Every guitaristâ€™s biggest fear is that you turn up at a gig and the rig youâ€™ve borrowed is either complete shit or stone dead. The frustration and desperation flows through your head and veins as you try your best to think of a solution. Nothing kills your inspiration more but there are ways to solve this and get a decent tone for the performance.
Every week Iâ€™ll present a little tip thatâ€™ll hopefully help improve your tone and technique. Please feel to comment and share your experience on the topic.
A few weeks ago I did a show with my band Airbag. Months ahead, we sent a rider with specific requests. Knowing that few venues carry Hiwatts or Reeves, I always ask for a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier with a matching 4×12â€ speaker cabinet. A common choice and a very versatile amp that can produce anything from super clean to snarling metal. If this modest request canâ€™t be met, I can settle for a Fender Bassman (stack or combo), Fender Showman or Marshall JCM800. All of these are well within what I would call acceptable Gilmourish.
Now, you may ask â€œwhy not just bring your own amp?â€ A good question indeed but try bringing a two ton heavy Reeves head and a 4×12 speaker cab with you on a commercial air plane and youâ€™d be paying extra fees â€˜til you drop. After all, most of us arenâ€™t blessed with tour busses and semi-trailers to carry all the stuff. Anyway, bringing your own amps on a weekend tour is usually more hassle than youâ€™d want to experience.
Usually this is no problem. Most venues are more than willing to accommodate any demand. However, this time turned out to be quite a challenge. It started out very promising. We entered the venue right before sound check and there, as requested, stood a Hiwatt right in my corner of the stage. Spot on! However, this was a two channel solid state Maxwatt G200 head. Iâ€™m no snob but Iâ€™m sure I looked rather displeased. At a closer look, the amp was beaten to death and sure enough, the foot switch didnâ€™t work, which meant that the overdrive channel couldnâ€™t be switched off. It didnâ€™t sound all too bad with just the clean signal from the guitar but it was too aggressive with all the pedals.
Hastily and furious, I marched over to the guy in charge and demanded an answer to this outrage. He quickly apologized and like a proud magician, presented a Marshall JCM800. Although a bit too aggressive for my taste, this classic will always deliver. Naturally, I was more than surprised when the amp sounded like it had a severe and deadly cold. Uselessâ€¦
Realizing that the show was hanging by a thread I began to look for the exit and a getaway car but once again, the magician turned up, this time with a Fender Twin. Far from one of my favourite amps but a decent choice nevertheless. Its bright tone and fairly aggressive character demanded some heavy tweaking of my pedals but a good hour later and a pissed off sound technician, I was ready to play.
Now, this was far from being a crisis. The show went really well and I was fairly pleased with my tone, although I had to make constant adjustments along the way. It would have been worse if the guitar went dead during a song or if Iâ€™d been electrocuted due to poor grounding. As long as things work you can always tweak your way out of the problem.
The best way to approach an unfamiliar amp is to stay calm. Donâ€™t freak out but take your time getting to know its tone and features. Obviously, different models will sounds different to each other but an amp identical to what youâ€™re used to may sound quite different as well. Hidden modifications, different tubes, worn out circuits or broken speakersâ€¦ there could be a number of reasons why you need to make sure that the amp is working properly. And, easy to overlook, the fact that youâ€™re playing at an unfamiliar venue will make your guitar and tone sound different to what youâ€™re used to. The size of the stage, its construction, the layout of the whole venue etc will have an impact on your tone. Again, get to know the amp and how it behaves in the specific environment and make the needed adjustments before you dismiss it as being faulty. Read more about how to set up for a show in this feature.
I always start off by plugging the guitar straight into the amp and set it up identical to what I normally use â€“ bass 50%, mids 40%, treble 35%, presence 40% and the master at about 1/3 of the normal volume. This will tell you whether the amp suits your pedals or not. If this sounds similar to what youâ€™re used to, then plug the guitar into the pedal board and test your tones.
Having a typical Gilmour tone and setup in mind, a Marshall JCM800 will probably force you to roll down the gain on your overdrives and distortions. The amp has a lot of headroom but its overall more aggressive character, compared to a Hiwatt, will add to your pedals. A more modern Marshall may also have much more mid range, which can be a challenge for your fuzz and Big Muffs, so you might need to roll down the gain on these and adjust the mids and treble on the amp.
A Fender Bassman, combo or stack, has tons of headroom, so youâ€™re set on the gain. However, the amp is fairly dark, so contrary to a Hiwatt, you might need to increase the treble just a hair. A Fender Showman would require just the opposite. Iâ€™ve always found Fender Twins, Vox AC30 and similar, challenging because they have so much character on their own. In most cases I end up using a slightly more versatile setup consisting of RAT, Tube Screamer, OCD etc, rather than the usual fuzz, Muff and Powerboost. Still, taming the treble and mids on the amp and the gain from your pedals, usually does the job.
If you have to settle with an amp without the needed headroom, or worse, one with a broken channel selector forcing you to use internal gain, then use the ampâ€™s loop channel. This is something I normally advice against, as explained in this feature, but running your modulations and delays through an overdrive channel is not a good idea. This might require some rearranging of your pedal board but a couple of extra cables long enough to reach the amp (which you ALWAYS need to carry), should do the job. Send the first modulation to the amp and return to the last delay.
My best tip for touring is to always bring spare pedals â€“ both for the unlikely event of your favourite Big Muff going silent and for situations were the amp just canâ€™t handle the more demanding pedals like a Big Muff, Tube Driver or vintage fuzz. Perhaps not the most exciting pedals, but a RAT, Tube Screamer, Fulltone OCD, Boss BD2 and similar will always deliver and give you the least amount of hassle. Read more about how prepare for a show or tour in this feature.
Youâ€™re allowed to slap the rider in the sound techâ€™s face and stamp your feet while cursing like mad, after all youâ€™re the lead guitarist and the star of the band but keep in mind that people have paid hard earned money to see you and you owe them youâ€™re best performance. This means that no matter how much your rig stinks, you need to make the best of it. Youâ€™re your own worst critic and most of the people in the audience doesnâ€™t even hear the difference between a Fender and Hiwatt or Big Muff or RATâ€¦ unless thereâ€™s a fellow Gilmourish in the audience :)
Feel free to share your own similar experience or troubleshooting tips!