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Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 8 - Showtime!

The audiovisual spectacle of a Rock show is something to remember for the fans. Under ideal circumstances, this explosion of energy causes a collective uplift for all those people watching. The adrenaline rush set off by the light show and the loud music is also gripping the band and their crew. This adrenaline rush is what many of us backliners thrive on. This feeling can work like a drug: Once you’ve felt this rush firsthand you want to feel it every day. You work toward this climax each day, but once the tour is over you’re left stranded, wishing for it all to continue. On tour you get your daily dose of adrenaline, but you can’t stay on this “high” for the whole time, your body has to relax as well. Touring is a very draining business – both mentally as well as physically – because of the extremes you’re going through every day.

The crew and the band have one prime objective – to put on a great show for the fans. The front-of-house soundman doesn’t want to hear a single note coming off the stage, while the intro tape is rolling. The guitarist might find it extremely hard to resist the urge to check if his guitar and amp are really working. You can see his fingers twitching every ten seconds or so. If he really must do it, advise him to give his guitar a very quiet, palm-muted chug or two. If he went for a ringing power chord he would destroy the magic moment for the fans, and the FOH-guy would throw a fit.

I feel I’m being sucked into an adrenaline-fuelled vortex. I keep my fingers crossed, and hope, that the rig will work smoothly. Right now I could use all the rabbit’s foots and lucky charms in the world! There is not such thing as a margin of error for the first song of a show. There’s nothing worse than to start a show, only to discover that one of the instruments of the band (or even worse, the vocalist) can’t be heard. My heart races and my eyes constantly jump from one piece of the rig to the next. The last bars of the intro tape, the band’s on stage – will everything go as planned? Even the most-seasoned guitar tech will be close to a heart-attack at this very moment, his heart in his mouth, wishing for the best…

Band techs usually spend the first two numbers of a show watching “their” artist closely for any hints at a problem. When the artist tells you everything is OK – usually with a wink or a nod – it is time to start breathing again. A sigh of relief. The crew starts to relax a little bit: The instruments and backline work as they should, so we can enter the maintenance phase.

Don’t startle the tech

The crew are really concentrated and wired, especially at the start of the show. If you approach a guitar tech during the first few minutes of a show, he will think that there’s a problem with any of the equipment. Don’t bother the technician by asking him for an artist’s pleck, or by enquiring the way to the nearest bathroom. The response could be less than polite. The guitar tech is focussed fully on the technical aspects of the show. He wants to make sure his client has a trouble-free gig. Ten minutes into the show and the roadie starts to relax visibly, sending non-verbal messages that he is approachable again.

The guitar technician’s role during a show

Depending on the band you work with, as well as the size of their crew, a guitar technician’s range of responsibilities can differ greatly. Some guitarists depend on their tech do switch amp channels and/or effects, while in other cases your main job can be to watch the show eagle-eyed for any sign of trouble.

One guitar or several?

Some artists need a number of different instruments to get all the authentic tones off their record. Often these guitars are equipped with different types of pickups and even kept in many different tunings. In these cases there will be a number of guitar changes in the course of the evening. Depending on how hectic, uplifting or stressful a show is for your client, he (or she) may not necessarily remember all the procedures you have agreed on for changing guitars. Try to keep up eye contact, so you can gauge, whether you will have to change things around a bit.

The guitar tech is responsible for keeping all instruments in tune, as well as making sure swapping guitars is a fast and smooth process. It only takes a couple of songs, or so, for a guitar’s tuning to drop noticeably, unless the artist retunes himself between songs. If “your” guitarist keeps his tuning in check, the temperature of the strings will assimilate to their surroundings and eventually settle. The instrument will most likely stay in tune for rest of the evening, because its temperature will stay unchanged once it has been played for a while.

The artist may even switch to completely different instruments, like, say, an electric piano or an Indian tanpura (aka tamboura), for certain songs in the show. The tech is there to make sure any changeovers run smoothly, and that there are no annoying pops, bangs or crackles whenever an instrument is plugged in.

More than one guitar tech

If you work for a band where each guitarist has his (or her) own tech, it opens up different possibilities for what the techs can do. The artist may decide to hand over all amp- and effect-switching duties over to the tech, which would entail placing the effects and/or controllers in the technician’s booth. Very often, though, chances are squandered, and techs left to light cigarettes or get drinks from backstage.

When an artist starts to twiddle

Sometimes a guitarist may have trouble hearing himself on stage. Most of these situations can be rectified by giving the tech, or better still, the monitor mixer a clear sign. Some artists take matters in their own hands, though. They simply stroll over to their amplifier and turn up the volume themselves. This creates grave problems for the FOH-mixer, who suddenly has to deal with shifting goalposts, instead of the carefully-adjusted signal levels created during soundcheck.

