Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 7 - The Changeover

First off, I gather together all used towels and water bottles left over from the support act, and put them in a plastic bucket. Some venues will set aside some of their own staff to clean the stage between bands, but tonight I am the one who’s doing the tidying up.

The worst risk factors are the open, half-filled beer bottles the warm-up band have left standing on the stage. A couple have already toppled over, with some of the beer spilled onto my cables. There’s a messy puddle on the floor, and it’s still growing. I ponder the possibility of holding warm-up acts responsible for turning the stage into a pig sty. If you’re on for only about 30 minutes, how many bottles of water and beer do you really need to take with you? Wouldn’t a single bottle of water per musician be more than enough? Why can’t they wait with the partying until they’ve finished playing?

Help the supporting act

Once the worst mess has been taken care off, and walking around the stage isn’t an obstacle course anymore, it’s time to check if the opening act is managing to get their instruments and backline off the stage. What the …? The weasels have already disappeared someplace backstage, which leaves me with no choice but to take charge myself. I instruct the stagehands to take care of the equipment.

But first I unplug all cables, coil them up and place them on top of the support act’s equipment. The stagehands are asked onstage one by one, and each is given a complete unit (including cables and all) to take out of the venue. There’s no spare room on the stage and none backstage, so I instruct them to park the equipment outside, next to the back door. Let’s hope that the Barcelona sky isn’t crying – at this time of year the weather’s usually good.

Don’t be heavy-handed

The irresponsible disappearance of our warm-up band really leaves me very frustrated and angry. Where the *beep* are those guys? What the *beep* are they thinking? The neanderthal in me screams for revenge, and I notice that I’m very tempted to throw an amp off the stage.

Luckily, the sensible, professional part of me takes over, telling me to keep it cool. The members of the opening act aren’t likely to be rich. Their equipment are their precious tools, but they probably don’t have road cases, because they cannot afford them. There’s really no need to act like an arrogant swine, just because I’m working for a successful headlining act, who can afford pricey, customized cases for transportation.

I try to remind myself of the old saying that the bands might change, while the roadies work on. Who knows, a few short years down the road a young, breaking band might be looking for a seasoned guitar tech. If they remember me as “the guy who smashed Jack’s amp”, I am quite sure that the job won’t be mine. We all had to start out young and inexperienced, and climbed our way up the career ladder. People make mistakes, people learn. I’ll cut them a bit of slack.

Walkie-talkies

Walkie-talkies serve as the crew’s means of communication when on tour. They have found their way into band entourages inspired by the army, the police, and security personnel. Our US colleagues tend to use their walkie-talkies once the distance to the next guy is greater than a few metres.

We, the crew, take over foreign places each day to carry out our special tasks – in this respect we’re rather similar to special forces. We set up a communications centre (the tour manager’s travelling office), we have a supply chain (the catering), and we take care of our VIPs (the band) to make sure nothing happens to them. We also very often use military grade equipment, because it will stand up to the rigours of touring without breaking.

It only takes you a couple of days to get the hang of using the radio. Anything unusual – like schedule changes – will be reported to the crew immediately. A quiet walkie-talkie also has a reassuring effect – no news is good news, everything is running smoothly.

Talkback

The tour manager can also make contact via his hand-held radio from his office to the stage. He might want to know whether we’re on schedule, so that the band doesn’t have to spend more time backstage than required.

Because the band uses an in-ear monitoring system, the crew can also facilitate it to talk to each other. Each crew member has his own, switchable headmic, and we use our talkback system to communicate with each other before, and during, the show. Usually we move on from our walkie-talkies to the in-ear talkback, once the opening band (and their equipment) have left the stage.

All band technicians listen to their own monitor mix of the band on the IEMs. We all tend to listen to mixes with the main emphasis on our area of responsibility. Both guitarist and guitar tech listen to a mix that’s focussed on guitar. The drum technician listens to the drum channels, while the monitor guy concentrates mainly on vocals. With a good set-up technicians often spot equipment gremlins long before the audience notices anything.

