By day I’m a somewhat less than mild-mannered efficiency expert. My mission is to ensure that the results a customer wants are achieved the first time, every time. In that role, I spend a lot of time using fancy quality tools like Failure Mode Effects Analysis, Mean Time Before Failure measurements, Ishekawa diagrams, Response plans, and mistake-proofing. By night I’m a guitar slinger in a Big Hair 80’s Metal tribute band. The mission is still the same, just different customers.
If you play long enough, or often enough, eventually, “it” is going to happen. Something will go wrong that is a show stopper. That’s a great way to lose a return call and to lose fans, as you suddenly go from ultra-cool rebel rock god to clueless, incompetent dweeb wannabe. However, it does not have to be that way. A little foresight and preparation on your part can (almost) complete bullet-proof your live show. Remember who you are doing this for. No – not your ego and self-gratification, the audience!!!
First things first – making sure a gig goes right happens long before the show. Here are a few things to ALWAYS do:
· Change strings a week before the gig and stretch them well! No one likes to watch you diddle with your tuner halfway through each song. And no one wants to see you change one mid-set. Which means…
· Always bring a backup guitar. If you play guitars in two tunings (E and Eb, Or E and Open G, etc.), then you need two backup guitars! Stop whining about the load in/out. You are a guitar geek. You have eight or more. Play them! It can be a $99 Pawnshop Squire Strat. Just have it, and see point number one above.
· Check every cord and patch by actually physically jiggling it. It might sound fine sitting quietly and unmolested in your home, but throw it around and step on it, and who knows what will happen.
· Even if every cord sounds fine, bring extras! You should always have at least one extra instrument cable and one or more patch cords. It just depends on how many effects you use.
· Get a 9v power supply. Batteries are for famous people with a label supported battery allowance and a tech to swap them fresh before every show.
· Also, always have a decent microphone and an XLR cable as well. Who knows what kind of mic herpes you’ll get from the sound man’s gear, and you never know how many mics he’ll bring. It rare for a band to have one decent singer, let alone three!
Just doing those few things will astronomically reduce your odds of having a gig problem. Skip only one, and rest assured that that is the one thing that will go wrong! There is no excuse for any of those things to interrupt a song, let alone a show other than your laziness.
So great, now you have an extra guitar, with a fresh (but not too fresh) set of strings, and an extra cable, for your three pedals that are running on a One Spot with a three-barrel extension, plus a patch cord just in case. I know what you are saying now. “But what if my AMP goes down?!?!?! Do you seriously think I should bring an extra amp?” Yes, and no.
If you can afford a backup amp – whether a combo or head, I say do it. Again, it isn’t about you so much as it is about giving the audience the show they came to see. It’s one more trip to van/car/band mobile on load in and out, but it could be a gig saver. That said, it is 2020 and there are a lot more options in this department than ever before besides a whole extra full-size combo or head. I am going to assume that you are running a mic’d amp or a DI into a PA here. Remember, you likely have a PA for house volume, and a monitor for stage volume. Even back in the ’80s the edge used a little Yamaha combo with U2 in stadiums. Here some of today’s awesome low cost and lightweight but effective backup options:
· Bring a small Combo with a direct out. I once did a whole gig with a little Roland Cube and my pedalboard going straight in, using the recording out to the board. Cheap, light, and easy.
· Get a lunchbox head of some sort. For example, have a 5150 head, but bring one of those Mini 5150’s. That’s also nice for getting your stage tone at home at a sensible volume!
· Bring a small amp pedal like a Duncan 170, a Crate Powerblock, or such. There are lots of stomp-sized amps available today. These are portable and powerful, usually. They may not be uber-toneful, but they work.
· Get a small floorboard rig and a DI box like a Tech 21 Fly Rig, or one of the similar devices. Bonus – they are usually Amp, OD, and effects all in one!
· Use any of the modeling floorboards from Boss, Digitech, Zoom, or others.
None of these is necessarily the ideal situation, but you have to stay focused. Ideal for the audience is you getting the blown amp off of the cab, getting the guitar plugged back in, and getting sound to the PA as fast as possible. Preferably with a decent (but maybe not amazing) sound. An amp going down would suck. If you don’t prepare for this, though, the other option is to cancel the show. And that will make the audience think you suck! And I’m gonna be honest – I have heard some Line 6 PODs programmed with killer sounds…and so have you even if you didn’t know it.
This isn’t necessarily inexpensive; Guitar, cables, extra amp device, and pedals, etc., but it does not have to be ultra-tone-god quality. It has to work, be able to be set up or swapped fast, and be functional to get through the set or the night, not the rest of your life.
