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A funny thing happened on the way to the festival. Actually, funny things happen on gigs all the time and, as long as they’re not fatal flaws, you just have to laugh, learn, and move on. I’d like to share one of those experiences from a major road gig – in part so you’ll feel sorry for me and send me cash, but mostly to give you some insight into the comic tragedies that occasionally occur at even the highest professional levels, where you might otherwise think that we ride the prevailing winds of glamour, luxury and ease.
Picture the Sunday set of closing gigs at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival with such notables as Steve Vai, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, James Taylor, B.B. King, Vince Gill, ZZ Top, Eric, etc. Two stages side by side send the world’s greatest guitar players out on perfectly staged rolling risers one after another, with only three minutes between acts all day long. This is the pinnacle gig for guitar players, techs, stage managers, and sound companies.
The hot Texas sun beat down on the Cotton Bowl, encompassing the 70,000 in attendance, the thousands of supporting crew on and off stage and, of course, the equipment. As I stood on the side of the stage, watching the masterful Steve Vai with his trademark hair blowing in the wind (actually from a couple of oscillating fans near his pedal board pointed at his head), I was overwhelmed by the big-time aspect of this gig. Steve finished and it was my turn to build Larry Carlton’s rig and get it ready for his moment in the sun. Different rules applied here, though. You can’t make a sound. That’s right – no sound. The only glimmer of hope that the Dumble Overdrive Special would come to life was the barely discernible glow of the red power light on the front of the amp.
With new strings stretched to perfection, I silently brought the tuner needle to the center position for each string and resigned myself to the fact that this was as ready as we would get for this massive audience, not to mention the live DVD recording, the PBS broadcast, and an unparalleled group of the world’s finest guitarists gathered in the wings to hear the illustrious Larry Carlton.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Grammy Award-winning guitarist, Larry Carlton and the Sapphire Blues Band!”
As the applause roared, I handed LC his ‘69 335 and headed toward tech world on the side of the stage. The “Friday Night Shuffle” groove started, Larry waved to the audience, and strapped on his legendary axe. The horn section ripped into a burning 16th note phrase and Larry blazed right along with them. I knew the lick – it has started countless shows with electrifying energy. I’m relieved the amp works, the effects work, and the gig is off and running.
Then I heard it. The last note of the opening phase ends on the third string and is a half step sharp. I knew all too well that Larry simply doesn’t make that kind of a mistake. So guess whose mistake it was – I had tuned the G string to G#. That minuscule red light to the right of the tuner needle was imperceptible under the searing Texas sun and simply escaped my attention. My ear would have corrected such a blunder, but no sound was permitted.
In that split second, the laws of physics went right out the window and time became excruciatingly slow. I saw LC immediately correct the tuning while I (out of some sort of act of desperation) dove behind the drum riser to avoid dealing with the reality of what had just happened. Reality, however, was inescapable and I inevitably had to accept the fact that I sent Larry Carlton out in front of 70,000 people with the cameras rolling and the greatest guitarists in the world listening and his third string tuned to G#. It was, however, a perfect G# -- perhaps the most in-tune G# in the history of guitar tuning.
At this point, it would be reasonable to assume my career as a guitar technician was over. Even the great L.A. studio engineer Csaba Petocz asked me later that day what I planned on doing now. My question back to him was if he knew anybody who needed a tech without references.
Fortunately, Larry Carlton is as great a person as he is a player and forgave me. Secretly, I think he enjoys telling the story to this day, combining embarrassment, humility, and humor at choice moments as we travel around the world. Honestly, we do laugh about it. And I learned. And I moved on. I even ended up building Larry a new pedal board with a Korg rack mount tuner that pops up in clear view. It probably works for G# too, but I’m not sure.
Rick Wheeler currently works as Larry Carlton’s guitar tech and front of house engineer. He is also an accomplished jazz guitarist, vocalist, and educator. You can contact Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org