Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech

For us roadies there’s always a burning temptation to hang out with the band, down a beer or two, and chat about our exploits. Reason tells you to get as much sleep as you possibly can, but you’d love to depressurize and relax after a job well done. After the gig you’re still wound up, running on adrenaline, and it’s hard to find sleep. But if you’re not careful, something that started innocuously as a little chat on the tour bus can quickly become a mother-of-a-hangover the day after. Your body’s on a constant roller-coaster ride, when you’re on tour. On stage you’ve been all fired up, but now, only a couple of hours later, you really do have to go to bed. It’s a discrepancy of sorts – welcome to life on tour!

I lie in my own little bunk, alone with my thoughts. The bus sets off for our next destination, and soon the hum of the engine will lull the travellers to sleep. At least the ones who want to sleep. The party sounds from the front of the bus are a reminder of the relentless pace of touring, which I try to take refuge from here in my bed. There goes another city, another venue, another crowd of fans. I start thinking about home. I’ve been on the road for six weeks, with two still to go. This is the point when even the hardiest crew member usually starts pondering his career choices and his future. In this respect it doesn’t really matter, whether you’re the star in the limelight or a young guitar technician – as both drift into sleep they feel the same. At home people wait for your return, but here you are in the middle of nowhere, on the road to somewhere else. In your own little universe.

I feel a slight cramp in my bowels and realize I haven’t taken a “dump” before leaving the venue. We’re about ten hours away from our next stop. I try to ignore my insides, hoping the rumbling is due to a bout of homesickness, rather than the need to go to the bathroom. My insides churn and my sight goes dim, I seem to be too big for my tiny berth. In the end, I fall asleep completely drained. There’s no real rest on the road…

Part 1 - In the Morning

My mobile phone shatters the silence and wakes me up. Mornings are a tricky time when you’re sleeping in the same space with ten other people. I’d like to doze off for a little while longer, but I’m fully aware that this here isn’t the time nor the place for a cozy lie-in. The star, who snores away in the next bunk, has been partying until the wee hours, and wants to sleep for as long as he possibly can. If I wake him up too early, he’s going to be extremely annoyed, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to have to face his ire.

My compadres wake up just as energetic as me. There’s a motley crew of different personalities – all specialists in their field – crawling out of their holes. There’s the silent noises of people shuffling about trying to get up and running. The air is stale, thick from last night’s partying, and so many people sleeping in a confined space. It’s hard to breathe. I open the coach’s doors, step outside, and take a lungful of fresh morning air. I try to shake the ghosts of yesterday’s venue and take a look at where the bus has taken us today. It may not necessarily be a pretty place.

A kingdom for a bathroom

Our bus’ kitchenette has recently been upgraded with a new espresso machine, but right now I couldn’t care less. There would be ample time to take things nice and slow, but the crew are driven on by a common urge – we have to take a cr@p. The unwritten laws of touring forbid taking a dump in the bus’ own facilities, so everybody is on the hunt for a nice bathroom in the vicinity. We can talk about breakfast after that…

It’s somewhat of a challenge to go out searching for a toilet in a strange country, first thing in the morning. All I can see from the bus’ windows is a gigantic block of concrete; I presume it must be our venue. I’m not certain which country this is, or what currency they use here. Actually, I couldn’t care less right now. Nature’s calling, very loudly, right now!

The building’s back door is open. A few steps in, I meet a cleaning lady and try to ask her for directions to the next bathroom, with a croaky voice. The answer comes in what sounds to me like a mix of French and Italian, punctuated by wildly flailing arms. I give up, and set off to explore the building by myself. There’s a door, but it’s locked. I find another door, unlocked this time, but the view isn’t very promising. It’s a very narrow staircase winding its way steeply down into the unknown. Old, cracked concrete walls, electrical cabling hanging down precariously, and sharp pieces of metal completing the picture – no, I won’t go down there!

Don’t these people here have toilets? Nobody else seems to have a clue, either. I still have to take a dump, but hunger’s starting to rear its ugly head, too, by now. And I still need my morning coffee. I’m approached by a couple of local technicians – a very eager bunch – who start bombarding me with questions, no doubt having to do with the show in the evening. And I’m standing there with cramps and running seriously low on caffeine.

