Guitars have always played a role in film and
television music. From George M. Smith’s pioneering work for
Paramount Studios in the ’30s and ’40s to Bob Bain’s radical
riffing on Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme in 1958 to Alessandro
Alessandroni’s tremulous twang on Ennio Morricone’s
spaghetti western scores and Vic Flick’s reverberated licks on
John Barry’s James Bond themes in the ’60s—all are early touchstones
within a rich tradition that continues unabated into the
second decade of the 21st century.
Here, we survey five contemporary guitarists who are also
successful music-for-picture composers: Tyler Bates, Michael
Brook, Kurt Oldman, David Torn, and Jeff Toyne (see “Cast of Players” for partial lists of credits). Each
has a unique compositional voice, but they
all share the same deep love for and appreciation
of the guitar, an instrument that frequently
takes center stage in their scores.
What roles do guitars play in your scores?
Bates: Guitar was my first instrument,
so I take every opportunity to integrate it
into my scores. Piano is my primary compositional
instrument, but I do write on
guitar. I’ve also found the guitar to be an
extremely interesting experimental tool,
especially when playing electric through
delays and other effects. For example, I
frequently use the Boss Loop Station to
explore ideas in a more stream-of-consciousness
fashion, because it allows me
to create an ambient soundscape, a chord
progression, or a rhythmic figure that I can
then live with for a while—and sometimes
those loops actually make it into the final
score. The TogaMan GuitarViol—a hybrid
instrument tuned like a guitar but bowed
like a viol—is also a huge part of my sound.
Brook: Because I am known primarily
as a guitar player, people typically come to
me looking for guitar to be a part of their
score. Ninety percent of the time I’ll begin
writing with guitar, including MIDI guitar,
even if some things end up not being played
on it. I’ll even play, for example, piano parts
on MIDI guitar, because I have little facility
Oldman: I’ve been trying to apply more
and more guitar ideas in my writing, and
in the genres that I’m mostly dealing with,
such as horror and thrillers, there’s really a
lot of space to experiment. And even when
the guitar isn’t the primary instrument, I
still try to use it to create morphing, ambient,
and other textures. In terms of writing,
sometimes it is good to just grab a guitar
and try to let go creatively, as it is very freeing—
but it depends entirely on the film.
For Killer Holiday, for example, I developed
a lot of ideas on the guitar.
Torn: Guitar is first and foremost how
I got into film music, and it has informed
every score I’ve written, regardless of size.
As a guitarist with a fairly broad approach
to harmonic atmospherics, I naturally use
guitars to at least texturalize or retexturalize
the music that I’m writing, including
broadening something like sampled
strings—which I detest, by the way. And as
of around 2006, I have been writing more
on guitar in addition to piano, and playing
“normal” acoustic and electric guitar and
not just atmospherics.
Toyne: I’ve played guitar since my teens,
I’m a classically trained pianist, and I also
play percussion and trombone—so that
allows me to approach composing from several
different perspectives, including that of
the guitar. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The
medium is the message,” and the choices
we make about the tools we use can really
influence the final work.
How do you know when the guitar is right for
a particular score?
Brook: That’s a tricky one, because in
many ways I love writing things with less
guitar in them, though I struggle to do
that because the process tends to be much
more of an uphill climb for me. Nonetheless,
I always try to exert a little bit of discipline
and not write everything on guitar,
even when I’m just sketching things out.
But, like with many attempts at discipline,
I often fail [laughs].
Oldman: That discussion starts with
the director and the producer at the spotting
session. [The spotting session is where the
composer meets with the director and others to
watch a film to decide where the music is going
to be and what it’s going to do.] I always listen to everyone’s comments, but then
I still go on to figure out for myself what
I think the best score for the film will be.
Usually, people will be open to exploring
ideas, unless someone insists that the score
be purely orchestral or something like that.
Sometimes a film will be too much in the
classic style to use electronic elements or
Torn: It really depends on the film. There
are some directors who will say to you, “I
absolutely want no accordions,” or whatever,
but that’s very rare, and I’ve never had anybody
say, “You’re not going to use a guitar
there, are you?” People in the film industry
often don’t know very much about the music
side of things, especially younger directors,
and there’s not a lot of due diligence done
in terms of choice of instruments. So, for
example, in some situations they kind of
know that I’m a “famous” guitarist, but they
don’t really know what I might be famous
for. There have also been times, especially
regarding more atmospheric guitar parts,
when a director won’t even realize that a
sound is a guitar.
Toyne: There are some situations in
which the instrumentation I choose can
be dictated by elements of the film, rather
than just by musical choices—for example,
geographical setting and time period. Also,
a director might say that he likes guitar or
that he hates guitar. Personally, a few reasons
that I tend to use the guitar are that
it is flexible, it has a wide range of expression,
and it layers really well. Also, its range
is a good one to have under dialogue—it
was designed to accompany voice.
Do you have any particular setup or methodology
when working with guitar?
Bates: Unlike many guitarists who are
also composers, I don’t use any software
amplifiers. I have several amps miked up
and ready to go, including an old 100-watt
Marshall and an old Fender combo with
tremolo. I just like the feeling of playing
through them. That adds to the joy of creating
music, especially when I’m under a
tremendous amount of stress with deadlines.
There is the hassle of having to rerecord
tracks sometimes when the original
tone no longer works, but I don’t mind—I
like to keep the guitar as authentic sounding
as possible. A few of my favorite pedals
are old Guyatone MD2 and MXR delays, the Electro-Harmonix POG, and the Digi-
Tech Whammy. I also sometimes run my
guitar through modular synths within Avid
Brook: I was using plug-ins almost exclusively
for a while, but something was missing,
so I resurrected my old pedalboard, and
now I’m using both equally. A few of my
favorite pedals are an Electro-Harmonix
Memory Man delay, a Korg OVD-1 overdrive,
and an old Fender Fuzz-Wah, which
does stuff that no other pedal can. Native
Instruments Guitar Rig and Roger Linn’s
AdrenaLinn Synch are plug-ins that I like
and use frequently. I run my pedalboard into
Apple Logic via a Radial class A DI box and
a modified 4-band Neve 1073 preamp, and
then re-amp the sounds through a Fender
Princeton and a little Gibson amp via sends from the mixer in Logic.
