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For normal, upright citizens, summer translates to lazy days at the beach, toes in the sand, trashy novel in hand—a full-on vacation. For musicians, however, summer means tours, or what I like to call play-cation. For more than 20 years I’ve spent my sweaty June, July, and August months touring, from the grand and sublime to the cheap and crappy—there’s no bar too far, no hall too small. In the best of all possible worlds, I’m playing great music with good friends while seeing the world. Worst-case scenario: I’m playing rubbish with sleazebags and seeing my worst tendencies take over my personality. Although we often cannot control where life takes us, we can, with some effort, control our response. Admittedly I’m a slow learner, but occasionally I learn from my mistakes and have, through trial and error, come up with a few guidelines and rules that have helped me avoid disaster and make the most of my touring adventures. This personal protocol may not be for everyone, but it works for me (when I choose to follow it).
1. Simplify Your
I used to approach a summer tour like a good Boy Scout, prepared for anything. My pedalboard kept getting bigger to accommodate every sonic scenario. But as my gear bounced around in trailers, buses, vans, and airplanes, come soundcheck my rig gave me nothing but buzz and hum and I often spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down shorts in my signal path. After a while, I never really trusted my pedalboard. Every time I stomped on a pedal during a show, I would worry that the whole rig would shut down. Not only was my instrument untrustworthy, my tone subtlety became smaller and frailer. It was time to simplify and get rid of all non-essentials.
Guitar tone really comes
down to four sounds:
When the pragmatic reality of limited tone options sank in, I was able to shrink my big tour pedalboard from 10 tone-sucking time bombs to a Spartan six pedals. Now, I can usually get by with, in this order: a tuner, a compressor, an overdrive, a delay, a phaser, and a tremolo. I used to feel that I needed many shades of dirt, from the subtle slight overdrive to the insane-inthe- membrane howl. I used to run two dirt boxes in line with varying degrees of filth, switching between them or engaging both simultaneously depending on the song. In an effort to trim the fat, I now only allow myself one dirt box, rolling on more sludge and slime with the spin of a tiny knob as I need it.
Swirly could be anything from a phaser, a flanger, a chorus, a Uni-Vibe or any other kooky, oddball effect. There’s weird stuff like this being invented everyday, and it’s a lot of fun to experiment with these sounds both live and in the studio. That said, those subtleties are often lost in a live setting, and when you schlep this stuff around long enough, it breaks.
A phaser is my weirdo effect of choice. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, but it can sound a bit like a flanger or Uni-Vibe or even a bit like an overdone chorus. It may not be what you would choose in the studio where you have unlimited options, but for me it is a good flavor that says to the audience, “Hey, check out this freaky sound.” It fits me. I work primarily in country music, where tremolo remains an integral part of that classic sound. It’s just something I have to have. I love a good amp tremolo but regrettably my current amps of choice do not have it, so I go with a good ol’ stomp version.
If wah is your thing, bring it along and put up with the hassle. For years I carried one with me all the time, but found that this pedal was more likely to go bad than anything else (perhaps because when it is engaged, it’s violently rocking back and forth the entire time it’s used, rather than just turned on and off when needed). I eventually grew disgusted with the snap, crackle, pop of shorting cables and wah pedals so I abandoned the wah all together on tour. I have that sound for studio stuff, but only hook it up as needed. I also found that if I went to the trouble of bringing a wah to a gig, I would wha-ka-whaa-ka-whaa all night long like a ’70s cop show. I’m sure it annoyed the wits out of my poor bandmates.
The smaller pedalboard not only saves me a lot of breakdowns, worry, and nuisance on the road, but it helped me develop my own sound and style. When touring, I used to want to sound just like whoever played on the record, now I just want to sound consistently good. Having fewer tone options forced me to do my own thing.
2. Belts and
Bring Backup Gear
for Your Tour
Whenever possible, I try to bring a backup amp and guitar to any important gig. I’m almost guaranteed to break a string within the first three bars of the first song in a long set if I only brought one guitar with me. However, if I have guitar No. 2 tuned up and waiting in a stand next to my amp, my No. 1 will perform flawlessly all night, every night. Reinforcements take the worry away.
Like a curmudgeon grandfather, a tube amp tends to get cranky when traveling. I’ve taken to carrying a tiny, solid-state head with me on most road gigs. I travel with an old-ish Crate PowerBlock amp, which, like many great pieces of gear, is no longer made but can be found used for around $100. This amp is about the size of a Katz’s Deli Reuben sandwich. It fits neatly in the side pocket of my amp head case, or in the front pocket of my guitar gig bag, but I usually stuff it in back of whatever combo amp I’m using (this is kind of a stupid, lazy way to do it since it could bounce around in there and smash tubes if the amp falls or is flipped upside down). I often leave the Crate resting on top of whatever amp I’m using just in case things go bad. If at any point during a gig my amp begins to crackle, hum, smoke, or burst into flames, I can unplug the 1/4" speaker line from my tube amp and put it into the Crate. Then I can do the same for the 1/4" guitar cable, turn on the Crate for immediate power (no wait for the tubes to heat up) and be up and rocking in less then a minute. It’s easy for the engineer because the same speaker means no re-mic’ing needed.
An added benefit of carrying an additional rig on your summer tour is it helps break up stagnant playing. When I play the same guitar and amp all the time, I tend to also play the same note patterns all the time. Getting a different tone and having a different feel in your hands alters your musical approach. It may not be comfortable, but it could render something great.