I turn on my heels and stomp off, away from the venue. There’s a building a good 500 metres away. Maybe there’s a café in there? And walking is very beneficial, too, it gets the blood flowing and the muscles all warmed up. I think of the tour manager. He’s the first one out there, facing the potentially “hostile” environment every morning. He doesn’t have time to ask anybody else but the cleaning lady for the directions to the lavatory. What a guy!

The tour manager

has to be up bright and early every day of the tour. He (or she) needs an office or a room backstage to serve as the day’s tour headquarters. The office is his castle, from where the tour manager handles all the communications with the outer world. He prints out and laminates all the necessary schedules, backstage passes, setlists and other info needed, while also serving as the go-between with the local crew and promoters. He has to put up his office wherever he can, and always has to make the best of every situation. Like in any other job, it would be nice for the tour manager if he could only get some peace to concentrate on his work.

The tour manager – like the band manger – is employed directly by the band. The band manager has better things to do than spend his time on the road, which is why the tour manager works as a representative of the band’s management and tour organization. The tour manager is directly responsible for all of his actions to the band’s manager and their agents (who have made the contracts for all the venues). The tour manager is the head of the whole touring circus, the crew works for him. Sometimes nicknamed the babysitter, the tour manager really is the guy (or gal) who keeps the show on the road and the machinery well-oiled.

The Internet

Once the office is up and running the tour manager has to deal out the wifi-access codes to all the members of the band and crew. Sometimes this can take up the lion’s share of his day. And even if you write the access codes down, there still will be questions like “Is the seventh character here a zero or the letter o?” On this tour we carry our own wireless router, keeping all the access codes the same over the whole length of this tour. The router is plugged into the venue’s ethernet port, in front of the house’s own wifi. This way the tour manager makes sure that the crew gets the best (read: fastest) Internet access possible, while the crew’s net access sets up automatically. You wouldn’t believe the amount of time (and nerves) not having to worry about Internet access saves on a ten-week tour!

Just follow the signs

Well in advance of everybody getting to work, the tour manager has already printed and laminated a bundle of A4-sized production schedules, door signs and directions for the local crew to hang up in the correct places. Thanks to these colour-coded signs everybody will find their way around the venue. This way out, that way to the production office, go here for the catering area, the stage is that-a-way, and, of course, the all-important WC-signs. These signs cut down drastically on the amount of unnecessary questions.

Have a look around

Personally, I hate having to face the world before having had my first couple of cups of coffee. All the shops and boutiques still have shuttered windows, which makes the streets look rather drab. Apart from the occasional beggar in the alley there’s no-one around. As I approach one building I can see a café materializing. A couple of cups of steaming cappuccino in peace, as well as a visit to a clean lavatory, can do wonders for your mood. Seems like taking a little stroll was well worth the effort.

It’s early morning, the sun’s just risen. This seems to be the only place open this early. Mmmmh, let’s have some coffee!

Some good coffee for a good start

Sitting in the morning sun, with a cup in one hand and the morning paper in the other, I finally get my bearings. OK, seems we’re in Catalonia today, this must be Barcelona!

I leaf through the newspaper, not giving a monkey’s that I hardly understand a word it says. I just look at the stories and pictures, trying to soak up some local colour. The old guy at the next table downs a glass of brownish-looking liquid, which looks like hard liquor. He clears his throat, throws some coins onto the table, puts his hat on and leaves. “When in Rome…”, I think.

Don’t touch the hard stuff

A hard stuff is a very bad idea when touring. My alcohol-loving colleagues would sniff a stiff one in my breath like a shark smells blood in the water. On a tour you stay sharp and sober during the day, and leave the partying for the night. Every day and every night, for weeks on end. Not the easiest of circumstances, I think to myself, drowning my quadruple espresso in one go, taking my cue from the old man. The caffeine works wonders, as it always does, and puts my motor into drive.

The day starts in earnest

It’s so great to see a bustling city wake up from its beauty sleep. On my way to the café the streets had been deserted, now the morning filled them with life.

Barcelona is probably one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, at least in my opinion. This place manages to combine many of the things I love: It’s a city of classical guitar, anarchism, modernism, football (that’s soccer for you Americans), Manu Chao – I could go on for ages. But there’s no time for romanticizing right now. I’m hungry and there’s plenty of work to do. If everything goes smoothly I might be able to have a look around later.

