Guitar-Nerdiness rating: 8/10
Green Day Gawking rating: 7/10
New York pro guitarist Alec Berlin might be best known for his work playing the Guitar 1 chair at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California for Green Day’s American Idiot, the musical, which moved on to Broadway in 2010 and took Alec and the rest of the cast with it where he switched back and forth covering both guitar 1 & 2 during the run [we’ll break that down next time]. The U.S. tour in 2012, which came to the Peabody in March of that year, had a mostly new cast and crew which Alec was not a part of.
Maybe it was all the Beatles, Elvis Costello or Joni Mitchell he grew up on that encouraged the song lyrics in his head to continue pushing out Jazz compositions bit by bit. Having earned a master’s degree in jazz improvisation from the New England Conservatory in Boston and gotten a jazz album out of the way (Crossing Paths, 2000) he threw the cards in the air and got himself a website job.
There was a big difference between the music that I felt like I should be playing and studying and the music I wanted to listen to. – Alec Berlin
He started listening to more lyrically-driven music and writing his own more narrative songs for the first time since high school. It was a big-time starting over. It was time to get back to the Music. Fast forward to when his most recent album (Innocent Explanations, 2012) was mixed by Chris Dugan at Green Day’s Jingletown Studios in California.
Green With Gear
I’ll admit I am easily star-struck. Berlin met Green Day and their crew in California and then the whole Broadway New York thing. I knew that. He played guitar with Billie Joe Armstrong and talked shop with Mike Dirnt and the gang. I knew that. Selling out St. James Theatre, Tony Award for Best Cast Recording – things I already knew about him. But when he mentioned the hookup Green Day had with Gibson guitars and Marshall amps I went a little Jimmy Fallon on him.
Alec: …and like the guitar techs set us up with guitars and the amp techs, you know, we used Green Day’s amps and
ADfm: Whaaat!!? Really?
Alec: Ya totally. Totally!
ADfm: Oh my god that’s awesome!
They lent us guitars for the run too.
No shit? Any that stood out to you that you were like ‘Oh my god I get to play “Blue” – Billie’s “Blue”…?
No, no but there were some Les Paul Juniors that they lent us, to the production: vintage Les Paul Jrs, which is what Billie played on stage, and that was AMAZING – Every day going to work and playing those guitars… so I played mostly 335’s and I had an SG backup. I chose the 335 after having seen Green Day in concert [21st Century Breakdown tour ’09-’10]. I felt like… Les Pauls are heavy as you know and I thought I could probably get away with using a 335. And an SG is also a comparable guitar – it’s a little bit lighter… I tuned down half a step for one tune and that’s what I used the SG for.
Notes To Self
1) Memorize It
He recounted some set design considerations like the installation of light railing around the orchestra to keep the large moving props (bed, couch, gurney) from bumping the band or their equipment. There were music stands attached to the railing but…
Alec: So the music stands were there but pretty much everyone who played that show memorized it cause you just – there’s just no time to be turning pages. Sometimes people made cheat sheets but… it was just too much going on and it happened too fast… It wasn’t that much music. We sorta approached it –
the whole band was like ‘It’s as if we’re playing a rock gig’ you know?
2) Idiot-Proof Everything
I asked for advice on my situation: potentially transposing everything up one half step so I can use my Eb guitar on the whole book saving myself from having three guitars up there. He reminded me that
- Some of the songs use open strings (like that one chord in Holiday – more on that next time),
- It’s weird to hear a different pitch from a fret you’ve gotten used to hearing a certain way over the years
- You’ll already be nervous with adrenaline and the crowds and the music’s energy and the lighting and choreography…
This general summary of those points, in pun-form, is exactly what I needed to hear:
“When I do these things, no pun intended, I try to make them idiot-proof.” Alec Berlin
Punk’s Silly Attitude Problem
There’s a myth out there in guitar playing where, and I don’t know or care where it came from, if you’re playing punk rock or metal that you should be playing all downstokes with you’re picking hand. Something about making it sound heavier or feel more frenzied. The pick hits the bass strings first as it goes down which produces a bigger overdrive crunch and the bigger and louder the better. Mr. Berlin thinks that theory has an attitude problem.
