I get often asked how I prepare for an Airbag show. How do I set up the pedals and amp? How do I keep the guitar tuned throughout a performance? Many of you have probably a lot more stage experience than I but Iâ€™ll try to share some tips and â€œritualsâ€ that work for me.
When we rehearse for a show we usually start off by agreeing on the setlist and then we run through the songs to get a sense of the feel and flow of it all. This is a chance for me to try different pedals, sounds and guitars. I mainly stick to the setup I used on the recorded versions but as time goes by you want to adjust to the overall sound of the band. Perhaps weâ€™ve decided to change the mood in a song or the setlist is leaning towards an overall heavier sound.
A small intimate club usually calls for warm mellow sounds and I tend to get somewhat overly bluesy with the Telecaster. Bigger venues and outdoor gigs usually demands a slightly heavier tone with more aggressive settings on the gain pedals, EMG pickups and sometimes even a Les Paul.
Things to pack:
– Spare tuner for backstage.
– Enough spare cables of different lengths.
– Spare patch cables for the pedal board.
– Plenty of spare 9V batteries.
– Spare power adaptors and itâ€™s also wise to bring a couple of pads as well. Smaller clubs and festival shows never have enough outlets. Also make sure that you bring the right plugs for earth if you travel abroad.
– Plenty of spare strings. You never know when you need to restring and it can be wise to make sure youâ€™ve covered the clumsy rhythm guitarist as well.
– Always keep a box with the basic tools: screw drivers of different shapes and sizes (make sure they cover all your needs), Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife (scissors, cutter etc), gaffer tape, string winder and Allen Wrench kit (remember the small gauge for the bridge saddles). If youâ€™re touring for long periods at a time you may also want to bring a soldering iron, tin, spare battery pads for your vintage pedals, a couple of pedal switches etc.
I also pack a couple of spare pedals in case some on the board stops working or if Iâ€™m simply in mood for something different. A spare overdrive, distortion and delay should cover the very basics. I choose to bring these as spares rather than to clutter the board.
Looking at the stage Iâ€™m always to the drummerâ€™s right. Not having to bicker over whoâ€™s where saves a lot of time and you get to keep to your self concentrating on the rigging. I start out by looking around in my corner. Whatâ€™s the best place for the amp? Will the pedal board fit in front of the monitor?
As you know I have a fairly basic setup. One amp stack, a pedal board and usually no more than two guitars. I like to keep the amp at armâ€™s length but thatâ€™s usually not a problem as weâ€™re no stadium bandâ€¦ yet. I also like to have the cabinet slightly off the ground. Iâ€™m using a customized stand thatâ€™s about 50cm high. On a big stage itâ€™s really not a problem but on a smaller stage you probably have the amp 1,5-3m away and the sound goes right between your legs. I play loud and use the amp as a monitor so by raising it slightly I get the sound right where I want it. The pedal board is placed between me and my front monitor.
A great tip for smaller venues is to angle your speaker cab slightly off axis from the mixing desk. This is important because one thing is for sure â€“ no sound engineer can stand loud guitars and heâ€™ll turn you down in the PA. If heâ€™s positioned right on axis all heâ€™ll hear is a knife cutting straight into his head so be sure to avoid this. Iâ€™ve had sound assistants coming up to me in the middle of a song screaming in my ear that I need to turn it down. Naturally I canâ€™t go into detail right then and there about the importance of volume to get smooth tones from my beloved Big Muff so I gently tell him to fuck off and Iâ€™ll angle the amp even more (or pretend to tweak the controls).
The most important thing you can do and ALWAYS need to do is to make sure that the power outlets youâ€™ll be using are properly grounded. If you have the slightest doubt you should trace the wire to the source or ask the sound engineer for help. NEVER plug your amp or pedal power into a socket thatâ€™s not grounded. This can seriously harm you equipment and worst case kill you. If you travel abroad you must check the voltage and that you have matching ground plugs. Donâ€™t be stupid and cut off any excess plugs but get the right conversion. You may want to live the rock n roll legend but being electrocuted on stage isnâ€™t cool!
Once settled the first thing I do is to switch on the amp and let it heat as much as possible in bypass mode. A cold amp sounds flat and dark and you may end up spending the whole soundcheck tweaking your pedals only having to readjust them once the amp is warm. Itâ€™s also very important that the speaker cable is connected to the cab and head. This is easy to forget during a stressful rigging but not doing so it can seriously harm your amp and burn the transformers.
The pedal board needs extra attention. Be sure to check every patch cable and jacks. Pedal boards tend to get a lot of beating during a flight so even if everything looks OK there might be some bad connections. Check all the adaptors and power jacks as well. You donâ€™t want to experience the horrific minutes when you hastily have to go trough every bit of wire in the middle of a show. Itâ€™s happened to me and it was pure hell. Smaller clubs might be cramped and itâ€™s important that you try to avoid mixing instrument cables with power cables that run across the stage. Try also not to use the same power circuit as the light rigs. This may cause a lot of buzzing and hissing.
Keeping the guitar tuned throughout a show may be a challenge. Most of us donâ€™t have the luxury of Phil Taylor so we have to care for the guitars ourselves. Nothing does more damage to your guitar than the flightâ€™s storage room. What happens is that the guitar will be exposed to extreme temperature changes from -50C to possibly well over 30C when the stage lights are lit â€“ and this often during just a few hours. This may result in a neck completely out of shape and the guitar will be impossible to keep tuned. DONâ€™T solve this by adjusting the truss rod on the spot. This can do more harm than good. Wait until you are home in a controlled environment or simply let your guitar doctor look at it. ALWAYS bring your guitar with you into the flight (at least your favoured one) and try always to bring at least two guitars in case something happens.