Oldman: For the past five or six years
I’ve been recording direct. I use a modified
Bellari RP220 tube preamp, straight into
an audio interface and my sequencer. The
sound is clean and nondescript, which gives
me the flexibility to go back and change
it later using software—though I might
also use software sounds while tracking.
I use Guitar Rig a lot, especially for very
heavy, distorted sounds, and I often use
Waves GTR for overdriven sounds. I also
use IZotope Trash on pretty much everything,
including drums and loops, as well
as Camel Audio’s CamelPhat, which always
allows me to come up with something wild.
Torn: I have a huge pedal collection
and a bunch of hardware processors that
I’ve been playing through for years now
[detailed in Torn’s June 2007 GP Artists
feature], and lots of software tools—but
the overall musical concept is key to how
the guitar and my rig are going to be used,
and each film is different.
Toyne: Although I do play guitar on my
scores sometimes, I usually have an expert
guitarist play the final parts. I’ll send them
a lead sheet and they will lay down multiple
tracks that give me several options.
For example, when I worked with [pedalsteel
guitarist] Bruce Kaphan on Dirty
Girl, he would give me a version of a part
with the melody exactly as I’d written it,
an alternate version with slight variations
on that melody, and another version that
he came up with.
What are some unusual things you’ve done with
a guitar when recording a score?
Bates: I’ll often create a backwards part,
then transcribe that reversed part and play
it again, so that when I reverse the newly
recorded part it is forward—which is not
the same as recording something the way it
was intended to be played and then simply
reversing the file.
Brook: One time I wanted a dulcimer-
sounding part for a film shot in Asia
[Kingdom of the Tiger], but I didn’t have the
instrument, and I had a percussionist in that
day—so I got him to play the guitar strings
with dulcimer hammers while I played the
chords with my left hand.
Oldman: I like using effects with guitar
that were designed for use with other
instruments, such as a multi-delay plug-in called More Feedback Machine that I use to
get never-ending pads, and a morphing-filter
plug-in called Filterscape, both made by
a company called u-he. I’ve gotten lots of
unusual sounds using them.
Torn: One of the most unusual things
I’ve done is to create percussion tracks with
acoustic guitars tuned in various ways, usually
involving a 12-string or a steel-bodied resonator
guitar. I’ll also record something and
then reverse certain notes within a phrase.
The reversal of a note or two within a 16-note
melody can make a huge difference in the way
that we perceive the melody itself. I might
cut a note out, reverse it, extend it, and then
reinsert it, making sure that it’s extended
enough so that it is positioned where I originally
wrote or played it.
Guitar in film scores fluctuates in popularity.
Does that follow the popularity of guitars in
pop music, or is it governed by something else?
Bates: Right now pop music and pop culture
are having a greater impact on film music than previously. You have much younger producer
and director talent, and executives in
studios, and everybody is just so much more
connected to anything that’s relevant in
pop culture. And when one genre of music
is really picking up steam, then everybody
starts clamoring toward that, like with The
Social Network. Those guys won an Oscar for
that score and now everybody is using that
music as the temp track in their movie. [A
temp track is music temporarily placed in early
edits of a film, which the director may or may not
want a composer to emulate.]
Brook: I don’t think it follows popular
music, though I suppose it did in the ’60s and
’70s, during the ascent of the electric guitar.
These days, if something gets a lot of attention
that has a lot of influence—like Trent
Resnor’s score for The Social Network had guitars
in it, so now everybody will say, “That’s
a great idea, let’s put guitars in there.” Then
people will get tired of that and say, “Oh we
need something fresh, like violins!” There’s a fashion element to it.
Toyne: The trends in film music go to
and away from orchestra, or synthesizers, or
guitars, or ethnic instruments—for a while
ethnic instruments were popular no matter
what the movie was about. People in film are
generally impressed by success, so, for example,
when American Beauty came out the score
had a different sound to it, and the film was
very successful, which enhanced the perception
of the score. It was a cool score, but if
it hadn’t been attached to such a successful
film, it wouldn’t have been as influential.
Torn: There must be some elements of
that, and the same things cycle back around.
For example, I love the score to The Social Network,
but it’s a type of music that has been
stylistically in process since 1994 or so—yet
in Hollywood it is viewed as the “brand new
thing.“ It’s hard to know about this trend
stuff, and how guitar is affected by it, but
there certainly is a very stable and long-running
role for guitars in film now.
Cast of Players
Select Scores: Killer Joe, The Darkest Hour, Conan the Barbarian,
Super, Watchmen, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 300, Halloween
More Online: tylerbates.com
Select Scores: Darwin, The Fighter, Morning, An Inconvenient
Truth, India: Kingdom of the Tiger, The Wild, Charlotte
More Online: michaelbrookmusic.com
Select Scores: Stained, Killer Holiday, 0000, African Holiday,
Noor, Learning to Swim, Babysitter Wanted, Neighbor, All Along
More Online: kurtoldman.com
Select Scores: Everything Must Go, Saint John of Las Vegas, Lars
and the Real Girl, Friday Night Lights, Believe In Me, The Order
More Online: davidtorn.net
Select Scores: Dirty Girl, Blooded, 10 Years Later, Within, Magic
Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story, Taken in Broad Daylight
More Online: jefftoyne.com