Photo by Andy Ellis
Playing gigs can be a very rewarding experience for you, your audience, and even the soundman. (These days there are more women mixing sound than ever, but for simplicity I’ll stick to “soundman” in this article.) My credo is simple: “Everyone from the ticket-taker to the soundman, the usher to the venue owner, and of course, the audience, will have a great experience when I show up.” This has served me well for decades, and over the years I’ve learned that being well prepared is at least half the battle. With that in mind, I’d like to share a handful of tips that may help you have great gig experiences too.
Guitar Check: Everything in Order?
It all starts here, right? Your first order of business is to be sure your guitar is in good working order. Is the action adjusted so you feel you can play your best? For the kind of gigs I do—solo fingerstyle instrumentals—the action can make or break a gig. If it’s too low, the strings will buzz, the sound will be thin, and I won’t be able to get any meat out of my guitar. But if it’s too high, my left hand gets worn out halfway through the show. Adjusting neck relief and action is something many players can handle themselves (for details see “Time for a Neck Adjustment?”), but if you don’t have the tools or know-how, getting a pro setup is one of the best investments you can make as a gigging musician.
Are the strings new or should they have been buried last week because they are D-E-A-D, dead? Whenever possible, I like to change strings before soundcheck because I want to give the soundman an accurate representation of what the audience will hear during the gig. Think about it: If you do your soundcheck with dead strings, the soundman may feel a need to bump up the high-end frequencies to compensate for your deep, thuddy tone. But then when it’s showtime and you’re playing a fresh set of strings, the sound will be too bright.
Is your guitar strap okay or is it going to break or pop off in mid-song and launch your guitar into the third row? Believe me, it can happen. Do yourself a favor and check your strap from time to time. Pay close attention to the slits that encircle the strap buttons. Eventually they stretch out and lose their grip.
If you have onboard electronics, periodically install a fresh battery. Nothing is worse than the crackly sound that occurs right before your pickup dies. And if it can die during your favorite piece, it will. It has happened to me and it is not fun. Change your battery once every six months and you won’t have to worry about the pickup going out.
Be prepared: Carry a small pouch or kit containing extra strings, a string cutter, small screwdrivers, a truss rod tool (confirm that it’s the right one for your current guitar—not the one you were gigging with last year), extra picks, a spare capo, spare batteries, several cables, and whatever else you’ll need to get through the night. You will need this gear—it’s a cosmic rule—so it’s a good idea to make a checklist and review it before you leave the house.
I realize “acoustic amp” is an oxymoron, but if you do use an amp, choosing the right one can be a daunting task. There are many excellent acoustic amps on the market and over the years I’ve owned quite a few of them, including a SWR California Blonde, a Fishman Loudbox Artist, a Roland AC-60, and an AER Compact 60. I’ve even used Fender, Peavey, Marshall, Carr, and many other electric guitar amps onstage.
My personal favorite is the AER Compact 60. It’s a bit pricey (about $1,200 street), but I love that it’s small and light (it weighs just over 14 pounds), it fits in the overhead compartment on Southwest Airlines planes, it has a very deep and full sound, and it’s very reliable. In fact it works so well for me that I bought a second one to have as a backup. That was around 2002, and so far the only thing that has ever gone wrong was when I played on a military base running on a questionable power source and the amp kept blowing fuses. (If you elect to take the acoustic amp route, remember to pack spare fuses in your emergency kit.)
As a side note: I typically use my Compact 60 on every gig because I want to know that I’ll always have a good monitor. Occasionally a venue will have stage monitors that are just bad—no life in them, too thin sounding. In those instances, I ask the soundman to turn off the stage monitors entirely and I just use my AER.
The Essential DI Box
A DI (“direct input”) box lets you connect your guitar to the front-of-house mixing console. The DI’s job is to take a guitar signal from your endpin jack and convert it to a balanced, low-impedance signal like that of a professional mic. The DI is usually located onstage and placed directly in front of you, your chair, or your mic stand.
Here’s the configuration: Plug a standard 1/4" cable between your guitar and the DI input, and use a XLR mic cable (or house snake) to connect the DI to the house mixer. As with amps, there are lots of makes and models of DI boxes. Many are battery operated, but some can run on phantom power from the console. DI boxes provide impedance matching or buffering, and may offer such extra goodies as a ground lift, a signal pad, a phase switch, a second “thru” output to feed a stage amp, and even onboard EQ. Most players don’t carry an amp, but these days many of us carry a DI because every venue is different and we want some consistent control over our sound.
A Countryman DI is great. The company has been around forever because their DI boxes are durable and give a consistent, clean representation of what’s being fed into them, i.e. your guitar. So is the Para DI Acoustic Preamp from L.R. Baggs. It has 5-band EQ and that can be a big plus for shaping your tone and also notching out feedback.
For the past several years, I’ve been using the Fishman Aura Spectrum DI. It has an onboard 3-band EQ, a simple one-knob compressor, a chromatic tuner, and a footswitchable anti-feedback circuit. (You need to be careful with the latter, as it can rob tone—but in a pinch, it’s great.)
What I love about this particular DI is Fishman’s “acoustic imaging” technology. Fishman engineers have recorded many types of guitars using a variety of different microphones, and then stored digital models (or “images” in Fishman parlance) of these sounds in the Aura Spectrum. You simply select the type of guitar you’re playing—dreadnought, concert, or jumbo, for example—and then dial in one of 16 variations of this body type stored in the onboard image bank. Using a blend knob, you mix in the replicated sound of a miked guitar with your live signal to create an amalgam of the two. I’ve found this works well to tame the quacky sound of an under-saddle piezo pickup.
Before you purchase a DI box, try out as many as you can. Remember to balance features with simplicity—you want a device that you’re comfortable operating onstage and isn’t so complicated that you get distracted from delivering a great performance.