Hello Troubadourians! As much as I like guitar gear, I don’t like having to carry a lot of gear to gigs and sessions. There was a time when that it didn’t matter, a time when I was willing (and able) to bring as many instruments, amps, and other gear as I thought the occasion might require. I remember bringing as many as four guitars, three amps, and two pedalboards to gigs. I had no problem hauling all that stuff or taking the time to set it all up, whether I used all of it or not. Usually not… In my mind, that was what professionals did; they were prepared for everything and anything. While I wasn’t actually wrong, I was certainly naïve, and probably annoying. Um… make that definitely annoying.
I was all about authenticity… “I gotta play the right guitar for the song,” but it’s really about context and adaptability. My mindset was “I need a Telecaster for this sone and a Les Paul for that song, and an acoustic for yet another song, otherwise it’s wrong and everyone will think I’m a crappy player.” Yeah, that’s a complete disconnect from reality. What they really think is, “Who is this guy, and who does he think he is?”
What is the gig? How much time do you have for the performance? Is your band the only band or are there multiple bands? All these situations require different approaches. So, take only what you need to get your music across. I’ve made a list of possible scenarios below, each with guidance—based on experience—for what you’ll probably want to bring. Many of these scenarios build upon one another, so often the same recommendations apply even as the gigs grow in importance. Keep that in mind…
Open mic: This one is simple. Keep it simple. Two to three songs, one instrument. Bring an amp cord just in case and do your best. If it’s an electric show, use the backline if possible—assuming there is a backline—and get as close to “your sound” as you can. You may hate your tone, but people will remember your presentation more than your tone.
Guerrilla gig: This is where there are multiple bands or performers, each playing four to six songs. These are usually electric gigs, and a backline is often provided. Use it if you can. In earlier days, my rig was dependent upon my amp, so I had no viable alternative but to use it. To make things as simple as possible, I would pre-stage everything before going on stage. Cables, power cords, and pedals; everything was connected and ready for minimum setup/teardown time. Try to enlist a friend to help you so you make one trip on and one trip off.
Opening set: Here you have more time to present your “thing,” but you still are restricted by the requirements of the headlining act. You will likely use your gear, but it will be set up in front of the main act. Be respectful of their setup and be prepared to make compromises regarding positioning of amps and people. It can feel weird but if you are well rehearsed, you’ll still put on a great show.
Showcase: This where you are featured but is still a time-limited gig. Choose your material carefully and bring only the gear you require for those songs. Simple is still better even here. Concentrating on the songs and your performance instead of your next guitar change will pay huge dividends. You may have the freedom to stretch out a bit and use some “exotic” instruments if that is your thing, but always rehearse instrument changes and make sure everything is working. If it isn’t, have a backup plan to use your regular instruments. You’ll have about 30 seconds to decide if something isn’t going to work before everyone will start looking at you and wondering what is happening. Move on and don’t break the spell.
One hour or more: This is a bit longer than a Showcase and is sometimes a looser environment. Often, there is more time for setup, sound check, and freedom to play material that requires specialized instruments or altered tunings to be authentic to the composition. Choose wisely…
Full concert or headliner: Okay, let’s assume that this is your successful career in progress. You have made a record and you are pretty much expected to recreate the recordings in a live concert setting. This is where everything comes together; you have professionals supporting your sound, your instruments, and your performance in all areas. This is possibly the only place where you can be somewhat self-indulgent, mainly because you are expected to be. You are well rehearsed, people know your songs, and you put on a professional and entertaining show night after night. You have arrived.
Recording session: Here, you are either making a record with your band or you are a session player. For the former, pretty much everything in the preceding paragraph applies. For the latter, you come prepared for whatever the producer might ask for. You bring all of the instruments you are known for playing and either play the parts you are asked to play or create your part on the spot. You have support from your people as well as the production team who want you to deliver what you do. Sometimes, you know ahead of time what you’ll be playing on, so you have the luxury to bring only what you think you’ll need for that work, with a “little extra something just in case.” This is what I live for.
Caveat: If a significant part of your performance relies on multiple open tunings, consider carefully if you need to make exception or modification to the above recommendations. Which makes for a smoother performance, bringing two—or more—guitars or retuning one guitar? One of the fastest ways to your audience is to spend time tuning while you’re on stage. Some performers can retune quickly and have worked some stage patter into their act to retain audience attention while tuning. This approach would have to be well rehearsed and entertaining. If this doesn’t suit you, consider two guitars and make it efficient.
Caveat 2: I recommend that you rehearse setup/teardown just like you rehearse your music. You’d be surprised by how efficient you can get! It also prevents or minimizes accidently misconnecting things. Finally, if you have this process rehearsed and memorized, you lessen the chance of forgetting something, either before or after your performance.
Caveat 3: I am a big believer in having backup gear and instruments. You never know when something will fail. They don’t have to be onstage with you but keep them nearby. Again, it pays to have a friend to assist you. There are times where this is impractical/impossible, so for these situations do all of the preparations you can. New strings that are stretched and in tune minimize breakage. Test your guitar, amp, pedals, and other gear before you pack it for the gig. Perform regular maintenance on everything. Fix problems immediately. If something is sketchy the day before a gig, fix it and test it or don’t bring it.
All of this advice comes from my own experience, and I hope you find it useful. Being a good performer, bandmate, sideman, or session player requires that you have the maturity to know it’s not all about you, and to have the confidence that your music and talent will shine regardless of the guitar you’re playing. It’s what you play, not what you’re playing…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (email@example.com)