Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 6 - The Endless Wait

The audience is let into the venue to the sound of background music. The idea is for the music to get the audience into the right mood for the evening. On a tour the playlist for the background music will stay unchanged over the whole course of the tour. When the music is started, each evening at the same time, it will set the right mood in the build-up to the evening’s show. The songs will also serve as an audio cue for the crew, so they know when to bring on the first support band.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, the technicians are trained to react to certain songs. Even when a tour has finished, a certain song might raise my adrenaline levels. It will have me rearing to go on stage, even though I’m at a shopping mall. Humans can be trained easily – it will take years for the memory of a background tape to be erased completely.

Merchandise – where the real money’s made

A well-organized tour will include a person, whose sole job is taking care of the merchandise booth, selling shirts carrying the band’s logo, tour programmes, CDs and DVDs, as well as other band paraphernalia. Once the cardboard boxes have been carried into the foyer, the merch guy (or girl) will erect the stand and dress it up in a visually enticing manner to draw the attention of the crowd. The merch guy has to man the booth for the whole evening, so if you want to make friends with him you can offer to substitute at the stand for a couple of minutes. The merch guy will surely be more than glad to be able to go to the bathroom, for a ciggie, or to go get a bottle of lemonade.

If the artist (or band) has any business sense, he will make sure to turn up at the merch stand for, say, ten minutes. Signed shirts, posters and CDs will make even more fans want to part with their money.

Different shirts?

To my surprise I notice a couple of more merchandise stalls in front of the building. Did we hire in additional local merch guys? I take a closer look and see that these shirts aren’t the official types that our merch guy sells.

Right, these guys are locals who try to skim off their own piece of the action. These people are putting the fans’ money into their own pocket, without giving the band a share. Nevertheless, I won’t cause a stink: These guys are usually well-organized. And if local police think these stalls are OK, then who am I to say otherwise?

Show me the way!

Sometimes the band will only get to the venue a couple of minutes before the show. To make life easier for everybody the crew will have marked out the way from the backstage area onto stage with fluorescent tape along the floor. Nobody wants the band to get lost, or even have one band member break his wrist, because he fell over a road case.

It’s also very important to know the shortest route to the nearest bathroom. Putting up a differently-coloured set of markings on the floor is a great idea. If the singer has to use the bathroom during the set, one of the crew will take him there. The crew member will serve both as a guide, as well as some sort of bodyguard, who will also escort the singer back to the stage. If the vocalist sprains his ankle falling off a dark set of stairs, the tour might be cancelled, putting the whole entourage’s livelihood on the line. Much better to have a clearly demarcated route and a flashlight ready.

Despite trying to keep everything the same from show to show, the crew cannot change the way a venue is built. Exit routes are bound to change daily, and can even be a little complicated or narrow in old buildings. Sometimes a band can be so excited (or concentrated) on their way in, that marking the way out, too, might be necessary. But every now and then the artist will forget where he is and leave the stage in yesterday’s direction, regardless of all the markings on the floor.

The backstage guitar

The backstage guitar is needed for warm-up duties. It is brought into the band’s backstage area every morning. Apart from warming up this guitar is used to jam old hits and get everybody in the mood for the show. This guitar really should be an instrument specifically set aside as a backstage guitar, and not be used on stage, because this poor axe is going to be played with the same fingers that have just been used to eat a few crisps or a slice of pepperoni pizza. If this were a stage guitar, you’d have to find a way to change its strings daily, right before the show begins. Sometimes the artist even takes along his beat up composing guitar on tour, which will give him comfort and make him feel secure during warm-up.

The setlist

Many artists use an ABC-technique while on tour: They go on tour with three slightly different, preplanned sets, which are rotated to alleviate boredom or to take into account differing tastes (or chart placements of songs) in different territories. A seasoned pro has already picked one or two “fillers” in the middle of his set, which can be dropped at short notice. There should also be some kind of failsafe procedure that allows the band and crew to get through a technical calamity. It’s better to play a fantastic set that’s ten minutes shorter than planned, than to play a full set badly, just because a wireless receiver went up in smoke. Usually the last four to five songs in a set (plus the encore) will be the band’s biggest hits, so you should keep your hands off of this part of the show.