Some old hands couldn’t care less about the mixer, and happily twiddle around with their amplifier’s controls. In extreme cases this behaviour might even lead to the front-of-house mixer having to mute the guitar channel in the PA. This in turn leads to the guitar being heard only in the first few rows in the front.

Keeping notes

The crew tries to do the best job possible for the band and keeps on fine-tuning the live sound while the tour goes on. If something unusual happens during a show, it is advisable to keep pad and paper at hand and write the incident down. This makes it much easier to remember what happened during next day’s soundcheck. There’s always the possibility that something even worse might happen later during the same gig, and unless you keep notes, chances are that the smaller problem will only be remembered, when it happens again during the next show.

A well-trained, professional crew will compare their notes after the show and look for solutions as a team. An often reoccurring problem are signal level jumps – real or perceived ones – in guitar and keyboard signals. Often these problems are caused by the different acoustic fingerprints of different venues and/or stage materials, which cause bumps or holes in the frequency spectrum.

A smartphone could well serve as your means of note-keeping. You should inform your artist, though, so he doesn’t think your surfing the Internet during the show. Keeping an old-school pen and a pad of paper handy might even be the easier solution. Besides, your “analogue” memory may even work better, when you write down things by hand instead of tapping them into a phone.

Don’t look away

Keep at least one eye on the stage the whole time during the show. Even if your mind goes completely blank, try at least to look like you’re following proceedings closely.

If you let your attention wander off and maybe exchange a few words with some locals, chances are that Murphy’s Law will strike and something disastrous will happen on stage. Even while I am preparing the next guitar for action in my little corner of the world, I keep all my sensors tied to the show.

Stay focussed

When things are running smoothly and the audience cheers in delight it’s all too easy to become complacent and let your mind wander off. Maybe you’re already thinking of the post-gig party, where you imagine yourself spraying a couple of laughing girls with a champagne shower.

It’s easy to let one’s concentration slip and trail off into a daydream, but you should force yourself to stay in the moment. I try to keep my wits up, get rid of the daydream, and focus on the here and now. I try to stay half a step ahead of what’s going on at the moment. I keep myself sharp by trying to figure out different ways of solving potential signal routing problems, even before they occur.

Ironically, this makes me miss a moment when my client would have needed my assistance. His towel isn’t where it should be, so he needs a new one. Luckily, I had a towel stashed away for occasions such as this. I place the towel on the drum riser ready for “my” artist.

A broken string

The most common duty of a guitar tech is to exchange instruments if the artist breaks a string. When this happens try to keep your cool. Nervous fumbling will only lead to things taking longer. When our adrenaline- and sweat-drenched guitarist arrives in your corner and demands a new battle-axe, the technician should always stay calm and collected.

Try to handle changeovers in style. Whenever “his” artist breaks a string, the tech signals him that he is on top of things, and about to have a new guitar ready this very moment. A well-prepared tech knows all the songs on the band’s setlist, and knows the best spots in each number for a quick guitar swap.

Good spots are usually places such as re-intros or quiet bridges, or any other parts where a missing guitar could well be part of the original arrangement.

First you have to take the guitar with the broken string to safety. Then you pull the new guitar’s strap straight, and keep it that way on your way to the artist, to prevent the strap from twisting. Depending on what type of procedure you’ve agreed on earlier, you either hang the guitar over your client’s shoulder or hand the instrument over. Remember to keep the strap straight at all times.

Don’t dwell on things

Even when I mess up something, I try not to keep dwelling on my mistake. It’s bygones. If you keep mulling over your mistakes, you will drag yourself down unnecessarily. Yes, it’s a stupid thing that I have missed the “towel moment”, but I tell myself that I’m as good as the next tech, despite this little slip. I concentrate on the upcoming cue and keep focussed on the now!

When the artist loses it

Not every show will go as planned, and the guitar tech is the first who will get to deal with the blowback. Artists deal with stressful situations in many different ways.

The best type of boss for a guitar technician is the seasoned and stoic pro, who doesn’t let minor disasters derail him. He keeps on smiling and chatting friendly with the crowd, while he waits for his tech to deal with the broken string or the rattling amp. Very often the audience doesn’t even realize that this isn’t all part of the show.

The other extreme is the guy who completely loses it, whenever things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes perfectly good guitars are smashed and the expletives are flying. Some artist might even see it fit to denounce his technician, telling everybody in the audience about the trouble with the equipment. Actually, this is rather unnecessary. The fans have come to have a good time, and many of them wouldn’t notice anything untoward, unless the problem is pointed out to them in big, bold letters.

