The Orchestral Guitarist

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I am writing to make guitarists aware of a possible source of musical work: playing guitar for orchestral "pops" concerts. Orchestral guitar work requires a variety of skills, and is a unique challenge. Classical guitarists who also can read chord changes, are strong ensemble players, and play other styles of music are well suited to orchestral work.

I am the guitarist for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (CPO). I've been playing with the Pops since 1983. Each year, I play about 125 orchestral services with the Pops and several other orchestras around the country. These services include rehearsals, concerts, recording sessions, television broadcasts, and touring.

Introduction to Pops

The repertoire of a pops orchestra is "pops" music. Pops is a sort of "classical light" which is designed to appeal to a broader audience than the traditional orchestral repertoire. It includes movie music, Broadway, composers such as Gershwin and Copeland, big band, and some recent popular music. The music is arranged for a standard orchestra with other instruments, such as guitar, added for spice.

The purpose of pops concerts is usually to bring in a steady source of income to the orchestra. In Cincinnati, the pops concerts and recordings pay a huge portion of the bills of the orchestra. The pops concerts bring new people to the hall, and also create some cross over audience for the classical concerts.

Many of the musicians of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra dislike playing the Cincinnati Pops repertoire (It's the exact same group of musicians in both orchestras). Others enjoy it. All of them realize that their salaries are heavily subsidized by the Pops concerts, so they just accept it as part of the gig.

The guitar parts for these concerts are a constant challenge. The music requires that the guitarist be able to play a variety of styles and a variety of instruments. I have played electric, classical, and steel string acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin and bouzouki in styles ranging from a delicate classical guitar and oboe duet, to a screaming rock solo, to foot stomping dixieland banjo.

Required Skills

The skills required for the job are:

1. Ability to read music. This includes both standard guitar notation and chord changes.

2. Ability to play well in an ensemble.

3. Understanding of many styles of music.

4. Ability to follow a conductor. This is not as easy as it looks.

5. Professionalism in all aspects of playing and handling yourself on the gig.

6. Willingness to play what someone else wants you to play when they want you to play it how they want you to play it. Lots of people are uncomfortable with this.

In return for all the above, you are paid well (as far as musician pay goes). You are paid for rehearsals as well as concerts. You are paid overtime if the concert or rehearsal runs longer than the union rules dictate.

Getting the Gig

To get and keep an orchestral gig, there are two people you must keep happy: the conductor and the personnel manager. You keep the conductor happy by delivering the right notes at the right time at the right volume with the right sound. You keep the personnel manager happy by being a professional backstage -- showing up on time, wearing the right clothes, getting along nicely with the other musicians, returning phone calls promptly, etc.

Most American professional orchestras are union, though there are some exceptions, which means you will need to be or become a member of the union, the American Federation of Musicians. I'm unfamiliar with the customs of unions in other countries.

You will get the gig through the personnel manager. The personnel manager's job is to ensure that there is a qualified musician's butt in every seat on the stage for rehearsals and performances.

An orchestra is one of the few musical organizations for which a resume may come in handy. I say "may" because you will mostly likely get the gig through a personal recommendation. Personnel managers will usually only hire people who are recommended to them by a musician whose opinion they trust. Lesson: get to know the orchestral musicians in your town.

Professionalism Backstage

If you get a call to play an orchestral gig, make sure you show up an hour early for your first rehearsal and for concerts. Do not be late, or even close to late. It's difficult to describe the pressure there is to be on time for services.

Bring spare everything -- strings, patch cords, batteries, bow ties, tuners. Anything that might break will break, and if you don't have a spare, you will have a problem. I had a volume pedal go bad at a rehearsal when we were playing at Carnegie Hall (of course it worked fine for years in Cincinnati), and had to run out and buy one for the concert that night. The rule is, anything that may break will wait until the most important gig to do so. Murphy likes guitarists.


Orchestras have their own set of etiquette rules. Here are some of the basics:

1. Never, ever touch anyone else's instrument or equipment without their permission. You should only ever touch your own gear, your own music stand, and your own chair.

2. Do not warm up or practice except in designated warm up areas or in your seat on the stage. Warm up as quietly as you can. Nobody will be impressed by how fast you can play.

3. Do not stare at other musicians while they play.

4. Do not acknowledge other musicians' mistakes in any way.

5. Treat the stage hands with great respect. These fellows are as highly skilled at their craft as you are at yours, they work harder than anyone else on the stage, and they can save your butt if you have a problem on stage.

Gear You Will Need

For equipment, you will need whatever the score calls for. The following are the basics that will get you through most gigs:

1. A versatile electric guitar, such as a Gibson 335 (my first choice if I'm unsure of the styles to be played). Electric guitars actually come in many flavors, and there will be times when you'll need more than one. Depending on the repertoire, you may want an archtop electric or a Strat'esque guitar. You'll want to use a volume pedal at all times, and may also need some sort of effects such as distortion or chorus.

2. Classical Guitar. Having a classical guitar is not the same as being able to play one. I donít recommend that you try to "fake" classical guitar parts, unless they are quite simple.

3. Banjo -- a "tenor" or plectrum style banjo is what you want. Tune it like the top 4 strings of a guitar to ease the transition to a new instrument.

4. Steel String Acoustic.

5. Mandolin. You may also need a mandolin at times, though orchestras often are able to find a mandolinist in their violin section because mandolin and violin share the same tuning.

These instruments will get you through most of what you will be asked to play. When you are playing the acoustic instruments, the orchestra will almost always provide a microphone for you to play into.

