. I think that’s why I do so well in the theatre — I know enough of the tricks in a ton of styles to always sound believable, but I know when to lay back and just be part of the music, as well. That works well in the theatre because shows usually have a lot of different styles in them. Playing All Shook Up, however, was just Blues, Blues, Blues!

The old Strat I used playing All Shook Up.

The old girl before I cleaned her up and gave her a new setup.

Tooting my own horn for a second, I’m a pretty good sight-reader (you have to be in this business) and I can usually just walk into a rehearsal and read down the majority of a show. Of course, there’s always passages or licks or phrases that need a little shedding, but this one was a beast. Playing All Shook Up was bit of a challenge for me because there were these specific lines written that I couldn’t just sight-read. So, I’d go home and shed a little and, after a few minutes going measure by measure or maybe a couple measures at a time, I’d realize, “Oohhhh, they want me to do THAT.” For me not being a Blues guitarist, I would have to think back to when I learned each trick or technique when I was younger and get it under my fingers. After that, though, when I saw the pattern again, I was ready to rock!

So, after a week or so of spending a lot of time getting this show under my fingers, it became a total blast and I felt like a real Blues guitarist. That’s not something I’ve ever said about myself and it was a ton of fun to do things that most guitar players do regularly (just not me being a theatre guy). When playing All Shook Up, I even busted out my old Strat — that thing hadn’t seen the light of day in at least a decade … maybe longer! I slapped some D’Addario Light Top/Heavy Bottom strings on that bad boy and was ready for business. I’m a D’Addario guy through and through when it comes to my electrics, and I’ve played ’12s across the board until recently. (An entire post about my thoughts on string gauges is coming soon.)

Back to the show: the best part about playing All Shook Up is that now I’ve got these licks and techniques under my fingers and in my vocabulary more, so I can whip them out when playing other shows or playing in bands. I love that with any show I play, I learn something (or, in this case, a lot of things) new or rediscover old techniques that become part of my vocabulary or repertoire. It’s kind of like getting paid to work, play, AND learn at the same time.

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