Don’t leave the setlist for last

A band should at least have a sort framework for their shows on a tour ready in advance. There’s always the option to change a couple of songs someplace in the middle of the show, but at least the beginning, the end, and the encores should stay as they are. The lighting technician will need at least a preliminary setlist in advance of the tour, so he can programme and set up fitting lighting cues and templates for the whole show.

Today is a special case: Right after the last song of the set the house DJ will start his own show. This means our band’s set has to be timed well. Otherwise – read: if we’re running late – the band’s set might even be cut short by the promoter. So, wise planning is required.

Cues for the crew

In many cases the final setlist is handed to the crew just in time for the show. The tour manager uses his printer to make copies for everybody. One designated crew member is sent out each night to collect the setlists, and then hands them out to his colleagues. Each band technician adds his own markings – called cues – to his own copy of the setlist. The cues might include guitar changes, changes in amp or effect settings, different tunings for the acoustic guitar, and so on.

During a show something unexpected can always happen, but the notes on the setlist will keep the technicians on the right track most of the time. It’s good to write down even most of the “obvious” things, because your memory might play tricks on you, if something goes wrong and stress levels rise. Its good to have a list of your cues to fall back on.

Cues for the band

In an ideal world the band will have added clear cues for short breaks for rehydration to the setlist. The same goes for longer spoken introductions. It’s very useful for the lighting tech to know about these things, so he can dim the lights when the band collectively take a gulp of water, and put a spot on the band member introducing the next number. It’s a very good idea to choreograph your whole show a tiny bit, because nothing is more boring to an audience than watching a band on a well-lit stage shuffle over to their water bottles and towels. You could also decide to let other band members take care of the occasional song introduction, giving them a share of the spotlight, and the vocalist a few moments to catch his (or her) breath.

If somebody on the stage needs a slightly longer break, the band can keep the momentum going with a longer solo guitar intro into the next number. And as a last resort, in real emergencies, there’s always the (often-dreaded) drum solo. It really doesn’t take all that much to add a little bit of structure and theatrical drama to a set, which will make the gig more interesting to watch for the audience.

Lyrically challenged

Most big productions these days use a teleprompter to help the singer remember the words. A teleprompter is a high-contrast video monitor dressed up to look like an additional wedge monitor. The lyrics are then displayed either automatically (usually cued by a click track) or scrolled through manually (by a dedicated technician).

Learning all the words by heart can be a challenge, especially if you haven’t been on tour for a while. Still, I feel you should keep your memory sharp and at least give it a real try. If a prompter isn’t used a vocalist might write down the first couple of words of each verse to help him stay on track in the midst of things, and have the crew tape his notes to the floor monitors.

In some musical genres it can even be OK to have your lyrics in a binder placed on a note stand. Granted, as you get older you memory capacity starts to decline, but I still feel that younger artists, at least, should try to memorize their lyrics. This frees you up to concentrate on your onstage presence and helps you to really get into the meaning of the words you sing. I guarantee you the audience will appreciate it!

A few words about sticky tape

A stage is a dirty and dusty place: There’s sand, oil from fog machines, as well as other assorted debris – not the best conditions for keeping sticky tape in place. When taping setlists or cable snakes in place, remember to use the sole of your shoe to force all air bubbles out from between the stage’s surface and the tape. This will make for a more secure bond. This seems quite obvious, but I’ve seen many pros not doing this – these are the guys who usually have to rush onstage during the show to secure the setlists afresh.

You can also save yourself a little time by ripping off the required amount of tape pieces in the required length during set-up, and by sticking them to the microphone stand, for example. In the evening, when the printed setlists are finally handed out, the pieces of tape are ready, waiting for you to stick the lists where the band needs them.

Water

Rehydration shouldn’t be forgotten. Despite the wild image of some bands, still water is still the number one tipple during a show. Take a half-litre bottle of still water at room temperature, open the bottle’s cap and close it again, making it easy to open with sweaty hands. Fizzy drinks and ice-cold stuff won’t work on stage. The former will have the band belching and burping, while the latter will make their teeth hurt (even though you can use it to cool your feverish brow).

Just as the guitarist’s plecks, the water bottle, too, needs a well-chosen place on stage. Personally, I have always vetoed having an open bottle (or paper cup) of fluid next to floor effects. It’s simply a case of Murphy’s Law – sooner or later somebody will topple the bottle, and all the water will spill into the stompboxes – with disastrous consequences. Besides, nobody wants to see the guitarist bend over to fish for his bottle. You should find a good and permanent place for the water bottles. Most techs use the drum riser. Others like to facilitate an empty case with a black table cloth over it, as a sort of altar for the guitarist, where he will also find his…

Towels

Towels are a constant bone of contention between the crew and the local staff. Towels should always be pre-washed, so they don’t leave any lint and fuzz on people’s faces and clothes. The band need towels for onstage use, as well as for taking a shower (often both prior to and after the show).

