5 Things I’m Thinking About When I’m Playing Guitar For American Idiot

5 Things I’m thinking about when I’m playing guitar for American Idiot: 1) What’s Next 2) How Heavy 3) Guitar-Switching 4) How Well Do I Know This Song 5) the Tuning Thing

American Idiot has hosted near to completely sold-out crowds at every show these past two and a half weeks and the remainder of the run through March is indeed sold out. I am so proud of this one. The production and performances have been getting so many compliments it’s humbling and energizing. I continue to be so grateful for D.Mike’s introduction of me to the musical theatre world five years ago, Scott Miller’s belief in me, Sue Goldford’s cooperation and concern for the music, the rest of the New Line band for “rocking the shit out of this music” and the support of the cast and crew who slay every night giving 100%.

It’s no secret that I play when I work and when I’m working hard I’m playing for fun and I’d do it for free if I could. With “The Making Of American Idiot” coming up on Tuesday, I’ll offer here a behind-the-music-stand look at what I’m working on during playtime:

1. What’s next?

This is honestly what I’m thinking about second-most-often throughout the show and it’s one that is constantly being answered and asked again and again:  ‘Oh god what’s next – does D.Mike start this next one? Do I need to switch guitars? Do I need to settle down and breathe? Are we all in at once? Is there a long intro? Stage cue? Do I need to watch Sue for a tempo indication? How loud should the intro be? Should I lay low or come out pulling the trigger? Do I have time for a slug of water?

“If you’re thinking about the chord you’re playing you’re already behind.” – Jazz teacher at Webster U.

2. How heavy?

This is probably one of my biggest considerations during the show and something my volume knob and I think about at each twist and turn. It’s something I listen to the action onstage to answer: ‘Who’s singing? Is this an ensemble piece that’s loud on it’s own?’ What are the other instruments doing?’ It’s some of the most valuable feedback I get from Scott after the show and nothing feels better than when he affirms the mix of a) GTR 1 vs GTR 2 b) Band vs Cast c) Acoustic vs Electric by saying “Good balance tonight”.

I’m always asking myself ‘Where is the climax of this song?’ Sometimes it’s subtle like in “Whatsername” where the whole song kind of keeps building.Other times it’s obvious like in “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”. Other times, like in “Holiday”, it seems like it’s a constant back and forth of loud and soft. Temptations to pull the trigger are mitigated in some songs (‘Wake Me Up…’) by stage action that isn’t as pumped up as I am. ‘Stand down,’ I remind myself.

ADfm Marhsall Boost

There are those moments where I ponder a self-serving jump. (I can’t help it – I’m all in.) Certain downbeats of “21 Guns” are more properly experienced when landing from mid-air and that’s a fact. But a jump has to be timed just right to land at the right time and it really does matter how and when. There are obvious times like in the opening number where I can really dig into a good one from behind the wall of actors or other times where the music hangs on in the dark by an easily timed cue that allows me to prep it just right.

Certain downbeats of “21 Guns” are more properly experienced when landing from mid-air and that’s a fact.

I’m always thinking ahead a song or two: ‘What kind of stamina is required for these next few? How energized is this group of songs? Is there a water break in-between parts or songs? Or is this gonna be more of a machine gun situation? “St. Jimmy” is definitely a machine gun situation. But after that I need to get my act together for some mellow acoustic stuff and I’ll need to breathe deeply and un-spaz. before I attempt that.’

3. Guitar-Switching

I am playing my Fender Squire through a super high-gain overdrive straight from my Marshall combo for most of the show. The other times I’m playing my Takamine acoustic, fitted with a Fishman piezo under the saddle which is also going into the Marshall combo via analog mixer. There’s lots of switching back and forth between guitars. The music for both guitars in this show is written that way, and not uncommon in general. I’m constantly asking myself: ‘What’s my switch-window for this upcoming section?’ I’ve found that I can do it in about three and a half measures at a medium tempo if my straps are laid out nicely on the stand and there’s no tangle.


