Tips For Touring Guitarists
When on tour, there is often an illusion of time. If you look at the tour book (a document handed out right before a tour that details hotels, travel, load ins, sound checks, amenities, etc.), it often appears you’ll have more time to soundcheck or run songs.
You may look at the day sheet and see you load in at 3, soundcheck at 4 and play at 8. On paper that’s five hours of wiggle room. Should be enough to tighten up some arrangements in theory. But, those five hours often get compressed in ways you don’t expect.
Unless you’re traveling with full crew, there are a lot of variables that can squeeze your soundcheck and rehearsal time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve loaded in to find the sound crew just getting there. This can be somewhat unpredictable and frustrating.
Other times, I may be playing a festival and you don’t even get a soundcheck. You simply get a line check right before you play.
I’ve also showed up to soundcheck at a venue where it’s open to the public as they serve food. Not the situation you’re going to experiment a lot in.
This can really put a wrinkle in your plans if trying out sounds and developing new parts.
Also, when you’re on the road, you tend to be moving between spaces a lot more. You simply don’t get as much time to put the instrument in your hands.
This means working parts out on the road is a challenge. You may have a lot of free time, but not much that can be used constructively.
A few observations I’ve learned about touring, preparing material and developing tones.
1: Pre Production
It’s important to spend as much time as you can preparing. Not just the parts you will play, but the switching of effects and the sounds you’ll use.
You’ll be able to fine tune on a tour. But, if you think you’ll hash it out in soundcheck, you may be in for a real surprise.
Because the reliability of a good soundcheck fluctuates, you can’t depend on the first soundcheck of the tour to be a constructive one.
A few months ago I started a tour. The plan was to meet in the town of the first tour date to rehearse with a newish band. We were cleared to have the venue earlier in the day. However, when we showed up, there was a scheduling conflict and we couldn’t get access to the theater until much later.
Because members of the band were flying in from all over the country, it was important that we played together a bit and hashed some things out.
Even if you all know the parts, you have to play with one another to get a feel for each other’s dynamics. So, here we were partly a new band that had to play a theater show without a rehearsal.
Luckily, everyone in the band was really on their game. We pulled it off because everyone knew they had to. But, we were really hoping for that rehearsal as a musical meet and greet.
For me, this meant I didn’t really have time to test my signal chain and choices of sounds. This is a process that could happen in the course of one hour or so. But, with rushed soundcheck, it can take several gigs.
When touring, this is more often the case then not. For instance, this week I had a one off in Greenville, SC. It was a festival gig. I knew we weren’t going to get much of a soundcheck. But, I figured we could have a little time to chat the new songs down.
I had to wake up at 4:30am to leave for a 7am flight. There was a transfer on the flight so it took quite a while to get to Charlotte, NC. When we landed, we had to drive to Greenville which was about an hour and half away.
We didn’t roll into Greenville until 4:30pm. I checked in to the hotel and took a half hour nap then went to the 6:15 soundcheck.
Soundcheck happened to be more of a line check in this situation. As far as line checks go, it was a good one. I wasn’t rushed too much. I was able to dial in my tones.
We didn’t really play together though aside from communicating with the monitor person. This means that pretty much the first time we’ll sound like a band is when we hit at 8pm.
Now it was time for dinner. As you could imagine, I was hungry and still tired and still didn’t get a chance to play through any of the songs on the set list.
This was a fairly new gig for me. I know the material. But, almost in a more confident then I should be way. We haven’t played in two weeks and my mind thinks I know this “new” material. But, there’s bound to be some commutation errors.
This is why it’s really important for me to have an hour (half hour at minimum) to be alone and run some of the finer details of the set.
As you can tell, It’s obviously hard to do on the road sometimes. I’m not always going to get that half hour pre show guitar-meditation. There won’t always be space for me to clear my head.
This is why the two days prior to a tour is important. Even if I know the songs for a tour (especially if it’s new) I want to guitar-meditate for a little while each day. Just to catch up like old friends.
I also spend time checking my signal chain and rehearsing pedal switches prior to a tour. In the back of my mind, I always consider I might not get time to trouble shoot at soundcheck. I have to be able to walk in, plug in and get through it.
The Cushy Guitarists Life
It’s not as cushy as some people think. Sure, sometimes you get all the time in the world. But, this is rare. So if you rely on it, you’re going to get stressed out about the show.
I’m not one for assumptions, but this is one place where assuming you’ll have no time is a safe bet.
A Well Designed System for Packing Guitar Gear
It’s good to have a system for setting up and ripping down. Practice your setup. Don’t walk into a festival stage and setup your rig for the first time. Do it several times in your practice space to see not only how long it takes, but what kind of problems you run into.
Is a patch cable occasionally giving you a problem? Are you getting hum? Is your gear disorganized and hard to find?