Gibson Les Paul + Marshall half-stack + Strymon Delay pedal can be replaced by used Epiphone Les Paul, EHX 44 Magnum Pedal Amp, and a Mooer OD and Delay pedal. Total cost ~ 500 dollars. Is it the same thing? Hell no! However, it can be set to sound decent and get you through the gig without interrupting the audience’s evening entertainment, or your beer fund.
So what about at the gig, now that you have done your before gig preps? Regardless of how many guitars you bring, your playing style, a bad saddle, or gremlins may ruin the high E string on both your main and backup axe. That means you need to bring string-changing gear. I suggest every player have the following in a well-marked easy to access bag:
· Two sets of strings, fresh in the pack, of the appropriate gauge.
· A “Gui-tool” or a string winder and small wire cutters.
· A clip-on tuner of some sort, like a Snark, or whatever you like.
· And maybe a couple extra of your “favorite strings to break” as singles. You know which strings I’m talking about.
What if a 9v power supply dies? Make sure there are 9v batteries in them to start with and make sure to bring some extra 9v’s with you. Not fun to have to “battery up” but again, more fun than packing up and going home! Also, make sure you have a small screwdriver (more on this later) in case any of the effects don’t open via thumb-power.
Also, be sure to have a band tool kit. Nothing fancy, just a basic tool kit bag with a small hammer, multi-screw driver, pliers, needle nose pliers, and maybe a hex wrench set. And of course, duct tape! Think about some zip ties and a utility knife as well. Add a few nails, and you will be able to get your band banner hung about anywhere. Be sure to throw a few cheap but bright flashlights in there. It’s hard to work in the dark!
If you really want to go the extra mile, always bring whatever it will take to get you to the mixing board or stage snake/input box! In my opinion, it is the job of the PA guy to have this stuff, right up to and including their own microphones. That said, Mr. Sound Engineer (AKA: Washed up guitar player with a PA) might not have whatever adapter you need to get into the back of your amps direct out, or his only cable might crap out. Or maybe they don’t have a Shure SM57. I say every musician should have 57 AND a 58 in their gig bag. Buy used, or get the cheaper PG57 and 58.
It’s all about asking yourself what could go wrong, and having an answer as to what you will do when not if, it happens and having the goal of getting up and functional as soon as possible for the audience.
Here are a few other things I personally do:
· I play electric and acoustic guitars in my band. I don’t bring an extra acoustic, but I do have an Acoustic Sim pedal that I can drop in my electric chain.
· If both of my guitars in a given tuning go down, I have an EHX Pitchfork pedal. That is handy for placing a song anywhere in the set at any time, regardless of tuning. But it is also handy to play Eb songs on a guitar tuned to E if that is all you have on the fly in the middle of a set. (We usually play in the original key if at all possible)
· I have a small mini-board of all Mooer pedals, including a Distortion, a Boost, a Chorus, and a Delay that can get me through most practices or songs.
Additionally, I have a little Mooer DI. I can run those pedals straight into a board or any clean amp and get a pretty decent sound. That Mooer DI can work for my acoustic if my acoustic board/preamp goes down, or if my keyboard DI dies.
· I use a Zoom Gn3 for effects in the loop of my amp. In a worst-case scenario, I have a few presets that are amp + effects, and I could play just that into a board and get through a gig also.
· I use a wireless unit, but I keep an extra cord right up front on stage in case of interference or dead batteries, or I lose the transmitter in the dark (All of those have happened – not on the same gig!)
· I almost always bring an extra bag of XLR and ¼ cables because you never know who forgot one, but I usually leave them in the car.
· I also carry a bag of extension cords and power strips for the same reason. They also are usually in the car. I like to recon a bar/club/venue before playing there. You never know when the power option will get slim!
A final note – It never hurts to have the band prepared for disaster. By that, I mean, if anyone has an issue, what will you do? Just stand there and look at each other and have a band meeting? Be sure to discuss what you’ll play in place of those acoustic songs if there is an acoustic disaster. Or have an acoustic solo moment where the singer can go it alone for 5 minutes. Maybe even have the other members prepare a brief solo on drums, bass, etc., while you swap gear out.
So, in a pinch, I could blow my amp, the local radio station broadcast on my wireless, have two 20′ cables short, drop three electric guitars and an acoustic and break the necks off, have someone spill a pitcher of beer on my Zoom effects pedal, and still be back up and making electric and acoustic sounds, in E and Eb, on the fly, straight into the board with six zoom pedals, two One Spots, and two fresh cords in about 5 minutes total time. And then I could still break all six strings twice and even finish the show!
Who said an ounce of perception, a pound of obscure? Wait, that was Rush. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Yeah, that was it! And it may be worth a gig call back and a round beers! It will certainly get you a reputation as a professional performer ready for anything.
Special thanks to guest columnist Bob Elliot, guitarist for Hollywood Boulevard, for this contribution.