Because life on the road can be like walking a thin tightrope, Premier Guitar offers up some tried-and- true guidelines for the working musician.
For normal, upright citizens, summer translates to lazy days at the beach, toes in the sand, trashy novel in hand—a full-on vacation. For musicians, however, summer means tours, or what I like to call play-cation. For more than 20 years I’ve spent my sweaty June, July, and August months touring, from the grand and sublime to the cheap and crappy—there’s no bar too far, no hall too small. In the best of all possible worlds, I’m playing great music with good friends while seeing the world. Worst-case scenario: I’m playing rubbish with sleazebags and seeing my worst tendencies take over my personality. Although we often cannot control where life takes us, we can, with some effort, control our response. Admittedly I’m a slow learner, but occasionally I learn from my mistakes and have, through trial and error, come up with a few guidelines and rules that have helped me avoid disaster and make the most of my touring adventures. This personal protocol may not be for everyone, but it works for me (when I choose to follow it).
1. Simplify Your
I used to approach a summer tour like a good Boy Scout, prepared for anything. My pedalboard kept getting bigger to accommodate every sonic scenario. But as my gear bounced around in trailers, buses, vans, and airplanes, come soundcheck my rig gave me nothing but buzz and hum and I often spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down shorts in my signal path. After a while, I never really trusted my pedalboard. Every time I stomped on a pedal during a show, I would worry that the whole rig would shut down. Not only was my instrument untrustworthy, my tone subtlety became smaller and frailer. It was time to simplify and get rid of all non-essentials.
Guitar tone really comes
down to four sounds:
When the pragmatic reality of limited tone options sank in, I was able to shrink my big tour pedalboard from 10 tone-sucking time bombs to a Spartan six pedals. Now, I can usually get by with, in this order: a tuner, a compressor, an overdrive, a delay, a phaser, and a tremolo. I used to feel that I needed many shades of dirt, from the subtle slight overdrive to the insane-inthe- membrane howl. I used to run two dirt boxes in line with varying degrees of filth, switching between them or engaging both simultaneously depending on the song. In an effort to trim the fat, I now only allow myself one dirt box, rolling on more sludge and slime with the spin of a tiny knob as I need it.
Swirly could be anything from a phaser, a flanger, a chorus, a Uni-Vibe or any other kooky, oddball effect. There’s weird stuff like this being invented everyday, and it’s a lot of fun to experiment with these sounds both live and in the studio. That said, those subtleties are often lost in a live setting, and when you schlep this stuff around long enough, it breaks.
A phaser is my weirdo effect of choice. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, but it can sound a bit like a flanger or Uni-Vibe or even a bit like an overdone chorus. It may not be what you would choose in the studio where you have unlimited options, but for me it is a good flavor that says to the audience, “Hey, check out this freaky sound.” It fits me. I work primarily in country music, where tremolo remains an integral part of that classic sound. It’s just something I have to have. I love a good amp tremolo but regrettably my current amps of choice do not have it, so I go with a good ol’ stomp version.
If wah is your thing, bring it along and put up with the hassle. For years I carried one with me all the time, but found that this pedal was more likely to go bad than anything else (perhaps because when it is engaged, it’s violently rocking back and forth the entire time it’s used, rather than just turned on and off when needed). I eventually grew disgusted with the snap, crackle, pop of shorting cables and wah pedals so I abandoned the wah all together on tour. I have that sound for studio stuff, but only hook it up as needed. I also found that if I went to the trouble of bringing a wah to a gig, I would wha-ka-whaa-ka-whaa all night long like a ’70s cop show. I’m sure it annoyed the wits out of my poor bandmates.
The smaller pedalboard not only saves me a lot of breakdowns, worry, and nuisance on the road, but it helped me develop my own sound and style. When touring, I used to want to sound just like whoever played on the record, now I just want to sound consistently good. Having fewer tone options forced me to do my own thing.
2. Belts and
Bring Backup Gear
for Your Tour
Whenever possible, I try to bring a backup amp and guitar to any important gig. I’m almost guaranteed to break a string within the first three bars of the first song in a long set if I only brought one guitar with me. However, if I have guitar No. 2 tuned up and waiting in a stand next to my amp, my No. 1 will perform flawlessly all night, every night. Reinforcements take the worry away.
