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The Basics: Picks, Strings, Straps, and Cables
Most people (fingerpickers aside) pretty much can’t function comfortably (or at all) without these basics—but that doesn’t mean it’s always a given that you have extras. In fact, I find it really helpful, especially at sessions, to have a variety of picks on hand. Switching picks can radically change the sound of a part, especially on acoustic guitar. While for electric guitar I normally gravitate towards the Dunlop Ultex pick in a .73mm thickness, in the studio I tend to use much lighter picks for strummed acoustic guitar parts. I like how they smooth out the sound, and with thinner picks you tend to not hear as much pick noise, important when sitting in front of sensitive mics, especially if the part is being compressed.
And while you’re unlikely to forget the cable you need to plug in, you can never have enough extras—guitar cables, speaker cables, power cables, TRS (stereo) cables for footswitches... the works. In my experience, they are the weakest link in your chain, and they are the first place to look if you have a problem, so have spares on hand!
My slide skills are pretty basic, but on pretty much every sideman gig I’ve done, I’ve needed to bust out a slide for at least a song or two. Just like picks, slides all sound different, and it’s good to take a couple different varieties to gigs and sessions. I really dig ceramic and glass slides, because they seem to sound warmer, smoother, and have better sustain than metal or chrome variants, but I always have at least one chrome slide on hand in case that’s the sound I need.
Capos are the bane of my existence! I’ve probably bought a thousand in my lifetime, and yet I can never find one when I need one, it seems. But need them I do! They are essential on most gigs and sessions, so find one you like and keep it around at all times. I tend to stay away from clamp capos that you can’t adjust the tension on, for me they just create tuning problems.
Good strap locks are essential! My instruments are expensive and I want to prevent mishaps as much as possible, and strap locks are a good insurance policy. I always have a couple sets of spare strap locks on hand, in case I lose a strap and I need to install them on a new one, or I need to install the strap locks buttons on a new guitar.
Volume and Expression Pedals
I use a volume pedal in front of my amps, and an expression pedal to control things like delay mix. Volume pedals run in front of an amp are usually high impedance (250K pot), and expression pedals are low impedance (25K pot). And because they are mechanical by design, they can wear out or get noisy or inconsistent. I always carry a spare of each variety! I’m so used to using these pedals now on gigs, I’d hate to be without either.
You need 9V DC adapters for most effect pedals, but some pedals need 12V, 15V, or 18V, and some 9V pedals require at least 300ma. Make sure you have what you need for backups in case your main pedal power supply fails! MIDI controllers sometimes require 9V AC adapters, and it’s always good to have one of these on hand, even if your midi controller gets phantom power from your rack effect units. I was caught without one recently and for some reason my MIDI controller didn’t want to power up via phantom power. After repeated unplugging and plugging in of my MIDI cable, the controller finally powered up, but I made sure to bring out a spare 9V AC adapter from that point on!
It’s always good to have a few of these on hand! It seems obvious that you should have some on hand, but I must admit this “working guitarist” has overlooked batteries. Recently I was doing a benefit gig with Slash, and I was playing acoustic. Easy, right? Just show up with my guitar, which has a tuner built in... My Gibson J180 went dead seconds before we went on! I hadn’t changed the battery in some time, and I didn’t have one in my case. Luckily, a tech had a 9V at the ready, and popped it in—boom, back up and running. Whew. Lesson learned!
Always good to have truss rod wrenches for all of your guitars, a string winder, screwdrivers, wire cutters, polish and polish cloths, and—don’t laugh—fingernail clippers! I don’t know about you, but it drives me crazy when my nails are just a bit too long on my left hand, so it’s always good to have clippers and/or a file on hand.
Microphones and Mic Cables
Sometimes the mics you find in clubs or even at bigger gigs can be suspect—you never know how many times they’ve been dropped or hit by errant drumsticks. And there’s nothing like a stinky old SM58 vocal mic! So, it’s a great idea to carry an all purpose workhorse like an SM57 or 58, and a cable, just in case the you run into a questionable situation.
That's all for this week! Feel free to add your must-have gear in the comments section below, and let me know if there are any topics you'd like to see covered in the future!
Pete Thorn is a Los Angeles-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd will be out in early 2011.You can read more about his career and music at peterthorn.com.