tech tales

Eric Clapton’s former guitar tech recounts four intimate highlights of his 30-year career with Slowhand.

After a long and amazing career as Eric Clapton’s guitar tech, which sadly ended in 2009, I’m often asked about my favorite moments, shows, events, etc. There are so many great memories to recount—each is amazing in its own way, someday I will write a book! Until then, here are some things that I have not revisited for a long time. Feel free to add requests in the comments section for things you’d like to hear about from a behind-the-scenes perspective.

Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Bash at Madison Square Garden, 1993
Dylan, George Harrison, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young—so many of my heroes in one room. It was so surreal just being at rehearsals for this show. Everyone who came through the room was awesome in their own way, you couldn’t move without running into a legend: Chrissie Hynde, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Eddie Vedder, Ron Wood, Lou Reed, Booker T., Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, G.E. Smith, Jim Keltner, and of course that chap Clapton, too.

Read MoreShow less

Stress no more about tuning acoustic guitars in loud venues. You can make this tool with extra parts you have lying around.

So you're trying to tune an acoustic guitar while the band is playing full throttle, huh? The roar of a PA shakes the body of an acoustic to a point where it's really hard to get a true reading on a tuner.

Undersaddle pickups are the most commonly used, including some with microphone blending capabilities. If you are using the blending models, the volume you're trying to achieve determines whether or not you can use the microphone that's attached to the soundboard. The larger the venue, the more you'll dial the microphone to a bare minimum and use a soundhole cover. This will help with tuning in loud rooms, but it can still be tricky.

I can remember some of my earliest gigs where I would be scrambling down to the last second before having to run a guitar out onstage because the needle of my tuner would be jumping all over the place. The guitar's pickup would hear the body vibrating from the volume level of the PA as opposed to the string I was plucking. This, of course, confused the tuner. At one point I had a small, rack-mounted mixer that helped boost the signal and also allowed me to use the headphone output to hear the guitar before passing it on to my artist. It worked, but it definitely needed lots of improvement.

Aside from mixers, I've seen both techs and players use things like compressors or even an overdrive pedal to help boost the signal to their tuners by turning the gain down and the output wide open. These options work fairly well, but about eight years ago I stumbled onto something that would forever change the way I tuned during a live show.

I was at a gig in Maryland and got into an exchange of tips and how-tos with the headliner's tech. He offered to let me use this little gadget he had rigged up to see if it would help me as much as it had helped him. The idea was simple: solder the leads of a humbucker to a short guitar cable with a 1/4" male end on the opposite end. Plug the 1/4" into your tuner and hold the humbucker over the soundhole. The idea? A humbucker hears no ambient noise. It only hears a plucked string and does not care anything about what the body of an acoustic guitar is doing. The biggest difficulty I had that night was learning to hold it while having a finger free to pluck a string.

This simple idea made tuning in high volumes so easy, I actually stood in front of the PA and tuned, just to see if I could do it. It worked beautifully with no problems whatsoever. The needle held true to the pitch of the string and never once did it jump around violently like it would have if the guitar had been plugged directly in.

I'm sure most of you have a drawer or bag full of pieces and parts that you've long forgotten about. Try looking there first, but if you can't find an old humbucker try your local music store. The repair guy there will more than likely have something laying around on his bench that he'll sell you at a good price. The best thing to get is a bridge pickup, and the hotter the better. The cable length is up to you. All of mine have been about 2 feet long, which proved to be plenty. After you solder the cable, zip tie the cable to the mounting screw lugs of the pickup for a strain relief. I always wrap a single layer of tape around the coils, but this isn't neccessary, I just do it to protect the wiring and cover any sharp edges on the base of the pickup. That's all there is to it. Plug the 1/4" end into the tuner and hold it over the strings. I promise you will get a truer signal than plugging in and tuning will be faster and more accurate.

Now for the warnings. First, if you find a very high output humbucker you'll need to be careful as to how close you hold it to the strings. A strong magnetic pull can affect the way the string oscillates and cause the string to go sharp. Try to hold the humbucker at least an inch above the string to avoid this. Second, if you decide to use this with electric guitars, try not to hold it directly above the guitar's pickups for the same reasons described above.

If you're a player and you tune your own instruments you can use this device as well. Mount the humbucker to something that will hold it at the same height of the soundhole of your guitar while you have it strapped on. This is especially easy if your acoustic has a volume control. Simply turn the volume down, walk up to the humbucker, tune, and you're right back into the next song.

Chad''s at his wit''s end with a noise issue, when the teeny-tiny solution presents itself.

In a perfect world, running all of your gear off of a unit that's supplying good, clean, consistent power and having everything on a common ground would eliminate noise issues. Unfortunately, from venue to venue and room to room there will still be a time you'll have grief from something not being 'properly earthed.' I'm thankful that for the last couple of years, my main use for those little gray ground lift adaptors has been to make up for the lack of rubber feet under one of my amps. Although, on things like TV appearances where I typically just have a few stompboxes instead of my rack, I still may have to lift an amp or two so that they'll play well with others—no big deal.

As I mentioned last column, we most recently had Brad’s rack rebuilt by David Friedman of Racksystems. Now for quite a while after having the rack rebuilt, we were noise free. Even when we quite a bit of gain dialed in on the amps, they wouldn't be any noisier than if they were sitting idle with no input.

Then one day, out of nowhere, the noise came. There seemed to be no getting rid of it no matter what I tried. The cleaner sounds had ground buzzes, and the distortion patches were all but unusable. Even the wah pedal would vary from not very good to terrible. As I'm sure you all have experienced, ground problems are some of the worst to track down. They seem to come from anywhere, and it feels like the slightest little thing will cause them. I'm not the type of person who just accepts things and moves along—I have to fix it. I just about drove myself crazy looking for an answer to why my brand new rig was noisier than the old one. I was searching at every show from the time my gear was set up until soundcheck with no luck. Nothing worked, nothing helped and I successfully shocked myself three times.

There had been no change in the rack whatsoever, so I could rule that out. I tried ground lifting each amp and the rack one at a time with no luck. To make sure I wasn't overlooking something, I talked through every step of my entire routine with our monitor engineer Mark Gould. I remember telling him that I had even tried lifting the wireless and it either made no difference at all or it was worse. I had just about settled into the idea that there was a cable going bad, and to make it all the worse, that it was somewhere inside of the rack.

Now that I’ve brought up the wireless, I have to address two things. First, the Shure UR4D wireless has a ground lift for each channel on the backside of the receiver—and flipping this switch didn't help either. Second, I have another UR4D receiver for my acoustic guitars mounted in my workbox. Both electric and acoustic wirelesses share a pair of paddle antennas by way of Shure's antenna combiner. This was the only connection that these two wirelesses have, and even breaking that caused no improvement.

By a sheer stroke of genius, Mark took the two acoustic wireless output cables and disconnected them from the sub snake. Just like that, my rig was dead quiet! Two cables that have absolutely no direct contact with my guitar rig had caused me more grief than I've ever endured in my ten years of touring.

Now this is where it gets interesting. There was nothing wrong with these mic cables at all. The problem was elsewhere. Have you ever, in an effort to keep noise levels down, grounded your fourth pin on an XLR connector? You jump your ground wire over to the fourth lug, which is generally left open and sometimes it can quiet down a noisy mic line. These had been wired this way from the factory, I'm certain for the same reason, but none of us had ever dreamed two centimeters of wire would cause such a massive ground loop through my amps. Just like a vasectomy, one quick snip made all the difference in the world. Thank you again Mark for all your help!

So remember, next time you have some noise issues and you've exhausted every avenue you can think of... it may not be your rig.