Clear signs

A couple of mic stands have been knocked out of position during the changeover. I run over to the bass amp, which stands next to the drum riser, and start looking for the correct position. I hand the bass to the drum technician, who plays a steady stream of open E’s, while I move the microphone into position. I can hear the FOH-mixer’s comments in my in-ears, but I can’t talk to him directly, because I accidentally left my headmic in my guitar corner. So I catch his attention by waving my arms, and then give him the thumbs up as a sign that I have heard his message.

We quickly go through all the line feeds and mics once again to make sure everything is exactly as it should be. Both sound technicians acknowledge each signal via their talkback mics. This only takes us a couple of minutes – everything’s just as it was during the soundcheck.

Onstage security

There’s a constant danger of stuff being stolen off the stage. Some fan might get the idea of taking home a “souvenir” from the gig. I think this is a very strange phenomenon: Why would you want to mess up an artist’s show by stealing a vital part of his gear? You’ve paid for the ticket, don’t you want to see a good show? The biggest problems are crowded clubs, where the audience can get up right to the edge of the stage. You really have to watch the front part of the stage well in those places. Making sure all the equipment at the front of the stage is compact and well-secured helps.

Using separate effect pedals is a risky business. It’s much harder to steal a floor effect off a professionally put together pedalboard. Still, your best bet is to keep pedalboards on top of the amps, at the back of the stage, for as long as possible, and to only move them to the front in time for the show. Drinks parked on the stage by the audience are also a quite annoying byproduct of small clubs. You can try asking the fans not to put their beers there, but I found that such pleas will mostly fall on deaf ears.

Call the bouncer

I’ve been trying to catch a whiff of this club’s atmosphere during the day. I’ve spotted some strange hangers-on in the wings, who seem to be friendly with the local stagehands. A good indicator for possible trouble brewing is the mystical disappearance of plecks and setlists off the stage. If there’s criminal potential in certain parts of the crowd these are usually the first things to go MIA.

I’ve been spotting signs that this evening’s promoter hasn’t done his homework properly. The metal barriers around the stage seem to be “leaking”, and all the while there are people trying to get in the wings of the stage. I can’t see any security guys or bouncers in our vicinity. I take out my walkie-talkie and ask the tour manager to get someone out here. He says he will try to find somebody, despite the fact that the locals have already told him that they’re understaffed tonight.

A security guy turns up and I explain my problem to him. I try to get a bearing of this guy – is this a rookie? No, this guy is a hardened professional bouncer, you can see it in his eyes.

For a moment I watch the bouncer’s actions. He is quite rough and gruff with the public, but gets on with his job efficiently. No need for me to interfere! These guys have seen it all and don’t suffer fools gladly. Tonight, in circumstances such as these, this security guy really is worth his weight in gold. He patrols the barricades, making life much easier for us band technicians.

Don’t bother the artist

The clock is ticking away. Soon will be the moment that we all have worked for all day. The adrenaline rush we will get is part of what makes people stay in the entertainment business.

There was a slight problem during the last linecheck with the guitar signal, but it would be a grave mistake to burden the artist with this knowledge. If I’m lucky I can localize and rectify the problem before the show starts. If I unsettled my client right now this knowledge could easily have a negative effect on the show. He might play badly, still waiting for something to go wrong, without knowing that I had already managed to take care of the problem. Let’s not mess with his concentration right now!

Out of the blue I get asked to get him a pack of cigarettes. What?! I thought he was trying to quit? But this is not the time to play the nagging wife, instead I make my way to the nearest vending machine. If your band asks you for something right before the show, you try to fulfill their wishes (if the wishes are sort of sensible and won’t get you in trouble with the law), it’s part of the deal. If you’re suddenly asked for a fag or a shot of booze, and none is to hand, you don’t ask why. Simply shuffle off and buy something. Keep the receipt and claim your money back from the tour manager tomorrow!

This toilet is engaged!

