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 on piano.
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 even guitar.
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 Pro Tools.
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
Select Scores:Darwin, The Fighter, Morning, An Inconvenient Truth, India: Kingdom of the Tiger, The Wild, Charlotte Sometimes, Heat
Select Scores:Stained, Killer Holiday, 0000, African Holiday, Noor, Learning to Swim, Babysitter Wanted, Neighbor, All Along
Select Scores:Everything Must Go, Saint John of Las Vegas, Lars and the Real Girl, Friday Night Lights, Believe In Me, The Order
Select Scores:Dirty Girl, Blooded, 10 Years Later, Within, Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story, Taken in Broad Daylight