Be sure to use as high a quality instruments as you can afford. Pay careful attention to the quality of things like patch cords, which you can be guaranteed will break at the least convenient time.

Rule #1: The Conductor is Always Right

This rule is paramount in an orchestra. The conductor has the final say in everything regarding the music that is performed. The conductor sets the tempo, the dynamics, decides how long fermatas are held, etc.

If the conductor decides to change any aspect of the music during a performance, that is what happens. I made an embarrassing mistake early on in my career before I fully understood Rule #1. We were playing the theme from the Twilight Zone ( remember? doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo). I played the doo doo doo doo part, then had a couple measures of rest during a bongo drum roll before my next entrance. I foolishly kept my eyes in my part and counted instead of watching the conductor, who slowed things down a bit during the rest. I came in early, during what should have been total silence. I was embarrassed. It was then that I really grasped Rule #1.

There will be times when you think the conductor is wrong. In order to find out if he is wrong, refer to rule #1.

Following The Conductor

If you have no idea what the conductor is doing as his arms move about while the orchestra plays, I suggest you go to your local college music school and take the introduction to conducting course. There you will learn all the beat patterns. It's fairly simple to get the basics down, but takes some practice to deal with all the subtleties.

How loud do I play?

This is a difficult question. The not particularly helpful answer is: just loud enough and no louder. The difficulty occurs because for all other orchestral instruments, a dynamic marking (ppp to fff) is associated with a physical action. For example, for a trumpet player fff means as loud as you can possibly play. For a guitarist, the dynamic markings are associated with a volume knob -- and fff does not mean 10 on your amp.

For a guitarist, the dynamic marking is a measure of volume relative to everyone else, which is affected by how many other musicians are playing and whether your part is a solo part.

It's fairly simple when you are playing an acoustic or classical guitar, which has a minimal dynamic range compared to other instruments on the stage. You have to simply play so as to get a good sound on your instrument, then let the sound man set your volume.

At your first gig, you can be assured that the conductor will be listening to your volume and will indicate exactly how loud you should be. See Rule #1.


Buy and use a tuner for these gigs. Tune up just before the oboist blows the A to tune everyone else. If you are tuning an acoustic guitar, find a quiet place backstage. It will be too noisy on stage.

Don't just tune to A=440 on your own. Many orchestras play sharp -- some deliberately -- some just because that's what happens. For example, in Cincinnati, the official pitch is A=441, but in truth it is at least 442. I always tune to A=442 in Cincinnati.

And yes, they can tell the difference between 440 and 442. Orchestral musicians live and breathe pitch -- it's one of the most common areas of dissension between musicians.

Ask the harpist where she tunes. She will be the best source of non-biased information on tuning you will find. If she tunes to 441 or 443, you should tune there too.

Master Your Electronics

Orchestral musicians in general have a fear and loathing of amplified instruments. Don't contribute to their loathing with your own mistakes. Make sure you know what every button and knob on your gear does before you press it and some horrendous squeal comes out your amp.

The worst on-stage mistake of my career happened on a tour of Japan. We were playing the Theme from Rocky. For the last 32 bars of the song, I stood up and screamed a loud distorted solo over the top of the orchestra. I had done it many times before. But this particular night I forgot to immediately cut the volume on my volume pedal to zero after I was done (always a good preventive measure).

The song ended on a big chord, and just a second later, I unconsciously turned my body toward the amp, and it fed back -- it excited a high harmonic on one of the strings that sounded like a loud note. The audience thought the song was continuing on and didn't applaud. There was this several second awkward silence and then the conductor turned to the audience and yelled "That's all folks!"  He turned and glared at me. I was embarrassed for several days afterwards.

Counting Rests

One of the trickier though apparently simple things to master is counting bars of rest. There will often be times when you won't play for extended periods of time. During that time, the time signature and tempo may both change. You have to count those rests with the same sort of concentration you use to play.

An extreme example of the need to concentrate while counting rests is the guitar part to a piece titled With Voices Raised, which changes time signature 47 times. The guitarist must count rests through 21 time signature changes before playing a note. Fortunately, most music is not nearly this difficult.

If you are at a rehearsal and are having trouble coming in, or are consistently getting lost, do not be embarrassed to ask for help from one of the musicians sitting next to you. You may find it embarrassing to ask for help, but that will be far less embarrassing than having the conductor stop the orchestra and ask you why you didn't come in.

Count on your fingers if it helps. I count the bars, letting one finger go up for each bar that goes by and at the same time, I count in my head. Every time I get to a multiple of 4, or all four fingers are up, I see if the count in my head is a multiple of 4 (4,8,12,16, etc). If not, I try to figure out which is wrong. You will be amazed at how easy it is to miscount bars.

Be sure to watch the conductor during rests. His beat patterns will help you follow your way through the rests.

I Thought This Was Classical Guitar

It takes a player with the ability to crossover to other styles to handle the gig with a pops orchestra, but the classical training also seems invaluable to being able to handle the gig too.

There are a handful of pieces in the standard classical repertoire (Mahler 7, some Italian opera music, some modern music) that requires a classical guitar playing classical music, but by and large you must be able to play many styles to cut the gig.

The work is challenging and rewarding. The rewards come from the challenge of having to play with great precision in a group of musicians who are all better at playing orchestral music than you will be. Being around so many other good players will inspire you to continue practicing and improving. Oh, and the money is nice too.


© 2002 - 2016, Tim Berens
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