The guitar tech also values his towel. Drinks will be spilled or even thrown onto stage by the fans. The instruments and their straps will be drenched in sweat when it is time for the encore. And, now and again, it’s also nice to look fresh when meeting your employer.

Many clubs will send you a bill if some of their towels have disappeared after the show, which is understandable. Towels do cost the promoters money, having to buy and wash all the towels for an entire touring posse will rip a hole in their budgets. But what can you do if there aren’t enough towels to go around? The band need their towels after the show, and they don’t give a monkey’s where the towels have come from, or who had to pay for them.

You could try and factor in a surplus amount of towels on the tour rider. If the requests from the rider aren’t met the tour manager will have to go and bargain with the locals to the best of his abilities. Once he is handed a stack of towels, he will take them to his office and lock them away, out of the reach of the warm-up band and the rest of the crew. It’s part of a tour manager’s loyal service, when he can hand his protégées their towels at the back of the stage.

Fans (of the mechanical kind)

Ventilators are a very welcome on-stage addition in a steaming-hot Rock club. Conditions for the band can be stifling in a venue filled with a lot of people, hot amplifiers and a lighting rig. If you haven’t taken along any fans you should consider investing in a few ventilators at the first stop. This will be a good move at a moderate outlay.

From the viewpoint of a guitar tech an electrical fan also has its distinct advantages when it comes to creating a suitable micro-climate for the string instruments. The guitar may have been kept relatively cool at the guitar tech’s workplace in its stand. When the instrument is taken on stage and played, the heat of the venue, the lighting and the guitarist’s body will warm up the guitar and the truss rod inside the neck fairly quickly, leading to the tuning dropping flat. The hotter the environment the more the pitch will drop. A ventilating fan pointed at the guitarist will counteract the drop in pitch, keeping the guitar (and its truss rod) cooler.

But do remember to ask “your” guitarist where exactly the ventilator should be pointing. Hair blowing in the “wind” might look cool very often, but it can also lead to very strange-looking hairstyles in some cases. The fan’s rotors and front grille are also quite a clear indicator to the levels of dirt on a tour, sucking in all of the dust flying around. Remember to clean all the ventilators regularly to keep them looking nice and working efficiently.

Should I step out of the bubble for one more time?

Time seems to slow down painfully before the run-up to the show. But this kind of spare time really is of no use to me. I’m already far too wired in anticipation of the show to be able to lean back and take it easy. The mind’s already onstage, while the body’s still backstage. Living in the now starts becoming increasingly harder as the seconds tick away.

There’s still one thing to be taken care of before the show starts, though. I should meet the local representative of the instrument brand sponsoring this leg of the tour. The guy’s somewhere among the audience, but I don’t want to get lost in the hubbub. Better to meet somewhere a bit quieter.

I send him a text and ask him to meet me at the merch stand. We shake hands and get a little smalltalk going. He seems to be satisfied with sponsoring the tour, we are satisfied, too.

The conversation starts to turn to different subjects, and I find my mind wandering off to the imminent show. Hopefully I don’t leave the impression of being indifferent to what the sponsor’s representative has to say, but I can’t help being distracted. Nervousness starts setting in, making it hard for me to focus on anything else than my job. Anything apart from the show seems to lose its meaning. My own little booth in the wings of the stage begins attracting me like a giant magnet. Is everything in order? We both watch the warm-up band for a little time, before I excuse myself politely and make my way backstage.

The pace picks up

The last hour leading to the show is usually the most difficult to bear passively, which is why I always schedule a number of routine tasks for this point in time. This tends to keep my mind from getting too anxious.

I replace the batteries in all the wireless transmitters. I make sure all the wireless channels are set correctly. I place the plecks where they belong. I take a look down the stage to check if the drinks and towels are where they should be. I also take another look at the mic placement on the guitar and bass amps. Then it is time to go over the tunings and intonations of all instruments once more.

If everything is in order, these tasks take only about ten minutes. Then there’s a little more waiting to be done.