It goes like this: Crouch down. Put the guitar on the guitar stand. Lay the strap nice. Push off the overdrive channel (still don’t have a f*ing footswitch). Turn up the the mixer channel. Grab the acoustic. Stand up. Switch picks. Play correctly. Reverse process for next switch. ‘How much time do I have?’

There are a few tunes where us charismatic guitarists tag-team the score using teamwork. For example, in “21 Guns”, there’s no time built into the score (via vamps or long chords holding out) for me to put my acoustic down from strumming the 2nd verse and land the downbeat of those big power chords in the chorus (“One! Twenty one guns!…”) So D.Mike takes over playing the last line of the verse for me, transitioning from what he’s doing on lead guitar to take my chords while I put my guitar down. Likewise, on “Wake Me Up…” I stand in on acoustic for D.Mike while the guitar 1 part switches from acoustic arpeggios to electric rocking out power chords.

Charismatic guitarists

4. How Well Do I Know This Song?

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of the next song and it sobers me up as I realize I need to actually concentrate on playing the right things. Honestly, at this point in the show, there are no tricky parts anymore but there definitely are places to concentrate on and be organized for.

Even now I’m tweaking little things. In fact, mid-song just the other night I grabbed my pencil franticly to circle a section I wasn’t happy with. I know what’s easy and what’s not. I know what songs to play on (“American Idiot”, “21 Guns”) and where to work (“Lobotomy”, “When It’s Time”). And with one or two exceptions, I’ve prepared all 22 songs of the score to be played from memory or cheat sheets so I know them really well.

My stuff no acoustic
Fitting the amps up with mics for our promo video. (L-R) Music stand, violin amp, guitar mixer, guitar amp, Squire.

The music stand is there but I have my book modified with paper clips grouping multiple songs together with a cheatsheet cover page on each grouping. I don’t flip pages I flip groupings. Sometimes, depending on the complexity of the music, a single page of notes covers three songs. If the song is too complicated it goes on two pages that lay side by side. The first 9 songs and forty pages are condensed into five single pages. Remember Scott yelling “YOU’RE PLAYING IN THE WRONG KEY!” at me during hell-week as I fumbled through my pages pre-paper clip method? I’ll never forget that. I went home after that rehearsal and re-organized my whole score.

For the occasional ballad or super-song “Last Night On Earth”, “Homecoming” I just read the music but for the most part I am making quick glances at it here and there. For this music I don’t want to be wearing my glasses which I need for music reading (I’ve never worn a contact lens) and have enjoyed affording myself additional mobility.

An early version of a cheat sheet for “Last Of The American Girls”


So, with Scott’s reluctant trust and blessing, I’ve written on blank paper in super big font (Sharpie markers) my parts for each song. It’s mostly lines of chords that I know already. Interspersed throughout are little notes to self like “the Db thing” or “jump! (pogo)” (for the party/club scene in “Last of The American Girls”). My notes have gone through several incarnations and at this point in the run they are totally fool proof – Idiot proof.

5. F# = G, B = C, Eb = 7th fret, ACOUSTIC = NORMAL

I’ve mastered playing up a half-step by now but it was rough for a while during rehearsals. The Squire is tuned to Eb to save guitar space in our close quarters onstage and I switch back and forth from it and my acoustic, which is tuned normally. It requires me to go back and forth in my head which instrument I’m playing and what the fretboard layout is. It’s similar to reading in Spanish for one song then Italian for the next. I can usually get by without a second thought at this point but I do find myself double checking.

My notes are written unchanged from the book so that I am using the same notation as the rest of the band in case we need to talk about chords. If there’s talk about measure numbers I have to dig through to find it.

Most of the time I’m not looking at my fretboard and so the tuning thing is irrelevant i.e. the next chord goes up two frets or down a fifth or the progression makes a certain shape along the fretboard and I can feel it, like most guitarists can. But there are plenty of times where I do a quick double check before strumming. After all, it is pretty weird to play F# on a fret that looks like G.

Hell Yes, Thank You & Cheers

I’m having the time of my life. Cheers,


I love these people
I love these people


Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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