The band will have to go to the bathroom right before the show starts. That’s a fact of life. The backstage facilities will be reserved for the musicians in the last minutes before the gig. Crew members can also use the public lavatories in the venue, or in case of emergencies, make a run for it during the show. It’s not so easy for the band members, is it?

One guitarist had his own special solution: He used to keep an empty water bottle to relieve himself backstage with the intro tape already running. Then he screwed on the cap, wiped off his hands, and went on his merry way. For some reason these p*ss bottles disappeared magically every night. I hope no-one’s ever taken a swig…

Can we start already?

The artist is at his most vulnerable as he’s about to climb onstage. Tonight the dressing rooms are quite some way off, which is why the tour manager has escorted his protégées, who now wait behind the stage. He has a flashlight to show the way. The tour manager is responsible for getting the band to the stage on time, at the latest when the intro tape has just started rolling. The band would usually prefer to turn up with only seconds to spare, because the wait seems like an eternity behind the backstage curtains.

Nursing the neuroses

Every band member starts fidgeting with their clothes, hairdo and general appearance right before the gig. A piece of toilet paper stuck to a shoe would make the artist look like a clown onstage. People get extremely concerned with the state and durability of their stage outfit prior to going on. The mere shadow of a stain is frantically rubbed and scratched to make it disappear. A very unwelcome surprise are fuzzy towels that leave bright white fluff and lint all over your black stage clothes, standing out uncomfortably well under stage lights. This is why the rider specifies pre-washed towels! A last look at all shoe laces, collars and trouser flies, and off we go.

Starting positions

I have agreed beforehand with the artists how they will be passed their first instruments at the start of the show. First, the bassist gets his instrument, a clap on the shoulder, and my best wishes for the show. I then rush back into my corner to get the guitar. While on my way there I give a very quick glance at the rig, praying that the equipment problem has been solved.

The guitarist mutters his usual mantras and is extremely focussed on the start of the show. I stand next to him, sweating, his guitar in hand, nervously waiting for him to take the guitar. I feel a strong urge to rush back to my workspace to take a look at the amps and the wireless systems.

If you can’t take the pressure, then this job isn’t for you. I think of the artists – they are at the mercy of their equipment, and they trust me to make everything work all right, when they step into the spotlights. Trouble is, I have a distinct hitch that something might go wrong tonight.

The show doesn’t start until everybody is ready

There are more bad omens. Something has happened on stage, because our monitor mixer informs us he needs a couple of moments more. I can hear some intermittent buzzing in my in-ears, too. The audio guys try to figure out as quickly as they can where the buzz is coming from. I hope the noises come from the house-PA and not from any of the guitar amps. This would make the situation not my problem.

Whenever there’s a slight delay in the start of the show, the band behave like a tigers in a cage. Their minds are already out there, but they’re being held back from taking to the stage. It would be best for every show to start exactly on time to prevent further pressure from building up. The artist can either lose his concentration or get real worked up and frustrated over the delay – both of which is bad news for the feel during the show. The crew have to hurry up.

But this doesn’t mean we should let the show start before everything really is ready. Never push a band on stage when there are known equipment troubles. We’re all under stress now, a wrong word at the wrong moment could spark an argument. Try to stay calm and polite, and don’t chatter away unnecessarily.

Just as I started losing hope we get the all clear through our IEMs. The universal sign for the FOH-guy to start rolling the intro is flashing a flashlight from the stage into the direction of the mixing engineer. The monitor technician also sends word out via his walkie-talkie. 

Finally, the guitarist grabs his instrument, and I make for my little booth. The background music stops abruptly and the lights go down. This combination of light and sound makes for a great dramaturgical effect. The men in the audience start to cheer in the pitch dark, and the female audience members shriek.

The intro tape starts rolling, while the stage crew acknowledge that everybody is in position. Somebody even cracks a joke. We all wish ourselves a great show, but there’s also an air of suspense. The show starts now!

The Story continues next week with Part 8 - Showtime

3.12.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen) The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.