It’s electrifying

The backstage atmosphere starts reaching fever-pitch. You can really feel a huge build-up of energy among the band and crew, which is hard to reign in before it’s time to step on the stage.

A band technician’s own background in playing music helps him to understand what the artists are going through in the last minutes before “lift-off”. And you also know when to keep your thoughts to yourself…

Especially the younger bands can be bursting with enthusiasm and energy. The musicians are like racehorses rearing to be let off the leash. Some are even like a bow stretched to just before breaking-point. The old, seasoned pros are often much, much more matter-of-fact. They chat among themselves quietly and relaxedly. Some old hand might even be found still surfing the Internet half a minute before the show. The intro tape starts rolling, he shuts his laptop, and strolls off to work.

A little doping before jumping off the cliff

Try to respect the private routines your client uses to alleviate stagefright. Some guys will down a couple of stiff drinks to relax, others will go around the corner for a last puff of smoke. Horses for courses…

Stage fright and nervousness before the gig aren’t restricted to Rock musicians. Classical players also have to deal with it. In some ways, classical musicians even have it harder, because their margin for error is kept very small by the audience’s expectations. Many a classical maestro downs beta-blockers before a concert. From there it’s only a very small step to the half-bottle of bourbon a Thrash Metal bassist might down before a gig.

Did we fill the place?

Most bands will tell reporters that they always give their all, regardless of whether the audience consist of 20 or 20,000 people. This is a nice cliché, but actually isn’t really true. From the vantage point of a backliner it’s easy to notice the change in onstage behaviour, whenever it’s an “important” gig in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd. Shows in larger cities with thriving music scenes are usually taken more seriously by the band. And the stakes are definitely higher in a sold-out 10,000-seater arena than in a small club gig somewhere in the hinterland.

The audience “make” the gig

The really great gigs thrive on the interaction between artist and crowd. It’s magic when an enthusiastic audience manages to raise the band to ever-higher levels of intensity. If the crowds are small and apathetic the gig will invariably be rather lukewarm. On the other hand, 200 hardcore fans do make for a much better audience than 1,000 invited VIPs.

Don’t bother me

As a band technician I really need to be left to work in peace. My guitar booth is my personal shrine, and no-one’s allowed in here but me. Actually, it does happen quite often that “my” guitarist slips onto stage right behind me to get away from the hangers-on. Sometimes he might even hint that he would like me to kick out all the people from his dressing room.

My guitar station is my castle. If something goes wrong on stage with the bass and guitar equipment I have to take control in the blink of an eye. If I told my client I couldn’t come to his rescue in time, because there were lots of hangers-on in my corner of the stage, I would find myself on the first flight home. So I tell everybody and anybody who tries to hang around in my flight path politely, but firmly, to please buzz off. In extreme cases I might even have to resort to fluorescent tape, and demarcate the exact area of my own special no-fly zone.

I can see that my artist really is suffering from the crowd of hangers-on and well-wishers. I can read his body language and I know when to step in and do something. Sometimes I tell one of the security people to get everybody out of my client’s dressing room. The artist should never be made to look like a “party pooper” or spoilsport. It is part of the crew’s – and especially the tour manager’s – job to shield our charges from the general public.

Hangers-on

There are always droves of people swarming like flies around a successful artist. Many would like to spend a moment with the star of the evening. There are record company executives, people from the management and from local radio and TV stations. Additionally there are fans, TV- or movie stars, sports celebrities and a whole bunch of other hangers-on. Most artists feel cornered by all of this attention.

Sometimes the vibes can get really uptight, even though the band should be given at least some privacy to concentrate on the night’s show. In the last minutes leading up to the gig I try not to bother my client, if at all possible. If there is really something pressing, I plug up all my courage, try to calm down, and then knock on the dressing room door. I try to keep my information (or question) as concise and free from jargon as possible, say thank you, and get back to my post. If this is a guitarist I have had a long-running association with, I might drop the occasional word of encouragement, or ask him how he feels, as he climbs onto the stage.

You should keep your sensors up and try to get a feel for the current situation and band vibes. And know when to keep your mouth shut. It’s not always easy when the countdown has begun. The warm-up band finishes its last song, my heart’s in my mouth. This is it, here we go! We have less than 20 minutes to showtime – and there’s still a lot to be done!

The Story continues next week with Part 7 - The Changeover

12.11.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen) The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.