My mind trails off on the way back to the venue. What am I doing here? Why am I shuffling around strange cities at the crack of dawn, every morning searching for some coffee, some breakfast and a clean bathroom?

A guitar tech on tour

Two things made me choose this profession – I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to broaden the scope of my knowledge. It seemed like becoming a band technician was the right way to go.

A professional musician needs to have all of his equipment in working order. The audience doesn’t want to see the star wiggling jack plugs and crawling around the floor in tight leather pants looking for the source of an equipment fault. The artist needs plenty of rest during the day to be able to give his all on stage every night. This is why a band hires techs to take care of all the instruments and equipment they use.

Every once in a while you might even be called upon to improve an up-and-coming band’s sound or presentation. There might be something wrong about the guitars or amps they use. The equipment might be faulty or simply not the right gear for the band’s style of music. Simply amplifying a “bad” sound won’t solve the problem, instead you have to look for solutions from the ground up. The management doesn’t know how to improve their clients’ sound, even the band themselves might not be all that technically-minded. So it is up to you, the guitar technician, to make your clients shine on stage every night.

The band technicians are vitally important for a touring band. Nowadays, techs are even taken care of, because everybody knows the crew have to stay fit for the length of the tour. If somebody gets himself in a bad shape, coming up with a substitute on short notice is usually very difficult and potentially expensive. The gigs have to be played, as the band is bound by contracts signed with their promoters. The show must, indeed, go on!

Roadie, technician or backliner?

The old, traditional term for people travelling with a band and helping them with their equipment is roadie. Regardless of whether a guy is really a cook or an accountant, once he starts pulling out road cases from the back of a truck, he’s called a roadie. In recent years, with some of the jobs on tour becoming more specialized, the people dealing with instruments and audio equipment have received the title technician.

If somebody knows how to disassemble, repair and reassemble a piece of equipment, well in time for the gig, I feel he can be called a “technically-minded guy”, a technician. Besides, it’s much nicer to be able to tell your auntie you’re working as a guitar technician than to say you’re a roadie.

Many people still think of a roadie as a strongly-built, bearded guy wearing Levi’s 501s, a flannel shirt, a leather vest, thick working gloves and a ponytail as a uniform. In the olden days a roadie drove the band’s gear to the venue, set it all up, mixed the band, and took care of their needs and security. After the gig he would pack up everything and drive on to the next tour stop.

These days, local stage hands are hired in to take care of most of the “dirty”, hard work. The reasoning behind this is clear: Why risk the health of a well-paid, hard-to-find specialist by having him do the menial, hard labour? You shouldn’t allow a band technician to put his back out on the third night of a long tour.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter what term you choose to describe yourself. Roadie, technician or backliner – some feel more at home with one title, some like another one best.

The itinerary

Just like the travel itinerary you get from your travel agent, a tour itinerary tells the band and crew about the tour’s schedule. On each day, the tour manager will also put together and hand out the so-called “Day Sheet” for everyone to read. The Day Sheet mostly deals with the band’s commitments on each day – like radio interviews or meet-and-greets – the crew’s schedule stays very much the same on any given day of the tour.

You really should take your time and study the itinerary and Day Sheets thoroughly. A guitar tech should be aware of his client’s schedule at all times. Having to ask the tour manager repeatedly for this day’s showtime is really unprofessional for anybody outside the band members themselves.

Catering – feeding the crew

The band’s requirements regarding their breakfast have been written down in their tour rider. Local catering services prepare the meals according to the rider, and get paid for their troubles by the tour manager (in return for a receipt). This means that the food, the drinks, the bread, or the beers aren’t free of charge. The band has to pay for it all out of their own tour budget. An alternative is to rent some free space somewhere and make breakfast yourself, but in practice it is much easier and less stressful to have professional caterers deal with feeding the crew.

Much can be read from the way the crew’s breakfast is served. If your food and drinks wait for you packed in plastic bags in some dingy corner of the room, chances are the rest of the rider’s stipulations – like technical aspects dealing with electricity and safety – have been dealt with in a similarly unmotivated, half-hearted fashion. Today’s breakfast is so-and-so. In the southern corners of Europe electricity is often relatively expensive, which is why local organizers try to save money but not supplying a fridge. In the morning the food on offer might be OK, but a day in the heat will turn them into less appetizing propositions. So, best eat as much as you can now!

