It has already been 11 years since we entered a new millennium full of promise and intrigue, yet I still don’t drive a hovercraft and we’re not all wearing the same silver jumpsuit with padded shoulders and a lightning bolt across the chest as promised in so many ’50s sci-fi movies. However, there have been a great number of advancements in gear and travel since the motion-picture industry tried to advise us about the future of our transportation and wardrobes.
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.
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