Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 9 - The Load Out

Everything has to come to an end eventually. The encores have been played, and the band leaves the stage for the final time.

After the show everyone’s still buzzing on endorphins, especially if there was some sort of problem that has been overcome during the gig. Instead of faltering, the band got their second wind from winning over the technical glitch, and they have made it to the end with flying colours. The crew sigh collectively, because they had had an itch beforehand that something might be about to go wrong.

Funnily, regardless of whether you’ve just played the O2 or your pub on the corner, the first thing everybody has to talk about right after a gig is what all went wrong. The crew replays technical problems, while the band recounts any mistakes they might have made onstage. Everybody’s afraid of messing up in front of an audience. When the calm finally starts setting in everyone’s keen to share their experiences with the rest of the entourage.

How do you feel?

There’s the old adage of a band being only as good as their latest gig. If somebody made a clear mistake – however small it may have been, and regardless of whether anybody in the audience even noticed it – there’s a tendency to overdramatize and feel depressed among band members. Last week’s triumphant shows are nothing but a far-away memory anymore. I feel, everybody should throw this kind of negativity overboard, best do it right away while the show’s still on. That goes for the crew, too, and should be part of the professional mindset.

It is very rare for a tech to get the chop over a couple of slip-ups. Of course, everybody would want to make full marks every time, but mistakes are part and parcel of what makes us human. The most important point is to learn from your mistakes, as well as staying motivated. A tech will get several warnings, and several chances to prove he’s worth his money, before getting the boot. There is no such thing as a perfect ten, when it comes to touring.

Greedy fans

Social media is to blame for creating the illusion that every artist is at his audience’s beck and call 24/7 and 365. Even after giving his all in a two-hour show, fans will turn up and try to rip his sweaty stage clothes off his tired body.

Many people also seem to think that paying for their ticket automatically entitles them to some sort souvenir, like a setlist or a signed photograph of the band. Some fans throw raging fits when they find out that the band has been whisked off to their hotel the minute they left the stage, without taking their time to sign dozens of autographs.

The crew are also regularly approached by fans drooling for some sort of relic or memento. If you can spare the time, why not make a young fan very happy by handing over a setlist or a plectrum or a half-consumed water bottle. This might be a life-changing moment for somebody in the crowd, so be nice, if your schedule allows it. Sometimes schedules are so tight that the technicians have to hurry up, though, without having the time to indulge the fans.

Keep the dressing rooms off limits

The band’s dressing room (or rooms) is even more strictly off limits to anybody but the tour manager after the show than prior to it. Yes, a technician might slip in quickly to fetch a backstage instrument that needs to be packed up, but try and be discreet. At this moment your artist is at his (or her) most vulnerable, so don’t set any dark thoughts in motion by mentioning any mistakes or criticizing your client. If the artist directly asks you “How did it go?”, there’s only one correct reply: “You were fantastic!” Put a smile on your face, give him the thumbs up, and get on your merry way guitar case in hand.

Load Out

The Load Out is often a much quicker and hurried affair than the Load In. All the important points we’ve covered during Load In are important to keep in mind for the Load Out, too. Is there a proper ramp and/or loading bay? Do we have to ferry out equipment through the crowd? Tonight we’re facing a special situation, called a disco-curfew. Right after the end of the show the club is turned into a discotheque, and more people are allowed in. A tricky situation, because we are basically expected to vanish into thin air at the blink of an eye. The local crew pushes for us to leave the stage as quickly as possible, as the DJ already starts his show. The music plays at deafening levels and very lightly-clad pole dancers start doing their show – shoot, this place has turned into an erotic nightclub! I have to scream at the stagehands to make myself heard over the hellish din. I want to leave – right now!

Hide away the silverware

Get the most valuable pieces of equipment off the stage first. I turned all amps off the moment the band left the stage to have them cool off sufficiently for the Load Out. Especially high-powered tube amps need to cool off well, before the power amp valves can be subjected to any type of vibration. Remind the stagehands of the weight of the amps, you don’t want to see any amplifiers dropped on the way out.

In the right direction

A well-oiled crew can pack up a complete production in no time. Even massive arena-sized shows can be packed up in two hours flat, if everything has been planned meticulously. You start the dismantling and packing up of gear in the corner nearest to where the equipment is taken off stage. Pedalboards (and their cable snakes) are put on the drum riser immediately to allow the stagehands to roll cases across the stage. All other leads going across the stage are coiled up quickly, too, so they don’t end up becoming minced meat by being rolled over and tread on. Otherwise, you can be sure that you will have to replace at least part of your cables before the next show.

Be quick, but keep it smooth

In a best-case scenario Load Out sees the return of the same stagehands that have helped the crew at Load In. The production manager has gathered them up at the back end of the stage, along with all the empty road cases, awaiting further instructions. The most-motivated guys will be rearing to go – keep them engaged, and tell them exactly what you want them to do. But also tell them that they will have to wait a few minutes for the first pieces of equipment to be packed up and ready for transport.

Factor in the stagehands in your procedures. For a guitar technician, the most time-consuming and physically demanding part is packing up the speaker cabinets – a perfect chore to hand to your stagehands, because it doesn’t require a lot of technical knowledge. I show them how to unplug the cabinets, and make sure they know how to get them off the risers and into the cases correctly. While they take care of the heavy stuff, I pack up all the cables, as well as the more delicate parts of the guitar rig. Both parties finish at the same time, and I got everything packed in a few minutes.

Only idiots don’t double-check

Once the stage is cleared, it’s good to double-check you’ve really taken all your stuff with you. Each crew member is responsible for his part of the equipment. An easy way to make sure you have all you cables is to mark them all clearly, and then tape them together into a big bundle. Small and separate items are much easier to go unnoticed and go missing.

This morning’s sequence of events is repeated in reverse. The crew member who got his equipment packed first is the one to unlock the trailer. He will also take a couple of stagehands with him. Our production manager, who also doubles as the tour’s lighting technician, has his stuff packed and ready fairly quickly, and is now taking charge of sending the road cases off the stage in the correct order.

Loading the trailer

The best way to load the trailer is often only finalized after the tour has started, determined through trial and error. Due to the limited space, the crew has to rely on a loading chart to make everything fit inside. Once the best order has been worked out, all cases are labelled clearly and numbered in the sequence that they need to be rolled out of the venue. Each crew member has a set of lists that let him know in which order the cases have to leave the stage.

The loading could be organized like this:

  • One crew member lines all the cases up on stage. 
  • Another crew member is positioned about midway out and keeps an eye on the stagehands.
  • The stagehands handle all the heavy work and roll the cases onto the trailer, while one crew member makes sure the cases are loaded in the correct way and order, as stipulated on the list.

The walkie-talkies speed up communication a great deal. If a case has been left behind, it is easy to find it among all the cases, and have the stagehands take it out immediately for loading. A little bit of careful planning will go a long way to make Loud Out a smoother, and much less painful operation than what you’d think.

Pack your cases well

The guitar technician is the one responsible for all of his instruments and equipment. Each technician has the right, and the duty, to make sure that everything goes in the trailer neatly, and that those cases, which shouldn’t be turned upside down under any circumstances, are marked clearly. Generally, though, road cases should be packed well enough so they can take being lifted and moved about.

Pedalboards are best transported horizontally to avoid any pedals from working themselves loose, or even falling off. Guitar combos are best kept upright to avoid damage to their spring reverb units. Another problem with many amp combos is that some models have their power amp tubes hanging upside down from the amp chassis, completely unsupported. Make sure the valves are still firmly inserted in their sockets at the next venue.

The Story continues next week with Part 10 - Reactor Shutdown

17.12.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen) The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.