State of the Stomp: The Importance of Contingency Planning
Guitarists are great optimists, but in our technology-fueled world, you need a backup plan.
According to a recent major motion picture, Noah, the animals entered the ark two by two. The logic of this obviously stems from the desire to continue the various species (irrespective of the consequences of a remarkably diminished gene pool). I’ve always thought it might have been wiser to have a few backup sets. Perhaps they did and it was simplified for ease of storytelling. The terms “two by two” does have a nice ring to it….
Let’s talk about contingencies—planning ahead so you can ensure the continuation of your tone under catastrophic flood conditions. Actually no, not catastrophic flood conditions, but the sorts of adverse circumstances that will inevitably hit you as a gigging guitarist.
As guitarists we’re members of that larger family group—musicians—who in turn are part of the supergroup known as artists. Speaking in very generalized terms, there are some traits that seem to come with artistic leanings. For instance, we do have a tendency for extremes, from moderate leaps to the full-blown mania of folks in our flock who are afflicted with bipolar disorder. This inclination towards extremes can be a wonderful catalyst for creativity. The chicken-versus-egg conversation has been played out here on many occasions: Does our craziness drive us to create art or does our art drive us crazy?
So we tend to be risk-takers, which serves us well when it comes to things like improvising, but can you imagine how Jimi’s solos would’ve sounded if he had approached with the risk-averse headspace of a financial planner? Yuck. Hideously yuck. Where risk-taking doesn’t serve us well is in things like forward planning and ensuring we have contingencies for when things don’t work out. State of the Stomp is way too small a space and your humble author is way too underqualified to comment on the larger ramifications of this as it applies to “all things.” I can, however, talk about contingencies for your tone.
Worst-case scenario: You’re playing a packed-out gig, it comes time for your big solo and suddenly: nothing. Silence. What do you do? While kicking the amp over and embedding the guitar in a nearby drummer might seem like a good idea at the time, sonically it’s never going to satisfy. What you need to do is get back online as soon as possible. Having a contingency plan here is a great idea. The first question you need to ask yourself is: “What’s the bare minimum I can get by on, soundwise?” If it’s just a guitar plus an amp, do it. Unplug any pedals and run straight into the amp. Get through the set and then work on rejuvenating your pedalboard in the break.
This reveals one of the best contingencies a working player can have—a backup amp. Because what if you unplug from the pedals, and jack straight into the amp but there’s still no sound? Looking at pro rigs you will often see several amplifiers. Very rarely are all of these are used simultaneously. Chances are that one (or more) of those additional amps are there as a backup. Every major artist I’ve visited backstage has had several backup amps, because when you’re playing to stadiums you cannot afford to have a catastrophic flood, er, I mean failure, onstage.
For smaller gigs, I personally use a wonderful 20-watt vintage Jansen 6/20 amplifier that was made in New Zealand in 1964. I also travel with a head version of the same amp as a backup. Having said this, you don’t necessarily need to go out and purchase another 1968 plexi head for your weekly local bar gig. There are some cool little über-compact solid-state amps on the market now that can fit in your cable bag. Sure, they may not be as tuneful as your valve-laden glory box, but they’ll get you through. In addition to the amp, there are always smaller items to consider, like spare cables, spare power supplies for pedalboards, spare pedals (for effect-critical songs or players) and obviously, spare guitars. Too many of you will think this all seems to be utter common sense. But many of our ilk have a default setting of extreme optimism. Which is great when contemplating the future of humanity or considering the morality of your bandmates, but may not be so helpful when you’re playing a sold-out show and your gear (which you were confident would be solid and help you kill it) goes down, and you’re left standing there with no sound.So, to summarize. 1. Bring spares of everything that you could imagine you might need. 2. Think about the bare minimum that you need to keep playing and have access to that easily available. (For example, no hardwired cables from guitar to pedalboard that require eight minutes and the removal of multiple screws to release.) 3. Repeat: Bring spares. Until next time, my optimistic rock-and-roller siblings, be well, be safe, and be happy!