Alec: I got a lot before the gig – a lot of people were like ‘Dude you’re gonna get tendonitis from all the downstrokes and everything.’ And I just… I don’t think they play that way.
I think, like I was saying, their music… he’s [Billie Joe Armstrong] a really, really great guitar player but he’s not a super technical guitar player. Like if you’re gonna play all downstrokes on some of those really fast tunes you’d really really need to focus and shed that and I don’t think he does that. I think he plays just what comes naturally and sometimes that includes upstrokes… I definitely heard the bass player say that – I heard Mike Dirnt say ‘No it’s not all downstrokes, but when it’s comfortable”… like St. Jimmy – you know the tune St. Jimmy?
ADfm: Ya, oh ya
Alec: It’s like [plays St. Jimmy over the phone] If you were to do that all downstrokes you’d kill yourself!
ADfm: Ya not at 150 [BPM]…
Alec: And they’re not playing it all downstrokes… like so maybe you COULD do it, technically, but you’d really have to devote a certain amount of time to developing that skill.
And I think that just sorta flies in the face of the whole punk aesthetic.
They’re playing in-your-face, meat-and-potatoes guitar and sometimes that means there’s upstrokes.
ADfm: Ya, it feels like to me with basically all rock bands that their first priority is putting some kind of energy out there. And so you need stage presence and you need energy and then after that it’s, you know, it just depends on what your guitar or instrument training is. And then there will be upstrokes or not depending on how you grew up playing.
Alec: Ya, I mean I totally agree with you and I would go further and say, once I got closer to it this whole notion that ‘it’s all down strokes because it’s punk rock’ just strikes me as silly like… I don’t have a lot of punk rock experience but I imagine the punk rock approach to playing the guitar is not that you need to avoid upstrokes but you just – you have a certain limited capability and you make it happen however it needs to happen…. You don’t think ‘It’s gotta be all downstrokes’. That question would never – that’s a very outsider and very guitar-nerdy question: ‘Is it all upstrokes or downstrokes?’ You know? It’s just whatever you gotta do to play the song… and that’s what I feel like the bass player Mike Dirnt was like ‘No dude just play the song. You’d kill yourself if you try to do all downstrokes.’
ADfm: Ya. Save some of that energy and make some rock and roll faces or something. Or jump around a little more LOL
Alec: LOL Ya ya…I’ll say this:
They play really hard… They’re very aggressive players.
Alec: So I think and that’s just the way they play: it’s not about finesse of the touch….
Standing Rock Pose
In every musical I’ve played I’ve sat in a chair during the performance. All the orchestra members are always seated dutifully marking their page turns and adjusting their music stand lighting. In watching Broadway Idiot though I had noticed that the orchestra members were actually never seated. I had read review after review praising the production’s energy. I reminded him of those accolades and asked if they were standing during the show.
ADfm: Were you standing during the show?
Alec: Yes… [describes the railing around the orchestra bit & music stand situation]
ADfm: You were rocking out! LOL You can’t do that when you’re sitting down.
Alec: Ya man it was so much fun – Ya totally – You can’t play that music sitting down. I mean on top of that the choreography: I don’t know what you guys are doing for choreography but the choreography for our production was really aggressive and it reflected the music. And I’ve always enjoyed that about that music.
And you know, you don’t just sit there and stare at your fingers…
It’s just… it doesn’t work for me and it’s not gratifying and I don’t think it serves the music if you’re just glued to the stage. That said there were those times where we’re doing the show in the middle of winter and you’ve got a cold or something like that. It was not always the most enjoyable experience.
I felt like to serve the music you gotta sorta inhabit it and let it inhabit you a little bit.
I spoke with Alec Berlin from his home in New York last week. You can listen to his music on Spotify. The second half of my interview highlights will publish here in the coming weeks. If you like behind-the-scenes type stuff, look up “Broadway Idiot” the documentary about the making of American Idiot the musical. Join me as I rock the guitar 2 chair for New Line Theatre’s production of Green Day’s “American Idiot” in March. The show basically runs Thurs, Fri & Sat nights in March.