Assuming that you manage to restring and intonate properly (see this in depth feature for tips) itâ€™s really not much more you can do than to make sure you have a tuner on your board. Once the guitars are out of their cases I stretch the strings and tune up then let them settle for awhile. A couple of minutes before the show starts I do the same exercise â€“ pull the strings, wiggle the trem arm and tune up. I rarely need to tune more than 2-3 during a 90min show.
Find your tone
Once the amp is warm and the guitar is tuned itâ€™s time for testing your tones. I usually start with settings the amp and pedals exactly as they were on last rehearsal. I know how they sound in our studio and thatâ€™s a good reference for the needed adjustments. Keep calm and donâ€™t freak out if everything sound like shit. Thatâ€™s normal. Every room, stage and venue will sound different so you will need to make adjustments. Start off with a clean bypassed signal and set the amp as desired. DONâ€™T adjust the pedals until the amp sounds just how you want it. I usually go end up with something like this:
bass 50%, treble 50-60%, mids 40%, presence 60% and the master at about 1/3 of the channel volume (Iâ€™m using a linked input setup with the normal slightly higher than the bright).
I rarely bring my Reeves tube amp when we travel abroad. Itâ€™s a hassle and also very expensive to travel with too much luggage. This means that I have to use something else. The nightmare would be a Marshall solid state (it has happened) but I usually get what I want. You canâ€™t expect the venue to carry vintage Hiwatts or Sound Citys but usually they have a JCM800, Fender Twin or Bassman, Mesa or similar. The best thing you can do is to be prepared. Check in advance what they can offer and donâ€™t be afraid to ask. Promoters are usually very helpful and eager to fulfill every need. If itâ€™s a festival you need to book the amp in advance and if something goes wrong then simply ask one of the other bands if you can borrow one of their amps. If you donâ€™t have much experience with different amps then simply bring your guitar to your local guitar store and spend an afternoon trying a bunch. I always ask for a Mesa/Boogie 50w Rectifier. Most venues carry these and theyâ€™re quite similar to a Hiwatt or Reeves. Next best thing would be a Fender Twin or Bassman.
My experience is that a deep stage has a boomy sound so you might need to lower the bass on the amp and perhaps on some of the pedals. A wide stage tends to sound more open but your tones might appear thin so you may need to adjust the bass and mids accordingly. However, be careful with the settings. Remember that he amp is miced and fed through the PA so what you hear 3-4m away from the amp might be the resonance from the stage and not whatâ€™s actually coming from the amp. A good way to deal with this is to make sure you have a proper monitoring in front of you. Most monitors are usually beaten to death and sound thin and harsh. Theyâ€™re mainly used for vocals but donâ€™t be afraid to ask for some EQ to get the sounds you want.
A great Hendrix/Gilmour trick is to match the volume from the amp and the monitor and use this for controlling sustain and feedback. Find the spot where youâ€™ll be standing for most of the show and communicate with the sound engineer until you have the desired effect. Itâ€™s to check the balance during a song with the other instruments. The idea is that by taking a step back or forward youâ€™ll be able to get just a hair of feedback that you can use for that rich silky smooth sustain. Sometimes you have to force it but when it works all you need to do is to slightly lean towards to monitor and you can feel the guitar starting to come alive. This of course requires that youâ€™re a master at controlling the volume and signal with a volume pedal, guitar volume and your hands.
By now you should be pretty close to what you want. Sometimes you have all the time in the world but on a festival or a warm up gig you might get 10-15mins and it can be a challenge to remember everything you need to do. Try not to stress or compromise. It helps to make prioritized checklist â€“ see below. Once you get this exercise into your blood it makes the whole experience that much easier and enjoyable. And rememberâ€¦ Stay calm if something happens during a show. Donâ€™t shake your head or roll your eyes if you make a mistake and donâ€™t freak out if something breaks down. Remember that you have fans in the audience and if you manage gracefully theyâ€™ll say â€œman, that guitarist is awesome!â€ Rather than â€œoh man, you should have seen his face when the guitar went deadâ€¦â€.
– Things to pack â€“ see list above.
– Research in advance the stage measurements and setup.
– Take the guitar with you on to the plane.
– Arrange your amp and pedal board and angle the speaker cab slightly off axis from the mixing desk
– Switch on the amp to warm it up. Remember to check the ground and that the speaker cable is connected BEFORE you switch it on.
– Check every pedal, patch cable, jack, power source and plug and try to use a different power circuit than the light rig.
– Set the amp first and then the pedals. Remember to let the amp warm up first.
– Tune up for the sound check and again before your show starts.
– Keep a pack of strings with you at all times.
Some guitarists are constantly tweaking their amp and pedals during a show. I do it all the time and Iâ€™d rather do that than to clutter my board with too many pedals with different settings. Also, the sound up on the stage tends to change when more people enter the venue or get closer to the stage. You might also want du adjust your tones accordingly to the overall sound and mood of the band. Perhaps the drummer is pushing the songs towards a heavier tone or perhaps the audience inspires to a lot of improvisation and you want to add a bit more delay and modulation.
Be careful though and remember that your ears get tired. Donâ€™t get tempted to increase the treble or volume just because you canâ€™t hear properly. Itâ€™s the sound coming out of the PA thatâ€™s important. Iâ€™m lucky to have a manager that knows my tones and how important they are to me and heâ€™ll signal when something isnâ€™t right. Iâ€™m also not afraid to communicate with the sound engineer during a show to get the proper monitoring.
Good luck with the show!