Lessons from the gigging guitarist’s handbook.
Set up, plug in, turn on. It’s that easy. Or is it? Every guitarist playing local clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, or house parties knows each situation is different and rarely optimized for your convenience—let alone safety. Here are a few true-life gig stories, with survival lessons.
Way down in the hole. Mike K., Carr Amps builder and rocking guitarist, told me his band was playing a club one night and things were going very well. The crowd was really into the music and so was he. This was a high-energy show, with the singer jumping up and down holding the microphone while belting it out. Mike was playing guitar while sweeping his gaze left and right—seeing the crowd, the singer, the crowd, no singer, the crowd… what? He still heard the vocals but his buddy was gone. Then, Mike looked down to see the singer’s head poking up from a jagged hole in the stage floor, still rocking!
Lesson: Inspect the stage. Walk around, check for soft spots or alarming crunching noises. A similar thing happened to me in the late ’70s. The venue had just spent money on a mechanical bull, but skimped on stage construction. (I wonder if I would’ve had a better chance on the bull?) And don’t place your gear at the edge of a wobbly stage. Test the waters with a few jumps. Guitars leaning on amps often suffer as gear tumbles.
Surf turfed. When playing live, you might have hours to set up or just minutes to throw your gear in front of the headliner’s stuff. Do you like reverb? Then don’t set your amp directly in front of the bass drum. I did this on a small stage with no other space to put my amp. We were doing surfy instrumentals, where deep spring reverb is the sound. With each bass drum hit, my reverb tank exploded in a loud crash. The show had to go on, so the reverb went off. That night witnessed the driest, dustiest, most parched surf guitar sound ever.
Lesson: Wet spring reverb tanks like stability. They don’t like bass drums.
Hum and haw. Another stage insight involves radiated noise. A place I used to play had a large rack of PA amps on one side of the small stage. If the guitar was within three feet of that refrigerator-sized box, a ton of 60-cycle hum came from my amp—even with humbuckers. Once again, this was a fast setup with no real soundcheck, so I just had to do my best. I ended up having to stand behind the frontman to get away from the noise source. Next time we were there, I set up on the other side of the stage.
Lesson: Note what other gear is on or near the stage (neon and fluorescent lights are bad, too) and try to anticipate any radiated noise issues.
Plenty o’ nuttin’. One more:You’re playing, and suddenly there’s no guitar sound. Hey, all of us amp, guitar, pedal, cable, you-name-it, makers want our stuff to work for you always and last forever. But sometimes it doesn’t. Before you kick your amp, see if its pilot light is on. If so, plug your guitar directly into the amp, bypassing any pedals. Anything? If yes, then the problem is with a pedal. If not, try another guitar cable.
Still no sound? Check the back of the amp and make sure the speaker cable is plugged in. Heads and most combos have speaker cables that plug in. For combos, trace the cable to the speaker to be sure it’s connected. I’ve seen combos where the speaker cable terminates in clips at the speaker, and if one of the clips pops off, there’s no sound.
Next, move on to HT fuses. Higher-power amps usually have two fuses. One is for the mains AC supply from the wall and the other is specifically to protect the power tubes. The HT fuse blows if a tube draws too much current, but the rest of the amp will still be lit up and appear functional.
Mains fuses usually blow for more serious reasons, but occasionally you can just replace one and be able to finish the gig. Typical values for HT fuses are rated 500 mA to 1 amp for fast blows, while slow-blow fuses are often 2 to 4 amps. It’s a good idea to keep spares on hand.
Now, let’s say the pilot light is off. Make sure the AC cable is plugged solidly into the amp. Most amps these days have detachable cables with IEC connectors. The cable can seem like it’s in, even if it’s a bit out of the socket. We had an amp shipped to us for service where that was the issue. It’s like the Grinch taking an entire Christmas tree back to his shop to replace one blub.