No matter how much experience you have, the inevitable gear failure is bound to happen at the least opportune time. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve tested your gear at home before you leave. Or how much time you spent in soundcheck making sure your signal path is clean and happy.
A moment will come, perhaps the beginning of your big solo, or your naked intro to a song that you will hear complete silence.
It’s unfortunate, but this is a part of making music. For many of us, we don’t have guitar techs that will run out on stage and enable our backup rig. We’re often gigging with one amp and one pedalboard. So, if something goes wrong, we’re screwed until we trace the problem.
On The Gig
Last night I happened to be playing an intimate show with some renowned artists at the Irish Arts Center in NYC hosted by Pulitzer Prize poet Paul Muldoon. One little known fact abut the Irish Arts Center is that John Lennon bought the building and donated it to become the Irish Arts Center.
It was a pretty heavy gathering of creatives. So obviously I wanted to be on my best playing behavior. Nobody wants to look like a chump in front of artists whom you truly respect.
I was playing with a longtime friend and songsmith named Andy Fitzpatrick . We planned to play 4 songs split in two different sections of the show.
Soundcheck was grand. We played with former Pogues bassist Cáit O’Riordan for the first time and ran through our set. The sound was great in the room. I was playing a Telecaster through a Victoria 518 tweed. I curated a few pedals for the show. A TC Electroics Poly Tuner, J Rockett Archer Ikon, Strymon El Capistan, and a Dr Scientist Bit Quest for reverb.
My intention with the Ikon was to tighten up a sometimes flabby tweed and add a little presence. However, in this room I didn’t need it. I was able to push the amp loud enough for it not only to break up but brighten up.
The first two songs went by without a hitch. Everything was peachy. The only drawback was I had to move my pedalboard between these mini sets. A request from the stage manager. This is not something I really like to do once I’m set up. I feel like you’re tempting the devious gear gods when moving gear between soundcheck and set.
But, this wasn’t my gig and I didn’t want to make waves in a new environment. Especially since I was only playing on a few songs. So I obliged.
Set 2 comes up and we enter from the audience where we’ve been watching the show. This isn’t the approach the stage from backstage type of situation. We’re all in the audience when not performing.
I pull me pedalboard forward, plug in my cable as I always do and…. NO SOUND! Here enters a giant gasp. But, as I’ve done enough gigs to have this happen, so I wasn’t exactly a deer in headlights. I knew I would figure it out. But, why now in front of these people in a dead quiet room? Why now?!?!
Rather then dwelling on the why, it was more important to figure out the where.
Andy is a pro. He’s been performing for a long time. So, he does what one should in those situations… Start the song. He know’s I’ll catch up.
What happens now is something worthy of a conversation for not if but WHEN you end up in this situation.
The last thing you want to do is be unorganized and not have plan when gear-mageddon happens. You’ll need a order of actions to make sure you don’t run in circles.
The first thing to do is not disregard the obvious. There are no “can’t be’s”. It could literally be any piece of your signal chain.
1: Is your guitar plugged in? Seems like a silly question, right? But, believe me. You will at some point start scratching your head in bewilderment only to realize your guitar is in fact NOT plugged in. Been there, done that! (more then once, haha)
2: Are you plugged into your amp and is your amp on standby? It’s not impossible you or someone else put your amp on standby. It’s also a possibility someone tripped on your cables and yanked it from your amp. This is why I also travel with gaffers tape to secure my pedalboard to amp cable. This way, nobody trips.
3: Is there power to your pedalboard? Again, a power chord could have accidentally been yanked or it wasn’t fully inserted. If a pedal isn’t true bypass, it wont pass a signal if it’s not receiving power. Even in bypass mode.
It’s for this reason I like to know what pedals are true bypass or buffered on my board. This also helps me troubleshoot.
Make sure all of your pedals are in bypass mode. No signal? First look at buffered pedals. Turn them on and off. Any power? Check to make sure the power cables aren’t loose or disconnected.
It’s key to make sure all your pedals are in bypass mode. I have been in a situation where I had a drive pedal on and the output knob got bumped to off. This can especially happen with new pedals that you’re not familiar with. And also happens when you have to dance around your pedalboard.
This is why I like to use a true bypass looper to consolidate my pedalboard dance. But, don’t assume that it’s not the problem!
4: If the following three steps didn’t work, it’s time to start pulling cables. This is a serious Defcon 5 situation here. We don’t want to randomly start yanking patch cables. We’ll need order for this stressful process.
I start with the last pedal in my signal chain. I want to hear if signal is going from my last pedal to the amp. Yank the cable that goes directly to your amp and touch the tip. Hear anything? If the answer is yes, we’ll need to move backwards one cable and repeat.
But, before we go through our whole pedalboard we should also check the cable we use from the guitar to the pedalboard. We want to isolate the pedalboard as the issue.
By checking the cable to the amp and the cable to the pedalboard, we assure it’s not an issue with the guitar, amp or main cables. If both those cables work, it’s time to start working backwards through our pedalboard.
Find the patch cable that goes INTO your last pedal and yank that. Touch the tip. Hear anything?
If you hear signal, keep moving backwards until you find the bad patch.
If you’re disciplined, you can get through this whole process in a minute or two. These minutes will feel like an eternity though.
This is a good argument not to pack your pedalboard too tight. Keep in mind you may need to pull a pedal off your board. Give yourself a little wiggle room. Also, keep a credit card in your pocket. You can use a credit card to release the velcro. At home I use a spatula.That may be a little to big to have onstage unless somehow that fits into your look. An old credit card can work wonders in the moment.
You also don’t want to be seen wresting to get a pedal off your board. That will deflate all your cool rock n roll tude in seconds. A credit card can allow a smooth extraction (who are we kidding, musicians don’t really have credit cards. They borrow them from girlfriends/boyfriends or moms).
Last night turned out to be a worst case scenario for my rig. The core cable I use to my pedalboard flat out died. There was no way for me to just pull one pedal and still get through the gig. I had to go straight to my amp with the only long cable I had left.
This meant no effects. We were about to play the song that required effects the most in the set. It happens.
In retrospect, I should have made sure to pack an extra long cable or two. Backups are key! Sometimes, we’re trying to pack light though. It’s hard to take everything. So, sometimes we take chances on gear we don’t expect to fail.
This was a surprise as I’ve never had a cable flat out die on my. They often crackle and cut out. This particular cable had been perfect. I just used it on tour for a week run with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. Not one issue.
Considering this coil cable as the culprit would have been the last thing I expected. If I was in denial, I could have been standing there a few more minutes in front of all these impressive minds looking like a fool.
I walked away from the gig feeling a little bummed. These things happen. It’s not a reflection on my abilities as a musician even though it may make you feel deflated. It happens to ALL of us. It’s not that it happens, it’s how you recover. I still played good, I just had to adjust.
In the end, there’s nothing I could have really done to prevent it. I checked my rig before leaving the house. I checked it at soundcheck.
It’s a good idea to have not only some extra patch cables and power cables (both IEC and 9v type for pedals), but also your leads that go from your guitar and to your amp.
These are about all the preventive measures you could make. That and learning to breath when the things fail. Because, they will fail even on a carefully maintained setup.
Well, hopefully I’ve given you a few tips to help you when you find yourself in gear-mageddon. Just remember there is life after the guitar-pocalypse.
Here is a song called Mama Blues from the night.