As long as your client doesn’t become physically aggressive, you shouldn’t put too much weight on his reactions. Try to stay focussed on solving the problem in the best way possible, and try not to let your client’s adrenaline-fuelled abusive language hurt you. Even if you feel the musician has crossed a line, you should still finish the show and sleep it over. Maybe things look better in the morning.

The artist’s condition 

The show will go on, regardless of whether the artist has a temperature, an upset stomach, or a serious hangover. Some musicians might even choose to go on stage drunk. Some of the quieter guys do become much more outgoing after a couple of stiff ones. If a shy recluse suddenly turns into a big-talking blabbermouth, chances are the motor behind this change is alcohol. Drunks like to chatter on, even in the middle of a gig.

If the technician has a penchant for mixing drinks he could impress his boss with a cool cocktail. A drunken guitarist is more interested in staying drunk than in the minutiae of his guitar tone.

But if the friendly banter should continue all through the show, don’t go along with it. Some techs like to drink a can of beer during the show for relaxation. I, myself, don’t drink alcohol before or during the gig, because it would make me vulnerable to accusations. If something goes wrong and I cannot solve the problem, people are quick to point out that “the tech was too drunk to handle the situation”. It’s much easier to defend your position after a foul-up, if you stand in front of the entourage without your breath smelling of alcohol.

Is your artist a “tuner”? (Nudge, nudge, say no more…)

There are situations when retuning your guitar onstage can be necessary, but very often a player simply “hides” from the public “behind” his tuner. You take a quick look at the tuning, because it’s so easy nowadays. Some seasoned players only check their tuning if there’s a problem in the whole band’s sound. This is also a question of personal style, but I would advise you to step onstage to play the show, and not to tune all the time.

Most guitar veterans have grown up with having to tolerate a couple of “fruity moments” of not perfectly tuned guitars. Due to the quality and availability of in-ear monitoring, minute changes in pitch are now much easier to notice than ever. But this type of neurotic focus on exact pitch doesn’t necessarily make for a better onstage sound. When a guitar is amplified to fill a large club – or even a sports arena – microscopic details in tuning and intonation are often completely negated by a venue’s reverb, resonances and reflections.

From the audience’s point of view, watching a musician tune his instrument only very seldom bears any entertainment value. Some players use each guitar only for a couple of songs and change to another instrument, once the tuning starts to drift. Others play on with a wonky guitar without a care in the world. Often it’s the attitude which makes a band and their performance work, and not so much their well-tuned instruments. Some guitarists  spend their time in-between numbers doing anything else than checking their tuning. Then there are other players who might request a new instrument even before the show has started, because the first guitar hadn’t been tuned to their exacting specifications. Some artists don’t even know what a tuner looks like, and even if they did they’d use it only once during the show – right before the encores.

Where do you put the tuner?

Some guitarists like to keep their tuner right in front of their stack, allowing them to do their tuning away from the spotlight, while the singer talks to the crowd. This is a good idea when it comes to the look of a show, but places a few additional demands on the layout of the signal path.

If the guitarist uses a pedalboard at the front of the stage, you will need to hook up the tuner pedal’s power supply and signal input to the board. A workable way is to use two tuners. The first one is integrated into the pedalboard, ready to be used as a mute switch, too. Then you use the first tuner’s second output (are you still with me?) to connect the signal to the second tuner, placed in front of the backline. The second tuner can be left running the whole time, as it isn’t actually in the ‘board’s signal path, allowing the guitarist to even check his (or her) tuning in the middle of a song.

Sometimes tuning can also be dependent on a band’s style. If a band is doing their show dressed up as monsters, or as wizards clad in white, it might look somewhat humorous to see them tuning their instruments like mere mortals.

No pops or crackles, please!

I can’t stress enough the importance of remembering to mute the signal, whenever you change guitars. Don’t count on the artist to remember to mute his signal in the heat of the moment. If the technician is close to the amp he can simply pull out the input plug to make sure there won’t be any annoying, loud pops. Once the guitar cable has been plugged into the guitar you can simply return to the amp and reinsert the input plug.

If you use several guitars with just one guitar cable you should train your client to always mute his signal, unplug the guitar and keep the guitar lead in his hand throughout the changeover. It’s probably easiest to do it like this: The guitarist takes off the guitar he has played until now. The technician takes the guitar with one hand, while he hands the new guitar over using his other hand. If necessary, he helps the artist to put the strap on. All the while, the guitarist has kept hold of the signal lead, which he finally plugs into the new guitar. Once he’s plugged in he unmutes the signal, and the show continues.

This operation is easy to handle, but you should rehearse it thoroughly beforehand. Luckily, humans tend to learn quickly. Rehearse you own style of changeover a few times during the soundcheck to let the whole procedure sink into your client’s muscle memory.

Where do you put up shop?

