The Gig Survival Kit
At the bottom of this article, you can find all of the articles in the “Evolution of a Live Rig” Series.
Any discussion of an evolution of a live rig wouldn’t be complete without a list of what I bring to a typical gig. While I’m fairly self-sufficient after years of gigging, that self-sufficiency only came after years of being blindsided at various performances and vowing after each one, “I’m never letting THAT happen again!” Perhaps my previous pains in this area will help all of you.
Consider for a moment that road cases were designed because in general, no matter how careful you are with your gear, it’s very likely going to get beat to Hell in transport to or from a gig or on the actual gig itself.
With that in mind, here’s the first rule of the road:
If there is even a .01% chance that your gear is going to take a beating (or worse – get stolen) – keep your rig as small as possible so you can keep an eye on it.
Here’s the second rule of the road:
There is always at least a 50% chance that, unattended for even a nano-second, your gear will get beat up or stolen. So the first rule is always in play.
I can’t tell you the number of pedals I’ve saved by being able to grab them before some drunken clown (sorry “inebriated patron of the establishment”) fell and spilled his beer on the stage. That instinct is probably similar to mothers who have a sixth sense when their infant is about to get hurt but when it comes to protecting my gear however any maternal instinct leans more towards, Mommie Dearest than Mother Teresa.
Let’s talk about the actual components that come with me to a gig.
Ideally, I’d bring a backup guitar but I don’t want to be lugging extra instruments around with me if I’m not traveling by car. Typically, I’ll bring my custom FnH if it’s only a one or two set gig and it would need to be a special circumstance (like a film score that needed a particular instrument) to bring aything more than that.
Spend the money and get a real (i.e. quality) gig bag. In addition to protecting your instrument, you’ll need the extra storage for all the other crap you’ll need to carry around! If I happen to be laying on a LONG gig I’ll bring a stand, but I’ve found that if you leave a guitar on a stand people are more likely to play it, so my gig bag usually doubles as a stand as well. I use padded bags that I can wear on my back. Make sure that they’re adjustable and will stand up to heavy rain, cold and heat.
Instead of bringing extra guitars, I spend extra money on strings and change them more often. For years, I used D’Addario xl-115s but these days I’ve used their Pure Nickle 11 set. I change these out every couple of gigs depending on frequency, amount I’m sweating, etc. and I always pack an extra set or two in my gig bag.
I used to bring a wide variety for different textures, but I’ve used Fender X-Heavy picks forever and I just adapt them for whatever texture I need. They tend to only last a few gigs so I buy them by the gross. Live, I’ll have picks squirreled away in pockets or on amps and ready to go.
It’s a good idea to keep a cotton cloth in your gig bag or case and then when you’re done playing you can wipe the strings down. This will extend the life of your string exponentially and you can use the same cloth to wipe the instrument down. Many manufacturers make special cloths for this, but when I have a t-shirt that gets too ratty to wear, I just cut it up into large pieces and use that.
Depending on the type of material your nut is made out of, the type of tuners you have and the type of bridge you have – it’s common for strings to catch in the nut and throw off tuning. Planet Waves makes a great lubricant to keep the strings from binding in the nut but a pencil will do the same job and that’s what I usually have in my gig bag. Just use the graphite from the pencil to cover any area of a nut slot that’s binding. As an aded bonus, the eraser end of a pencil sounds really cool when it’s bounced on the strings.
Once I got away from using plastic nuts, having them break mid gig became less of an issue. While that was the reason for my initial need for Super Glue, since then the number of times it’s saved me for repairing almost anything at a gig have been too many to count.
Again you could bring (and probably use) a number of them on a gig, but I bring the bare minimum in my gig bag..
- a cresent wrench and an allen wrench to tighten up any loose tone volume knobs
- a Phillips head screwdriver (and a jeweler’s screwdriver for the screws covering the truss rod)
- a pair of pliars (for pulling out stuck strings) and
- a string winder/cutter. My electric has Steinberger tuners which don’t require a winding, but I keep a string winder or two in my acoustic gig bag.
- Sometime’s I’ll bring a spray electronics cleanerIf I’m using a backline, but for my own gear, this is generally a case of doing some maintenance at home. Taking care of things before they’re a problem helps keep them from breaking down when you don’t want them to!
I like headstock tuners – but on a loud stage the headstock picks up vibrations from speakers, so I use these with caution. I like the Snark tuners for accuracy, but broke two in a single week so now I use the Planet Waves tuner. The POD HD also has a built in tuner so between the two I usually have it covered.