The backstage area – a tour’s living-room

In a best-case scenario the crew and the band each have their own backstage area, allowing both to have a chat about the day’s trials and tribulations without upsetting the other party. The backstage area should be kept relatively noise-free. In some venues this isn’t really possible, so the only quiet place you’ll find is the tour bus. In many cases the bus is also more comfortable than the venue’s spartan dressing rooms. Also, there’s no DJ or supporting band playing on the bus. Sometimes you might even have time to time for a nap in your bunk.

Keep your things together

Usually, the crew only take their cabin luggage -sized suitcases/bags with them to the venue, which contain one change of clothes and a small nécessaire. Only metrosexuals can’t make do with a simple toothbrush and a roller of antiperspirant. Leave your skin lotions and nose-hair trimmers for your day off in a hotel room.

By keeping the amount of luggage as small as possible you will ensure your mobility. The sheer amount of people at a venue always holds the possibility of an emergency evacuation of the building.

Beware of thieves

A tour might take you to places with a far higher rate of criminality than what you’re used to at home. You want to make sure you and your belongings stay safe. I’d recommend not flaunting all your electronic gadgets too much in public. Opportunity makes the thief, and looking at a shiny, new laptop, lying around unattended backstage for hours, may prove too tempting for somebody with a much lower income than you. You should know at all times where your most important belongings are. If something goes missing try to get to the bottom of the affair right away.

The whole entourage should leave their valuables on board the coach. Take only what you really need into the backstage area. Normally, you should be able to trust the local security personnel, but if the local promoter has cut corners in this respect, using your bus as the backstage area is your best alternative.

A venue’s back rooms should have locks in working condition. Most bands stipulate this as a requirement in their riders. The band’s tour manager is the key master, and everybody can go about their business without having to worry about their belongings. Another good way is to install combination locks into all doors and have the codes changed after each gig – an easy way for a promoter to keep an entourages things safe.

Get going with the “Get In”

This is where it all starts – the “Get In”. The get in time noted in the itinerary is when the venue’s doors are opened for the crew, and the tour management gets their first look at the place. In some smaller countries, like my home Finland, get in times are not part of standard procedure; you simply open the trucks and start getting your equipment in. Sometimes this leads to over-eager local stagehands starting to roll in road cases in the wrong order, before anybody from the crew has had time to tell them which case is needed first.

If I were a smoker this would be the time to light a ciggie. I take a look at the stage, which clearly has seen some serious rocking the night before. I clear the path of some cables that lie around haphazardly and ask the cleaning personnel to wipe the floor and rid the stage of all the junk and debris. My own workspace will be off to one side of the stage. At the moment the spot looks more like the local garbage dump.

Measure the stage

A tape measure is always in my pocket, I never put it into any of the road cases. I take it out and measure a spot in the centre of the stage exactly four metres from the front edge of the stage. I mark this spot with fluorescent tape. You can also use a magic marker or piece of chalk, depending on the stage surface. Next, I mark out the positions of our equipment risers, helping me to gauge how much space there will be left to work with on this specific stage. This stage will just about work for our production. There’s enough space at the far end of the risers to get behind them and into the backstage area.

Greet the locals

Next to the back door I run into the local stage manager. I greet him and the stern, older gentleman next to him very politely, despite the older guy bellowing unfriendly commands to the local stagehands. I give the guy a closer look; he seems to be an unpleasant sort of man. Still, I do my best to be extremely friendly to him, because, quite clearly, he is somebody important, high up in the local showbiz hierarchy. If I were to react in a similarly ill-tempered fashion to his own, the day could become rather unpleasant for our whole entourage.

The clock starts ticking

We shake hands and I talk to the stage manager about the way our production is set up onstage. I show him how where we are going to put up our monitor wedges and where the amps will be set up. Together we decide on the best route from the backstage area to the stage. The grumpy old gentleman starts warming to me, telling me that our route was ideal, because it would be flanked by security during the evening. I thank him warmly. To finish our planning phase we go over the locations of the emergency exits. Everything seems to be OK.

In my capacity as production manager of this tour I give my colleagues the signal to open the trailer, and then rush onto the stage to take delivery of the never-ending stream of gear. Time to start earning my living.

We’re starting the Load In.

The Story continues next week with Part 2 - Load In

22.10.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen)
The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.