A touring guitar tech’s life can be summed up as a real-life version of the movie Groundhog Day. City to city and show to show, it’s the same thing in different area codes. “I get up in the morning—in a different city than when I went to bed in—and go for a bike ride trying to find a coffee shop and kill some time until we have to load-in and prep for soundcheck,” says Mike Buffa, tech for Maroon 5’s James Valentine. But once work starts, it’s time to get dirty… er clean. “I spend a lot of my time prepping the amps by dusting the tubes and inside the chassis, and restringing and setting up each guitar and intonating as best I can up and down the neck. [Laughs] I’ve become so anal that I bring cans of compressed air to spray off James’ pedalboard—dust is my worst enemy.”
Buffa (left) with Matchless' Phil Jamison (middle) and Maroon 5's James Valentine (right).
Part of a tech's job is to help work with the gear builders to fine-tune the guitarist's tone.
Many guitarists who spend a lot of time on the road find that venturing to favorite retailers and meeting builders at the show’s host city are a good way to release some G.A.S. And soundcheck is the best tool for testing out new gear. “If and when James finds a new guitar or stompbox he likes and is digging, he’ll spend time with it on the bus and backstage for a few days. If he eventually comes to me with it, I know he’s digging it,” says Buffa. “At this point, we use soundchecks over a span of a few days to figure out how the guitar or pedal should be set up and used, and for guitars, we’ll discuss how it will be worked into the setlist rotation and what it’ll replace.”
Henry “Enrique” Trejo, 14-year tech for The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodr’guez-L—pez, checks guitars onstage at a Raconteurs Voodoo Fest show.
“No matter how bad you may want to or how natural it feels, never, ever set a drink on your amp,” warns Lee Dickson, former longtime guitar tech for Eric Clapton. “That’s something a gentlemen never does.”
Once the show starts, the tech is all eyes and ears, attentively watching from their bunker sidestage. “I can watch Warren’s face and his hands and know if the guitar is setup perfect or if he’s struggling or fighting the guitar—I can sense that in his playing now,” says Brian Farmer, tech for Warren Haynes. And if a string breaks or a stompbox goes down, the tech is right there with the correct backup immediately. “Knowledge is power—and knowing where your backup is for each part of the signal chain is the most calming thing any tech, new or old, should be aware of,” says Farmer.
“I can be out there and swipe out a stompbox on James’ pedalboard before anyone in the crowd even knows something is wrong—that’s one of my biggest goals every night if something does go down… repairing without recognition,” says Buffa.
“One thing I’ll never forget, Mr. [Johnny] Cash told me not to run out their like it was a Chinese fire drill. He said act like you’ve been there before and do the job right the first time,” recalls Farmer.
Warren Termini swaps guitars with Bill Kelliher mid-set at a Mastodon show.
However, there are times when it can’t wait until the end of a song or convenient drum solo. “One of the opening bands that was on the road with Godsmack had a broken guitar string,” recalls Warren Termini, current tech for Bill Kelliher of Mastodon. “I realized he didn’t even have another guitar, so I went out in front of the crowd and changed the string while he was playing… [laughs] it had to be done.”
Once the show is over, the tech cleans everything off one last time, carefully packs it all up and loads into the truck. The stage crew piles into their own bus and calls it a night generally between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on show nights. They fall asleep and wake up in a new city and start the process all over again.