I have a system with my setup. An order that I always set up and rip down in. This way I’m less likely to forget things.
My order goes:
- 1.Guitars into case
- 2.Guitar Accessories into case (slides, capos, strings, etc…)
- 3.Cables wrapped up and placed in case
- 4.Pedalboard placed in case
Guitars are the most fragile. They always get priority as they at the most risk of damage when crew enters the stage after a set.
Cases for Guitars and Pedalboards
My gear goes into two cases for fly dates. This is because I only fly with one guitar and a pedalboard case.
My pedalboard has dependable power supplies that are silent. In the same Pelican case as my pedalboard I also put my Brown Box. This has become an important tool for me on the road.
Guitar At Your Side
I also put my guitar cables/power cables, extra strings, slides and Nutsuace in pedalboard case as well. Consolidating is key. If you spread cables and gear out to too many bags, it makes it hard for a fast turnaround. Plus, you’re more likely to lose things.
In the past, I’ve done dumb things like put some cables in my suitcase, a few accessories in my mono backpack and some in my pedalboard case. Guess what happened? Well, I would leave my suitcase at the hotel thinking I didn’t need it forgetting a cable. I didn’t win tour MVP on that one!
Other times I put gear in my backpack to also get left at the hotel when I didn’t t think I needed my computer.
Always place the gear you need in cases and bags that ONLY go to the venue. And make it as clean as possible. I have a couple of Pelican cases I use. It comes with breakaway foam. You can create your own compartments.
I can set up my rig in about 5 min if I had to. Sometimes, 10 min if I have multiple guitars. The point being, I know where everything is and how to put it together fast.
Technology Complicates Guitar Setups
This obviously gets more complicated if you’re using an Ableton rig live with controllers. That’s an even more drastic example of needing your setup streamlined. If you have to plug in every device you have every time you get to the stage, you’re going to run into problems.
See if there is a way to have your audio interface and some other devices pre wired in a case. So ideally, you open it up, connect a cable, plug in your computer and controller then go.
Making Notes or a Cheat Sheet
Make sure you have paper and a sharpie. Don’t be afraid to make a cheat sheet or write notes on the set list. Often I only need to make a few notes. Just a little something to kick start my brain with a new set or song. While the sound crew is setting up or your sitting in the van, make some notes.
Some bands will get together 30 minutes before the hit and talk down the set. I like this method a lot. It centers everyone in the same place. But, even when this is routine, I still like to have my guitar alone time to make a few notes.
Locking a Guitar Solo
A lot of the times you won’t really have time to get a feel for your solos in soundcheck. It may take several gigs to find your wings with a solo as the only time you really get to feel it out is in stage.
This tends to be one of the most difficult things to practice at home pre tour. You most often don’t have the luxury of playing along with a recording of the band without the lead guitar.
This can be really challenging. You may spend a lot of time developing a solo only to get onstage and find out it’s not gelling well. I often think of preparing solos before a tour as a solo hypothesis.
To prepare for these situations, I try to leave a back door open. I may practice and prepare a certain style of solo or a framework (link to blog), but I’ll also aquatint myself with a few other options.
This is where knowing what key I’m in and what the chords are can act as a life preserver.
There are tours where I have composed solos to play and other where it’s mostly improvisation. I wouldn’t say one is easier then the other. You could prepare for both and still have to adjust.
When you have to improvise a solo and it doesn’t come together, it can make you feel a little more stranded. Even if a composed solo doesn’t fully work, it at least leaves the impression of organization.
There is a song I’ve been performing on a recent tour. The tune is still new to me and has quite a long improvised guitar solo. It’s not really the kind of thing I can prepare except for having a few mile markers and broad concepts. A lot of it depends on where the band takes it on any given night.
Each night I hold my breath a little. I find that the first 4 bars really sets up the rest of the solo. If it’s starts wobbly, it’s often hard to recover. If I can get centered in the first 4 bars, things are much more likely to settle in.
There are many things that can disrupt that 4 bars or development though. Sometimes, exhaustion can get in your way. For this weeks festival it was much more of a challenge then it was two weeks ago.
Sleep, Concentration and Guitar Playing
Sleeping only a few hours can diminish your concentration. It certainly got the best of me. I was running on about 4 hours of non consistent sleep.
With poor sleep, I find I’m much more likely to recover if I have a little alone time before the gig. But in the case of this weekend, my opportunity for alone time was used for a half hour of sleep.
This is where set list notes come in handy. With my brain not at 100% functionality, notating any loose ends on paper can lend a helping hand.
It’s also a good idea to get your hands on the set list as early as possible. It’s not un-common to get the set list not much earlier then 30 minutes before set time. However, on a first date of a run, or a really difficult travel day, it’s nice to get it at least an hour earlier. You need a little more cushion in these situations.
I hope these tips help you on your next run of gigs.