Like a curmudgeon grandfather, a tube amp tends to get cranky when traveling. I’ve taken to carrying a tiny, solid-state head with me on most road gigs. I travel with an old-ish Crate PowerBlock amp, which, like many great pieces of gear, is no longer made but can be found used for around $100. This amp is about the size of a Katz’s Deli Reuben sandwich. It fits neatly in the side pocket of my amp head case, or in the front pocket of my guitar gig bag, but I usually stuff it in back of whatever combo amp I’m using (this is kind of a stupid, lazy way to do it since it could bounce around in there and smash tubes if the amp falls or is flipped upside down). I often leave the Crate resting on top of whatever amp I’m using just in case things go bad. If at any point during a gig my amp begins to crackle, hum, smoke, or burst into flames, I can unplug the 1/4" speaker line from my tube amp and put it into the Crate. Then I can do the same for the 1/4" guitar cable, turn on the Crate for immediate power (no wait for the tubes to heat up) and be up and rocking in less then a minute. It’s easy for the engineer because the same speaker means no re-mic’ing needed.
An added benefit of carrying an additional rig on your summer tour is it helps break up stagnant playing. When I play the same guitar and amp all the time, I tend to also play the same note patterns all the time. Getting a different tone and having a different feel in your hands alters your musical approach. It may not be comfortable, but it could render something great.
This compact Crate PowerBlock amp is no longer in production, but you can get a used one for around $100.
Electro Harmonix 22 Caliber
Stree price: $104
This thing is tiny, about the size of a smallish pedal. It’s cheap as you could hope for and sounded good online. Worth a look.
Street price: $245
This is a “friend of a friend” recommendation. I’ve never even seen this amp, but the size works and I’m told that it sounds great and can keep up with loud drums.
Peavy Bandit 112
Street price: #349.99
(find secondhand for as little as $50)
A combo amp but can drive any cabinet. There’s nothing pretty about this amp, but it is cheap and nearly indestructible. Pick a used one up for $50 and leave it in your trunk just in case. I actually saw Keith Urban play through one of these with his old band, The Ranch, and he sounded like… well … Keith Urban.
Street price: $239
The size of a largeish stomp box, this amp can plug into a 4x12 cab and rawk. Or run the headphone out directly into a board for a convincing speakersimulated sound.
Diago Little Smasher
Street price: $189
Though I’ve not played through this head, the size and simplicity appeals to me. A meager 5 watts may not be able to keep up with the band, but in a pinch, this could get you through.
Street price: No longer in production, around $50 to $120 used
15 watts Street price: No longer in production, around $50 to $120 used A combo amp with a measly 5" speaker, this sounds great when driving a 4x12. Very small and light. I’ve used this for everything from guitar to pedal steel to bass. Sounds great, less filling.
3. Leave Your Top-Shelf Rig at Home
If you read Premier Guitar you probably have stuff … lots and lots of stuff: multiple amps, guitars, stomp boxes, etc. Assuming that’s the case, you may reconsider touring with your best gear. Gear is made to be played, but regrettably, the road is like Ike Turner, constantly handing out a beating. Your “best” stuff will soon become your “okay” stuff, eventually downgrading to your “not working” stuff. I only use my favorite amps for recording and travel with my “B” amps. As abysmal as it is to have your amp die on tour, having your best amp not work at a session is worse.
Guitars aren’t as susceptible to breaking down as amps are, but they are more likely to be stolen. Escaping unnoticed with a hefty amp is difficult, but it’s relatively easy to grab a guitar and run. I’ve never lost a guitar on the road, but I know people who have had their beloved axes stolen right off the stage, out of a van or hotel room, or even taken in the airport. I do bring out some favorite guitars on the road, but I try to never let them leave my sight.
4. Shop for Gear in
Here’s a touring tip we can all get enthusiastic about: Look for gear in every town you visit while touring. One might think that with our current world market of eBay, the days of discovering bargains on the road are gone, but that’s not the case. Deals exist everywhere. I check the local Craigslist, mom-and-pop music stores, thrift shops, and even garage sales in every town I can.
Here are a few examples of
recent road scores:
• Ventura, California, two years ago: One wouldn’t peg this exotic locale—with a high cost of living and plenty of musicians—as a haven for pawnshop bargains. But in this pretty coastal town, I found a Fender lap steel from the early ’50s for $70. The knobs, pots, and the pickup on this instrument alone are worth four times that amount. Even if I never wanted to play lap steel, I could part this thing out for a tidy profit and still have the basic wood of an incredibly cool instrument, which I could turn into a lamp, wall hanging or cutting board for my kitchen.
• Seattle, Washington, two weeks ago: I found a hard-shell guitar case at Goodwill for $1.50 that perfectly fits a dreadnought. Because airlines crush cases every year, I bought it even though I currently don’t need one because I will before long.
