Interview Outtakes with Cirque du Soleil’s Bruce Rickerd

 In the June issue of Guitar Player we met Bruce Rickerd, guitarist for the Las Vegas Cirque show Mystère. Rickerd is a guy who has not only never missed a performance in over 15 years, he’s even covered for a buddy across town by recording all of the friend’s parts while still making his regular gig, thereby having his guitar playing heard simultaneously on both sides of the Vegas strip. Having just seen a performance of his, I can tell you that he’s an amazing, versatile player who gets uncommonly good tones without an amp. Here are some outtakes from his interview.
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In the June 2009 issue of Guitar Player we met Bruce Rickerd, guitarist for the Las Vegas Cirque show Mystère. Rickerd is a guy who has not only never missed a performance in over 15 years, he’s even covered for a buddy across town by recording all of the friend’s parts while still making his regular gig, thereby having his guitar playing heard simultaneously on both sides of the Vegas strip. Having just seen a performance of his, I can tell you that he’s an amazing, versatile player who gets uncommonly good tones without an amp. Here are some outtakes from his interview.

How did you get the Mystère gig?
Benoit Jutras, Cirque du Soleil composer, used to play keyboards in my band. He was offered a job by composer René Dupéré as band leader for their show. That’s what he did. Several years went by, when, in May of ’93, I get a call from Benoit. After telling me stories about touring the world with Cirque and exchanging family news, out of the blue, he asks me: “what if I were to offer you one of the top guitar gigs in Las Vegas?” I told him that he was very funny. He insisted that he was serious. He then described the new permanent show Cirque du Soleil was working on. Their most ambitious show to date; he wanted me to have the guitar chair. I was very flattered, after consulting my wife and family; I accepted the job and moved to Las Vegas.

What was the audition like?
I didn’t have an audition. Being personally called by Benoit Jutras was all it took for me to get the gig.

What’s a typical show day like?
A typical show day starts with a sound check at 5:45. We go through a tune or try out changes to the music in the event of modifications to the show due to injuries or artists who are out of the lineup and to make sure the sound system is dialed in.

When does the performance start? And what goes on in between?
The show starts at 7:00. After the sound check, we have time to go to the cafeteria and then go to our dressing rooms to put on our costumes and makeup. We have dinner after the first show and suit up for the second show which starts at 9:30. Repeat this routine 239 times a year and there you have it: 478 shows!

During the show is when things are really interesting. Our music is very modular. In other words, the songs are made up of many small sections. All the sections can be lengthened, shortened, repeated or omitted as the action onstage requires, at a half bar count cue. The music follows the action onstage. With acrobatics, elaborate stage automations, mishaps and many unforeseen situations, the band’s job is to provide a seamless musical score to the show. In the event of a situation that causes a delay of any sort the seamless music will mitigate anxiety and panic in the audience. In my case, being the lead guitarist I provide solos that can be resolved within a bar. They can be short or long but must be resolved on cue. The guitar, both electric and acoustic is prominently featured in the show. It provides atmospheric effects, special effects, accents and punches to underline acrobatic tricks and dance cues as well as playing melody and harmony with other instruments in the score. It is a true privilege to work with such exceptional musicians such Marc Solis on saxes, flutes and woodwinds, Martin St-Pierre on violin, Devin Streator on keyboards, Bernard Marchand as musical director and keyboards, David Pelletier on bass, Aaron Guidry on percussion, Gilles St-Amand on drums, and Dina Emerson and Sarah Boucher on vocals.

For most people, playing 7000 consecutive shows would mean not being able to take on any other gigs, but that’s not true for you. Talk about how you played guitar for the André-Philippe Gagnon show without missing your Mystère performance.

This is an amusing story. First of all, André-Philippe Gagnon is a musical impressionist who does impressions of popular singers of 20th and 21th century. His show is basically a 90 minute comedic medley of over 100 tunes from singers and groups from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Elvis to Santana to the Stones to the Temptations to Dire Straits and countless others. Michel Cyr, André-Philippe Gagnon’s musical director called me one day. They were playing at the C2K showroom at the Venetian Casino right across the street from Mystère at Treasure Island. He told me that their guitarist Michel Vaillancour (currently Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Corteo musical director and guitarist), had a ruptured appendix and was in surgery at UMC. They couldn’t do the show without him. He asked me to record all the guitar parts of their show so that they could add them to their sequenced track. It took me two afternoons to record them. They then were able to do their show with Michel Vaillancour out sick. Michel Vaillancour was back on the job two weeks later. So, for two weeks, I was one of the very few people whose guitar performance was heard simultaneously on both sides of the strip on two different shows! By the way, Michel Cyr is currently, the musical director at the Cirque du Soleil show ZED in Tokyo. I also play, on average 2 to 3 nights a week, after the shows, with friends at different clubs and bars in the Las Vegas area. I have great pleasure playing with fantastic players such as Junior Brantley (Jimmy Vaughn, Room full of Blues and many others), Al Ek and the Shuffle-Airs, Rick Smith and the Black Jack Blues Band, Gil Hernandez and the Groovemakers, John Earl and the Boogieman Band, and many others, too many to name them all, who graciously invite me to sit in to play and sing with them.

