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After working as Eric Clapton's tech for 30+ years, Lee Dickson knows a lot about setting up Strats!
Once a guitar tech partners up with an active touring guitarist and band, life as they know it is over. Nights run into mornings, weeks become months, and cities all began to look the same. But thankfully—and sometimes regretfully—they are spending nearly every waking moment with a traveling musical circus that provides its own entertainment and levity. Every tech we talked to had countless road stories—and those were just the ones they could share.
“Willie Spears, [Clapton’s] old tech, decided that he would slacken all the strings and remove the four screws holding the neck into the body on Eric’s Brownie Strat before the night’s encore,” remembers Dickson, who was working on tour but not yet Clapton’s tech. “Eric came back out for the encore—the crowd was going nuts—and he grabs the guitar from its stand and it falls apart [laughs]… needless to say we were right there with another guitar ready to go.”
While pranks are a time-honored tradition of the road, sometimes techs also get the serious opportunity of stepping out of the shadows and jamming onstage in front of thousands.
“Every once in a great while, Billy and Frank will ask me to come out and play lap steel on a song with them,” says Francis. “I love it. Now people can say a punk rocker has sat in with ZZ Top [laughs].”
Elwood Francis (far right) pulls double duty as guitar tech and lap steel for ZZ Top from time to time.
But like any live event fueled by spontaneity and adrenaline, concerts can go bad in a note. The tech has to be there to pick up the pieces—gear or otherwise—even if it’s not in the traditional job description.
“I remember one time Sully from Godsmack was really getting into the show and feeding off the crowd’s energy,” recalls Termini. “He grabbed the mic stand and threw it over his shoulder and nailed guitarist Tony Rombola in the head. I had to give him emergency first aid and get him off the stage and into an ambulance.”
Guitarists on the highest level are not exempt from chasing those elusive sounds in their heads, and the tech is there for every pedal swap, amp change, guitar restringing—each performed with a smile and a yes-may-I-have-another attitude. But there is a breaking point.
“I remember the first European Dream Theater tour I did in the mid-’90s when I was working with John Myung and Derek Sherinian,” says Buffa. “It was a hell. We were in Finland or somewhere for Monsters of Rock and Petrucci had been trying new amps and effects every day of the tour for hours at a time—off-day or not. We arrived to the festival and they didn’t have any power, so his tech was happy as hell at that news so he could relax for a bit since we’d been doing this for 14 straight days. Shortly after, John came around the back of the stage and said he had someone run power from the bus so he could use his rig. His tech went to the back of the truck and launched an amp. It landed in this big mud puddle—a few feet from John. [Laughs]. It was really tense, but John was really understanding and nothing more came from it. I’ll never forget that amp flying through the air.”
But for all the frustration that can accompany day-to-day tasks, an acknowledgement of a job well done can make it all worth it—particularly when it comes from a known musician watching the show.
“I was doing a show in Paris with At the Drive-In and it was a battlefield on the stage that night. By second note of the first song, Omar’s cable broke,” says Trejo. “I gave him a new one and before I could turn around he broke three strings on his guitar. So I’m fixing that guitar and I see his only backup guitar go flying over my head—in a panic I hand him back his main guitar with no G-string [laughs]. Then I tend to the drumkit because the drummer broke his snare head. Someone taps me on the shoulder and asks if he can help. I’m so overwhelmed, I say yes. After the show, that stranger came up to me and appreciated all the hard work I was doing and said to keep at it… that stranger was Mike D of the Beastie Boys.”