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The Working Guitarist: Your B-Rig - Getting Great Tones With Minimal Gear

The Working Guitarist: Your B-Rig - Getting Great Tones With Minimal Gear

Pete Thorn discusses two approaches to downsizing your rig for travel.

Hello PG readers, and welcome to my new column, The Working Guitarist! I’m excited to have this opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had while touring and doing sessions over the last twenty years. I hope the topics I will be covering will be of help to all you fellow guitar nerds out there, and if there's anything you'd like to see covered, just let me know in the comments section. For my first column, I’m going to discuss strategies for assembling a portable “B-rig” for when you can’t bring your main guitar rig to a session or performance.

If you are like me, you have spent years and a ton of cash getting your main rig together. The right guitars, amps, pedals, possibly rack effects, and a switching system. You know it inside and out—it fits like an old pair of shoes, and it’s your home base. Trouble is, if you are flying across the US to do a one-off show, or to Europe to do a short promotional tour, chances are you won’t be able to bring all of your main rig. With the economy in recession and the ever-shrinking music biz budgets, even big artists are cutting back on crew and cartage costs. But you’re still expected to deliver the goods—great tones and great playing, with as little hassle as possible. Here are two different approaches to consider when faced with downsizing your rig:

Rent an amp, bring a small pedalboard and a single guitar.
If you prefer the simplicity of a few pedals on the floor and usually use a clean amp with pedals providing overdrive and distortion effects, this is the way to go. Put together a small pedalboard with just the essential effects you need, plus a tuner and power supply for the pedals. I had a very portable board built for this purpose recently by Rack Systems in North Hollywood, CA. Here it is:

As you can see, the board is exceptionally neat and small. Yet it’s very powerful. As long as I have an amp with a decent, basic clean sound I can cover vast sonic territory with this little board. The Carl Martin PlexiTone pedal delivers authentic British distortion, and has a high gain mode for solos and a boost to make parts stand out. The Suhr KokoBoost is also an exceptional boost pedal for solos. My modulation needs are covered with MXR EVH-117 Flanger, MXR Phase 45, and Retro-Sonic Chorus, plus the Strymon El Capistan delay, which gives me amazing tape delay-style echo. The Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 is an industry standard unit, delivering reliable power to the whole board. The board itself and a small roadcase for it came from A&S cases in North Hollywood, CA.

I do recommend having pedalboards professionally built for maximum reliability and clean layout if you can, but you can do it yourself if you have some soldering skills and patience. If I’m flying to a show, I’ll check my suitcase and the little pedalboard in its case with accessories such as strings and cables.

For these type of shows, I’ll usually just bring one electric guitar in a gig bag that I’ll carry on the airplane (make sure to check your specific airline's rules first, but that's a different column!). If you require a wide variety of tones and tunings, you might consider investing in a modeling instrument along the lines of the newly updated Variax guitar from Line 6. These digital modeling instruments have come a long way and allow you to get multiple tones and store multiple tunings, so you can cover a huge range of guitar tones and styles on just one instrument. Which brings me to approach number two....

Use a digital modeler as an all-in-one solution.
In March 2010, I did a five date promotional tour of Europe with Melissa Etheridge, as well as a number of US television show appearances. My A-rig was far too big and heavy to bring to these fly-in gigs. Trouble was, I’d spent quite a bit of time programming my rig to cover a huge range of guitar tones spanning Melissa’s whole recording career. For each song, I had at least a few presets. I had timed delays, tremolos, rotary sounds, the works! I needed to figure out a way to cover all these sounds accurately using a small portable rig, and our first approach wasn't going to cut it.

Enter the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx. This two rack space digital modeling unit was already was already a part of my A-rig, for effects only, so I acquired a second unit and loaded it with all the presets from my A-rig. Then I set about adding amplifier and cabinet modeling to all the presets, recreating my big rig as accurately as I could. I assembled a pedalboard with a MIDI controller and two expression pedals to control volume and things like delay mix on certain sounds—just like I have on my main rig. I went DI out to the house—no amplifiers onstage—and I monitored the sound using in-ear monitors. I put the Axe-Fx in a two rack space bag and carried it on the plane while checking the pedalboard. Some crew people and soundmen would look at me skeptically when I showed up with this rig, but across the board they were amazed when they heard the tones. I was thrilled with the results!

While nothing replaces that feel of a big amp pushing air behind you, the portability factor and versatility of a digital modeling rig like this is astounding and hard to beat. As an added bonus, it’ll also serve as an all-in-one backup solution even when using your A-rig.

Whatever approach you take, with a little effort and planning you can assemble a B-rig that will rival your main rig in power and tone—and save you major headaches when traveling!

Tune in next month when I'll be discussing the working guitarist's home studio—feel free to comment with any questions you have on that topic.

Pete Thorn is a Los Angeles-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd will be out in early 2011.You can read more about his career and music at