What gear do you use for this gig?
I currently use 2 Fernandes Revolver Elites for the electric guitar parts. There are a lot of very long sustained notes in the score. In pre-production I was able to achieve these notes the conventional way: With the guitar in front of the amp, inducing feedback. When we came into the Mystère Theater, Jonathan Deans, Mystère sound designer, told me that using an amp would not be possible because it would take the focus away from the 48 channel 85000 watt surround sound system. I felt like he was asking me to go upstream in a canoe without a paddle. Upon doing some research, I discovered that there was a company that designed a sustaining circuit that excited the strings permitting me to get all the sustain I needed as well as give me the harmonic feedback useful for creating special effects. I had this Sustainiac system installed on my Yamaha RGX 1212S. I used this guitar for about a year.

I quickly realized that I needed a backup. Due to Lawsuit issues, Sustainiac systems were no longer available. I was told by a friend at a local music store that Fernandes guitars had Sustainer equipped guitars. I got one and liked it so much that I made it my main guitar and got a couple more to replace the Yamaha. I use a ’96 or ’97 Revolver Elite. It’s a 22 fret bolt-on neck Strat-like guitar with a humbucker at the bridge and a Floyd Rose Pro I had installed after the original licensed Floyd Rose saddles all stripped out. It plays great and due to its specific harmonics, I use it for the first part of the show. I’ve got a later model of the Revolver Elite that I use for the second half of the show. It’s a 24 fret neck-through design, humbucker at the bridge and a Floyd Rose Pro replacing the original the licensed Floyd. The harmonics it gives are perfect for the tunes in the second half. It’s very heavy. It’s heavier than my Les Paul’s! I use Levy Leathers 3” padded guitar straps for my guitars. They are very comfortable and durable guitar straps. I use a Behringer V-Amp Pro for my electric guitars. They are very low noise, versatile and really sound great. These units, as well as all modeling processors need to be tweaked to achieve optimum results. The patches the manufacturers load into these units often have too much of everything in them: Too much reverb, too much compression, too much effects, etc. That works if you’re listening to these things through headphones in the store, but that doesn’t work in a live situation. A good rule of thumb is to back off all the effects; especially the gain and the compression. Too much compression and/or gain squashes the dynamics of your playing. You lose the attack of your notes. You lose the rhythmic character of your phrasing.

Always be aware that reverb and echo are added to the inherent ambience of the room which is a natural reverb and echo unit itself; the larger the room the more the ambience. Too much reverb and/or echo will muddy up your sound. It will blur all your finely executed fast licks into an amorphous mush. Then, add whatever effects you want making sure that they fit in the context of the music. I worked on the patches for the show a month before I brought it in to audition at the front of house console with a recording of the show without guitar. Dave Robertson, Mystère’s head of sound, and I stayed late after the shows. We fine tuned the sound of every patch for every tune, playing along with the recording. Only then, we integrated the unit into the show. Occasionally, we still might fine tune a patch to taste. I have 2 V-Amp Pros in my rack. The other is there as a backup. I have a personal monitor board, a Behringer DDX3216 automated Digital mixer. It’s daisy-chained via MIDI with the V-Amp Pros and controlled by a Behringer FCB1010 MIDI pedal board.

I programmed over 20 patches for the DDX3216 that work in conjunction with the patches of the V-Amp Pro and the levels of the rest of the band mix so that I always have optimum levels between the guitars and the other instruments in the band. Levels are tricky when you use in ear monitors. Since we’re not allowed to have amps and monitors onstage, I use Sensaphonic in-ear monitors. I have a tuner in-line on both the electric and acoustic guitars. The tuner for the electrics is on all of the time so that I can monitor the tuning in real time as I play. The tuner for the acoustic is set up so that it mutes when the tuner is on. When the guitar is not in use, it’s muted by the tuner. I’ve been using a Fernandes Monterey “acoustic” guitar for the acoustic guitar parts. This guitar is no longer manufactured as an acoustic guitar anymore. It’s actually a solid body guitar with a piezo-electric pickup. This particular guitar is very rare as it doesn’t have any electric guitar pickup on it. It’s got a terrific acoustic guitar tone. When I go out to play on other gigs, I use a Bugera 333XL combo amp. It’s a sweet sounding bruiser. I’ll take out my Fender Strat with an EMG DG-20 David Gilmour pickup system; it has superior sound with very low noise. For my studio, I have an extremely versatile guitar that excels in recording electric, acoustic, and MIDI. My Godin XtSA is the best MIDI controller I ever owned. I also own a Gibson ES-335, a Gibson Lucille autographed by B.B. King, a few Gibson Les Paul’s, including a 1st run Robot, a couple Fender Strats, a Gretsch Country Gentleman and a variety of other guitars, too many to name here. You can never have too many guitars, I always say.

Is it going to be devastating if and when you finally miss a show?
I don’t know. It might just be a relief ;-). But seriously, you don’t just set out to do a gig with the specific goal of not ever missing a show. Chaos gets in the way. Just as chaos might have permitted me to not miss a show, it might make me miss a show tomorrow. The proverbial Flying Finger of Fate notwithstanding, I’m taking every day one day at a time and only time will tell.