• St. Louis, Missouri, last summer: While touring with my wife in the town that gave us Chuck Berry, we found a cool accordion on Craigslist for $60. The seller was kind enough to meet us near a downtown restaurant where we were lunching. After lunch, bellies full, accordion in tow, we stumbled onto a little music store where we found a great violin that had been hanging on the wall so long that they forgot it was there. Although the price tag said $450, the guy behind the counter was sick of looking at it and said, “Make me an offer.” We bought it for half the price. During the haggling, our bandmate discovered a cache of old ribbon mics adorning the rafters, more as decoration then inventory. We asked the clerk how much and he dumped the old mics so cheap that I can’t even remember what we paid. Who knows what was going on in that store—maybe the guy really needed money, or maybe he was a disgruntled employee sticking it to the man (I hope not). Maybe that’s just how they do it in St. Louie, but we walked with some bargains.
5. Get out of
Another benefit to searching for road gear: It gives you an opportunity to see the sights. Paradoxically, being on the road can make one a shut-in—traveling musicians tend to only see their hotel and venue of each town they visit. Exploring gets you out and moving instead of lying all day in a questionable rented bed with the curtains drawn and TV blaring in some dingy hotel. If you have any say in the matter, try to book hotels in the center of town, walking distance to the sights and shopping.
You work in the arts, so what the heck? Check out the local museums and galleries. Don’t limit your culture to the yogurt you eat at your hotel’s continental breakfast.
6. Utilize Apps
My phone has become my most valuable tour tool thanks to free apps that are like having a tour manager in your pocket. The GPS app gets me to the gig, a sleep machine app drowns out hotel noise, a toilet finder helps on long walks through foreign cities, a translator app helps me communicate when overseas or in Los Angeles, and a flashlight app lights my way through dark stages. I have apps from my favorite airlines for booking flights, checking in and keeping track of my miles. iParking helps me find my car. My bank has an app so I can transfer money and know when checks arrive back home. All this as well as a great metronome and tuner, what else could you want?
7. Easy on the Booze,
Pound the H2O
A guy I know played a summer punk festival tour that included The Misfits in its cavalcade of semi-stars. He imagined these punk pioneers would be out of their collective minds. Much to his surprise, The Misfits spent all of their time working out and drinking bottle after endless bottle of water. That discipline (along with the deal they cut with Satan) is probably responsible for the group’s incredible longevity. Limiting your booze intake, particularly during hot August festivals, can save your life. Mix a few drinks with intense heat and you might not make it through the show. Have lots of drinks on a hot stage and you may be in the emergency room when the rest of the band goes on for an encore.
Though climate controlled, club tours are even more dangerous because club owners aren’t selling music, they are selling booze, and they want you to help. When club owners send drinks to the stage, their hope is the audience will watch you shoot it down and be inspired to match you drink for drink. The club doesn’t care about how this affects your health—they’re just looking for big sales. Don’t feel obligated to chug everything that’s sent your way. Raise the glass in a toast and toss it over your shoulder if you must.
8. Don’t Use
a House Mic
Germs. Those ubiquitous, nasty microbes can shut your tour down. Let’s try to keep our bad funk to ourselves. If you sing, don’t share a microphone—it’s a bit like sharing a toothbrush. Buy your own damn mic, write your name on it, and carry it with you (in my case it’s an old Shure SM57 I’ve lugged around in my gig bag for years). Ask the front desk at your hotel for a complimentary travel size mouthwash and a toothbrush and use it to clean your sweet, personal mic; then keep the whole cleaning kit in the little pouch that the mic comes in.
9. Get a Dedicated
If you have drunken jammers who jump onstage regularly, have a dedicated “drunk jammer” mic line run. This will keep them from passing their bacterium to you. As an added bonus, if they are terrible singers, your soundman can cut them off and you can take over vocals at any time without prying the offending mic from their drunken clutches.
10. Get Some
It’s easy to fall into the vampire schedule: Up all night, sleep all day. In reality you seldom get to sleep all day because on tour you’re traveling, doing promotion, or whatever other duty calls during the day. Stay up all night and there’s a good chance you won’t ever get caught up. Sleep deprivation becomes accumulative. Miss a few sleeps and everything goes to hell. People get grumpy and your perception of meter, tonality, and everything in general becomes inaccurate. When fatigue really sets in, your body can quit altogether and you get sick. As tempting as it is to let the party onstage roll on until morning, this will quickly turn you into an irritable, sickly, bag-eyed dope.
By all rights, musicians should not be allowed to take vacations because musicians never really work. That being the case, let’s milk this scam for all we can and turn the summer tour into a fabulous play-cation. These principles can go a long way to making the most of it.