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America's Toughest Tour

We were wheels up out of Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday, April 21, about to begin America’s toughest tour: the annual Toby Keith USO tour. With seven USO trips

We were wheels up out of Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday, April 21, about to begin America’s toughest tour: the annual Toby Keith USO tour. With seven USO trips under our belts since 2002, we’re a seasoned bunch of musicians—but no amount of practice or arena shows can prepare you for an excursion in the Afghani desert. 

As we boarded the USAF C-17 jet, our guitars and luggage were palletized (loaded onto a pallet to be transported) and stored on the tail section. On this flight there would be no attendants, in-flight movies or even that tray of vaguely warm chicken served with miniature utensils that we all complain about. The four rows of seats made available to us were strapped to the deck with extra strength bungee cord. We had only four small windows, exposed wires, and a portable latrine. This nine-hour, no-frills flight to Germany was only halfway to our final destination.

From Left to Right is Rex Mauney (keyboards), Dave McAfee (drums), Toby Keith, Chuck Gofff (bass), Scotty Emerick (acoustic guitar), Rich Eckhardt (lead guitar); taken in Bastion, Afghanistan.
April 23, 2009. Photo by Dave Gatley.
After traveling in close quarters for two days everyone was dead tired, but this was where it all began. We had to hit the ground running in Sharana, Afghanistan. The backline on this tour was provided by Public Address, an audio company out of Meinz, Germany. They did a great job providing us with all the equipment that we needed to pull off our trek through this barren region of the world. The only problem we encountered was that all of their gear was wired for European 220V and the bases were all wired for 110. It caused slight setup delays in some of the camps. In Kandahar, two portable generators gave their lives in the name of entertainment before a third one was brought in that could take the demands put on it by the mismatched power source.

Public Address brought not only the speaker stacks, mixing consoles and lights, but they also hooked me up with a pair of Peavey Classic 50s, as well as two Vox AC30s. Having used both before, I knew what each could do and decided to play through the Classic 50s, leaving the AC30s as a backup. The Classic 50, along with the old 5150 (now called the 6505), in my opinion are the best amps that Peavey makes. On past tours to Iraq I would plug into a Marshall Quad 4. Its solid-state components stand up better in the extreme 120-degree heat of the Iraq spring than tubes would. Afghanistan in April is a comfortable 95 degrees at the peak of the day. It had cooled into the 70s by showtime, which provided both me and my equipment with cozy show conditions. For the first time on any of these many USO tours, I was able to drive some tubes and get the grit we all know and love out of the speakers. I was surprised to find that on these makeshift plywood constructed stages I preferred the sound of the Bright channel. Normally, brighter equals thinner, and that’s never good. With the Classic 50, that channel defined the sound and punched more than the Normal channel without making the high end brittle.

I leaned heavily on my Roland GT-8 pedalboard to do all the heavy lifting on this trip. Having pre-programmed all of my Toby show settings in it, I simply needed to plug in and do a little tweaking with the amps.

Getting the pedalboard to the conflict zone was a major challenge. In order to meet the requirements imposed upon all of us on commercial flights, I was forced to pack the delicate pedal board into my check bag, buffered by my socks and T-shirts to protect it from the airline baggage handlers. Once we moved to military transportation, I placed the GT-8 in a duffle bag wrapped in my sleeping bag to keep it from potential damage. I was also sure to stay with it as it was being palletized, to ensure that it was placed on top and not carelessly thrown under a stack of heavy cases. Traveling every 24 hours to a new location in Afghanistan made this a daily task for me.

The one guitar I took with me was my U.S. Masters Super T. It’s custom painted with a red, white and blue flag pattern. That kind of patriotic display is a full-size middle finger to the Taliban, and brings a little bit of back-home spirit to the troops. It’s loaded with EMG Passive H4 pickups. Similar to EMG’s active 81s, these pickups have tight bass and crunchy highs—they’re a great choice to cover a wide range of guitar tones on one instrument. I’ve also fitted my Super T with a Hipshot Extender, enabling me to change my low E to a low D and back at the flip of a switch. It saves me the hassle of flying extra guitars and switching during the shows in these extreme travel conditions.

While traveling from one guarded location to another, our flights were complete with Combat Landings in a C-130. With the G force pushing against your body, it feels as if you’re trapped beneath a rock concert speaker stack. Admittedly uncomfortable, it only lasted for a moment or two as the C-130 corkscrewed the band safely to the ground.

On this trip we performed fifteen shows in five days before we traveled to Italy to play yet again for the troops and their families stationed there. Many of them had just returned from their deployment in the Middle East, while others had yet to go. The seventeen-show outing was a huge success, and we managed to lift the morale of thousands of our military men and women. The reception from all of them—Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines—nearly embarrassed us; it was overwhelming. They’ve got the demanding chore. We were just playing a little music, easy as do, re, mi…

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Rich Eckhardt
Rich Eckhardt is one of the most sought after guitarists in Nashville. His ability to cover multiple styles has put him on stage with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania Twain. Rich is currently playing lead guitar for Toby Keith. His new CD, Cottage City Firehouse, is available online at