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The Gear That Got Me Here
I have a longtime friend, Dave Fontana, whose father D.J. Fontana was the renowned drummer for Elvis Presley. I’ve been privileged on a few occasions to hear D.J. tell stories about touring with Elvis in his heyday. It would send shivers down my spine to learn that D.J., Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and the King would travel the country in nothing more than a roomy town car with Black’s doghouse bass strapped to the roof. As D.J. told me of his days on the road, I gained an appreciation for the bus I was tooling around the country in at that time. It was a beat up, 20-year-old, 35-foot Buffalo-style bus with a manual transmission that ground gears when you shifted. But it was home.
When I first left Maryland and headed to Nashville to make a name in the music industry, I brought a few basic guitars—a Fender Strat, a Gibson ES-347, a Guild S-100, and a Guild D-55 acoustic. Accompanied by a Music Man HD-130 piggyback amp, I felt I was ready to meet any challenge the music industry could throw at me. My go-to guitar in those days was a 1984 tobacco-sunburst Fender Strat Plus with Lace Sensor pickups. I worked hard on my tones and effects to get that thing to sound big and fat like a Les Paul when I’d cover the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” and to ring like a bell on Eric Clapton’s barroom standard “Wonderful Tonight.” I ran my Strat through the same Roland GP-8 effects processor I have in my effects rack today, and then directly into the Music Man HD-130 head and 4x12 cabinet. This was my stock rig for about 12 years. It followed me from my high-school block party and teen-dance days to club dates around Nashville and that first tour bus, where I would load and unload it myself to play county fairs, theaters, and festivals.
Once I started gigging heavily in Nashville, the workload became too much for the aging Music Man’s EL34 power tubes, and I started having issues with them overheating on me. Being young and poor, I couldn’t afford the hefty price tag associated with changing out tubes regularly, so I reluctantly switched to an ART solid-state preamp and MosValve power amp. I can’t deny that this was a durable setup, but I paid dearly for that durability with my tone. Although the preamp had both a clean and a drive channel, I kept it set to the clean channel and began a long-lasting habit of dialing in the smallest amount of overdrive with the effects processor to simulate output-tube breakup. After a while, I moved into a Groove Tube Trio preamp with the MosValve power amp. Although it didn’t sound nearly as full as a real class A tube amp, the GT allowed me to set three different gain stages and switch between them via MIDI. This let me get back into using some tube drive again and took me one step closer to the warmth of a real tube amp.
Rediscovering That All-Tube Magic
I continued to use my tube amps in the studio for recording, and that made me long for the days when I could get that sound again live. Meanwhile, my career as a touring musician was taking off and the conditions under which I traveled began to get more and more comfortable. With satellite TV, DVD players, and even a mobile internet connection, I found that living on a tour bus became quite easy. I knew it was time to get back to the best possible tone and start playing through a genuine tube amp again.
After conditioning my ears to the clatter of a solid-state amp, my new Kustom Coupe half-stack sounded incredible! But the switch back to an all-tube rig came suddenly, with little time to tweak my gear before the first show of a new tour. So I temporarily had a rat trap of cables hanging out the back of my rack. It took a few weeks of dragging my rack into hockey-rink dressing rooms to clean it up without missing a beat of the 75-city tour we were grinding through. Working diligently with my tech in the afternoons, cutting and soldering cables and connectors, while pulling off the show each night without any disruptions was a major task.
However, each night I was getting closer to the brass ring—real tube drive once more! It was worth every minute we spent on it.
Yes, a lot has changed in the world of touring since the old Elvis days in the ’50s. Today, you’re nothing if you don’t dangle a giant video screen behind you on stage. Your band will be scoffed at if your bus is the only one on the road that doesn’t have the coveted slide-out living room and Wi-Fi internet. And clearly you haven’t really “made it to the big time” if you still have to set up your own rig. But the one common bond that connects all of us to old-school guys like Scotty Moore, Keith Richards, or B.B. King is the tube amp. No matter how many electronic advancements are introduced to the world, electric guitar still sounds best when amplified by glass vacuum tubes and paper-cone speakers.
A sought-after Nashville guitarist who has performed with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania Twain, Rich Eckhardt currently plays lead guitar for Toby Keith, and also works as a spokesperson for the Soles4Souls charity (soles4souls.org). His new album, Cottage City Firehouse, is available at richeckhardt.com and CDBaby.com.