E-bow, slide and capo
I use the ebow at least once on every gig I’m on and I always have people ask about it afterwards! Sometime’s a tune will just call for slide or open chords played up the fingerboard. In general I’ll bring anything that’s small that I think I’ll need that can help with texture I’ll also bring alligator clips for clipping onto the strings or popsickle sticks if I need to take my playing and sounds somewhere strange. I’ll sometimes raid the children’s toy aisle at larger department stores for anything that makes digital noise. I one bought a Yak Bak that was a little mini recorder that I’d record spoken word pieces and play through my guitar pickups for ambience or looped sonic ether. I did this for years with an old portable cassette deck and a recording of No Exit with Donald Pleasance.
Power strip and a heavy duty lead cord.
Power in clubs is often sketchy – while having an uninterrupted power supply isn’t really feasible I want to make sure I have fairly clean power. Invest the money in a good power strip with a spike protector. It’s worth the extra money! Also, I’ll typically bring a 25’ outdoor lead cord in case there isn’t any power near by.
Effects, an effects bag and extra cables.
You’ll typically need to be able to get things set up and torn down immediately. You won’t have time to spend 10 minutes putting all the cables into your pedal. I bring a POD HD and an external DOD EQ pedal to make adjustments in whatever venue I’m playing in. The set up time is about 2-3 minutes and the tear down time is under 2 minutes. I played a gig at CBGB’s once where a cable broke on a pedal board with 6 pedals on it and no sound came out of the amp mid-song! Trying to suss out which one is broken by plugging directly into the amp and gradually adding pedals between songs until I found the one that didn’t work was a little nerve racking but it taught me a lot about the value of cables.
Gaffers/ duct tape
I keep it black to match the stage. I’ve seen guitar bodies held together with this stuff!
Pocket mag light
If you’ve ever misplaced something or needed to check a cable on a dark stage, you’ll hope you have one of these!
I’ll throw this on if there’s a ground loop issue at a club I’m playing at. It happens a lot more than you’d suspect.
If it’s a gig involving reading sheet music, there are a few other thing’s I’ll bring.
Spend the money and get a good sturdy stand that can hold a real book with no problem,. The crappy stands you get for $10 that hold a single piece of paper will not get you through a gig. You should be able to break the stand down into two pieces. Use paint (or white out) and paint your name on the stand.
Music stand light
I learned that lesson the hard way trying to negotiate my way through a gig staring at a piece of sheet music on the band stand I couldn’t read.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to transcribe something in a rehearsal. Related to that, you should also plan on bringing blank sheet music, blank sheets of paper, a sharpie and a pencil (or bring a laptop/iphone/android notation app equivalent).
If I have downtime, I’m working on something. If a laptop isn’t feasible, I bring a Zoom recorder (with a battery pack and a small tripod stand) to either record the gig and review later or to learn parts. The number of times I have had to refer to a line someone sang to me that they expected me to remember 3 weeks later is more than you would think. Be prepared!
You’re going to be sitting through a number of bands an no matter how good or bad any of them are none of them are worth your hearing. Always bring a few pair with you.
Some people think that bringing cards to a gig is super cheesy, but I’ve gotten a lot of students (and some cool gigs) this way.
The topic of when and how to hand out cards is a whole other post on gig etiquette, but even in a digital age people still ask for them, so have one ready if you’re asked for it.
You should expect to pay for any beverages you’re going to drink (I never drink alcohol at a gig and only a touch-hole gets blasted before getting up on stage) and even in the event of drink tickets even more importantly, you should expect to tip your bartender well. If it’s your band, expect to tip the sound guy (You want to come back and play this place again, yes?) and other employees of the club. I’ve played smaller clubs where the bartender IS the booking agent and the defacto sound guy. Appease that person to the best of your ability if you want to play there again.
Do you gig? Do you drive to your gigs? Do you have AAA? You will the first time you pay $200 for a tow to a garage. Make sure you add a valid credit card, a cell phone and a charger to this list as well. The charger is a big deal. Particularly when your car gets hit at 2am after a gig in a bad part of town and you’re trying to find out where your tow is at 4 in the morning with a dead cell phone.
I’ll go into this more in part five of this series but as a starting point, if you’re bringing a tube amp – make sure to pack back up fuses! Always make sure you have a case (or bag) and wheels of some type for your amp as well. Every amp case I’ve owed had wheels on it and I remain amazed by the number of people who found that revelatory. “Oh you have wheels on that? That’s really smart!” In addition to garnering compliments, your back will thank you later for that as well. I spray pots and inputs only when they need them (and when they’re accessible) and Armour All the exterior and keep it as well maintained as possible.
And Don’t Forget To Bring A Good Attitude
Despite whatever precautions you take realize that things might still go wrong. The difference between a gig meltdown and saving the day is often the attitude that you bring to the table. The funny thing is that the extra gear in my kit has probably helped other musicians on the gig who had an emergency come up more than it’s helped me but helping people wherever you can and being determined to put on the best show you can regardless of what’s going on around you will take you a lot further in a live setting that that altered dominant lick you’ve been shedding on the side.