If your job is to take care of more than one guitarist, you will have to decide on which side of the stage to put up your workspace. Usually, the tech will set up nearer to the more demanding – or more important (for the sound of the band) – of the two guitarists. If there are plenty of guitar changes during a show, you will have to work out a strategy in advance. You could place a guitar stand in front of the other guitarist’s amp riser, and already place the next guitar needed in the stand during the song before the swap. It should stay in tune for a while, regardless. The second guitarist can then handle his guitar change himself, while you help the guitarist on your side of the stage with his instrument.

Walk, don’t run

Never, ever run on stage – ever! If there’s a technical glitch during the show, chances are only the crew will hear it clearly in their in-ears. The best way to draw a crowd’s attention to a problem is to run around on stage like a madman. Try to draw the least possible amount of attention to what you, the technician, do. Walk over swiftly, but calmly, to where you surmise the problem to be coming from. If at all possible, try to find suitable routes to take behind the backline, well before soundcheck, so you don’t need to shuffle about in the glare of the spotlights and in front of the backdrop during the show.

When to enter the stage

Usually a tech tries to stay in the wings, regardless of what the audience might throw onto the stage. The two biggest exceptions to this rule are (plastic) bottle caps and CDs in plastic cases, which pose a severe risk of injury to your client. These things are more slippery than a banana peel onstage and can very easily lead to very nasty falls. The crew should try and keep an eye out for those, and kick them under the drum riser or off the back of the stage.

Some bands insist that no member of the crew enter the stage during the show, ever. This is most often the case with bands who rely on a highly choreographed and theatrically staged show, where a goofy-looking guy trundling onto stage would ruin the looks of the production completely.

Whenever I have to enter the stage to approach the artist I will tap him on the back once, so he will know I’m standing right behind him. The last thing a technician wants is to be knocked unconscious by a guitar headstock smacked right into his face. Once I’ve finished my job, I tap my client twice on the back, as a signal that I’m leaving the stage.

Start to pack once the show starts

Technicians start packing some of their stuff already once the show has got off to a proper start. If a guitar, a special part of the equipment, or some bulky tool or add-on is only used for the start of the show, you can clean it, pack it up, and maybe even send it off to the loading bay, once it isn’t needed anymore. Doing it this way will save you a lot of time after the gig. Naturally, you should keep all you’re doing sufficiently low-key to avoid distracting your clients, but if you’re clever you will have managed to pack virtually all of your tools before the last note of the evening has rung out.

I can still remember questioning the wisdom of packing your tools away during the show – it felt rather risky. But, actually, experience has taught me that the chances for a complete technical foul-up during the last two choruses of the last number are less than minuscule.

Where shall I start?

I begin packing by taking all drink bottles and cans, as well as my personal trash bag off to the garbage container next to the stage. Then I pack up all electronic devices, like headphone amps, for example.

Next I will put away my talkback-mic. If it is plugged into the stage box next to the drum riser, I could use the mic one last time to ask the drum technician to pull the mic’s plug. Then I will pull its cable across the floor to my corner and put the mic in the road case.

I will only take off my in-ear monitors during the last chorus of the final song. I will replace the IEMs with normal ear plugs, take off the receiver, and put it into its travelling bag, and then into the case. Same with the monitors and their cables.

I will check the tuning on the spare guitar for the very last time, and then put the tuner and all my own cables into my metal briefcase and send it off in the direction of the loading zone. The last guitar will be at the ready until the last number turns into the home straight. Then I can put this guitar in its case, too. If the guitarist breaks a string now, he will finish the final twenty seconds one string short.

The end of the set

The last song is over. The band and their crew get ready for encores. The band gets a short breather backstage, while the crew wipes the stage clean of sweat and spilled drinks.

Some bands leave the stage with a big bang – the guitar has been placed in the hands of a couple of fans for a few seconds, before being banged against the speaker cabinet, while the bass feeds back on the floor and the singer’s microphone is thrown behind the drum riser.

The crew tries to get the backline back into its original shape for the encore, unless the band has requested otherwise. The string instruments are tuned and the vocal mics are checked.

Take your time

The tour manager has returned to his position at the foot of the steps to the stage. He will keep the band waiting there, until the crew gives him the sign that everything’s ready. Try not to rush. If it has been a good show the fans are going to wait a few moments more. They can see the crew is getting the stage ready for the return of their heroes, so they won’t leave. Nothing looks sillier than a roadie crawling across the stage on a clean-up mission, while the artist is already returning into the limelight.

For the band, the seconds between the end of the main set and the start of the encore seem like eternity. If they smoke that’s not such a big problem – just have a ciggie, a lighter, some towels and a few cool drinks ready, and the wait won’t feel half as bad. Next stop: The encore.

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